Writing Centers Have Flex Appeal

"Flexibility."  Photo by Jakob Breivik Grimstveit (Creative Commons License).

“Flexibility.” Photo by Jakob Breivik Grimstveit (Creative Commons License).

By Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Center and Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At many universities, writing centers have now earned significant respect for the work they do with student-writers.  Within that respect, though, almost never do I hear writing centers valued for what I like to call their flex appeal: for the flexible ways in which they meet not just the needs of student-writers who have drafts in hand, but the needs of faculty and of curricula and of institutions and of student groups and of campus communities and of the communities around and beyond a university.  It’s important to note that these fascinating needs and opportunities often surface a week or a month into the semester, so they require a flexible organization–one with talented staff whose time is not already entirely consumed–to respond.

Writing programs and universities are, in fact, largely silent about these critical needs that don’t fit into neat categories, that arise at unpredictable times.  To some extent, that silence is understandable: writing programs and universities necessarily focus on semester-long courses, curricula, theory, staff selection and training, budgets, and assessment.  Carrying hundreds or thousands of students and faculty each semester, writing programs are like aircraft carrier groups or battleships: once moving forward, they’re powerful and impressive, employing lots of people, projecting power in and around the curriculum, but they’re difficult to turn around; they are, in fact, simply not designed to be flexible and responsive to small needs and new opportunities.  (Well, they’re not really like naval ships at all, but you know what I mean.)

Photo from LivingFit.

Photo from LivingFit.

I want to argue that some part of a writing center–if the writing center is beyond its first few years–needs to be structured to respond to new, unpredictable, short-term, or ad hoc needs and opportunities from instructors and programs and the curriculum across a campus and to deliver carefully tailored, flexible, instruction in sites beyond the center.  AND writing centers should trumpet this flexibility and demand to be valued for it.  I know that there are powerful reasons NOT to do this, which I’ll explore in a future post, including a real tension between the drive for status and the flexibility and service I’m calling for.  But there are many more reasons to embrace these opportunities, to structure a program flexibly enough to meet these needs.

By making this argument about writing centers, I want you to know that (for you—only for you) I’m violating one of my sacred principles.  In this post, I’m trying to contribute to what I call the writing center literature of self-justification, something I’ve never wanted to contribute to.  You know the literature I’m talking about.  I haven’t wanted to because there are many good justifications for writing centers in print already.  The other reason I’ve stayed away is that some of that literature is whiny.  In this argument, I won’t be yelling at my colleagues, as much as I admire Stephen North.  I won’t be complaining about third-class status.  And you won’t hear me talking about storehouses or garrets or Burkean parlors or safe-houses, as much as I admire Lunsford and Hobson and Ede and find their characterizations and justifications useful.  I’ll be doing a different kind of justification and exhortation.  I’m overcoming my reservations because I’m persuaded by Michael Pemberton’s argument that “It is important for all people who work in writing centers and think of them as important, effective, and ethical sites for learning to be able to rationalize—for anybody at any time—the benefits of what we do” (“Questioning Our Existence,” Writing Lab Newsletter 19.5 [1995], 8-9).

Some Examples
Let me make this argument more concrete by offering some examples of these needs and opportunities, ones that require flexibility to meet.  I hope you’ll forgive me for drawing examples largely from the writing center on my campus, simply because I know the nuances of these examples best and because our writing center has done these flexible cross-curricular collaborations since its opening in 1969.   I know that you could offer even more examples of flexible, innovative instruction from your centers and your own campuses.

Undergraduate Symposium, UW-Madison.  Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

Undergraduate Symposium, UW-Madison. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

My first example focuses on undergraduate research across the curriculum.  For the past 20 years, my campus, like many others, has made it a priority to involve more and more undergraduates in collaborative research projects with faculty.  To showcase these students and their research, each April my university organizes a day-long undergraduate symposium.  But the student-researchers who participate in the symposium, the faculty who mentor undergraduates and who attend the symposium, and the provost’s office that sponsors the symposium all recognize that these undergraduates have more to learn about squeezing a year’s worth of research into a ten-minute presentation or into a research poster.    Who’s going to help these students, who are doing their research in labs and libraries scattered across the curriculum, learn to present their research more effectively for an April symposium?  Who will help their faculty mentors help prepare students?  Obviously, in some cases, faculty research mentors are well prepared to help students learn to present their research, and will spend the time to do that.  But others need help in doing that.  With the support of a grant from the provost’s office, some of my wonderful former Writing Center colleagues, including Melissa Tedrowe and Andrea Benton, developed materials and workshops to help students prepare to present their research each April.  These materials are available in a web-based form so students who can’t attend the workshops and faculty who have students present research in courses across the curriculum can make use of them.

