The quest for making the fuzzy work of writing centres worthy of recognition

It took me a good few minutes to think of the title for this blog post. And I have been thinking about writing it for a while. It has been an incredibly busy semester for our small writing centre, and more than 900 students saw us either in person at the Centre or in workshops requested by their lecturers. And it is this number that got me thinking about writing this post. I have been thinking, for a while now, what is in a number? How can we justify the funding we receive and the number of peer tutors we employ and our continued existence in the university at a time when writing centres in other parts of the world, like the UK, are closing down and their roles being diluted, challenged and changed into other kinds of work, like staff development and learning and skills development for students?

This is, I think, a big and pressing question for writing centres, and perhaps even for academic writing development work more broadly. And I think it is hard to answer, because of the nature of the work we do. It is fuzzy, often, and it is hard to show, in pass rates, or throughput numbers, or even in student assignment scripts, exactly what role our intervention has played in students’ ability to succeed (or not). Our work is fuzzy at a time when higher education wants clarity. The managerial or business model that is so pervasive in higher education globally that drives us towards learning outcomes, and targets and a focus on universities as service providers and students as consumers does not leave much room for fuzziness, for not knowing, for exploration and for getting things wrong before we get them right. We are, as a sector, required to train students to work in the ‘knowledge economy’ and this has moved higher education further along the path of quality assurance, and quantification of impact and learning. Many universities globally have graduate attributes and academics have to benchmark their curricula against these to show how they are producing graduates with a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Being clear about what you are teaching students and for what purpose, and also being able to show students what they are intended to learn and how they will be assessed, and why, is good teaching practice. University education is often opaque and obscure to students, and even to a lot of academics. Any moves that make transparency and clarity a part of teaching practice are good ones, to my mind. I am not taking issues with outcomes-based education here, or even taking the managerial model for HE to task. What I am concerned about it what all these trends and requirements mean for the kind of work that writing centres and academic developers do, whether working with staff or students.

The concern comes back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: how do we (writing centres) show what impact we are having on student success when so much of what we do with students is ‘fuzzy’ and difficult to quantify in a pass mark or a certain kind of essay response? I am not yet sure. One response might be to make our work seem less fuzzy; to try and plan research projects that show that students are improving directly because they have come to the writing centre for help. But, as Archer (2010) points out, students do a lot of writing and reading and talking about writing in and outside of class and tutorials and the writing centre It is possible to show that students are improving in their written work, and make a correlation between that and visits to the writing centre, but we can only ever claim to be part of the improvement, rather than the cause of the whole improvement, so we cannot put a number on it, like 8% or something like that. Another response might be to try harder to get the work that we do out of the ‘margins’ and into the mainstream, but creating co-teaching partnerships with lecturers, or by inviting whole classes of students to come to the writing centre and have their attendance recorded, so that a correlation can be made between attendance and success. This is not a bad idea, and many writing centres have had success working in classrooms with lecturers and tutors. I do this, and I enjoy the variation it lends to the work I do, and the opportunities it gives me to be creative and to highlight the importance of thinking carefully about writing. But I am also persuaded by Terrance Riley’s argument that writing centres should avoid mainstreaming their work and their identity too much. In essence, he argues that writing centres, and this could extend to any work done from a space outside of what is considered mainstream, can speak with a different kind of authority, and with a different kind of voice, from the less mainstreamed space. By keeping ourselves and our work outside of the mainstream, we can carve out a different kind of space in which to work, and perhaps can better resist the pushes and pulls that I am sure some of us working in writing centres must feel to justify our work in ways that move us towards discourses of quality assurance and quantification of impact. Perhaps we can continue to make our work worthy of recognition, and the other good things, like funding and praise, if we continue to construct our identities as different from those of academic departments, for example. Not just because we are quite obviously not an academic department, but also because we have a very different and just as valuable role to play in creating access to higher education that will hopefully lead many students towards success as well.

