Getting a Fix on What Big 10 Writing Centers Are Up To

By Laura Plummer, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University. She is joined here by Jo Ann Vogt (Writing Tutorial Services Director, Indiana University); Carol Severino (Writing Center Director, the University of Iowa); and Naomi Silver (Writing Center Associate Director, the University of Michigan).

Laura Plummer, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University

Laura Plummer, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University

Q: Why did I start an informal working group for “Big Ten” writing center and writing program directors?
A: Because sometimes you just want to spend time with people who get your jokes.

The “tutored” dog
You’ve seen the 1985 Gary Larson Far Side cartoon before, no doubt: a dog riding shotgun in a car is talking out the window to a dog-friend: “Ha, Ha, Biff. Guess what? After we go to the drugstore and post office, I’m going to the vet’s to get tutored!”

It’s funny: our canine speaker misunderstands the play date his owners have planned for him. Tutoring or neutering—oh, what a difference a consonant makes.

For most audiences, the tutor/neuter confusion is funny enough. I would argue that writing center folks find this joke even funnier. We laugh at the distance and tension between what “tutor” means to us, and its potentially clinical meaning to those outside our small writing-profession group.

As Stephen North so finely put it three decades ago, “For whatever reasons, writing centers . . . have been represented—or misrepresented—more often as fix-it shops.”

Indeed, we are haunted by the word “fix.” If there is a writing problem to “fix,” students are sent someplace to be “fixed”—to us, the professional “fixers.” We’re often misunderstood as the vet clinic of higher ed—appreciated by some and feared by others—and so this Labrador’s misplaced enthusiasm evokes in us both hilarity and deep, deep pathos.

A breed apart
The value of meeting with other writing center and program directors, then—particularly at similar institutions—rests in sharing that second layer of humor (and the deep, deep pathos). We enjoy once a year the luxury of never having to explain the joke, or ourselves.

big_ten_universities_basketball_standings_feb12_2014In 2005, three years into my directing our writing program, I didn’t have that camaraderie to buoy my spirits. So, looking for connections with kindred folk, I formed our Big 10 group at the suggestion of my dean. The Big 10—now known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC)—is an intercollegiate athletic consortium founded in the 19th century and comprising twelve (soon, 14) large universities, mostly from the Midwest. CIC universities are state-sponsored, research-focused institutions with enrollments ranging from 20,000 to 65,000 students; many of our students are native to our respective states, but we all have growing populations of students from around the world. Current CIC schools are listed to the left.  Those of us who are responsible for writing centers at such behemoths share many pressures and opportunities; our affinity is immediate.

Our group meets once a year, typically at the Big 10 Conference Center in Chicago (though we have met on each other’s campuses as well). Most years, at least 10 or 11 of our schools are represented; often, several of us bring along additional staff members to join in the conversation. Over the course of a day, this sizeable group discusses the issues facing writing centers situated in schools like ours.

Our Michigander Naomi Silver told me that she attends these meetings “(when I can!) for the opportunity to nurture relationships with smart and supportive colleagues who share many experiences in administering a writing center at a large research university. I find our conversations to be both informative and generative, and I always return home energized and with new ideas to address challenges and opportunities.”

Our annual gathering provides what Carol Severino (Iowa) calls “solidarity and support throughout the year.”

The new Big 10 conference center, where we will meet starting in 2014

The new Big 10 conference center, where we will meet starting in 2014

Learning new tricks
Our CIC group spends time comparing notes. We make simple matrixes for benchmarking important parts of our work, like peer tutoring salaries, training protocols, and technology uses in the writing center. As Carol puts it:

The CIC meeting for me is like looking at the Big 10 football or basketball standings; I can calibrate where my writing center programs stand in relation to those of peer institutions and assess whether my WC is doing enough of what we should be doing to serve different populations.

