Writing Center Philosophy

When I wrote my first writing center philosophy over ten years ago, I theorized that writing centers should pursue inquiry-based approaches where consultants assumed nothing about the cultural, linguistic, and disciplinary values of the students that come to them and therefore should work together by asking questions and exploring various possibilities though extended conversation. While I still believe this is largely true, my experience directing a large university writing center has allowed me to see the limits of this philosophy over the course of six years. Put a little differently, while the work of students and consultants are at the core of writing center activity, the complexity of the work and its location provide writing centers with the potential to be something much more valuable than a one-to-one consulting service, but a center of writing pedagogy for faculty across the curriculum, instructors of all levels, administrative and support staff, as well as community members. In short, it should mean something to all writers. At the same time, this philosophy, especially under the realities of the managed university, is one of risk and reward.

When I started directing the Syracuse University Writing Center in 2005, my job was challenging but seemed relatively straightforward: in addition to teaching and consulting in The Writing Program (the Center’s sponsoring unit), I scheduled and trained staff, designed professional development seminars, and promoted the Center across campus through email correspondence and orientation talks. Upon seeing a panel on writing center branding at CCCC in 2006, however, I began to have a different inkling about what writing centers could be and what directors might have to do to make them more relevant. In other words, I began to see an our Writing Center as more than the introvert I inherited — waiting for students to come through our doors — and sought ways that would contribute to the wider culture of writing and teaching happening across campus.

Carrying out this vision required several tactics. First, I had to work with our professional consultants — many of whom had been working in the Center as adjuncts long before I was hired — to envision how we might expand our presence using what little resources we had. Together, we had to imagine and provide programs and services outside of the borders of our Center, and thus outside of our disciplinary and institutional comfort zones. Geography and time, for example, often prevented some students from coming to our physical location, so we needed to implement more flexible scheduling software, develop online services, and offer workshops to meet students half way. We also had to deploy a consistent message about these services so that deans, chairs, faculty, and staff knew all writers benefited from talking with other writers — not just those who were marked as struggling; yet, as long as our work stayed inside the lines, we were complicit in the assumption that writing centers were places to “send students.” Part of gaining support for these changes meant being recognized by our sponsoring Department, The Writing Program. Hence, I helped tenured and tenure-track faculty understand how this vision might contribute to the Writing Program’s growing presence outside of first-year writing; this meant asking them to consider creating a writing center committee alongside the lower-division, upper-division, and our other standing committees at the time. Such a committee would provide the governance and resources necessary to make the Writing Center an important voice when it came to cross-campus writing initiatives — a gesture that would also be duly noted by our professional consultants.

The committee was eventually approved and for four years I worked closely with faculty, staff, consultants, and students to change the Center. In our time, we produced a three-year strategic plan, rebranded the Center’s image, created two online services, developed several writing-across-the-curriculum models, and implemented workshops on a host of topics. We also began to build better communication structures between the staff and our consultants, embed a consultant within a community outreach program, and initiate long-term partnerships with other offices on campus, including our Office of Faculty Affairs, who would help us reach new and junior faculty, and our Museum Studies Program, who would help us curate rotating student artwork in the Center. Most importantly, I worked closely with SU’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment to evaluate the short- and long-time effectiveness of our consultants with students, which they found to be overwhelmingly positive.

Although this approach was informed by landmark books and essays in writing center history, theory, and practice — perspectives I had traced in the doctoral classes I took while directing the Center I eventually began to see its limits. I was a staff member, after all, managing contingent faculty at a major research university. Based in part on the changes we had made, the Writing Center was more than popular; it was working beyond its capacity. We had data from our institution to prove that it was one of the most effective support units on campus; nevertheless, the Program’s chair could not convince the administration to provide the stable resources necessary to build upon our successes. After being accepted into our PhD program as a full-time student, I resigned in the summer of 2011.

Partly inspired by my experiences as a writing center director, my doctoral research continues to examine extracurricular writing pedagogies, especially as they relate to the ways we imagine rhetorical agency. Among other questions, this line of inquiry often asks: how do we discuss and measure change in learning spaces outside of the classroom?  In my recent scholarship, I have found it necessary to reassess the field’s understanding of “self-sponsored” writers since many complex forces — technological, economical, affective — always already influence our motivations for authorship, whether we are producing texts inside the classroom or out. Writing centers are similarly affected by these forces, which determine so much of its position in the institution. Yet, even though the desires of writers and writing centers are produced in part by these systemic machinations, they still possess a capacity to create moments and opportunities for real learning. Directors, then, must commit to working with their staff, consultants, and students to build those capacities, drawing from the institutional resources, as well as the energy and expressed needs of the wider community, including its faculty, staff, and students.