Writing Fellows – An Education of Liberation

by Jamila Barra

Schools, the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire argues, all too often function like banks; at these institutions, the teacher is understood as the holder of something valuable – knowledge – which she deposits into the account of the student’s mind. In this pervasive model of pedagogy, the teacher is the only active agent, while the student remains a passive receptacle. The information transmitted from teacher to student is fixed and, in a sense, dead: just as a banking transaction doesn’t fundamentally change the bank account, the money deposited or the account holder, so the teacher, student and knowledge transmitted, in this model, remain the same as before the teaching.

But this isn’t the only way that teaching and learning can take place. In fact, one alternative exists on our own campus, in the form of the Writing Center program at Barnard. Here, we can see what an “education as the practice of freedom” (in Freire’s words) could look like in concrete daily experience. At its best, this program represents a revolutionary and liberating practice in academia, and a true intervention both in the writing of the students who use the Writing Center and in the lives of the Writing Fellows.

Writing Fellows characterize themselves as working peer-to-peer, collaboratively and non-directively. And, perhaps most importantly, their work is fundamentally based on questions. What does that mean and what does it look like? To work peer-to-peer and collaboratively means that there is no hierarchy between the fellow and the writer. The program assumes that the fellow doesn’t know anything more than the writer; in fact, often the fellow knows much less, since fellows are not assigned based on their academic field. It is true that the fellow generally has been recruited as a very strong writer herself, and has had some serious training to become a fellow. But we believe that none of this puts the fellow in any position to tell the writer anything. This surprises many first-time visitors to the Writing Center. Fellows are constantly asked, “How should I do this? What should I write?” but no fellow will ever tell her writer what they should do. We assume no authority. Instead, when asked a question like the two above, most fellows will find a question to throw right back.

Some students are initially frustrated with this response. What’s the use of going to the Writing Center if they won’t tell you anything about your writing, or writing in general? The poignant point is of course that the fellows won’t tell you because you don’t need to be told. It goes without saying that the fellow should never willfully keep useful knowledge from the writer or obstruct her access to resources that she needs, such as good explanations of grammar rules. However, fellows do base their work on the assumption that they don’t know any better answer to the writer’s assignment than the writer does. We can give them no directions; that’s why fellowing is non-directional.

There is another even more fundamental sense of non-directionality at work in the Writing Fellows program: the non-directionality of certain questions. Since Writing Fellows don’t tell or direct, their main tool is the question – think of Socrates: “I do not teach, I question.” The alternative to the Banking Model of education lies in the kind of question that Writing Fellows ask and in the attitude that must accompany those questions. They make fellowing a revolutionary practice, a genuine intervention in academia. Further, the question-based attitude that a fellow must adopt towards the writer in order to be able to ask these questions is valuable and applicable in all of life.

To explain the kind of question that Writing Fellows use, let me draw on some examples. A common problem at the Writing Center is that it’s simply unclear what a writer’s paper is about. If we were following a directive strategy, we would tell the writer that she needs a thesis statement and that she needs to tie all her arguments to that statement in a logical manner. The non-directive strategy is to ask, “What do you really want to express in this essay?” This question allows the writer to consider her paper as something that springs from her own motivation, something she has ownership of.

Sometimes this question doesn’t lead anywhere, because students have become convinced that their professor doesn’t care about what they care about and that their grades will suffer from that disparity. They’re looking for the “right” answer. When a writer and I get stuck here, I ask hypothetical questions: “If you weren’t writing for your professor, what would you write?” This is an intervention in authority; authority concerning the writer’s writing is shifted from the professor to the writer. Often, hypothetically exploring an argument leads the writer to realize that her thoughts are, in fact, relevant to the prompt and might very well be acceptable to the professor. The hypothetical question frees writers from boundaries that they have learned from the conventional hierarchical structures of education. For example, I could ask a writer, “What if you did use ‘I’ in your paper? How would that change it?”, which communicates that their own conscious decisions determine what their paper will look like, not some fixed rules about writing or some innate quality of being a good or bad writer.

