By Margaret Mika and Daniel Harrigan
Margaret Mika has directed the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Writing Center since 1999 and currently serves as Wisconsin’s Writing Center Consortium Coordinator. She is amused and shocked to note that her Center tenure spans two centuries. Her professional interests never fail to include tutor hiring and training processes, and writing center directors’ overlapping roles as teachers, administrators and employers.
Dan Harrigan is the Assistant Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Writing Center. He was a UW-Madison Writing Fellow before graduating in May 2016 with double majors in English and Journalism.
The end of the semester—and graduation—is in sight, which means job hunting and job hiring may lie directly ahead. Some writing center directors may be re-filling an established professional assistant’s position or hiring a full-time assistant for the first time. Meanwhile, experienced tutors may be eyeing job ads for full-time professional center administrators.
From our very diverse perspectives—director and job applicant/new hire—we reflect on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Writing Center’s recent search for an Assistant Coordinator (AC) and his first months on the job. In offering a view into the other’s world, we hope to lure readers into commenting about our experience and their own.
First, a little context. Since 1999, UW-Milwaukee’s Center’s usage jumped from 300 > 7000 sessions per year. We added a satellite site and synchronous online tutoring (2008), expanded staff, hours and outreach, and moved to a larger, more visible and newly designed space (2010). These factors and more demanded the time and attention of more than one full-time administrator (i.e., me). Prior to 2012, graduate tutors had filled 25-50% (ideally 2-year) WC assistantships; however, they had demanding studies and varying interest in or aptitude for the work so often stayed for less than 2 years. This constant turnover in grad assistants made it extremely difficult to foster and sustain our center’s quality tutoring, stability and growth.
I desperately needed a full-time assistant coordinator to share the substantial workload (and the rewards!) of running a large writing center on a big campus, serving freshmen through faculty, open nearly year ’round. Another professional to assist with managing operations, mentoring and supervising staff, conducting outreach, and just maneuvering around the administrative icebergs always below a smoothly-running center’s surface.
A formal job search to hire a full-time AC, a non-teaching academic staff position with full benefits, was finally approved for our Center in 2011. Our first AC Joshua Worsham was hired in 2012 and left in 2015 to direct the Elgin (IL) Community College Tutoring Center. Our second AC Dan Harrigan came on board in August 2016.
Needless to say (but I will anyway), being a professional assistant is very different than being a tutor. Although strong tutoring skills are required, an administrator is not a tutor. Being a tutor—even an excellent one—does not qualify or prepare one for the other. Among other reasons, many of an assistant’s duties, in fact, are antithetical to tutoring practices which are founded on peer-ness and non-directive conversation; further, as managers and supervisors, assistants have a different, more complicated relationship with tutors and writers than tutors do.
So it follows: Hiring a professional writing center assistant is also very different than hiring a tutor.
Issues surrounding assistant positions in writing centers may still be under-examined, so noted by Fitzgerald (WCenter listserve June 4, 2004), and Dvorak and Rafoth (179); those relating to professional assistants—include hiring processes, I might add—may garner the least discussion.
Dvorak and Rafoth devote 5 pages to “Graduate Assistant Directors” and just 8 paragraphs to “Professional Assistant Directors.” Still, those 8 paragraphs are gems, beginning with what may seem glaringly obvious yet difficult to truly appreciate unless you’ve been there: “For writing centers with both a director and a professional assistant director, the dynamics can be considerably different from centers with only one director or a director and graduate assistant director (184).”
Dvorak and Rafoth hit another target in discussing how “external forces” may affect director < > professional AC relationships (185). Perhaps never is that more evident than during a formal job search at a very large state university like mine. To explicate that process, here’s a behind-the-scenes view from my desk.
The Job Search: Catch 22
Approximately 300…400? I’ve tallied how many talented undergrads, graduates and lecturers I’ve hired over time, all within a one-to-one, individualized and (yes) time-consuming process–which I control. When absolutely pressed, I’ve recruited, vetted, tested, interviewed and hired an excellent tutor in 24 hours. Applicants and I get to know each other and the job’s expectations pretty well. Formal university searches rob me of that control, prompting me to sometimes silently whine, “Can I please just do this myself?”
Here’s the devilish Catch-22: Chairing job searches demands a lot more time and creates a lot more work when you already have far less and more of both due to the extra workload created by the vacant position! Plus, searches are long term affairs. Each of the two searches for our center’s AC spanned two full semesters, longer than many faculty searches. The second search (i.e., Dan’s) lasted 8 months. On the bright side, since the first AC search took 9 months, I consider him as arriving prematurely.