Last year, for example, because of our discussion about serving graduate students, I was inspired to collaborate with our Graduate College to develop “Write-In Days” [souped-up writing groups] for our grad students like Minnesota and Indiana.   This summer we are hosting a two-week Dissertation Writing Camp with Write-In-like follow up hours almost every day in the Center.

Each of us benefits from being able to accompany a budget request with data that show where our center falls in relation to similar organizations. The proprietary software and technological support available to other centers, for example, was a useful trend to share on our campus.

Best in show?
Group members also collaborate and pose our questions at national conferences; our aim is to both start and to help shape the conversation about what large research university WCs could and should be.

IWCA conf page screenIn 2008, for example, Libby Morley, Brad Hughes, and Jon Olson presented at the International Writing Centers Association/ National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing conference in Las Vegas: “Merging into Traffic: A Discussion about Preparing Graduate Students for Work and Research in the Writing Center.” Their discussion focused on strengthening and filling the “pipeline” of WC professionals coming out of our institutions since that number had dwindled (we all hope to retire at some point).

Supporting graduate student writers is also a common theme in our conversations at conferences, since this is a charge specific to universities; the diversity of the student body—with growing numbers of multi-lingual writers—is another.

Our “Navigating Rough Waters: Current Issues Facing Large University Writing Centers” panel discussion at the 2010 WAC conference in Baltimore led off with this these issues and others popping up in current scholarship—about the challenges of cross-campus collaborations, for example.

Sometimes a large university feels like the Circumlocution Office in Dickens’s Little Dorrit; finding (much less collaborating with) willing partners can be a daunting task.

Our peculiar pack behavior
Our meetings also comprise show-and-tell sessions and open, frank discussions of pressing WC issues. Who has a new program to share? How do we promote writing centers generally and explain writing centers are vital to our institutions? How can we capitalize on this CIC network?

And while I might do some basic event planning (how many chicken salad and vegetarian sub sandwiches at lunch?) our group is steadfastly egalitarian. All of us pitch in as equals—leading a discussion, proffering wise feedback—despite wide-ranging differences in rank, experience, and seniority.

We are often more ambitious with our planning than we should be. White papers and journal articles are excitedly discussed but often suffer once we return the bustle of our home institutions.

Nevertheless, we are ever hopeful, and we continue always to look toward the future.

Some swag from a Big 10 writing center directors meeting

Some swag from a Big 10 writing center directors meeting

Conclusion
Finally, these group meetings are fun. Writing center folks are lively, humane, and wickedly punny—this lot is, anyway. Over the years, I’ve grown to rely upon these colleagues for all sorts of advice and for some really great swag (Purdue has great pens, y’all).

In fact, I look forward to our CIC meetings because even with the vagaries of air travel these days, they reassure, comfort, inspire, and invigorate me. We’re scheduled for another meeting—our 10th—in April. It will be what my mother would call “a real shot in the arm.” It’s spring, and it’s been a hard winter, and we all need a fix.

How do you build community among peer institutions? Are there ways in which you connect with other writing centers in your region? Do you have ideas or information to share about sharing our work? Is there any way in which our group could be of help to you?

Leave a comment or a question!

8 thoughts on “Getting a Fix on What Big 10 Writing Centers Are Up To

  1. Thanks for this post, which stimulated fond memories of attending (for a decade) the twice-a-year meetings of the Writing Center Professionals of Minnesota group. Each WCPM meeting addresses a specific theme (chosen by group consensus), and member institutions take turns hosting the meetings. See you at IWAC in June 2014!

  2. Most of us at CIC Writing Center meetings attend regional conferences and IWCA meetings. But at CIC meetings we feel more at home. Our universities are all so big that we can never aspire to tutoring 75% of our students the way some schools can. We have unique responsibilities as Laura mentioned here, tutoring graduate students, for instance. We also have unique opportunities such as having graduate students as consultants and as in-house researchers. If the community of writing center professionals is to grow, CIC schools will be the incubators.
    Thanks to Laura for writing about our group and for starting it up in the first place!

