Exciting Things Going on in Germany

Katrin Girgensohn

Katrin Girgensohn

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?”

Hoping for a sweet future: My writing center team in 2011 with cookies decorated with the writing center logo. The poster says: "We help to make writing sweet"

Hoping for a sweet future: My writing center team in 2011 with cookies decorated with the writing center logo. The poster says: "We help to make writing sweet."

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!

We write the future

Ready to write the future: Colleagues from German writing centers posing around an add that says: write future.

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.

Students staying fit for fighting procrastination all night long with office yoga (Picture by Heide Fest)

Students staying fit for fighting procrastination all night long with office yoga (Picture by Heide Fest).

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.

18 thoughts on “Exciting Things Going on in Germany

  1. I was delighted to read Katrin Girgensohn’s post and would like to post a similar text on what we have been doing in the European Writing Centers Association[EWCA]in the last 11 years, at least ever since my involvement with the association in 2001 at the First EWCA & EATAW Conference in Groningen,meeting the most adorable Anna Challanger– EWCA’s founder– there, attending her Halkidiki I Seminar where I met prominent IWCA/US scholars,becoming its Executive Board member in 2003, presenting its action plan at the EATAW & EWCA International Conference II in Budapest,and designing its website: http://www.ewca.sabanciuniv.edu, the same year with the motto “let’s build bridges to connect” to foster the spirit and let the excitement grow to build Writing Centers within the European contexts. What followed were the EWCA 2004-Sabanci University/Istanbul; EWCA 2005-Halkidiki/Greece; EWCA 2006-Bogazici University/Istanbul; EWCA 2008-Freiburg/Germany; EWCA 2010- AUP/Paris Conferences. Each added joy and impetus to our involvements in our own Writing Center work and in forming linkages with both secondary and higher education institutions in our own communities to make networking grow with on-line interaction and visits, as well as sharing our experiences with our dear colleagues, beloved friends, supporters in the US.Having met Katrin Girgensohn at our EWCA 2005, seeing the enthusiasm in her there and then, I said to myself, “here I see the EWCA Chair in 5 years time”.Hey! what my mind & heart said then, became reality! After my EWCA Chair duties finished, in 2007, the most industrious German-Gerd Braeur, following him in 2008,the most constructive Parisian American- Ann Mott were excellent Chairs to keep the EWCA spirit growing and spreading across borders in Europe. In the beautiful ambiance of EWCA 2010, Paris when we crowned Katrin as the new EWCA Chair, we knew that all solid past ties with IWCA, the CCCC, IWAC, INTERWAC Networking, EATAW and other associations would continue growing.

    Well, why am I talking about history? Because it teaches!It shows the snowballing effect of dynamism, dedication, once you believe in what you are doing and can measure its benefits, finally share the outcomes with TRUST in your teams and in your colleagues in different institutions. The journey starts with the analysis of the Writing Center philosophy, comparing the practices, thinking about your needs & circumstances, finding your own ways, and continues with sharing what you experience with others. All EWCA Board members, past and present, have been experiencing new endeavours every single day. What Anna Challanger did in Thesolloniki, how much Tracy Santa contributed to it in Bulgaria, how much Gerd Braeuer and Katrin Girgensohn spread the notion and practice in Germany, how Ann Mott developed an excellent team of TAs in Paris, how Vasso Kourbani is killing herself for her Writing Center in Athens with links accross the Atlantic, how Mary Dean is writing effective papers on Writing Center work – are all amazing!These names are just representative of our collective voice.Every other Board member and every single EWCA member of the 600 on the EWCA Listserv has been very contributive to spread the Writing Center notion in our short history.

    Since 2002, the 11 new Writing Centers in Turkey,even 4 in High schools,and the 4 in construction are good steps.All the seminars, workshops, presentations, projects,round tables, visits, invitations, Summer Institutes in our small and large communities have added to the awareness, familiarity, and new designs in critical thinking and writing -both WID and WAC- curricula. Writing in different genres, use of different rhetorical styles in academic and creative writing are being discussed in administrative meetings of institutions within the European contexts.