I proffered multiple proposals over years before the first AC position was approved. Even after approval, terms were (re)negotiated, requiring further multi-level approvals. Each time I held my breath and crossed my fingers. In our especially difficult University of Wisconsin budgetary times, nothing is guaranteed. Having one approved AC position does not guarantee a subsequent one.
Got approval? Let’s hire! Not so fast. UW-Milwaukee is a big place within a bigger UW system with many new hires, so I get in line. Getting the VIP green light means further conversations and collaboration with deans, legal counsel and Human Relations (HR) personnel. It also means convening and coordinating a requisite search committee consisting of faculty and staff who, wrestling their own busy schedules, must find time to develop and agree upon interview procedures and questions.
I must continuously work with HR personnel at two levels—college and campus—although I may directly communicate only with those in my college. My stress level spiked when my ever-patient college HR rep took maternity leave (congrats!) just as my 2nd search reached its final stages, too (help!).
Campus-level HR staff are inaccessible to me at all times, prompting visions of wizards behind Oz-like curtains. Nevertheless, seen and unseen reps at both levels closely scrutinize all documents (e.g., the job description) or entirely dictate key components of the search (e.g., the official job title).
Case in point: HR decided during AC search #2 that the position’s ‘official’ job title from search #1 must change from Associate Advisor to Associate Developmental Skills Specialist even though the job description is unchanged and despite my ambivalence about both. On the other hand, Assistant Coordinator remained the HR-approved “working title.” (Yes!)
Meet the Applicants
Repeat HR’s mantra: All applicants must be treated exactly the same.
Applications start to arrive as do applicants’ questions and comments. For legal and ethical reasons, I cannot provide key information to one and not to all. I cannot accept or ask for additional materials, or, say, test one if not all. I also must take care when interacting with people who support applicants in some way so as to not advantage one applicant over another.
Given the HR-approved verbiage, I find myself communicating with potential or active applicants in ways that don’t feel entirely natural or courteous. I cannot consider any information other than what applicants submit themselves or which their (3) references provide when I make contact. This means, e.g., I must disregard a long-time colleague’s support of an applicant because my colleague is not listed as a reference; I must also disregard ‘informal’ faculty support for one applicant who happens to be another faculty’s partner. This may come as good or bad news, but HR discourages viewing applicants’ Facebook pages to avoid preconceptions or prejudice. (I wouldn’t have anyway, for the record.)
The search proceeds with stops and starts. Applications are exactingly reviewed and filtered based on each and every qualification listed in the job description. Take note, job applicants!
As much as I understand and respect these ethical and legal parameters, the process still often feels restrictive and sterile to me—especially incongruent with the pervasive humanity of writing center work. I often wonder how the process feels to the applicants who I know have sent their resumes and their hopes into the ether. What do they make of the long gaps in communication? I fantasize about writing to assure them there is a human being here after all.
The search committee narrows the field to a few. Phone and then in-person interviews are conducted, references are checked, an offer is made and accepted, and, finally, a contract is sent—very late on August 24th.
Dan’s first day of employment is August 25th.
Becoming the first non-UWM person to have an assistantship of any kind, Dan starts during my most hectic and stressful week of the year, jam-packed with meetings, orientations and tutor training. I fear—no, I know—I lack adequate time to welcome and orient this brave new pilgrim to our shores. Where and how will he and I begin?
Ask Before Acting
I don’t have the luxury of time. Tutor training starts in a few days, classes a few days after that. What does Dan need to learn RIGHT NOW (well, preferably last month) about this job in our Center on this campus?
Back to Dvorak and Rafoth who speak to 1) the dynamism of centers and 2) the importance of directors and assistants understanding each other’s communication styles (185). Both thoroughly underscore all that Dan and I tackle in his first few months on the job.
We talk daily, sometimes hourly, about a myriad of procedures and protocols. Still, one-of-a-kind, nuanced and fluid situations arise which can’t be solved by rote or formula. This is when Dan’s ‘newness’ and my ‘oldness’ experience must be bridged. I am grateful that Dan takes to heart a 2nd mantra: Just ask! It is much easier and far less time-consuming to avoid creating a problem than having to fix it later, e.g., scrambling to recover lost data or regaining a professor’s good will if promised something we cannot deliver. I explain issues to Dan as we go but cannot comprehensively cover all possible scenarios and the solutions which can only come with experience.
