Wits University is a large urban university with over 40,000 students in 2021. Our surrounding city which has been described as a zoo and as blinded1, is a centre for the movement of people from across the continent, and claims to have the largest man-made urban forest in the world.

The Wits Writing Centre (WWC) was one of the first writing centres in South Africa, running informally from 1996 and formally established in 2000. In founding the WWC, I was influenced by my experience of the writing centre at New York University and by observing at Wits the ways in which the English language, and various forms of institutional culture, were barriers to full participation for many students.

Consultants of the Wits Writing Centre

Consultants of the Wits Writing Centre

The WWC has always concentrated on more than language. Rather, it aims to create a resource which offers tools and conversation to help students find their own hook into writing and thinking in their disciplines. We work with a comparatively large consultant group, usually around 25, and seek to use their collective energy to attract other students and draw them into conversations which are anything but remedial.

We have established a writing library in the centre. We work with creative writers, host literary events, and have organised literary festivals, in order to connect writing with individuality, creativity, and to foster wider representation. The late author, and activist, Chris Van Wyk, after attending a staff meeting in the late 1990s, observed that we were working towards building a culture of confidence.

Translanguaging has been a useful aspect of writing consultations, to expand meaning and to ensure that English does not completely dominate.

Listening has been a constant theme of the WWC. We have drawn from the work of both Lisa Delpit and Nancy Grimm2 to think about how to delay the premature foreclosure of meaning and to hold a transitional space. Translanguaging has been a useful aspect of writing consultations, to expand meaning and to ensure that English does not completely dominate. Initially, there was a focus on seeking to make the WWC a safe space: confidential, with food to welcome, and kuba cloth (patterned textiles from the DRC) to inspire. Now we also seek to make the WWC a free space, in which diverse and unexpected views co-exist and enter into conversation. Closely linked to the idea of a free space has been the promotion of the idea of the citizen scholar.

We work across disciplines, though primarily with the Humanities faculty (there are separate writing centres for Education and Law), and we work with undergraduates, postgraduates, and lecturers. For many years, we also worked with school children every summer as well as with organisations seeking support around writing and critical thinking, like young artists at the Artist Proof Studio, researchers at  the Competition Commission and Ford Foundation Scholars. In each case the aim has been to promote individualized, critical thinking, effectively communicated.

The Wits Writing Centre

The Wits Writing Centre

This emphasis on critical thinking led naturally to the establishment of the first South African university programme of Writing Intensive(WI) courses, which was formalised in 2018 thanks to a government grant. The Wits Writing Programme (WWP) is a university-wide WID pedagogical approach which uses writing to deliver the critical thinking aims of disciplinary courses.

The WWP includes workshops for volunteer lecturers to adapt their existing course, a Writing Board of the Faculties to assesses new WI course proposals, and orientation workshops for new Writing Fellows (WFs) who support the WI lecturers. The lecturers are authors of their own courses;  the WFs their team who extend possibilities for developmental responses. In 2022 there are over 40 WI courses across the university, supported by over 400 WFs3.

The WWC now falls under the WWP and we are currently considering ways to thicken and grow connections within and between. We are exploring the following strategies.

  • Writing learning paths between WI and writing rich courses and the creation of micro-credentials which measure the quality of writing and thinking skills attained.
  • Formalised professional development plans for WI lecturers and WFs and writing consultants; especially for WFs as they move between working as a writing consultant in the WWC, as a WF in different disciplines, and as a mentor to other WFs as a Senior Writing Fellow.
  • Writing centre consultation strategies to promote cohesion within the WWP, which allows  for local adaptation and a cross-pollination of teaching ideas across disciplines.
  • Expanding two COVID-inspired strategies that show potential for growth and ongoing connections. The WWC-generated epistolary pedagogy, working with email letters and guiding templates, has been adopted widely across the WWP and is the focus of a national research project funded by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. Writing groups for WFs and writing consultants, focussed both on their own writing and on the discussion of teaching strategies, have addressed the need for decentred and independent learning.

Going forward, we wish to maintain and to extend such collaborative thinking practices to grow a rooted and resilient forest.

[1] See Lauren Beukes’  (2010) Zoo City for a fantastical but also realist depiction, and anthropologist Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon’s (2022) The Blinded City for stories from the abandoned heart.

[2] Lisa Delpit (1995) Other People’s Children; Nancy Grimm (1999) Good intentions: Writing center work for postmodern times.

[3] We are grateful to Professor Martha Townsend and her colleagues at the Campus Writing Program of the University of Missouri, Columbia, for their generous guidance in setting up the structures of the WWP.

Pamela NicholsPamela Nichols is an Associate Professor and head of the Wits Writing Programme. Her PhD in Comparative Literature (New York University) was guided by the work of Edward Said. Said’s understanding of the institutionalization of knowledge as well as her experiences of working with major writing teachers in the US, influenced her establishment of the Wits Writing Centre (WWC) in 1998. Nichols also spear-headed Writing Intensive courses at Wits, through the Wits Writing Programme (WWP), formalised in 2018. Her recent publications have focussed on listening, the development of the citizen scholar, and the deepening of critical thinking within WI courses.

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