    In the European contexts,in the last 10 years within the frame of the “Bologna norms”, EU “Lifelong Learning”, writing is seen as a discipline, as critical thinking, not only to be incorparated within many high school and university curricula, but to be taken to the community through the NGOs. Nowadays, in urban settings, writing is not only in the classroom, but in the Centers to support course materials as compulsary adjuncts, attendance- demanding workshops/ study groups or voluntary tutorials. The trend is moving from private schools to government schools as the European Union is expecting excellence in written expression for the acceptance of many project proposals. Competetion between schools to get funding from the EU Education Commission for their projects has added to a “new liking” for writing. The growing desire for acceptance to Comenius, Erasmus, and Socrates scholarships have added signifacance to well organized, structured, and formatted papers as SOPs, CVs or RLs. Maybe,the financial crisis has added value to writing, starting from middle schools,continuing in the university both for better internship, career or job opportunities. What is becoming more demanded is not only more profound knowledge, but better expression of profound knowledge in both writing and verbal communication.

    These are little highlights from my 11 years of experience, so short when compared to 42 years in total- “English through Literature”- and additionally from my observations in the last Summer Institute 2011,Sep.5-11, we, the Sabanci University Writing Center[SUWC] held at our campus for 35 ELT writing advocates(4 full days) and 74 Turkish language and literature teachers and administrators(3 full days).It was a bit courageous to design the three-day part of the Institute for Turkish Lit people and some from other disciplines to urge them to open their Writing Centers to operate in Turkish at their primary and secondary schools and start implementing WAC,but now the news of “their” designing a big symposium for better writing curricula in or outside the classroom, and the opening of 2 new Writing Centers, plus a demand for a high school peer tutor-training are all little steps to bigger achievements as follow-up…

    Thank YOU Katrin, for giving me the chance to share the joy of your achievements in UW-Madison Writing Center; AND THANK YOU,Madison Writing Center for providing this much space for a BLOG! Here we go, writing connects!

    Sincerely,
    Dilek Tokay
    SUWC Coordinator
    EWCA Executive Board

  2. IMPORTANT NOTE:

    How on earth could I forget EWCA Conference 2012!
    Apologies… our dear Filitsa Mullen from American University in Bulgaria[AUB]is highly involved in the design of the EWCA 12 Conference website!

    12 years after the first EWCA Conference in Bulgaria [March 2000], here is the new one! Come and join our fireworks to hear more about European Writing Center work, still a baby, but vibrant and promising…

    EWCA 2012
    Creating Communities of Collaboration: Writers, Learners, Institutions, American University in Bulgaria, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, May 6th- May 9th, 2012

    Further Information: EWCA Bulletin Board http://ewca.sabanciuniv.edu/eng/?bulletin/bulletin.html

  3. This is exciting, Katrin and Dilek – what a long list of accomplishments with regard to writing center work in Europe. I don’t see a real reason to be jealous, Katrin! Although, I think I know what you mean since this lack of in-house reputation and acknowledgement of the hard work done in the writing center also exists at he University of Education Freiburg (http://www.ph-freiburg.de/schreibzentrum). It seems I only get full attention from our administration whenever I bring in grant money. I experienced this a few years ago when I raised € 350.000 from the European Commission to develop and adapt concepts, methods, and materials for writing/reading centers in seven European countries (http://www.scriptorium-project.org). Today, this project unites more than 50 writing initiatives (courses, workshops, and writing centers) and it expanded to South and Latin America. In March/April I will be in Columbia and Cuba to visit writing centers at teacher colleges that developed out of this international collaboration under the roof of the Scriptorium project.

    Nevertheless, I can clearly see the limits of my view on writing center work that in the past was mainly based on writing pedagogy. Later on I started to understand that in writing center work needs to be a strong emphasis on institutional development in order to make writing courses, workshops, and the writing center itself sustainable and fully recognized at the university. When I started collaborating with the University of Education in Berne/Switzerland a few years avon, I, therefore, demanded on a steering group and a thorough training for its members in writing pedagogy and institutional development.

