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Keynote Address for the Middle Eastern & North African Writing Centers Alliance Conference

Sustaining Writing & Writing Centers

Adapting & Growing Under Challenging Conditions

November 7, 2014
Canadian University of Dubai

Thank you and good afternoon.

I've been told by very reliable sources (students) that funny cat videos get people’s attention and help you make new friends.  Since I want to do both, here goes nothing.

But if that didn’t get your attention, here’s another one.

Sorry for that.

But I did get your attention, right?  Getting the attention of people isn't always the easiest thing to do. I think we know that as teachers.

In the classroom, I find that starting with writing tends to get everyone’s attention, and gets them focussed on the subject matter  In the spirit of engaging you with my subject matter this afternoon, like the inveterate teacher of writing that I am, I’m going to have you do a bit of writing.  About a month or so ago, I was chatting online with my writing center colleague Dawn Fels, who you may remember served as the International Writing Centers Association Secretary in the 2000s when I was IWCA President.  At the time, Dawn was working on a paper about writing center professionals and their value to academic institutions.  Dawn wanted to find out how our writing center community defined both what a writing center professional was, and what, indeed a writing center is.  Using her questions, I put together an online survey for her that we distributed to the Writing Program Administrator, Secondary School Writing Center, and WCENTER listservs.

To get things started, I’d like you to fill in the blanks of the following two statements:

A real writing center is ______________________________.


A real writing center director is ________________________

Please write as much or as little as you like.  

Would anyone like to share what a real writing center is?   Just the first one.

And what do we have for “A real writing center director is...?"

Editor's note:  the audience engaged in a strong discussion of how writing centers and writing center directors are defined.  

I will note that there were a couple of respondents to the survey who eyed the adjective “real” in the open-ended sentences, and felt that it unnecessarily biased the outcome  Dawn, however, chose the word carefully, since she wanted respondents to differentiate between an ideal or idealized writing center or writing center director and writing centers or writing center directors who actually exist.  In examining the responses, however, it would seem that “real” was often swapped for “ideal” in the minds of the respondents, and perhaps it was for you too.  

Writing center definition word cloud.

The emphasis on writing and writers in the response seems self-evident for a writing center, but I do think that it is important that writers is on equal footing, keeping in the spirit that writing centers are not about the product, but about the producer of the product, the writer.  Stephen North’s axiom about writing centers helping writers develop, instead of just helping them  to produce better texts is definitely alive and well in how we define what we do.  You’ll note the important words there too “process,”  “better,”  “become,” and “improve” for example.

I think we can also note the importance of “place” in the word cloud.  “Space” is also there.   While it may seem evident that writing centers exist as spaces in various institutions, I feel compelled to note that it wasn’t that long ago that most institutions of higher education did not have dedicated spaces for what we do in writing centers on a daily basis.  Instead, writing generally took place alone with the writer sitting at a typewriter busily typing and retyping, and the only audience for the writing was the classroom instructor  

We've come a long way since those days, obviously, thanks to the early work of people like Kenneth Bruffee, among others.  That leads us to the prominence of words like “community” and “together” in the cloud.  Collaborative learning models advocated by Bruffee, Andrea Lundsford, John Trimbur, and many others are pretty evident here, and in most idea writing centers.

Tiffany Rousculp's Rhetoric of Respect.
Finally, one thing that stands out for me in this cloud, is the prominence of the word “student” in the cloud  Along with “academic,” it would seem that our field still identifies strongly with its academic setting, despite the recent development of community writing centers which are decidedly outside academic contexts and work with “real” writers working on “real” writing. 

If you are interested in learning more about community writing centers, I recommend reading my colleague Tiffany Rousculp’s excellent exploration of the development of the Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center,   

I put quotation marks around “real” in that sense, because it brings up the issue of what students are doing in school, and in writing centers.  Certainly the writing that students are doing is real enough to them, even if teachers of writing may not see it as such.  Writing centers, despite what the cloud says (go back to it), are often at the forefront of advocating naming writers as “writers” rather than as “students.”  As Neal Lerner and Paula Gillespie note in The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring in Writing, calling a student a writer, allows them the option of seeing themselves as a writer--as a person who makes decisions about her own writing--as a person who takes charge of it--as a person who takes ownership of the writing and the learning, as opposed to a student who is just learning the craft or pretending to be something she is not.

