Writing center at the European University Viadrina during a peer tutor education session
By Katrin Girgensohn. This is kind of a birthday post. Six years ago, we opened the doors to our nice spacious room after I, as a PhD student, brought the idea of a writing center to my university and convinced the president that we really should have one. At this point we only had a handful of writing centers all over Germany, so it was not at all normal for a university to open a writing center. Although I had very good arguments, what might have been most convincing was that I was able to get a starting grant from the Hans Böckler Foundation.
In Germany we say that after six years life gets serious, because this is the age when children start school. However, our writing center’s life got quite serious after only three and a half years, when a huge part of our funding was suddenly not available any more. Until then, our writing center had been more or less dependent on funding that came from outside the university. The cancellation of our funding was nothing personal and had nothing to do with the writing center itself – it was a complete governmental program that was canceled. The notification was a shock for me and seemed to be quite unfair because the writing center was very successful and had grown incredibly in only three years of existence. We not only offered writing consulting and writing groups, but also worked with high schools, had already earned a national and international reputation and were even quite famous due to our first “long night against procrastination”.
It was in 2010 when a student in our writing center complained about her procrastination habits: “For me, you should open at night, because this is when I eventually get started and would need a writing center”. This student’s comment came up at our next team meeting, and suddenly an idea took shape: “A Long Night against Procrastination”. “Long Nights” are very popular in Germany. We have “Long Nights of Museums”, “Long Nights of Science” or “Long Nights of Sports”, all designed to attract attention through offering events at unusual times.
TV team in the writing center
Obviously this idea works, because shortly after we announced our Long Night, the writing center’s phone began to ring and wouldn’t stop until our event started. All of the important German newspapers suddenly wanted to report about our writing center and its Long Night. A TV team occupied our rooms, and radio reporters were everywhere, so that we had to hold a press conference. The press conference provided us the unique opportunity to talk about writing center work in detail, and several reporters stayed all night long to experience what we had claimed: that we would provide a serious work atmosphere, profound writing consulting and, nevertheless, a fun event. The newspaper “Der Spiegel” later wrote that the night was reminiscent of a pajama party but was a serious event at the same time.
As a visiting scholar from Germany at the UW-Madison Writing Center, I sometimes feel jealous of all the things going on here. Having a writing center with 110 people working as writing fellows, writing consultants and as leadership staff, and, even more important, experiencing how the writing center is valued here at the university, seems to be paradisiac. In Germany, where I direct a writing center at European University Viadrina, writing centers are still new phenomena and far away from being well staffed and valued. And that is exactly the reason why I am here: I got a research grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG) to conduct an explorative study on successful implementation of writing centers. The writing center at UW-Madison is the ideal home base for this, since it has such a variety of programs, like a very successful WAC program, and this amazing institutional standing. Nevertheless, as I said in the beginning, sometimes it makes me feel jealous to see this. Or frustrated, because I cannot imagine that there will ever be a time when we will have a fixed and sustainable budget, sufficient staff and adequate acknowledgement from our institution. To deal with these feelings it helps me to remember that the UW-Madison writing center has not only its current hard working staff, but it has been built up by 43 years of people working here. And so do writing centers in the US generally: several decades have passed since most universities established writing centers, and the first writing-center-like institutions date even back to the 1930s. Comparing my own writing center with this one here in Madison, or comparing writing centers in the US with writing centers in Germany, is like comparing the achievements of a small child with those of an experienced, grown-up person. All these achievements needed their time and today’s writing centers profit from history. (more…)