Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Looking Back

This post forms the first in a series, and comes out of my continued attempts to critically ‘think through writing’ about my role and the role of a writing centre within an academic institution, particularly within the current climate of transformation. My perspective is grounded in the South African context and my experience is based solely on the University of Cape Town’s writing centres, which I have been involved with for the past 6 years.  


Last week, in a meeting with a respected academic from a well-known South African university, I was surprised to hear her say that her university doesn’t have a writing centre. However, my surprise turned to shock as she went on to say that not only do they not have a writing centre, but that she and her colleagues continue to advocate against a writing centre.

Who could possibly be against a writing centre?

As she continued to speak, I learned something about the history of South African writing centres, something I am ashamed of. While this past is not true for all Writing Centres, it was the lived experience for some and as such, I think it needs to be acknowledged in order for us to move forward.

It seems that writing centres were not always the supportive, empowering spaces that many of them are today. Writing centres have a dark past of shadowy damp basements where students were sent to be punished for plagiarism, where struggling students were sent to be “fixed”, where black students were sent to learn “proper English”, where spelling, grammar and referencing were the gospel and where the university held all the power.

It’s enough to give you cold shivers.

These spaces are rightly remembered as demeaning, punitive and remedial and apparently, for some universities, this remembrance has forever tainted their perception of what a writing centre can be.  It is also this past that has prompted certain institutions, such as UCT, to take a rather different approach to writing centres.

This idea, of what a writing centre can be, is something I have been percolating over for some time now. With transformation being the watchcry of the year, knowing where we are now, where we aim to be and how we’re going to get there has become of immediate importance.

Like hungry children, students have grown tired of asking and are now demanding to be fed. And, like the guilty parents we are, we can no longer placate them with 2 minute noodles. We need to roll up our sleeves, peel the vegetables and put in the effort required to produce a nutritious and satisfying meal.

Regardless of your feelings towards the student movements of 2015, notably #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, what is undeniable is that they provided a powerful catalyst for social change - a form of social punctuated-equilibrium. 

Transformation is defined as a marked change in form, nature or appearance. With this in mind, the question becomes, can we ever really transform unless we first take a long hard candid look at where we’ve been?

For me, the first step to moving forward is looking back. This process may feel painful, shameful or frustrating. Yet all of us, regardless of our role and whether we lived the past or have merely inherited it, must take responsibility – this is our mess to clean up, even if we didn’t make it.

As a writing centre, that means acknowledging that our roots come out of a colonialist space, where white was right and English was salvation. It means acknowledging that at their inception, writing centres were about more than just teaching a universal means of communication, but also insidiously about power and control; about privileging and prioritising particular cultures and languages above all others, about using language to control access to knowledge and opportunity, and about reinforcing a particular socio-political ideology.

If we’re honest, writing centres come out of a really ugly place. And, although this is not the end of our story, I think we need to sit with this for a time and reflect.


As this is an ongoing series, I welcome constructive comments, productive dialogue and diverse perspectives.

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