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Sherlock’s Irregulars: The Writing Center as Liminal Space

College professors expect their students to write like scholars because their professional fields require rhetorical and editorial standards. This assumption is practical and prudent; a person dedicating their life to a particular discipline should learn all they can about its history, which includes its writing. As a college professor who also runs a campus writing center, I have found, though, that most students are unprepared to dedicate their lives to one discipline—they may be unwilling to make that commitment, but they also may be unable to do so, especially if they do not know the differences between what “literature” means in nursing and what it means in English. There is a fine line between teaching a discipline and requiring assimilation to that discipline, its conventions, and its thinking. Forcing students to write like scholars means that they must leave behind their own voices and circumstances to write and think like we do; after all, if students do not make that choice, their grades will suffer. This dynamic seems counter to the statements of inclusion and diversity that universities espouse, and writing centers are liminal spaces where conflicting ideas such as these often collide. This essay argues that we should revise our perceptions of student writing, and thus the expectations of writing center work, and relies on an analysis of Sherlock Holmes to do so. Indeed, the famous detective provides his network of street urchins, known as the Baker Street Irregulars, with autonomy and merit-based pay. He encourages them to play to their strengths rather than emulate his own, and the academy would be wise to follow his example.

My shift in perception occurred when I received an email from a professor, who called into question the efficacy of the writing center and the preparedness of its tutors to teach clients to write like scholars. Typically, my response to such inquiries includes reassurances about the tutors’ mastery of APA and Chicago citation formatting and that they are knowledgeable about various review, summary, and analysis assignments. These responses promote the writing center and foster relationships between it and faculty, but the professor’s message raised a problem bigger than customer satisfaction. My colleague’s email—as well as my canned reply—reveals the ways in which the academy—and that includes writing center directors—misrepresent the so-called diversity of the student body. The email reads as follows:

I had a student in one of my classes who said she went to the Writing Center to proofread her annotated bibliography, specifically the formatting of the citations. I require students to use Chicago style because that is the proper style for my academic discipline. She said that she was unable to get any help from the Writing Center on her paper. Do you know what happened? I have been referring students to the Writing Center for citation help in particular, so I want to be sure that this is not a mistake.1

I realized belatedly that the content of the email was much more concerning than the implication that my writing center’s services are lacking. A more useful response would have included an explanation of a model for how writing center tutors might exist within the academy rather than be assimilated into it.

In claiming that the tutor did not know Chicago style, and therefore neither tutor nor student were expressing language in the “proper” way, the faculty member articulates what professors expect of their students, which is that they behave like an approximation of their instructors and are kindred-spirits who think and articulate their ideas in academic registers. That is to say that professors teach students to behave and communicate in the “normal,” acceptable way, in forms sanctioned by the academy, rather than in forms learned from life experience—forms built by their culture, heritage, identity, creed, and sexual orientation. My responses to such emails are also problematic because in training tutors to address a “Chicago paper,” I am merely another agent in the homogenization of the student population. If I had my response to do over again, I might have said that tutors assist students in many ways, and in their own ways, using the voices that they already acquired before they came to college. This brings me to Sherlock Holmes.

The famous detective is a teacher and a scholar, a brilliant mind making sense of a chaotic world, trying to solve mysteries of great complexity for the benefit of others. In short, he would make a great college professor and writing center director. Instead of tutors, though, Holmes devises a network of youth crime-fighters, called the Baker Street Irregulars. The Irregulars appear in three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales: A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of the Four (1890), and “The Crooked Man” (1893). Through short interludes and references, readers learn that Holmes relies on this group of street urchins for information when crime-fighting requires unconventional methods. They prove indispensable finding the elusive steamship Aurora, apprehending the murderous cab driver Jefferson Hope, and catching the slippery Henry Wood. Holmes utilizes this group of London street children to go places and do things that grown-ups and members of Scotland Yard (i.e., the academy) simply cannot. While on the surface, the treatment of these children seems to be classist and racist, upon closer inspection, the Baker Street Irregulars offer a useful analog to the work we do in writing centers; indeed, Holmes’s detective force animates questions of power and economic fairness as well as notions of othering that occur in and around writing centers and college campuses across the country.