Now let’s look at how our community defines a writing center director.

Director definition word cloud.

“A real writing center director is……”

Aside from “Writing” and “Center” which feature prominently in this cloud, I think you will note that “someone” and “person” stand out.  While it is good that we see ourselves, and hopefully are seen by our instittuional colleagues as real, living persons and someones, I think it important to note that “faculty” doesn’t feature that prominently in the cloud.  In fact, only a few responses made special mention that a real writing center director is a faculty member at her specific institution  Most of the mentions of “faculty” in the responses were statements that writing center directors worked with faculty members, students (which shows up readilly here) and administrators.  “Professional” appeared in a few more responses, and did denote that, at least, a good share of us see ourselves as professionals in a field, rather than just amateurs winging it.  You’ll note that “manager” appears in the cloud too. 

Our management of the center mainly focuses on tutors, but students is right up there in number of mentions in the responses.

The respondents also see writing center directors as “advocates” and “mentors,” as well as people who serve, facilitate, coordinate, lead and help.  You will also note that we are a dedicated, adaptable,  respected, committed and even fierce group of people.   

One thing that is surprisingly missing from our self-definition cloud is anything to do with scholarship or research.   More on that later.

Now what does all this mean?

Granted this informal, unscientific poll must necessarily be taken with a grain of salt, but I think we can learn something from what we think of ourselves and how that relates to writing centers and their future.

While I was at the recent IWCA/NCPTW conference, I noted a snarky online comment that stated that a presentation shouldn’t include a story and personal experience, but please indulge me while I recount a bit of personal history, so that you can understand how I think I fit into the writing center community, and how I, personally, relate to writing center sustainability efforts.  

Analogy or reality?
My writing center narrative is set in the American West, but not the Old Wild West of the cowboys and Indians, of John Ford’s soaring Monument Valley vistas, of mountain men living a rugged, solitary existence, or of pioneers trying to scratch out a living in the high, mountain valley soil.  My tale takes place in the actual place of distance and expanse between cities and, more importantly for me, between writing center colleagues and researchers.  My tale also takes place in the virtual Wild West of the Internet that spans those vast distances in the click of a keystroke, and while it does have its wild outposts, allows us all to stay connected with like-minded colleagues around the world.

I first arrived at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) as a bright-eyed, wet behind the ears new teacher straight out of graduate school.

"The Writing Center is a place...."
Yes, I did start teaching when I was 12.  You can’t quite read the text on the monitor here, but it reads “The Writing Center is a place where students come to deal with the complex process of making writing.”  It was for a presentation I was giving to obtain more funding for the SLCC Student Writing Center.  Happily, I was successful in those efforts.

But I am jumping ahead of myself.  At that time in 1989, SLCC  had a so-called writing center that consisted of 25 computers, 2 lab aids, and a rather cantankerous lab coordinator who preferred not to talk or work with students, and created intricate and complicated systems in order to prevents students from ever talking to him.  This “writing center” was simply a hopped-up typing room, but instead of typewriters, we had the latest in computer technology, complete with Microsoft DOS 4.1, 2 megabyte (yes megabyte) hard drive, amber monitors, and dot-matrix printers.  WordPerfect was pretty much all that was on the computers.  The only help available from the students was from the two friendly and hard-working lab aids, who only helped with using the computers.

No writing tutoring, or writing advising, as we later called it was available.  The only feedback writers could ever receive was from their instructors, or, for those instructors who were advocating collaborative learning models, from their classmates.

This irked me a bit as a new teacher of writing who had come from a graduate school that had a thriving writing center, so I threw my all into creating a real writing center that offered feedback to writers, no matter what stage they were in their writing process, and no matter their competence as a writer.  I was working fully from the notion advocated by Muriel Harris that “all writers deserve readers.”