  3. The CIC meetings allow us to consider the unique opportunities and challenges within similar contexts and to collaborate more closely. That collaboration can take the form of exchanging information or even sharing strategies and perhaps resources. While national and regional meetings can be helpful in looking at the bigger picture of writing centers, CIC meetings allow for more intense and involved discussions. Some things like demographics, size, and institutional structures are a “given,” so we can really get into the meat of a discussion without too much preamble. These meetings don’t take the place of conferences and other venues, but they do provide a completely different and useful perspective because of the shared context. I appreciate being able to benchmark or brainstorm with my CIC colleagues, and I’ve come back to my campus with fresh ideas and a greater sense of confidence that other WC administrators know exactly what I do, what I face, and what is possible at an institution like mine. I highly recommend writing centers form similar groups with peer institutions.

  4. So wonderful to come across this posting today and see/ hear echoes of my own joyful experiences collaborating, conversing, learning, and laughing with my Big Ten pack buddies. Thank you, Laura, Jo Ann, Carol, and Naomi, for sharing!

    I’m still giggling with deep pathos over the neuter/tutor confusion and the misperceptions about “fixing.” With apologies to Cesar Milan, I do think there is real “power in the pack,” as you describe it here, Laura. I wonder too if Cesar’s motto of “I rehabilitate dogs, I train people” might be appropriate. We WC dogs experience “rehabilitation” when we are together (“Oh, that happens on your campus too? Whew, I’m not crazy or failing because I’m having this experience.”). And, as Carol points out, we learn from one another specific strategies to “train” our institutions on how to work better with us, our student writers, and our fellow teachers. I remember the experience of flying to to our second meeting and looking back at the big “to do” list I made from listening to all the cool things other Big Ten WCs were doing. I was pleasantly surprised to realize a year later we had done something related to everything on that list (a change in policy, an experiment, a conversation with our staff, a report to higher ups, etc.). I can’t think another professional conversation that so directly influences my own practices as a WC administrator, as you suggest, Libbie.

    Thank you, all, for your grassroots energy to create this powerful pack. Our time together may be brief each year, but the ripple effects are tremendous.

  5. Great fun to see this blog take off! I’m reminded of the kind yet firm way Laura interacted with UG peer tutors back in the 1990s, and of her encouragement to me as a consultant and as a writing center researcher. The “Biff” Far Side cartoon is a staple of our writing consultant education course. “Oh what a difference a consultant makes!” is a wonderful mantra which I will now use as a tag line to the cartoon. Thank you, Laura!

  6. There’s a dog-and-pony show joke somewhere in response to your Cesar Milan connection, Kirsten! Thank you all for your comments. While sometimes our reach exceeds our grasp, we do seem to inspire one another to try new things. Our peer tutor newsletter (which is also connected to fundraising efforts), our dissertation writing groups, and our online tutoring were all inspired by ideas gleaned (stolen?) from others in the group. It’s always so fun to take a great idea and then make it work within the oddity of one’s own campus context.

  7. I have found so much value in collaborating with writing center folks from other institutions. Like Jules, I have benefited in numerous ways from the ideas and connections made at WCPM meetings, and I so enjoyed the experience of sitting down with Kirsten at the U of M while she explained how her center works to Brian Timmerman, Martha King, and me. I am so grateful to know there is such a supportive community in our field. I am also heartened by the fact that my staff and I are not the only ones with aspirations to write with the intention of publication but are often distracted when we dive into helping students. Thanks for a wonderful post, Laura!

  8. Thanks for your comment, Amy. It really is such a useful endeavor–and a relief!–to talk with people with very similar jobs on different campuses.

    The goal to publish something from our work together is always exciting but daunting (both stemming from the same cause): so many people willing to collaborate, so many projects on our home campuses that take precedent. I probably should have publicly promised something in the blog–it might have served as useful motivation . . .

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