Dan already knows tutoring’s best practices, but he is now immersed in administration and operations. His initial task is to master our lifeline, the WCOnline scheduling, reporting and record keeping program, to create our fall schedule. More than a software learning curve, this project entails communicating with new and returning tutors—still just names on paper to him—and juggling their shift preferences and ever-changing schedules. He must further adhere to usage, staffing, and budget parameters in order to solve the Rubrik’s cube that is scheduling, and then post the entire puzzle online…soon. He’s on task, and we’re off!
Applicant > Assistant Coordinator’s View
What inspired me to apply for the Assistant Coordinator (AC) position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Writing Center? I credit my immersive experience in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows program.
I started tutoring in my senior year of high school because composition was one of my strengths, and I loved talking to others about their own writing. Following a session, it was fulfilling to see a huge smile or a relieved look on a fellow student’s face. The Writing Fellows program helped professionalize my passion, introducing me to tutoring issues (e.g. universal access, tutor-student dynamics) and best practices. In the Fellows class, we discussed tutoring scholarship, ways to improve writing center accessibility, and sought each other’s counsel on unique sessions.
We also developed personal writing center research–incredibly rewarding work. Last May, I presented my findings (on improving tutor communication over digital mediums) to over 20 writing center tutors. I felt like I finally was ‘giving back’ to the community that opened my eyes to tutoring’s impact. I was focused on doing more center work following graduation. When Brad Hughes, Director of the UW-Madison Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum program, emailed Fellows about a prospective job at UW-Milwaukee, I jumped at the opportunity.
I eagerly submitted my application, resume, and cover letter through a standard online system in early June. In the meantime, I tried to keep my tutoring practices sharp—I helped mentor Madison-area K-12 students at the non-profit Simpson Street Free Press, and I edited sports articles for the Wisconsin State Journal. While both jobs kept me busy, I was relegated to line-editing and stressful deadlines. I missed the Writing Fellows’ conversations more than ever.
A UW-Milwaukee search committee contacted me for a phone interview in late July, and I actually dressed up in a suit and organized prepared notes on my desk—this was the moment to prove myself, after all! I felt the pressure of being interviewed by multiple people, but after overcoming my initial nervousness, I confidently answered questions regarding my previous center experience and my understanding of the job description. I received an invitation for an in-person interview a few weeks later.
When I entered the UW-Milwaukee Writing Center for the first time, it already felt like home. The same search committee, headed by Margie, made me feel completely at ease, and I felt my pre-interview jitters melt away. I drew once more on my past experiences from Writing Fellows work, complimenting UWM’s Center’s accessibility, citing Kenneth Bruffee’s peer tutoring scholarship, and drawing upon my own research. When Margie presented me with a list of administrative duties for us to discuss, I felt that I could perform them all.
It was up to the committee to produce an offer. One week before the fall semester, I entered UW-Milwaukee’s Writing Center as an AC for the first time.
Record Keeping and Realizations
When I began my stint at UW-Milwaukee, it took some time for me to realize the full scope of my responsibilities. Through narrow lenses, I primarily saw myself directing the flow of Center traffic, managing the schedule, and assisting the Director. Although the first few days in the position went as expected with orientation activities, in hindsight, I was ill-prepared for any mistakes.
And then…I spilled the beans.
Let me clarify before continuing: I didn’t spill vegetables in the Center. ‘Beans’ in this context refers to ‘writing center data,’ the concept explored in Neal Lerner’s “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count.” While trying to create a new fall schedule, I accidentally deleted the Center’s summer records with one swift click. Immediately, the appointment logs for over 100 clients disappeared into the vastness of cyberspace. I was mortified—but I quickly rationalized my error. I only deleted 100 appointments—we see thousands of writers every year, I tried to reassure myself. Really, it shouldn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things.
As it turned out, those missing appointments mattered more than I thought. Although the deleted summer data had been saved to another file, I shudder to think of my own carelessness to this day. When I finally read Lerner’s article, I realized the following: Every ‘bean’ is vital to the Center’s success, and it was up to me to accurately count them all.
The Assistant Coordinator position isn’t about tutoring while sitting at a front desk—the AC must primarily pay careful attention to records, enforce firm policies, and above all, help the Director maintain the Center’s quality tutoring, tight budget, and respected place within the university.
Lerner states that “college administrators often want numbers, digits, results” (2). When I was introduced to WCOnline’s recordkeeping system, I realized that there were statistics for just about everything: writer feedback, client reports, and visitation logs. During my first few weeks of employment, I learned that Margie would ask for specific statistics because she was often in conversation with university administrators, responding to questions or making a case for the Center.
