National Writing Project

Book Review: Noise from the Writing Center

By: Cindy Dean
Date: November 5, 2010

Summary: Cindy Dean, University of Maine Writing Project teacher-consultant and director of a high school writing center, reflects on Elizabeth Boquet's theory of "writing center noise" and its applicability to high school writing centers.


As the director of a student-staffed high school writing center I constantly seek out resources that might assist me to train student tutors and inform faculty and students about writing center work. Since student-staffed high school writing centers are fairly uncommon, the scholarship that directly addresses issues particular to high schools is relatively thin. However, there is an abundance of material that examines university and college writing centers.

While it is often difficult to apply that scholarship to high school writing centers, occasionally a text surfaces that not only might assist post-secondary writing center directors but can also be useful to those of us who direct high school writing centers. Elizabeth Boquet's Noise from the Writing Center , which develops a theory of "noise" and excess as an important element of difference between the pedagogy of writing centers and the academy in general, is such a book.

On a first read, the text may seem theoretically and conceptually specific to post-secondary centers. I initially did not believe I could apply Boquet's theories or suggestions to my writing center. I was wrong. Returning to Boquet's book has helped me to think more deeply about the untruths that continue to plague writing centers at all levels of education and the effect those misperceptions have on the people who direct, work in, and/or visit a writing center.

Writing Centers Misunderstood

Boquet first presents a concise review of literature that investigates the ways writing centers have been named: lab, clinic, and/or center. As a fairly new high school writing center director, I was taken aback by these assertions about naming.

I had read extensively about the labels of lab and clinic as detrimental to collaborative writing assistance. Labs were associated with experimentation, clinics with providing some kind of cure. Neither designation was appealing to me and neither represented a way I wished others to perceive my writing center.

Boquet goes on to discuss four (mis) perceptions associated with this labeling of centers: 1) composition studies are woman's work; 2) writing center work is a standardized extension of classroom pedagogy; 3) the writing center is a laundering facility for deficit writing; and 4) the writing center is a community both grounded in and resistant to institutional norms.

Bouquet indicates her review is not meant to valorize one designation over another but rather to suggest that what one calls or names something has significance and influences the way in which others perceive a writing center.

The Importance of Noise

The writing center activity in high schools or in colleges and universities generally does not look or sound like traditional classroom activity. Instead of a quiet group of students receiving instruction from a presiding teacher, writing center activity is generally characterized by collaborative conversation, which is often quite noisy.

Unlike a tidy, tightly governed classroom, writing centers are sites of excess.

Boquet suggests that unlike the tidy, tightly governed classroom, writing centers are sites of excess and as such are sometimes viewed as abnormal, uncontrolled, chatty places. Central to her argument is the concept of noise as a way to understand the harmony and dissonance of writing center work.

Using this theory of noise, she encourages her readers to think beyond the idea that noise is something unwanted and unhealthy. Boquet asks us to consider what kind of noise we are asked or allowed to make, as well as the noises we are often asked to refrain from. By exploring the multidimensions of noise, Boquet suggests we can imagine other ways to conceptualize writing center teaching and coaching.

Jimi Hendrix as Writing Mentor

Boquet's discussion of "abnormality," "excess," and "noise" establishes the foundation for her exploration of writing center work through the musical concepts of feedback, amplification, distortion, repetition, and improvisation.

Boquet notes that while microphonic feedback can be painful, it can also provide other possibilities for experiencing sound. She cites Jimi Hendrix as a pioneer in exploring microphonic feedback. Rather than contain or limit what some heard as painful reverberation, Hendrix amplified and emphasized the feedback. Boquet suggests that writing center activity can be viewed through the same lens.

Traditional feedback, says Boquet, is part of a closed feedback loop where there is little possibility of breaking out of a "corrective" paradigm. However, she argues, when writing feedback is compared to microphonic feedback and given license á la Jimi Hendrix, the "noise" or concerns of the center's writers are amplified beyond its walls.

In addition, Boquet argues that writing center work is often characterized by a "process of revise and resubmit." Instead of this predetermined and closed-loop repetitive process, Boquet suggests writing center activity take a lesson from Hendrix's use of repetition by making the often necessary repetition in writing purposeful and challenging, striving for a "greater tolerance of distortion," and growing "to tolerate the distortion" rather than trying to quiet it.

Staff Tutors and the Art of Improvisation

Boquet then turns from writing center activity to writing staff education. She suggests that it is important to attune tutors to the possibility of improvisation rather than strict adherence to a "carefully constructed shield of strategies."

Boquet argues that staff education should venture beyond reproducing the institutional demands of producing competent writers and that writing tutors must demonstrate a kind of writing musicality. Put simply, they have to be willing to improvise when needed in order to fit the tutoring session to the writer.

"The different model that I am working toward is a higher-risk/higher-yield model for writing-center work. . . . [It] asks us to reformulate the question 'what do tutors need to know?' and to cast it, instead, in more musical terms: how might I encourage this tutor to operate on the edge of his or her expertise? And, for tutors: where is the groove for this session? Where's the place where, together, we will really feel like we're jammin' and how do we get there?"

While her vision for what this model of staff education might look like is somewhat ambiguous, it is clear that she feels writing center activity should embrace dissonance, purposeful repetition, and risk.

The High School Difference

Boquet's theory of "writing center noise" as a platform for imagining reform can be applicable to high school writing centers. However, in high schools there is a culture of conformity that is generally expected of staff and students. To push too hard against the entrenched culture of a school could mean the extinction of the writing center either through lack of buy-in on the part of students and faculty or through administrative mandate.

Therefore, high school writing center directors and tutors have to take a more cautionary approach to their work. That does not mean, however, that a high school writing center cannot capitalize on and promote what might seem to be disharmonic activity.

I reflected on the ways in which my high school center has developed over the three and a half years since its conception. It certainly is not the same center it was at the beginning. Writing center activity, in general, suffers from misperceptions. As a result, it seems that those of us who work in writing centers are continually working to re-educate our academic communities. The misperceptions, successes, possibilities, and failures associated with my writing center have all contributed to a constant rethinking and retooling of what tutors do as writing coaches and what I do as director.

In my own center, tutors understand they must, to some degree, conform to the system in which they operate, but also explore the possibilities for working outside of or around that system in ways that do not jeopardize the existence of the center.

Certainly, the tutors who staff my writing center work incredibly hard to find the perfect strategies to assist their clients. While they have a toolbox of strategies, they do not follow them in any kind of slavish order. Rather, they pick and choose or improvise as they see fit. As with musicians, sometimes their improvisations are harmonic successes and other times they are catastrophic cacophonies.

As one academic year is winding down, I find myself thinking ahead to a new year and a new beginning for my writing center. Boquet's book will help me remember that I am not alone in promoting the value (and the noise) of writing centers and the possibilities that writing center activities hold for institutional reform.

About the Author Cindy Dean is a teacher-consultant with the University of Maine Writing Project.

Related Resource Topics

© 2023 National Writing Project