The conclusion that I came to in my reflection of that email was not that I need to retrain my tutors in Chicago style; rather, I—and by extension, all members of the academy—should give serious thought to retraining ourselves to respect more fundamentally the lives and circumstances of our students, especially those occupying the tutoring space. Holmes does what we ought to be doing. He calls upon the Irregulars because he recognizes that they occupy liminal space. Our tutors are peers and not authorities. Indeed, Holmes realizes that witnesses, persons of interest, and potential culprits are much more likely to talk to unassuming, seemingly innocuous street children than to Scotland Yard inspectors. The Irregulars, like tutors, see the world from the perspective of the authorities as well as from the perspective of the subordinates. For instance, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes states that “There’s more work to be got out of one of those little beggars than out of a dozen of the force.”2 “The mere sight of an official-looking person,” Holmes continues, “seals men’s lips. These youngsters, however, go everywhere and hear everything. They are as sharp as needles, too; all they want is organization.”3 In typical Holmesian fashion, the famous detective recognizes potential where others see limitation. Whereas the narrator repeatedly hurls racist and classist pejoratives at the youngsters, Holmes welcomes them into his home and appreciates their service.

Tutoring outcomes are best when students feel comfortable in the writing center, and the liminal position of a tutor creates that comfort level. Like most writing centers, the one I direct collects anonymous client feedback. Multiple-choice questions on a LIKERT scale abound for purposes of assessment, but students can also volunteer written comments, which I find valuable and revealing. Consider a recent example, collected anonymously:

The writing center was a mystery to me, but I was embarrassed to ask my teacher for help with APA, so I made an appointment. I didn’t know what to expect. The tutor reminded me of my sister, so I felt safe there. I truly got a benefit and felt like my writing was assisted further than I expected. I came in for corrections, but she gave me confidence and helped me structure my sentences and thinking sharper!4

While these comments are certainly more substantial than the typical response, they are instructive in that they epitomize the ways in which writing centers should operate. The student suggests elements of surprise and comfort, so of course we might infer that the success of the tutoring session, and of a writing center, depends, in part, on the diversity and lack of authority provided by a tutor. The fact of the matter is that most tutoring sessions occur because students need help making their papers look and sound more academic. This creates a zero-sum game in which the focus of a typical session is on correcting “mistakes,” to use the language from the faculty email. As writing center director, I compound the problem because I train tutors to address those mistakes. The focus on fixing mistakes shifts writers away from strengthening their own voices and creating what Michelle Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner call “meaningful writing projects.”5

Instead, we foist tremendous responsibility onto tutors by requiring them to tow the academic line while paying them unfairly for their labor. For instance, according to Purdue University’s “Writing Centers Research Project,” a clearing house that collects data from centers across the country, an undergraduate tutoring at a 4-year institution in the United States should expect to earn minimum wage.6 Nationally, the average hourly wage for an undergraduate is $7.32. What’s worse, these rates barely improve after tutors complete their education. For example, the average wage for a tutor with a BA is $9.22, an MA is $10.61, a PhD is $15.85, and a professional (that is, someone tutoring in a specialized field such as nursing) is $18.53.7 As a point of comparison, a “now-hiring” sign affixed to the drive-in window at a Dunkin’ Donuts that I visited in Scranton, PA offered a starting salary of $13.74. Institutions of higher education simply do not value the range of skills that tutors bring to the table, and this needs to change.

Sherlock Holmes, during the classist and racist context of Doyle’s Victorian England, models economic fairness that colleges have not even begun to reach in terms of tutor labor. For example, in The Sign of the Four, when Holmes needs to find the location of the Aurora, he incentivizes the task through merit-based pay. When delivering orders to Wiggins, the leader of the Irregulars, Holmes offers the boys “The old scale of pay, and a guinea to the boy who finds the boat. Here’s a day in advance. Now off you go!”8 The narrator adds that Holmes “handed them a shilling each, and away they buzzed down the stairs.”9 I take these lines to mean that each boy earns 1 shilling for a day’s work, which does not sound like much. But to put into perspective the value of that shilling, in today’s economy, at the time of writing 1 shilling was worth roughly 4 pounds or $5.27 in United States Dollars.10 But Holmes’s merit-based pay creates an opportunity for one boy to earn a guinea, which would equal 86 pounds, or $110 at the time of writing, which would amount to $13.00 an hour for eight hours’ worth of work.11 One could argue, then, that a vagabond living in late Victorian England would be paid as well, if not better, than a tutor working in 21st-century America.

