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.
Although the first writing center in Germany, the Writing Lab at the University of Bielefeld, opened its doors in 1993, it has been only recently that more writing centers have opened. My own will have its fifth birthday this year. All in all we now have 13 writing centers at about 350 universities in Germany. No wonder that people are always puzzled when I talk about my job: “What? A writing center? Never heard of that. Do you mean a writing service? You type what others have written?”
The lack of writing classes at our universities doesn’t make it easier. There is no explicit teaching of writing, no composition classes for students and therefore not very much understanding for the values of writing support. Sometimes it’s painful to have to explain endlessly how useful writing centers are; why and how learning and writing belong together; or that every writer simply needs a reader. On the other hand, I have already learned during my time at UW-Madison that these explanations never end even for a long established writing center. There will always be people in our institutions who know nothing about writing centers or have misconceptions.
No reasons, then, to be jealous? Maybe not. Maybe even vice versa: Not having a long history to build on also means that creating a history can be an active and conscious act. Historical steps might be taken right now!
Indeed, many exciting things are going on at the moment. The Federal Ministry of Education for example started to offer grants for universities to achieve better quality in teaching. Several universities applied successfully for support for tutoring writing. For our Writing Center at European University Viadrina this means that we will eventually have sufficient funding for two professional staff members and for all the tutors we need. This also means that we will be able to start a sustainable program in tutor education that will even expand in other parts of the university.
The press has taken an interest, and two very important German newspapers lately reported on writing centers (Die ZEIT and FAZ). The comments to the ZEIT article partly show that we need much more public relations. People complain about students’ weak writing and doubt that basic writers should be allowed to study. But at least people are becoming more familiar with the existence of writing centers. Many of them e-mailed our writing center and let us know that they would like to participate in our ongoing education for writing center work and literacy management. We designed this series of seminars with the aim to make quality in writing center work possible and to prevent people from starting writing centers without any professional background in this field. With the same goal, writing center professionals and freelancing writing consultants and trainers will meet in March at the Writing Center at the University of Bochum. In a collaborative meeting, using the open space moderation method, hey want to discuss quality criteria for writing pedagogies and develop professional networks. Some are already arising, like the homepage schreibberater.info and the network http://schreibzentren.mixxt.de/networks/forum/index that started recently (with one thread for our English speaking colleagues!). The latter one is at the moment very busy planning the “Long Night Against Procrastination,” a special event on March 1st. All 13 German writing centers – and even two in the USA – will remain open all night long and support students in their fight against procrastination.
They will offer peer tutoring, workshops and writing space. I am sure this common, creative effort will become another milestone in writing center history in Germany.
Hopefully, I will look back in 20 years and will see that these beginnings led to the fact that every German university wanted to have a writing center. Hopefully, writing centers will be sustainable and valued by then. However, this will certainly not include getting rid of the obligation to explain our missions again and again.