Consultant’s Day Conference: The role of writing centres in South Africa

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University hosted staff from various Writing Centres at the STIAS conference facility for Consultant’s Day on 22nd July. STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study), located in Stellenbosch, between the cloudy Hottentots Holland mountains in the Cape Winelands, served as place of discussion on transformation.

Staff discussion at the conference.

Writing Centre Conference

The conference originated from a desire to define the role of the Writing Centre regarding the need for transformation at tertiary academic levels. The program, which South African universities have inherited, originate from an occidental tradition. However, a conflict exists between the programs and the space wherein they are diffused. The current context of South Africa is a post-apartheid and delocalised space wherein students have multiple ethnic, socio-economic, and lingual identities. Furthermore, the eurocentric tradition does not incorporate the divergent identities and disavows a non-colonial writing voice.

The conference facilitated conversation on the problematic relationship between content and context. The staff therefore exchanged ideas on rectifying this debilitating relationship. They utilized presentations, round-table discussions, and poster displays for this. The approach to the conference was eclectic, holistic and largely conversational. The ideas displayed diverged focal points, but worked in a collaborative effort to address and dissolve the challenge of transformation.

Conference attendees looking at a poster display

The dominant themes that emerged through engagement on transformation can broadly be divided into the following: space, interaction, and content. The change presented addressed the concerns of creating a diverse and accommodating academic environment. The general conclusion reached on the ideal space of convergence in a Writing Centre was that it should be friendly, welcoming, and empowering to students. Hence the manner of interaction should be student-centred.

Student-centred approach

In a student-centred approach, the focus falls upon the student rather than on the subject matter and discourse alone. This therefore implies a subtle subversion of the dominant occidental writing voice. The staff encourages and fosters the student’s idiosyncratic manner of expression through institutionalising this. Furthermore, it produces a diversification of the ‘global’ Western discourse by assimilating differences that originate from a Southern African context.

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A speaker at the conference.

In conclusion, the fruitful discussion, facilitated by the eager hosts and a hearty lunch, proved to be an example of the advantages of a collaborative effort on transformation. The staff reached a synopsis that prompted further discussion and conferences on the topic. These discussions will continue to encourage growth through diversification.