Monday, April 09, 2018

Are Writing Centers Remedial?

I've never considered the Chronicle of Higher Education as a click-bait publication. Maybe I'm naive. I always thought of it as a reputable periodical serving faculty and administration of colleges and universities nationwide.

This February, I began to rethink its approach when it published an article "What's Wrong with the Writing Center?" basically an interview of Lori Salem about her research with the writing center at Temple University, asking the very interesting research questions, why students do and do not visit their writing center. The article's writer, Rose Jacobs, basically set out to suggest that Salem was an outsider in the the writing center subfield of rhetoric and composition, a voice in the wilderness decrying the orthodoxy of writing center tutoring--serving the privileged and ignoring or poorly serving the underprepared.

Salem, in an immediate letter to the editors, countered the tone and position espoused by Jacobs--that she was very much a colleague within the profession, and not at all alone in questioning what is working and what is not within writing centers across the nation. As she pointed out, "my colleagues have embraced my research--they gave me a reward for heaven's sake!" She ends her letter with the following: "To be clear, I don't believe that there is anything fundamentally 'wrong' with writing centers."

Even so, looking past Jacob's "mischaracterizations" of writing center professionals, the article did lead to some fruitful discussion on our campus.

This semester, I'm the interim faculty coordinator for the Lansing Community College Writing Center. So when I began to hear talk among colleagues about directive vs. non-directive tutoring, especially in conjunction with asynchronous online writing feedback some students were receiving from Brainfuse, and discussed it with the real writing center coordinator (who is on sabbatical), I decided to have the writing assistants working with me read and discuss during our staff meetings the interview, letter to the editor, and the original article Salem published in the Writing Center Journal, "Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?." The conversations centered around whether or not writing tutors should be directive in their work with student writers--asserting suggestions for writing improvement, more like a teacher might do, or non-directive--asking questions, leading students to discovery of improvements in their writing, more like a peer would do. Bell's research suggests that directive response should be part of the mix, especially with first-generation, ESOL, or developmental students who have less experience with writing than do students from families where the parents had gone to college.

The faculty working in the writing center were pleased to hear that they could put on their teacherly hats when they felt it best served students. The paraprofessional and student writing assistants already recognized the need to do so at times.

Which is fine with me.

However, I am concerned.

Not with the possibility of writing assistants asserting writerly advice at times. But at a shift, it seems, on the purpose of writing centers. Bell mentions in her research article that writing centers can espouse who they are and what they do, but they cannot necessarily control what writing centers mean to students.

One of the student writing assistants, when we were discussing why students seek out writing centers, and why they don't, shared her own experience, that when she was in a composition class while submitting her first paper, she was pretty convinced she would need to go to the Writing Center to get help. But when she got back her essay with a 3.5 grade, she realized she didn't need to.

Writing Centers were a place to get help when one's writing was deficient. And that seemed to be the overwhelming view among the staff, at least when discussing these articles.

But that's not at all what writing centers meant when we started one at LCC twenty years ago.

Now mind you, maybe I just misunderstood. I participated in the initial discussions about starting a writing center at LCC in the mid 90s; my oldest daughter and youngest son worked as peer writing assistants in the early 2000s, as did a number of my students; and I've encouraged many students to take advantage of the writing center through the years. But I'm in no wise an expert on writing center pedagogy. As most readers of this blog will attest, my focus has been more on online and virtual-world pedagogy, especially in the last ten years.

But from the beginning, the writing center was not a place to get help, but a place to get feedback. It wasn't just for those who had deficiencies in writing skill, but for writers. All writers.

One claim by Bell for why writing centers avoided calling themselves remedial was for the sake of status. If they were remedial in focus, working only with those who needed help, then they would be looked down upon at universities.

But that's not why the Writing Center at LCC avoided being called a place for remedial writers. It was because doing so was too narrow. The center was for all writers. And all writers--those who struggle, and those who excel--need feedback, a place where their ownership of writing is assumed, their ability to express something insightful is recognized, their intelligence and experience are celebrated. Not a place, as had been so in the past, to fix their writing, to be drilled with worksheets, to be remediated.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and her friends when attending LCC used the writing center all the time--and as I noted above, she eventually became a writing assistant. She and her friends were in honors composition courses--and they went to the center, again, multiple times, to get feedback even though they had been recognized as responsible students and skilled writers. When I've taught honors courses, again, I've encouraged students to work in the writing center at any stage of their writing.

It's a place for writers to engage, discuss, get feedback, try out ideas, style, expression. And yes, to improve, both one's writing and one's strategies as a writer.

Writers at all levels. Not simply those who need remediation.

I guess it's part of the whole mindset that has engulfed higher education in recent years, a totally utilitarian approach where education is only job training. Now of course higher education has always been a means to a career or profession. But its focus has been to include a liberal education, to learn broadly, to expand one's thinking and approach to life and society, to become a part of an educated citizenry, not just a worker.

The LCC Writing Center flyer imageI hope it's still worthwhile to resist, to approach our work with more of a sense of the whole student in mind. To realize that the ownership of writing, the celebration of insight, is a right and a gift that all students should be given--first generation, people of color, speakers of other languages included. They may not at first recognize their ownership of writing, their insight, their agency with their education (and newsflash--many second+ generation students don't as well).

But we should.

A Writing Center should be a place for writers--all writers.