Writing Center Outreach and Leading from the Middle

By Angela J. Zito

Angela is a PhD Candidate in English and currently serves as the Writing Center Outreach Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Last week, the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network held its annual conference in Montreal, Quebec, where the keynote speaker Randy Bass called upon all of us in attendance (and the programs and institutions we represented) to help steer higher education in the direction of increasingly inclusive and integrated learning by “leading from the middle.”

the author, Angela

It (leading from the middle) is a different kind of narrative for how the academic community can effectively re-situate students and their education at the center of a university’s mission—a narrative that doesn’t rely solely on classroom-level innovation (which is limited in scope and access) nor on institution-wide structural change (which is slow-moving), but rather pulls these forces together in collaborative action through the scholarship of teaching and learning and the experimental redesign of program-level instruction and assessment.

I am not a faculty developer or instructional designer, like most of the folks attending the POD Conference—I’m the current graduate Outreach Coordinator at the UW-Madison Writing Center. But leading from the middle, I realized as I listened to Bass’s address, is precisely what our Outreach and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs strive to do—and to do better—every semester at our university.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the POD Network is a professional organization for educational and faculty developers—that is, folks working in Centers for Teaching & Learning who conduct research and/or provide consultations on best practices in instruction, assessment, and student learning. As a doctoral student in literary studies writing a dissertation on student learning outcomes assessment in introductory literature courses (like Michael LeMahieu, I blame the Writing Center for this wonderful, “wrong” decision), I’ve been exploring career pathways that might allow me to continue my own scholarship of teaching and learning both outside and along the lines of traditional faculty positions. Faculty development, among other kinds of positions represented at POD, presents an appealing option.

And it’s a surprisingly familiar option. In her post last spring, Stephanie White reflects on the great extent to which her experiences consulting with faculty through WAC prepared her for the work she does now as an Instructional Developer at the University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence. In this position, Stephanie consults with individual faculty and leads workshops about incorporating communications instruction in course curricula in order to meet new institution-wide communications requirements. She works somewhere between the individual course and overarching institutional structures, effecting change in both through the Centre’s collaborative effort to weave a common element of student learning—communication—through new and existing course structures.

Leading from the Middle - What's the narrative?

Randy Bass helps attendees at the 2017 POD Conference visualize a narrative for “leading from the middle.” Presentation slide image made available to the public by Randall Bass on LinkedIn SlideShare

This is one version of “leading from the middle” through a WAC/faculty development initiative. As Bass articulated it in his keynote address, this narrative of leading from the middle strikes a balance between “mission efficiency” (where the motivating force is self-interest) and “positive purpose” (where the motivating force is impact on student learning). In other words, change is effected by appealing to what faculty already do or want to accomplish in their courses and evidence-based pedagogies (like writing instruction) that are known to positively impact student learning.

Outreach instruction, I think, offers another version of “leading from the middle,” one that more explicitly navigates the affective as well as instructional motivating forces that contribute to institutional change. In Bass’s theorization, effectively leading from the middle also requires shining a light on the “moral urgency” (felt through integrity) to build more inclusive and integrative institutions of higher education and the “educational malpractice” (felt through shame) that prevents us from doing so.

Presentation slide image made available to the public by Randall Bass on LinkedIn SlideShare

As the Outreach Coordinator, I field requests from faculty, academic program coordinators, and student organization leaders from all over campus asking for Writing Center tutors to visit their classes and introduce our many services or co-lead a lesson on writing in a particular genre or for a particular assignment. This semester, the eight experienced tutors comprising our Outreach team have already engaged over 1,200 undergraduate and 500 graduate student writers in interactive workshops, informational sessions, and program orientations; and have collaborated with faculty in kinesiology, occupational therapy, curriculum & instruction, gender & women’s studies, human development & family services, agronomy, Asian languages and cultures, biotechnology, and social work in planning and leading instruction in different kinds of writing.

Though there are many faculty, programs, and organizations who ask Writing Center Outreach to revisit their students every year, Outreach instruction typically involves less sustained collaboration than do WAC initiatives (like recurring courses on writing instruction for faculty and future faculty in STEM). Because the Outreach team’s instructional obligations reset every semester, we’re able to meet a wider variety of students, faculty, and their writing instruction needs—albeit in relatively short bursts of engagement. This also means, though, that every semester there are classes, organizations, and programs that we do not or cannot collaborate with—our resources are limited, and tend to be used on a first-come first-served basis.

Importantly, responding to a new set of requests every semester opens the Outreach team’s availability to co-curricular and extra-curricular initiatives alongside traditionally curricular ones. That is, by partnering with student organizations and visiting evening meetings to co-lead workshops on writing effective application essays or resumes, Writing Center Outreach introduces and reinforces a culture of writing outside traditional course structures that integrates student learning in and beyond them. By partnering with diversity initiatives like the Multicultural Student Center and the LGBT Campus Center, too, Outreach instruction can reaffirm the Writing Center’s commitment to inclusion and diversity. In these respects, Writing Center Outreach “leads from the middle” by acting on the “moral urgency” to bring our best practices into these extra-curricular spaces and directly to underrepresented student populations.