To maintain our best tutoring, I now see that this writing center thrives due to the power of careful record keeping. While I frequently tutor, I now pay extra attention to our beans.
I know I will be pressing the ‘delete’ button with great caution from now on.
Early on, I came to realize that clear and constant communication is important to master. Even the smallest update ensures that every moving piece in the Center (the director, tutors, the coordinator, and others) stays in lockstep with each other. I now see three important communication lines: communication between the Director and the Assistant Coordinator, the Assistant Coordinator and the tutors, and the tutors with each other.
With the director visiting classes, attending university meetings, or undertaking other tasks, I was the on-site ‘eyes and ears’ of the Center. As a brand-new administrator, I had to quickly grasp the magnitude of this responsibility. When dealing with a difficult tutee or a faculty member with a question, I sometimes forgot Margie’s mantra: Just ask. I was (and am) always thankful for our constant contact during those beginning months—even when the director was absent, I could always get her emailed advice regarding Center policies or any other special incidents.
Our communication was especially tested last fall when the Center lost more than 20 weekly tutoring hours due to staff illness. It was my task to cover many of those missing hours, rearranging tutor shifts while taking most uncovered shifts myself. The schedule underwent almost daily changes, but we successfully weathered the storm.
Tutors are obviously the lifeblood of any writing center, so clear communication with them is paramount. As a rookie administrator, it was a little difficult to interact with the staff at first—I was new on campus and new to the Center. With time, we all became more comfortable around each other—I now offer more feedback from the front desk, and I encourage conversation about any session. Plus (if I haven’t made this clear already), the tutors are all amazing people with numerous accomplishments outside the Center, and we enjoy talking together between appointments. Having a relaxed environment is so important for tutors to conduct successful sessions, and it makes it easier to provide advice and share opportunities for everyone’s growth.
The Journey Continues
Eight months ago, I arrived at UW-Milwaukee believing that I knew everything about my position from the formal job description that I saw in late June. As it turns out, the duties of a writing center administrator can’t be summed up with a rigid checklist—I have since undertaken responsibilities that require me to be flexible and willing to leap out of my comfort zone. The Center’s communication must be constant, and I must always have my eyes open for further advancements in the field.
I have grown to embrace my job’s emergent nature, and my understanding of the position is constantly evolving. Clearly, the transition from ‘tutor’ to ‘administrator’ has not been completely seamless—I still find some administrative tasks to be daunting, and I know that I still have much to learn—but I am glad to have a guiding figure in Margie to help me. I no longer see myself as the same person who filled out the application last June. I now know that I am a tutoring, record keeping, number-crunching, schedule-updating assistant administrator, helping to maintain our Writing Center as an invaluable resource for the university community.
Go Forth and Think like an Administrator!
I channel my best Yoda: Build experience, judgement, and confidence, you will.
Dare I repeat? Being a professional assistant administrator in a writing center is not the same as being a tutor. Despite studying an explicit HR-approved job description and surviving two interviews, Dan candidly admits that his first months on the job have provided ample proof of that. Along the way, I have realized that in discussing our Assistant Coordinator’s responsibilities, I often ‘speak in numbers.’ Numbers, as in time, as in usage, as in time sheets, as in budget, as in staff. Is that what I mean when I encourage him, “Think like an administrator”?
Yes, in some part, but we both recognize that so much more is required. An AC’s careful attention to record keeping and countless other ‘small’ discreet tasks combined with assisting the director in managing operations, supervising staff, conducting outreach—and tutoring when needed—are among the many other crucial pieces that complete the AC’s job puzzle.
Can the process of hiring–and being hired as–a professional writing center assistant coordinator be tedious, stressful and a bit mysterious? No doubt. But we hope that revealing a little about our search process and on-the-job expectations illuminates the road for others. The great news? Like all of us who happily work in writing centers, professional assistants who capably tackle all their tasks, and who commit to reaching higher and learning more in our field, meaningfully contribute and enjoy the benefits of our deeply rewarding work. Hour by hour, day by day—but who’s counting?
Dvorak, Kevin and Ben Raforth. “Examining Writing Center Director-Assistant Director
Relationships.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Edited by Christina
Murphy and Byron L. Stay, 2006, 179-186.
Fitzgerald, Lauren. WCenter, 4 Jun. 2004.
Lerner, Neal. “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 22, no. 1, Sep.
1997, pp. 1-4.
Featured image credit: Mike Rosebery