    After three years of working with my colleagues in Berne I had to admit another limitation of my writing center concept. While the Berne writing center was quickly embraced by the university administration in the beginning, the same people abandoned the writing center just after a year of operation due to “weak numbers.” They had expected a service that can easily be assessed based on numbers (e.g. how many coaching sessions), not effort to change the role of writing in teacher education.

    I am really not sure, Katrin, since you mentioned the need for better PR in your blog entry, whether more PR, more media attention or maybe special activities (e.g. “Long Night of Writing”) would have made a significant difference in the sad outcome for the writing center in Berne. Instead, this most recent experience makes me believe that the role of the writing center needs to be redefined in the light of the emergence of what we call “knowledge society,” a phenomenon of this first decade of the 21st century, where writing seems to change from a tool of gathering, sorting, and reproducing the facts of the “information society” of the late 20th century into a “knowlegde-making practice” (cf. Starke-Meyerring et al., eds., 2011).

    While traditional writing center work focuses on the writer, writing, and texts, it seems to me that students and faculty alike are stuck with a way of handling information that doesn’t meet the real needs of knowledge societies. Many people in higher ed, students and faculty alike, seem to act as if writing is still all about maintaining a preset canon of knowledge (including a canon of writing genres). On the other hand, tendencies we see emerging in many professions seem to be in sharp contrast to this traditional canon-based understanding of (academic) writing. In the light of new digital technology that bubbled up over the most recent years, the traditional channels, tools, and modes of information flow become insufficient with regard to quickly creating new insights and knowledge. There doesn’t seem enough time anymore to “package” new information in the compartments and folders of existing, highly pre-structured systems of knowledge. The moment we say, ‘This is the way to do it or to think it!,’ we already see ourselves confronted with a myriad of alternatives emerging from the Web.

    Sorry, for getting into a topic here that seems more appropriate for a blog on learning, philosophy or maybe communications. Ha! – Katrin, do you see myself getting trapped again in this 20th century pattern of disciplinary thinking? Of course, I DO have to bring this up here in this blog since the phenomenon of what I call ‘literacy management’ needs to be moved in the center of attention of today’s writing center work. I truly believe that we don’t serve our students and faculty right if we continue facilitating them in their role as writers only. We need to learn to ask questions about how they handle information, but not just for the sake of writing a specific text. As we all know, we set ourselves up for looking for the right information for a current writing project long before we actually start searching for a particular information. Don’t get me wrong here, literacy management (LM) is not just another term for “information management.” LM is information management embedded in writing and reading processes and in the interaction between writers and readers. LM Includes all the processes needed in order to create meaning to a piece of information or text.

    In addition to shedding light on the literacy management of an individual, writing centers also need to pay attention to the existing system of institutional literacy management: What are the concrete circumstances in an organization that make people write, read, and distribute pieces of information, including texts? What are the more for less hidden connections between single learning tasks in a class, program, department, school that finally lead a student to the moment of writing a final exam, graduate from college, and enter a very different literacy environment in any chosen profession?

    Based on this understanding, I ask myself whether writing center work in the future will still be all about writing and writers. I think the answer is YES and NO at ones. On campus, we need to build strong alliances with the ICT people, with the center for learning and teaching, the career center and other institutions that already today focus on learning way beyond its formal, curricular practice. I am sure we writing center people can learn a lot from the centers I just mentioned with the aim to gaining more substantial in-house recognition, e.g. by making people become aware of the complexity of their needs with regard to successful writing.

    Future writing centers obviously need more research capability and capacity in order to analyze the literacy management of both individuals and institutions and to identify the effectiveness of LM in academic communication and beyond. We need to establish a set of methods and strategies for that, not least to sensitize the educational institution for the real needs of its learners.

    I am, therefore, advocating – as Katrin does – an international consortium on literacy management (http://www.international-literacy-management.org), where writing center people and others involved in education collaborate to develop the necessary tools and procedures for LM research, but also arguments and forms of PR, Katrin, to spread the word about writing centers and their changing role in a changing university.

    (Sorry for this lengthy blog post!)