Here’s a second example, one of many I could use from our Writing Center’s outreach program.  A professor in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences asked our Writing Center to help teach graduate students in that department how to write more effective introductions and literature-review sections of their research proposals, theses, and dissertations.  So in collaboration with this professor, we planned and co-led an hour-long discussion with graduate students about the function of introductions and literature reviews in research proposals and had students analyze the rhetoric of several samples from that field.  After that session, the professor reported that the intros and lit reviews he’d received from his students were generally more purposeful and successful; and from the way the professor and students talked about these genres, it was clear that they’d acquired a different and powerful new level of genre knowledge, a kind of knowledge which research shows is so important for successful writers.

Here’s a third example.  Each year a student organization on our campus, Students for Equal Access to Law Schools—a group committed to providing resources for underrepresented minority students who are interested in the law and in legal careers—asks our Writing Center to develop a workshop on writing personal statements for law school applications and to offer individual follow-up tutorials as students work on drafts.

Here’s a fourth example, about the flexible ways in which undergraduate writing fellows (curricular-based peer tutors) do invaluable teaching across the curriculum.  Faculty across my campus, like yours, I’m sure, do the important but hard work of teaching writing-intensive courses, in all sorts of disciplines, from sociology to political science to gender and women’s studies to astronomy to organic chemistry.  To support faculty and teaching assistants across the curriculum, my colleagues and I have led WAC workshops for 30 years and done individual consultations with hundreds of faculty.  We publish and distribute advice and models for faculty.  These traditional WAC efforts are essential for supporting a strong culture of writing on a campus.  But I’m convinced that some of the best help imaginable comes from having undergraduate writing fellows available to assign to work with student-writers and faculty in these writing-intensive courses, well-trained tutors who travel and who stick around.  Making curricular-based writing tutoring work well is tricky, but well-worth it: writing fellows flexibly share knowledge and influence attitudes and pedagogy; they give faculty advice about assignments and open up dialogue about responding to writing, where otherwise such conversations might not exist.

And a fifth and final example: over the past few years, the School of Social Work at our university has developed a very successful part-time masters program in social work, now enrolling over 250 students in two different cities in our state, Eau Claire and Madison.  Through email instruction and video conferences, our online writing center has developed flexible and popular ways to meet the needs of busy working professionals who are writing many graduate-level papers.

I could go on with examples of responding flexibly to new opportunities–about our summer dissertation camps, offered in collaboration with our University’s Graduate School, and about our Madison Writing Assistance Program, which offers writing consultations to community members at public libraries and job centers in Madison.

The Beauty of What’s Growing Between the Cracks

False pineapple.  Photo by Dick Culbert, creative commons license.

False pineapple. Photo by Dick Culbert (Creative Commons License).

Photo by pardonmeforasking (Creative Commons License).

Photo by pardonmeforasking (Creative Commons License).

I love looking carefully at what grows between the cracks; it’s not just dandelions, but oregano and lemon basil, and daisies and false pineapple.  These requests and opportunities are exciting and important and rewarding.  Someone in writing programs should invite and even seek out these opportunities; someone should hear them; someone should respond to them.

Why are these worth doing?  First, they represent important opportunities to help student writers, many of whose needs would not be met by traditional semester-long writing courses or would never seek out individual help in a writing center.  Through these efforts, writing centers also educate and influence attitudes among faculty and can exercise this influence within and around and despite the curriculum.  Stephen North’s point applies to faculty as well as students: “The fact is, not everyone’s interest in writing, their need or desire to write or learn to write, coincides with the fifteen or thirty weeks they spend in writing courses . . .  ” (“The Idea of a Writing Center,” College English 46.5 [1984], 442).  We need to be on the lookout for opportunities to teach, as North describes it, “at the conjunction of timing and motivation . . .” (443).  And there are other synergies and benefits.  From these collaborative teaching opportunities, writing centers develop knowledge that can be incorporated into tutor training and into websites for writers; this knowledge can also influence writing curricula.  These collaborations have a powerful political force as centers build relationships with strong constituencies across a campus.  And they have rhetorical force: engaging in and publicizing this work counters remedial preconceptions.

Despite these benefits, writing centers and universities don’t talk enough about these powerful collaborations.  From some research I’ve done, I don’t think that even writing centers themselves appreciate how important their flexibility and responsiveness are to faculty, institutions, and constituencies.  I’ve asked a sample of writing center directors around the country why they think faculty and administrators value their centers.  I received fascinating, thoughtful answers; but with only a few exceptions, these writing center directors did NOT focus on flexibility and responsiveness to worlds outside the center.

Why don’t writing centers emphasize these kinds of opportunities and these dimensions of their work, why don’t they prize their flex appeal?  I’ve got some thoughts about that, which I’ll share in a future post on this blog or in an article I’m writing about this topic.  In the meantime, what do you think?  Should writing centers be valued for their flexibility?  For their ability to experiment with programs and to respond to needs that pop up?  Does your center meet these and other kinds of needs, ones that are easy for universities to be unaware of or ignore?

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