Fellows ask open-ended questions: they never have a yes-or-no answer. The most productive questions are open but specific, take the writer seriously as the author of their paper, do not point towards any one answer and are able to adapt to the writer’s way of understanding the questions. It’s difficult for fellows and yet absolutely necessary to desist from their own opinions and from assuming authority. When a conference feels like it’s getting stuck, it becomes tempting to offer the writer a way out if we see it: an obvious way to bring her arguments to a central point. But the most rewarding conferences happen when the fellow resists that temptation, fully trusts in the knowledge and ability of the writer, and helps the writer reach conclusions that the fellow could never have thought of. It’s fundamental in peer-to-peer work to allow someone else’s logic the same validity as our own.

Because we assume that the writer does have a proper logic and is a reasonable agent in their writing, the mistakes she makes must also have a logic behind them. For example, rather than tell a writer that the “logical connectors” in her writing (words like “therefore”, “thus”, “however”) are confusing and don’t make sense, I ask her why she’s using them. It turns out someone told her years ago that she shouldn’t write the way she speaks, but should try to sound professional, which fed her insecurity about writing and about being taken seriously academically. Especially for women and students of color, whose identity is bogged down with stereotypes about academic performance, these insecurities can negatively affect their performance in very concrete ways. In this case, the writer and I reflected on the quality of her spoken expression, which was clear and articulate compared to that of her writing, which in this particular paper was muddled and confusing. The writer came to the conclusion that she liked the way she spoke and that she had all the resources to identify “unprofessional” expressions in her writing.

For the fellow, asking questions like these and asking them exactly when they are necessary takes a great amount of concentration, sensitivity and attention to the writer. Essentially, the goal in any conference is for the fellow’s interest in the writer to be louder and more persistent than their internal critic. When the writer brings up something that doesn’t seem relevant or interesting at first glance, we ask: “Why is this important?” Neither do we tell them that it’s not important enough, nor do we ask, “Why is this important to you?” We ask, “Why is it important?” because the basic premise is that whatever the writer chooses to write about is important: not personally or relatively important, but plainly and simply important and worthy of consideration in the academic discourse.

This attitude is fundamentally different from the Banking Model, in which the teacher is the ultimate arbiter of what content is worthwhile in the academic setting. The importance that the fellow presumes in the writer’s work allows the writer to understand themselves as full and empowered participants in an academic community and to write to the very best of their abilities. Perhaps ironically, this revolutionary pedagogical approach often translates into success by the standards of mainstream academia. When the writer is invested in a paper, she can effectively make its importance clear to the professor, and receives higher grades than papers that the writer feels no control over.

The attitude that fellows practice in formulating their questions and the work they do through those questions is a real-life example of what Freire calls an education of liberation. As such, it is a revolutionary practice. While Writing Fellows have no power over the syllabi and grading standards set by teachers, much less the general structure of education, they do have the power to help writers take ownership of their education and to understand it as fundamentally different from a transaction of teachers handing knowledge to passive students. In the Writing Fellows Program, this liberating, subversive practice has actually found an institutionalized foothold in academia. Fellows and writers work together to construct, within the traditional academic structure, an education that is based on the immediate interaction of one person with another about something that is important.

And here we see that the significance of the work that the Writing Fellows program does extends far beyond writing and even education. The Writing Fellow attitude of sincerely believing in the importance and validity of another person’s thought, and of directing our full attention towards the development of that thought — isn’t that the attitude we want to have all the time? We experience human relationships as mere transactions not just in our classrooms, but throughout our daily lives. By analyzing the way in which Writing Fellows’ questions create and enforce positive and empowering relationships between people, we learn to intervene in our transactional way of living and actively practice the attitudes necessary for a freer, more collaborative world.

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  1. Pingback: The Writing Fellows Program mission, as stated by a Writing Fellow. | Fellow Voices

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