  4. Incredible work, Gerd! Congratulations. How proud we are to be in the same EWCA team with YOU!What a strong handshake it was at the EWCA 2005 Halkidiki Conference!

    Most Sincerely,
    Dilek Tokay

  5. Yes – writing connects and now that I have so many powerful digital tools at my disposal (blogs like this being one), I might as well actually use them and that’s what I want to do by adding a few comments.

    Last weekend, the first group of Katrin’s and Gerd’s ongoing education for writing center work and literacy management finished their last face-to-face module and I was one of them.
    I had been looking forward to such an opportunity for professional development for quite some time and I was very delighted when I met Katrin for the first time about a year ago and she offered the prospect of the program taking off only a few months later. It offered a wealth of insights into what writing center work can be and due to the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds it also showed how varied the applications of literacy management (both inside and outside of higher ed) are. Let me take the chance to just say “Thank you!” to Katrin and Gerd for piecing this inspiring program together and to also send kudos to the Viadrina Writing Center staff (namely Franziska Liebetanz and Luise Herkner) for coming along with us through the program and feeding both our minds and stomachs :-). My time in Frankfurt/Oder was stimulating on different levels, so heartfelt thanks to everybody involved.

    Now that for me this episode is about to come to an end, I am very happy to see that members of an international community of Writing Center enthusiasts are not shying away from a digital, networked and open form of online exchange (cf. Weller 2011 http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/DigitalScholar_9781849666275/book-ba-9781849666275.xml ), which makes me hope to be able to keep ‘the snowball rolling’.

    I’m currently working in the context of an evolving writing center aiming to provide special support for teacher students with a migration background. In the city of Hamburg we have 29% of the population coming from foreign countries, among children this rate goes up to about 50%. The demographics of faculty rooms in Hamburg’s schools do not match this reality and neither does the way writing is instructed, accompanied and valued in the educational system, so there is a lot of work to be done. Dilek wrote about “the snowballing effect of dynamism” and that is what I begin to see at my own institution, the University of Hamburg. Over the last couple of months and with word spreading on campus that we are trying to bring more attention to the importance of Academic Writing, colleagues from different departments are getting in touch and asking questions. WAC/WID is an interesting concept for many of them – and a very unknown and fuzzy one, at times. Fostering colleagues’ enthusiasm for writing to me is a very rewarding aspect of what I do.

    Dilek also mentioned the importance of sharing experience with trust between colleagues. I think this becomes even more important where we all have to find our own ways and styles based on the needs of our individual institutions. In such a context, “sharing” doesn’t mean to just give things away for free. If there is a common sense about its importance, sharing provides ample learning opportunities for us all and that is where it becomes most fascinating to me, especially as sharing, networking and engaging with each other have become so much easier technically.

    Gerd’s approach of redefining the writing center in the light of the “knowledge society” seems spot-on to me and reminds me that in these terms writing is just one (though probably the most important) aspect on the way from collective intelligence to collaborative intelligence (cf. Mayfield 2006 http://ross.typepad.com/blog/2006/04/power_law_of_pa.html).
    I think we live in an exciting time – so much is going on in terms of learning technologies, communities and networks, connectivism and personal learning (cf. e.g. Stephen Downes at downes.ca and connectivism.ca), ed tech and digital literacies (e.g. rheingold.com), open ed and the transformation of teaching (cf. Christensen 2011 “The Innovative University”) that I can’t help but wonder how it all relates to writing center work and LM. Obviously I am not in a position to judge, but I feel that writing center work that remains focused just on writing, texts and writers runs the risk of failing to equip students with the skills and literacies necessary to be able to passively keep up with and actively shape a rather fluid “knowledge society”.
    I am very grateful to see such a discussion emerge and Gerd – please let us know when you’ve set up that “blog on learning, philosophy or maybe communications” – it would sure make for an interesting read for many of us…

    As a novice, I very much feed on what you all contributed over the years and continue to contribute. To a newbie like me, the amount of experience and expertise that influences your work is simply impressive (and can sometimes but rather intimidating, but I’ll keep that to myself… :-) ). Thanks a lot for everything that helps to bring us all a bit closer together. In response to Katrin’s title for this blog entry: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” (Emerson)

  6. Kathrin, I am proud of the Viadrina’s Writing Center, and I try to promote it everywhere (inside and outside)! Let’s keep on doing pioneer-work in Germany, yeah!

