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).
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.
In 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.”
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.
In 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.
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?
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