But we can and must do more. The model of outreach instruction I’ve described is necessarily exclusionary—we only have so many staff hours to spread across all the incoming requests, so occasionally, as coordinator, I must make some tough decisions with the Center Director about who we can and cannot partner with. But the model is unhelpfully reactionary as well—a problem that I and past coordinators have struggled to address with our (again, necessarily) limited compensated hours. This sense of “educational malpractice”—knowing that there are means of being more proactive rather than reactive but failing to make the necessary changes—has motivated me and many of my colleagues to think together and to think structurally about how not just the Outreach team but how the Writing Center can grow and adapt in ways that reach out, across, and through underrepresented student populations as well as core curriculum.

This framework for thinking about the work of the Writing Center, and of Writing Center Outreach specifically, has jump-started my flagging mid-semester engines. I hope it does yours, as well.

In the comments section below, please share what directions “leading from the middle” might lead your work as a writing center tutor, administrator, faculty developer, or faculty member—we can build and maintain momentum better together!

4 thoughts on “Writing Center Outreach and Leading from the Middle

  1. Angela,

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I have less to say about my own WAC teaching so far, and more to say about my experiences with doing outreach this past summer. I like the idea of “leading from the middle,” and one passage from your post really got me thinking about my outreach teaching over the summer. You write: “The model of outreach instruction I’ve described is necessarily exclusionary… as coordinator, I must make some tough decisions with the Center Director about who we can and cannot partner with. But the model is unhelpfully reactionary as well—a problem that I and past coordinators have struggled to address with our (again, necessarily) limited compensated hours.”

    This passage made me think about how outreach instruction (thinking back to my experience last summer) faces the problem of inconsistency/turnover within partnering organizations themselves. What I mean by this is that some organizations, which the center might partner with, have high turnover when it comes to whoever is charged with developing or coordinating the organization’s programing (e.g. a grad student who working as a program coordinator for an emerging scholars/undergraduate research program…this is just a hypothetical to illustrate).

    I suppose this leads me to wonder: How does the writing center “lead from the middle” and negotiate the shifting self-interests of organizations, but also the individuals themselves who are leading those organizations and are sometimes moving on quickly to another career? If something the writing center has done in the past with a different coordinator of program/organization, and that thing is not seen the same way by a new coordinator, how do we negotiate that? Have you had any experiences where “leading from the middle” was made challenging by a recent change in leadership in the particular organization you’re partnering with?

    P.S. don’t feel obligated to answer all these questions! And thanks again for this post.

  2. Thanks for writing this post, Angela. Leading from the middle reminds of third spaces from literacy studies; third spaces sit between institutional literacy education (schools, universities) and community/home literacy. The literacy practices of the students from home are welcome in this third space, but they art also used to swing the student into academic discourse. I think here ideas matter more than the actual words used. I wonder what happens when third space theory joins outreach initiatives, if slightly adjusted. It addresses the call to morality while also working with the emotions students have about writing.

  3. Angela, thank you for this insightful and empowering post. I am curious to know how one measures success/progress when leading from the middle? In many other modes of outreach or activism, success is signaled through some sort of change at the institutional level. For example, the success of civil rights activism has historically been measured by institutional changes in legislation. However, measuring progress at the institutional level seems antithetical to the very idea of leading from the middle. How can those leading from the middle best gauge their progress?

  4. Thanks, Angela, for this really illuminating essay and for introducing me to this great concept. “Teaching from the middle” is a super useful framework to think about how we can influence teaching practices and learning outcomes. You got me thinking about different ways we teach from the middle. In addition to outreach and WAC, I was thinking that the WC’s Ongoing Education seminars, workshops, staff meetings, and the proseminar for new instructors—as well as the proseminars for English 100 and Introduction to literature—might be other places we can think about instruction and assessment as teaching from the middle. When you consider all of the WC training and the Composition and Lit proseminars, graduate TAs who receive this training collectively teach hundreds of students across campus in any given year. Given the potential impact English dept. graduate TAs have on the student body, I think there is a lot of room to integrate this pedagogical framework more into all of the TA training programs. One thing we’re doing right now at the WC is doing a focus group with our undergrad receptionists to help us assess how well we are meeting the needs of the undergrad population through our academic writing workshops. We’ve also been reviewing past workshop evaluations to improve other workshops. As Mia said, it’s really hard to measure outcomes, and outcomes at the institutional level are typically quantitative. So it will be helpful for me to think about these middle spaces as opportunities to assess concrete evidence of learning that isn’t necessarily reducible to numbers.

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