  7. Thank you, Katrin (and commenters), for adding to our international conversation about writing centers. Having enjoyed meeting with Katrin during her recent visit to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing and our Writing Center Professionals of Minnesota group, I am struck by how learning about other writing centers deepens our perspectives on our own– helping us appreciate and understand our history better and raising new questions and ideas for the future.

  8. I just discovered yesterday another press coverage of the amazing works of Katrin’s home base, the writing center at Viadrina. http://jetzt.sueddeutsche.de/texte/anzeigen/538968
    (For those who can’t read German: it’s about the implementation of peer tutoring in high schools.)
    Greetings from the writing center at Goethe-university, Frankfurt/M.

  9. Thanks so much for your post and your perspective, Katrin. The new growth of writing centers in Germany and hearing about the history that is being made there is very inspiring. I was particularly intrigued by “The Long Night of Procrastination” and how students in different universities and in different countries might feel connected through their writing centers.

  10. MY! How bright is the future with the “novice” like Daniel Spielmann, an Emerson lover!

    BRAVOO for your thoughts on multilingualism, young man! Bravoo for all this questioning on intellectual literacy and sharing–in the real sense of the word– benefitting from the tools of the times, for present and future!

    There’s a song that goes “…somewhere over the rainbow…”; BUT it shows that YOU can paint your rainbows, not only with the basic colors,but with all the hues and tints, and shadows…just like Katrin or Gerd,and many others!
    Loved your text!THANK YOU.

  11. Dear Katrin, Dilek, Gerd and Daniel, thank you so much for your interesting thoughts on Literacy Management, writing center development and so on. Your posts made me think of a possible direction for my master thesis which aims to contribute to writing center work in Europe. As Katrin said, the US writing center history dates back to the 1930s but we in Germany are able to learn from it, actively create it and be part of it – with our events, concepts and contributions. Therefore, I´m looking forward to the EWCA conference 2012 in Bulgaria and an exciting future!
    PS: Daniel, it was a pleasure meeting you last week during the dinner in Poland after your last session for the module on literacy management! Thanks for your insights to “Bildungsblogging” and good luck with evolving the writing center in Hamburg.

  12. Katrin,

    Thanks for posting and inspiring such a lively discussion! I keep thinking about how the press has taken an interest in your writing center and everyday, institutional work. . . Gets me thinking about how we in writing centers here in the U.S. might better connect with public media outlets. (smile)

    Beth

  13. Thanks for this post, Katrin! As you know, I absolutely love hearing the perspective you bring to our work at UW-Madison, as well as the ideas you give me to think about Writing Center work in Canada. There, writing instruction in universities might fall somewhere on the middle of the spectrum from Germany to the U.S., and writing centers exist (though there are still relatively few compared to the U.S.), but are almost always in the context of student support services like tutoring. It’s always interesting to think about the affordances and constraints of writing centers in these varying academic cultures, so thanks for telling us about your work.

  14. Being horribly pragmatic (and instrumentalist), I’m thinking that it must surely help get German and/or EU funding to link the high status of US research to the widespread writing centres and writing pedagogy/literacy management/etc. I mean, 43 years, over 100 writing fellows, consultants, etc… Gosh.

    So, play the (funding) game and go “excellence excellence excellence” backed up by numbers from the US. Because it is quite frustrating that writing is not given serious, long-term, stable funding in German universities. Yet!

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  17. Dear Katrin,

    please get in touch – I would love to interview you for a book which will be published beginning of next year.

    Remember how we wrote about Berlin at Alice-Salomon-Hochschule? It was fun. I was the one who wrote about Opera. Franziska Liebetanz did an interview last year when I published “Wie Kreatives Schreiben beflügelt – auf dem Weg zum Traumjob”. Would be great, if you would be willing to answer my questions. When you get in touch I will tell you more!

    Best regards,

    Susanne

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