Colleges might also learn from the ways in which Sherlock Holmes respects his employees. Evidence of this respect resides in Holmes paying Irregulars with a guinea. While it was commonplace in Victorian England to pay a laborer or even a skilled tradesman in pounds, one would most certainly pay a gentleman, such as an artist or a lawyer in guineas.12 Therefore, Sherlock Holmes is paying his employees a fair wage and doing so in a way that is far above their supposed station in society. In brandishing a guinea in front of Dr. Watson and members of Scotland Yard, Holmes legitimizes the Irregulars in a provocative performance. He is paying them the respect they deserve as well as the money, and this needs to be done in writing centers. He does so because he respects the quality of the work the Irregulars perform; his attitude suggests that they have come through for him in the past. “If the Aurora is above water, they will find her,” Holmes reassures Dr. Watson.13 He goes on to state that the Irregulars “can go everywhere, see everything, overhear everyone. I expect to hear before evening that they have spotted her.”14 The lesson here is that respect for the skills of employees translates into confidence for all, as well as fairness in the process of labor.

In modern treatments of the classic tales, media creators incorporate the Irregulars and include these notions of economic fairness and respect. For instance, the BBC series Sherlock recasts the Irregulars as “the homeless network.”15 Sherlock tells Watson that members of the network are his “eyes and ears about the city.”16 Gone is the racial bias and child status of the members, but they remain homeless and Other. They continue to occupy liminal space and provide valuable assistance when the famous detectives require it. In the episode, “The Great Game,” Sherlock pays a member of the network 50 pounds to help locate The Golem, one of Moriarty’s assassins. Not only does he pay members of the network fairly, he trusts them with his life. In the episode, “The Empty Hearse,” viewers learn that Sherlock has faked his own death in order to thwart Moriarty.17 In a departure from Doyle, and updated for the 21st Century, the episode shows how members of the homeless network catch Sherlock when he jumps from a ledge and surround the supposed scene of his suicide. They pretend to be shocked while shielding him from the view of Moriarty and the camera. He trusts the homeless network with this secret and depends on them for its adjudication. Like Doyle’s Sherlock, at no point does this modern rendition of the hero judge or attempt to remediate members of the Irregulars. I find that we need to behave more like this in the academy. Who am I to correct a person’s spoken register of language? I am thinking not only of the tutor but also students from different walks of life from me, especially students whose home languages are not English.

The academy positions the rhetoric of diversity front-and-center in the ways in which we legitimize our work and market our institutions for incoming students. One mantra that I repeat is that, in my own work as writing center director, I surround myself with people who do not look and think like me. Before writing this essay, I saw that claim as accurate and righteous. But now, after reflecting on the way Sherlock Holmes manages his force, I realize that I have more work to do. Currently, tutors at my writing center are undergraduates, as well as professional tutors who hold BAs, MAs, and PhDs. We employ a veteran, an octogenarian, students with learning differences, individuals of all genders and sexual orientations, and people of color. This shroud of diversity obscures a fundamental academic problem, in that I expect tutors—in the words of Harry Denny—to teach to the center rather than to the margin. In his well-known essay, “Queering the Writing Center,” Denny elucidates the problem and offers a solution. He writes that “At the same time as students from the margins are taught a restrictive set of communication conventions in the academy, our popular culture embraces diversity of expression from spoken word to music and visual arts. For young people, consumption of culture focuses not on the normative, but looks to the margins.”18 This is precisely what we need to do in classrooms and writing centers. We should utilize popular culture artifacts as often as possible to explain philosophical concepts. For instance, when I teach the processes of inductive and deductive logic, I might as well screen short scenes from the BBC Sherlock instead of assigning a passage from Arthur Conan Doyle. Likewise, in the tutoring space, tutors should be celebrated for framing arguments in their own ways using their own language and not the academic registers that we assign them.

Writing centers, Denny tells us, are places where people “come out.” Not only do people find their own voices and the courage to express aspects of their identity, they also begin to recognize notions of “passing,” both culturally and academically, that they have been taught to perform.19 In thinking about “passing,” I realize that I’m an Irregular as well. My doctoral degree focuses on the Renaissance; I possess no graduate coursework in writing center direction or theory. My experience consists mostly of on-the-job-training and mentorship. Furthermore, my administrative work and the course releases assigned to me to complete that work put me in the margin. I am a faculty member, but I complete work that is not academic.