So I went to our writing program coordinator, and put the idea to him.  To my surprise, he had been wanting to restructure the computer lab that called itself a writing center for the two years that he had been there.  He had wanted to create a place that offered feedback to writers, instead of just a glorified typing room with a grumpy tech-guy leading it.  So there it was!  He put me fully in charge of the project

My problem?  Aside from working briefly in a writing center as a graduate student, I had absolutely no education or training on how to administer a writing center let alone found one.

But I was young, thank goodness, so I foolishly took it on, and dived right in.

This story may be all too familiar to some of you, who took on writing center work without much knowledge or scholarship in the field.  I can definitely identify with you.

Olson's Writing Centers:  Theory and Administration

The WPA, thankfully, had the foundational book about  writing center work at the time, Gary Olson’s Writing Center:  Theory and Administration from 1984.  (If you are interested in the book, it is available free for download from ERIC.)

I then set about putting together a rudimentary writing center where I and a colleague did all of the tutoring for SLCC’s then 10,0000 students.  (SLCC has since grown to over 32K students, and no, I don’t do all the tutoring.) I might note here, that I hadn’t quite had the gumption yet to implement a peer tutoring program, since I first, didn’t know how to go about it, and second didn’t know how to ask for money to fund it.

In these early days of the SLCC Student Writing Center, I only had Olson’s book, the University of Utah’s library (where I found both the Writing Center Journal and the Writing Lab Newsletter).  I had no one to talk to about what I was doing and no one to seek advice from.  Like most writing center professionals, we are the only ones at our institutions who do this kind of work.  My nearest writing center colleague was some 100 miles away, and I felt too embarrassed to call her up on a regular basis to figure out this whole writing center gig.  I might note, for reference, that at that time, there were only 3 writing centers in the entire state of Utah.  SLCC’s was the third.  Lucky for me, however, that colleague whom I infrequently consulted was true-blue writing scholar, and had written books and articles on the subject. 
The Writing Center Journal & Writing Lab Newsletter (WLN)

It was Joyce Kinkead who first let me know about how I could more easily connect with other writing center professionals around the world through the WCENTER listserv and the Internet. Through that list I found a body of scholars who were interested in the same type of work, and very willing to talk about our work openly and honestly.  I truly found my scholarly home.  It was a virtual home, but home nonetheless.  

So what does it all mean?

I guess the moral to my to my personal story is that, echoing Andrea Lunsford, we do our best work together.  That we need each other in order to sustain this field.

With that, I want to finally get to the heart of this keynote, and the heart of your conference:  sustaining writing and writing centers.  I have a few ideas on the subject, based upon my experience in the field and my study of our theory and practice over the years.

So, how do we sustain writing and writing centers, particularly in regions like MENAWCA?  Like the Rocky Mountain Writing Center Association where I call home?

MENAWCA newsletter.

First, and foremost, I believe we need to build our local communities.  In preparing for this conference, I was happy to find your MENAWCA newsletter on your web site, and to learn about the excellent work at your member institutions.  

Now, I realize, that like my old days back in the 90s, many of you are more isolated from one another, and may, in fact, be the only writing center in your entire country.  Luckily, these days, we have the Internet where we can connect with one another quite readily.  I still believe that there is great merit to actually, physically, getting together with one another from time to time to discuss our work, such as we are doing today.  But I would suggest that even meeting yearly such as at a conference, isn’t enough.   

If there are other writing centers nearby, I encourage you to form subregional organizations and maintain frequent contact with nearby writing center professionals.  In the Salt Lake Valley, that suddenly has 6 writing centers (including two community writing centers), we formed the Utah Community Literacy and Writing Consortiuum (UCLWC) 
Screenshot 2014-10-28 11.27.53.png
Mini-regional groups like UCLAWC help us stay connected.
that meets usually every few months with both peer tutor and WC professional meetings.  I’ve found it very useful to have the physical ear of my colleagues, and have been pleased with the impact on the work of SLCC peer writing tutors. 

