Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

Bruffee and North – What is a writing centre?


The following commentary is a response to two articles: The Idea of a Writing Centre” (Stephen North, 2001) and “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” (Kenneth Bruffee, 2001). At the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, tutors are assigned weekly readings and are required, as part of their training, to respond to the readings in a google doc. Tutors are then asked to respond to each others’ responses, and a conversation ensues. We’d like to extend this conversation to and with you, especially with other writing centre practitioners.


Mandy Lapointe, BA Hons, Religious Studies (SMU); MA candidate, Religious Studies (SMU)

First year writing tutor


“The Idea of a Writing Centre” Stephen M. North

Expressing his utter dissatisfaction with the overall image of “the idea” of a writing centre, North uses a number of different examples to illustrate his frustration with ignorance about what writing centres actually do, how they operate, and what they offer to the student writer. North highlights the misconception that writing centres are not for the well-rounded and average writer, but for those “others,” or “impossible” students, who pander to the “fix-it shop image” of the centre, where the main focus need be grammar and punctuation, rather than stylistic thought process. Speaking to what the idea of a writing centre should not be, North identifies two qualifying terms in which writing centres should be concerning themselves with: 1) writing is most usefully viewed as a process, and 2) writing curricula needs to be student-centreed. In this way, North is proclaiming very adamantly that writing centres define themselves in terms of the writer it serves, not the writing. The writing centre should seek to produce better writers, not better writing. Therefore, by motivating engagement of the student in the process of the writing, the tutor fosters organic growth and development of the writing skills, which will in turn permeate throughout the students overall skillset. As a writing tutor then, your responsibility is to act as a participant-observer, always changing depending on the student writer; not employing static rules derived from generalized models, but beginning with where the student is and moving with the student as they grow. As a new employee to the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, I feel this article presented me with a clear idea of what writing centres should be concerning themselves with – the student and the process of writing, rather than simply editing student’s work, and focusing on grammar and punctuation. In addition, it also stressed the importance of cooperation of the university professors with “the idea” of the writing centre, which I found refreshing and somewhat eye-opening. In order for the writing centre to be fully recognized and used to its full potential, it requires the understanding of all parties involved; the student, the tutor, and the faculty.

“Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’“ Kenneth A. Bruffee

Bruffee suggests that peer tutoring as a practice has the potential to challenge traditional classroom learning. Using Michael Oakeshott’s essay on literature in education, he argues that human conversation and reflective thought processes are intimately linked, where the conversation is the public source of learning, and the reflection is the private, creating a cyclical learning process. In doing so, Bruffee also points to the important implications this has on the writing process claiming, “if thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” (7) Therefore, as tutors, our task must involve engaging students in these conversations, as much as we require them to be involved in the writing process. We must ensure the learning conversations we are having are collaborative learning processes, and are similar to the ways in which we want students to write. In doing so, however, Bruffee claims it requires more than selecting “good students” as peer tutors, but having tutors well-trained in the course of study (13). In order to reap the full benefit of peer tutoring, it must be centred on collaborative academic learning, where both students receive genuine educational and personal development. One of the main reasons I wanted to take a position at the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre as a tutor was exactly this reason. As a tutor, I knew I would not only be able to help other students with the process of their thought and writing, but also supplement my own academic development. As a graduate student, the learning process still feels as it is just beginning, and throughout my academic career I hope to always maintain a level of collaborative learning. Therefore, I agree with Bruffee’s argument that peer tutoring has the ability to challenge the traditional learning of the classroom setting. I look forward to working in this type of setting, and I hope to learn a lot about myself and my writing in the process.


North, S.N. (2001). “The Idea of a Writing Centre” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA

Bruffee, K.A. (2001). “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind'” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA

3 thoughts on “Bruffee and North – What is a writing centre?

  1. I agree that tutoring can also be part of the academic journey for the tutor. I like this aspect of tutoring, as I am always finding that students are teaching me things about various topics. The process of explaining a thesis statement or the structure of an essay also reinforces our own skillset, making us better writers. During presentations about the writing centre in classes at SMU this term, I have asked how many students have seen a tutor before… many have not, or simply did not raise their hand. Tutoring is something not all students have experience with and I think it is important to clearly state some goals of tutoring so that they are comfortable with the process and accept it as a normal and acceptable part of becoming a better writer.

  2. These ideas are very influential conceptualizations of what the role of an academic writing centre should be on any given campus. Both North and Bruffee offer widely accepted additions to the conversation of best-practices for writing centre policy and approaches for tutors to use in assisting with student writing. Their respective essays helped me conceptualize my participation in Carleton University’s Writing Tutorial Service for the two years I worked there, but I noticed the landscape changing over my time as a writing tutor. Both North and Bruffee originally wrote their articles in 1984 – that was nearly 30 years ago! And the ideas haven’t really changed in Canadian writing centres, but ideas change over time (North in particular felt he had to revisit his ideas a decade later in the Writing Center Journal –

    I think the challenge for you will become understanding what about their visions works and what does not work in the different interactions you will experience with different students and different types of student writing. As you gain experience, reflect on the ideas that North and Bruffee suggested work in-practice. How do they measure up to your interactions with students at SMU? Do you feel their ideas constrain you in your approaches to helping students? If so, how do you feel constrained? Or, do their ideas help you with effectively assisting students with their individual needs? Do North and/or Bruffee go far enough in their visions? Or would you change something about their conceptualizations?

  3. Writing as an Activity: Thus Speak North and Bruffee
    In The Idea of a Writing Center, Stephen M. North basically argues that the idea of a writing center cannot only be seen as some sort of “skills center, a fix-it shop” (p.66). Furthermore, North writes, “[w]hat makes the situation particularly frustrating is that so many… people will vehemently claim that they do, really, understand the idea of a writing center” (p. 64). Then, what is the idea of a writing center?
    The main purpose of North’s article is evidently twofold. Firstly, he rejects “the old center” deriving from a “generalized model of composing” by elucidating what writing centers are not. According to this old model, he writes, “instruction tends to take place after or apart from writing, and tends to focus on the correction of textual problem” (p.71)). North’s aim here is to remove or clear away certain misunderstandings that seem to block clarity about the idea of writing centers. Secondly, he elucidates what writing centers are. The aim here is to illustrate and defend a “new” or a “contemporary” model which, as North mentions, has a shorter history compare to the old one—called a holistic model. He writes, “in the ‘new’ center the teaching takes place as much as possible during writing, the activity being learned, and tends to focus on the activity itself. This new model, as he claims, is based on “the marriage of what are arguably the most two powerful contemporary perspectives on teaching writing: first, that writing is most usefully viewed as a process; and second, that writing curricula need to be student-centered” (p.69).
    It should be clear from what thus far has been said that North contrasts the old model—a generalized model of composing—with the new one—composing as a “process” or an “activity”. This is an important distinction. In fact, in one of his articles, Peer Tutoring and the “Conversation of Mankind”, Kenneth A. Bruffee also draws the same distinction. He writes, “[t]he beginning of peer tutoring lie in practice, not in theory” (p.3). I believe, this distinction, in essence, is Wittgensteinian. Wittgenstein argued that philosophy is not a set of doctrine or a theory, but an activity— the activity of the “logical clarification” and/or the “grammatical clarification” of indistinct thoughts. The logical clarification can be accomplished by means of “talking” (North, p.74-5) or “conversation” (Bruffee, p. 4-5). In sum, I have tried to say that both North and Bruffee make virtually a similar, if not the same, point. I have also tried to argue that my main goal, as a new tutor, is the “logical clarification”.

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