The Future of Writing Centers

Each semester, instructors at the UW-Madison Writing Center sign up to participate in one of several “ongoing education” meetings on a topic they find interesting or pertinent to their professional development. As an extension of Katie’s ongoing education last semester on the history of writing centers, Melissa and I recently co-facilitated an ongoing education on (cue scary music) the future of writing centers (cue menacing laughter). The topic—and parenthetical remarks—were inspired by Terrance Riley’s (1994) “The Unpromising Future of Writing Centers,” which we read along with Christina Murphy’s (2006) “On Not ‘Bowling Alone’ in the Writing Center, or Why Peer Tutoring Is an Essential Community for Writers and for Higher Education.”

We had a great discussion about the nature and impact of Writing Center work within and beyond the academy. I can’t adequately summarize our discussion, but I can post the question that has been “haunting” me since our meeting, and I can summarize how I think these authors answered it. Here’s the question:

Is the academy a good place for writing centers?

Riley says no because academic hierarchies, values, and practices are antithetical to the alternative ethos of writing centers. Riley suggests that the histories of three erstwhile marginalized fields—American literature, literary theory, and composition studies—have set a precedent for any group seeking academic assimilation: professional status comes at the expense of egalitarian values and anti-Establishment practices. In short, writing centers: beware the academy’s corrupting influence (cue distant screams)!

In contrast, Murphy inverts the question and claims that writing centers are good for the academy because they model community formation in ways that promote civic engagement and social responsibility—activities which may reinvigorate the civic mission of the academy and revitalize writing center theory and practice. Rather than pitting the academy against writing centers, Murphy posits a broader understanding of writing centers as multifaceted, highly-layered systems that are integrated into academic and extracurricular contexts. While Murphy acknowledges the limitations of the academy on writing center work, she encourages us to see beyond its borders. In short, writing centers: broaden your professional preoccupations to include your impact on the community.

Of course, Murphy’s emphasis on community formation is “haunted” by questions of which community, for whom, according to whose values, and at whose expense. But her perspective encourages scholars and practitioners to focus on the societal dimensions of writing center work. And it is a welcome addition, if not alternative, to arguments about the marginalized or compromised status of writing centers in the academy.

Thanks to these authors and those who participated in this ongoing education, I came to realize how varied writing centers are in terms of locations—our list included academic departments, specific disciplines, student affairs, libraries, learning centers, residential halls, and community-sponsored locations such as public libraries—and, consequently, how versatile they are in terms of function.

The take-home message from this ongoing education was, for me, two-fold:

1) location inextricably shapes a writing center’s purpose and practices

2) because writing centers can inhabit many locations, they can be and do many things

Speculating the future of writing centers can be scary or exciting, depending on one’s background, location, experience, and especially one’s knowledge of what exists and one’s vision for what’s possible. I think that, regardless of our immediate locations, we ought to dream big and wide about the future places and possibilities of writing center work, even if we risk encountering a nightmare or two.

So let’s start talking (and dreaming): what are your thoughts about the future of writing centers?

Dave Stock,

Writing Center instructor

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