I won’t go into it here, but others have noted the efficacy of “mini-regionals” and how better connected they feel to the field now.  New York City, for example, has a mini-regional, that lets writing center professionals and peer tutors get together on a regular basis via the subway.

The next area that I think will help sustain writing centers is a commitment to implement and grow a peer tutoring program.  I know that at some institutions or in some cultures, it may be difficult to create and sustain peer tutoring programs.  I don’t have an easy answer as to how to address cultural barriers to peer tutoring, however.  For that, however, I will happily talk and learn from you all who have addressed the issues.  Suffice it to say, for peer tutoring to work, we need people to come up with unique solutions for unique situations.
Screenshot 2014-10-28 11.31.07.png
The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.
My advocacy for peer tutoring goes back to Bruffee’s statement that writers and tutors create a “conversation of mankind” in their talk about writing.  While that sounds awfully high falootin, I do think evidence does bear out the benefits of collaborative learning both for the writer and for the tutor.

The benefits of peer tutoring on the tutor are often overlooked by outsiders to our field, and sometimes insiders.  The generous work of Brad Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail in the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, has shown the benefits of working in a writing center on the writing tutor.  In my own tracking of peer writing tutors at Salt Lake Community College, I found that peer tutors graduate at a significantly higher rate than their peers in Bachelor’s programs, and a majority go on to graduate school in a variety of fields.  I’ve found that overtime, many become leaders in the workplace, as well.  

Writing centers need to be adaptable to the needs of their writers.

SLCC Student Writing Center tutors adapting to a writer's needs.
Like writing tutoring itself, writing centers must be flexible to fit in their institutional contexts.  We cannot hide behind received approaches to writing center work.  For example, the non-directive approach was advocated for decades as a key to all writing centers.  What we find, of course, is that kind of lock-step approach to writing center theory and practice doesn’t work, and writers don’t necessarily gain from situations where they are being ask to do something that they have no idea how to do.  To be sustainable, writing centers must be flexible in their approach to learning  The one key principle, of course, is learning  If learning is being compromised, then an approach must, necessarily, be reconsidered.

With that, writing center work need to be more stringently based on evidence-based practice.  I know that this is a highly contentious stance within the writing center community, with advocates for the importance of writing center lore or other humanistic approaches to the work, rather than relying on a more scientific (and some may fear dehumanizing) approach.  

Just last week we saw evidence of the need when a person who wanted to form a writing center at her institution wrote to WCENTER asking for “hard data” to support a proposal to create a writing center.  While there is some research on this matter, the silence on WCENTER was a bit astounding.  But perhaps the lack of “hard data” and our field’s seeming resistance to empirical, data-driven methods is understandable given that writing centers as most institutions are either within the school of Humanities, or have directors who are usually English majors, with graduate degrees in the Humanities.
As a colleague of mine from Social Work who was kind enough to review this keynote said, “Does the WC belong to the humanities or to the social sciences?”   That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure that we, as a field, have a coherent answer.  For my purposes, I believe that we should not throw our humanities-based academic history out the window for the sake of replicable methods.   

 However, writing centers need to understand the importance of lore, and the role that lore plays in writing center work.

Hold on there, mister!
Now, of course, I’m trying to have it both ways here, but I think there is room in our writing center tent for both approaches.  I think both approaches need to find space to respect the work that can be generated from both.  

What both ways advocate, however, is research.  Research is vital to our field  Research is our field in many ways.  Writing centers started out as experimental places that questioned the classroom as the sole provider of learning.  Early writing center scholars questioned the dominance of the classroom and even the dominance of the instructor as the sole authority about writing and learning.  They introduced peer response both inside the classroom, and, most importantly for us, outside of typical classroom space in writing centers.  Writing centers are essentially places of experimentation, both in the work that writers are doing, and in the methods that writing tutors develop and apply.  Unquestioningly applying a methodology is counter to what writing centers stand for.

