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”.
Luckily, my writing center team of marvelous peer tutors helped me in a very energetic way and made it very clear that we could not give up
the writing center. They wrote letters, collected signatures and worked a lot more than they were paid for. Also, we got much support from colleagues all over the world. Our university finally found a solution to bridge the gap at least partly for some time, and we started to look for other sources of funding.
Around this time, the German government started a new program to fund “excellence in teaching” at universities. It is a large program that wants universities “to ensure widely effective and regionally balanced support for good study conditions at German institutions of higher education” (BMBF 2012). To apply for this funding, universities must come up with highly convincing plans. So we sat down with our vice-president and units of our university like the center for intercultural learning and the career center, and we talked about ideas for integrating the writing center into a coherent proposal for this program.
The conversation ended up focusing on the benefits of peer tutoring. We served a lot of students through peer tutoring, which was very helpful not only for the tutees but also for the peer tutors themselves, who gain valuable skills and work experience. Other units at the university had also used tutoring, but they did not call it peer tutoring explicitly, and they did not have professional tutor education or sustainable mentoring. We therefore decided to apply with the idea of expanding peer tutoring from the writing center to other units of the university, including content tutoring, language learning tutoring, intercultural tutoring and study skills tutoring. The idea of the Viadrina Peer Tutoring Project was born. We agreed to implement a common peer tutor education program and to build a new institutional unit to bring all collaborating partners together, which became “the center for key competencies and research-oriented learning”.
In September 2011, I left my university for one year. I was lucky enough to get funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) to conduct a research project about the successful implementation of writing centers at universities. My home base for this project was the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where I learned so much that it is even hard to express. Meanwhile, in Germany, my valued colleague Franziska Liebetanz had taken over the job of directing the writing center. She was the one who sent me an email one nice fall day in 2011 to say that we had managed to get the funding for the peer tutoring project and the new center. Not only could we continue to expand our writing center work, we could also expand peer tutoring across our university!
The Viadrina Peer Tutoring Project started while I was still in Madison. My colleagues from various units began by reading and discussing texts about peer tutoring and determining a common concept of what peer tutoring means and how it could work at our university. When I returned to Frankfurt (Oder), this incredible team was already in the middle of designing a peer tutor education program for the entire university. The idea of peer tutoring as collaborative learning is so unusual in our learning culture that they decided to implement an in-depth tutor education program that takes students two to three semesters to complete, which is integrated into the curricula of most degree programs.
Students receive credit for the tutor education courses, and they are built into their requirements. Future peer tutors take one class all together, which deals with collaborative learning and group work. The second class they take is dedicated to the direction they decide to work in: writing, language learning, study skills, intercultural learning or content tutoring. After this, future peer tutors get some practice when they work for seven weeks in the writing center or the other units. They observe consultations, give observed consultations themselves and discuss more texts. For the writing center I can say that this part is much easier for us to handle than it used to be, because we now have a first German book about writing consulting. It is written by four
former peer tutors–Ella Grieshammer, Franziska Liebetanz, Nora Peters and Jana Zegenhagen–and is an excellent new resource for writing center work in German. Other units, like the center for intercultural learning, work slightly differently, but we make sure that all parts of the peer tutor education program are comparable. A final step for the future peer tutors is a portfolio presentation. They work with a reflective e-portfolio through all parts of the tutor education program, and in the end they arrange a presentational portfolio that documents their learning processes for their peers and for future job applications.
Clearly, my work has changed a lot since I returned from Madison. The biggest change is that I am currently the director of the new “center for key competencies and research-oriented learning”, until a professor will take over this job. This means that my work goes far beyond writing center work. I have to design new classes, apply the idea of peer tutoring to new units, and deal with different stakeholders than before. It is a lot of work, but it is really worth it. The very best thing about my work is that I now have so many colleagues to work with. I always had my wonderful and more-than-helpful peer tutors, but I always felt the danger of exploiting them too much because they always wanted to work more. Now we are a team of six professionals from the writing center, the center for intercultural learning and the center for key competences and research-oriented learning itself. I experience our work as truly collaboratively in the way we share and develop ideas, manage obstacles and expand. That is a wonderful experience.
Furthermore it is very satisfying to increase peer tutoring–a method I experienced as so successful in the writing center. Every day, I witness how grateful peer tutors are for the experiences they have through our new program and how we are moving, step by step, towards a new culture of learning. One example for this is the new intercultural study teams we started this semester. A peer tutor who specializes in intercultural learning and a peer tutor who specializes in study skills work together to facilitate a group of five to seven new university students from Germany as well as from other countries. They help the group become a team that will master their first semester together.
And so we’re celebrating our sixth birthday very differently than we had originally
thought. Not only do we still have a very good writing center, but we also have a newborn: a university-wide peer tutoring program. We’re sure that it, too, will develop some children’s illness, and we know it still has a long way to go. But we’re looking forward to seeing it grow and are curious how we will celebrate this sixth birthday in a few years!