So, rather than posturing as an academic, and thus as an expert, I should rely more on the liminal space that I occupy as writing center director and teach to the margins. For instance, when a student recently visited the writing center (which these days occurs via Zoom), and I covered for an absent tutor, I pushed the APA genre on the student. She was writing a paper on the effect of ginger root on nausea in women who are in their first trimester of pregnancy. In reading through the student’s paper, I noted first-person “I,” and lots of passive voice, both no-nos in APA. Instead of focusing on these issues, which is what the student’s professor wanted the writing center to address, I might have taught to the margins. “Why are you interested in non-traditional medicine?” I might have asked. A question like that one might have given the student an opportunity to elaborate on her academic and career goals, which might have made the writing assignment more meaningful. To teach to the margin more aggressively, I might have pointed out to the student that I’m not a scientist, I’ve never carried a child, and I don’t publish in APA. I might have stressed to the student that out of the two of us, she was the subject matter expert. This might have been destabilizing but also might have put the student in control of the tutoring session and her academic work. She might not have provided positive feedback for the writing center, and her instructor probably would have sent one of those dreaded emails, but to legitimize the student in such a way, as Sherlock Holmes might have done, would have been, I argue, fairer and more compassionate than revising the student’s words and thinking.


“Currency Converter: 1270-2017.” The National Archives, accessed November 5, (

Denny, Harry. “Queering the Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal 30, no. 1 (2010): 95-124.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. Cirencester, UK: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2005.

Eodice, Michele, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner. The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education. Boulder, CO: UP of Colorado, 2016.

“Exchange Rate: British Pound to US Dollar.” X-Rates, accessed November 7, 2019, (

Lovering, Jeremy, dir. Sherlock, series 3, episode 1, “The Empty Hearse,” written by Mark Gatiss. Aired January 1, 2014, BBC.

McGuigan, Paul, dir. Sherlock, series 1, episode 3, “The Great Game,” written by Mark Gatiss. Aired August 8, 2010, BBC.

Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.

“Writing Centers Research Project.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, accessed November 1, 2019, (

End Notes

  1. Anonymous, email message to author, October 21, 2019. ↩︎

  2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four (Cirencester, UK: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2005), 69. ↩︎

  3. Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 69. ↩︎

  4. Anonymous, survey response to questionnaire, September 12, 2019. ↩︎

  5. Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner, The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching, and Writing in Higher Education (Boulder CO: UP of Colorado, 2016), 6. ↩︎

  6. “Writing Centers Research Project,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, accessed November 1, 2019,↩︎

  7. “Writing Centers Research Project,” Purdue Online Writing Lab↩︎

  8. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four (Cirencester, UK: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2005), 251. ↩︎

  9. Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four, 252. ↩︎

  10. “Exchange Rate: British Pound to US Dollar,” X-Rates, accessed November 7, 2019, (↩︎

  11. “Currency Converter: 1270-2017,” The National Archives, accessed November 5, 2019, (↩︎

  12. Sally Mitchell, Daily Life in Victorian England (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996), 31. ↩︎

  13. Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four, 252. ↩︎

  14. Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four, 252. ↩︎

  15. Sherlock, series 1, episode 3, “The Great Game,” directed by Paul McGuigan, written by Mark Gatiss, aired August 8, 2010, BBC. ↩︎

  16. Sherlock, “The Great Game.” ↩︎

  17. Sherlock, series 3, episode 1, “The Empty Hearse,” directed by Jeremy Lovering, written by Mark Gatiss, aired January 1, 2014, BBC. ↩︎

  18. Harry Denny, “Queering the Writing Center,” The Writing Center Journal 30, no. 1 (2010): 111. ↩︎

  19. Denny, “Queering the Writing Center,” 111. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Anthony Brano is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ, where he teaches writing as well as literature courses ranging from the Middle Ages to the Romantics. Along with his teaching duties, Dr. Brano directs the campus writing program and is the founding director of the GCU writing center. His research investigates how seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century playwrights and publishers repurposed Shakespeare’s plays as political propaganda.

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