Reflective, flexible practice is what writing centers are all about, after all.  The approach one takes, using a RAD approach or using textual analysis can provide insight into our field and our work

This brings me back to the troubling point I saw in the cloud about what a real writing center director is.  Writing center professionals need to be researchers and need to be recognized by academic colleagues.  Writing center directors often bemoan the fact that they are not respected at their institutions as “real researchers” or “real colleagues” since writing center professionals aren’t always granted tenure based upon their writing center work--if they have a tenure track position--or they simply aren’t given tenure-track research-based positions.  I’m not sure that there is much we can do individually to change perceptions of our colleagues, rather than just continue our work, and continue to research, but as a field, I think that the International Writing Centers Association, can strive to endorse writing center research by continuing to develop policies that outline practice, and further professionalize the field.  Together, we can certainly carry some weight--at least more than the isolated writing center professional at an institution.

Screenshot 2014-10-28 11.44.54.png
We need to build alliances with allied fields.
One last way for the writing center field to sustain itself in the future, is to recognize the diversity in our field, and to encourage it.  We need to develop closer ties with our allied fields such as in TESOL.  I realize that this comes as nothing new to you here in MENAWCA, given that many of you, no doubt, think of your primary field as TESOL.  This is not the case, however, in the United States, where very few writing center directors have any TESOL experience whatsoever.  That is true in my case.  Like many of the other things that I had to quickly learn when I started this work 25 years ago now, is that I need knowledge of how to work with non-native speakers of English  given that over 60% of the appointments we conduct with writers in the SLCC Student Writing Center are with non-native speakers of English.  One of the peer writing tutors who worked in the Student Writing Center, in fact, went on to write his MA TESOL dissertation on developing online writing tutoring systems for NNS writers.  

Writing centers:  lonely places or lots of room?
With that, I would also advocate that writing centers seems to be almost exclusively and English language phenomenon.  I know there are notable exceptions, particularly in Germany, and perhaps even here in the MENAWCA region.  If writing centers work for English, I think they can easily work for other languages.

Having been in the writing center field for this long, I know that it can seem like an isolated and lonely place, if you are a writing center professional.  Back when I was originally thinking about coming to MENAWCA to talk to you all, I was thinking of using the rather elaborate conceit of the desert, since most of your region is desert, and most of my home region--and my home, in fact--is a desert.  

One of my favorite unsung and mostly unknown authors from the late 19th and early twentieth century is John C. Van Dyke.  In 1901 Van Dyke published a small book about the aesthetic qualities of the desert environment of the southwestern United States.   A rather appropriate passage talks about isolation and the seeming harsh conditions of the desert:
By "isolated" I mean that for some unknown reason there are tracts on the desert seemingly sacred to certain plants, some to cholla, some to yuccas, some to greese wood, some to sahuaros, some to sacaton grass.  It seems to be a desert oddity that the vegetation does not mix or mingle to any great extent.  There are seldom more than four of five kinds of growth to be found in one tract.  It is even noticeable in the lichens.....
Strange growths of a strange land!  Heat, drouth, and starvation gnawing at their vitals month in and month out; and yet how determined to live, how determined to fulfill their destiny!  They keep fighting off the elements, the animals, the birds.  Never by day or by night do they loose the armor or drop the spear point.  And yet with all the struggle they serenely blossom in season, perpetuate their kinds, and hand down the struggle to the newer generation with no jot of vigor abated, no tittle of hope dissipated.  Strange growths indeed!  And yet stirring, perhaps, only to us who have never known their untrumpeted history.  (Van Dyke, John C. The Desert.  Salt Lake City:  Peregrine Smith, 1987. 148-149)


Writing centers, like desert plants, can thrive and do well in what may be considered inhospitable climates.  Why?  Because the work we do is essential and important to the lives of the writers and the tutors we work with, like water suddenly bursting forth on the surface of a parched land.  

Thank you for allowing me to speak with you today.


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