I will close this brief musing with a return to my original prompt. How does a writing centre justify its need to work in fuzzy spaces in a time of increasing desire for clarity and definite-ness? I am disinclined to use the numbers of students we see as a source of evidence for the university’s continued investment in us. But having said this, I do it (as part of a bigger picture of evidence, like student and lecturer feedback and tutor development). Why? Because, I believe, like Shannon Carter, that sometimes it is profitable to speak in the languages that are understood and spoken by the people one is speaking to, rather than only in one’s own language. I do not, in my academic work, speak the language of numbers, and I don’t really think there are many writing centres that do. But universities do. So, when I am asked what we have done all year, and what my budget for the following year is, I am required to form a hybrid language to report in, where I speak a more qualitative language of worth as defined by what the peer tutors and students have gained from their many conversations and debates about writing, and by what my colleagues have gained from partnering with us to run writing workshops for their students. The other part of this hybrid language is numbers, and speaking of our continued value in terms of how many students we have worked with, and how many departments and lecturers have sought our help, and what percentage of students thought we were great as opposed to unhelpful. But I continue to wonder if there are different ways in which to talk about being ‘worthy’ that I have not yet thought of. Thus, the musing continues…

References
Archer, A. 2008. Investigating the effect of Writing Centre interventions on student writing. SAJHE 22(2): 248–264.
Riley, T. 1994. The unpromising future of writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 15(1): 20-34
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What a writing centre is and can be – some thoughts

At the beginning of this year, during our initial training, I posed this question to the team of tutors working in the Writing Centre: ‘what is a writing centre – specifically, OUR writing centre – all about?’ I thought I would share our collective answers, and then put the question out to readers of this blog.

The first thing we highlighted was ‘peer-ness’ and the way in which peer-to-peer relationships shape our work at the UWC Writing Centre (and many other centres we know of). In the first instance, the peer writing tutors are all postgraduate students, and are studying at the university, so they try to create learning spaces during writing tutorials in which they are peers to the undergraduate students they are working with. They work with students as ‘critical friends’, who are closer to them in terms of age and experience than many of their lecturers are. The notion of peer-ness also works to disrupt hierarchical relationships, where the writing tutor is cast as expert and the student as novice who needs to be taught. Rather, the way in which writing centres like the one we are creating prefer to work is in conversation with students, where the talk enables the students to work through their own ideas and thoughts and struggles out loud, with the support and guidance of an experienced and compassionate peer (see Archer 2010; Harris 1995; Nichols 2011). The student and tutor ideally participate equally in the conversation, and the student’s knowledge of their subject and their own writing is validated and encouraged, without the tutor assuming a position of dominance and therefore turning the conversation into a didactic teaching session.
In the second instance, the tutors in the team are all peers to one another and to the coordinator, and we work consistently to create a collegial environment that empowers and enables us to learn from one another, in conversation, and to challenge ourselves to grow and develop as academics and as tutors in a space that supports us in this process. We feel very strongly that this environment is far preferable to one in which tutors and coordinator are also set up in a hierarchical relationship when the group is dominated by the interests and plans of one person. As writing tutorials should be an exercise in mutual discussion and exploration of the topic or writing at hand, with the guidance and probing of the more experienced writer to keep things moving towards the goal of the students’ growth in skill and confidence, so should the training and support of writing tutors be, with the coordinator as guide and supporter, rather than manager.

The second thing we highlighted was the idea of growth and journeys of discovery, and how working in the writing centre lends itself to reflection on our growth as writers and educators. We talked mostly about ourselves here – our growth and development as educators, academics and writers – and the ways in which we can see or track the growth and the journey so far. One of the thoughts that came through was linked to the issue of identity – and the creation and disruption of identities we feel we have. Who are we as writers, and young academics, and tutors or teachers? How can we take what we have learned about ourselves so far as writers, for example, and use this to shape our tutor identity, and make ourselves more effective writing tutors, for example? If we work in the disciplines, and we all do in various capacities, how do our disciplinary academic identities shape us as writing tutors, and where are the challenges and disruptions? For example, a current tutor who is a scientist finds that working in the writing centre gives him space to explore some aspects of his academic identity that are often taken for granted, like his ‘voice’ and when and how he is allowed to use it in his writing. He can take his insights into discussions with colleagues and use their input to reflect on his experiences of learning and writing, and hopefully that process will move him forward in terms of his own self-awareness and also his practices as a writing tutor. Many of the tutors have commented over the last three years on how the process of helping students with their writing is making them more self-aware and active writers, and about how that process leads them to improve and to discover new aspects of their identity as academic writers.

Finally, we highlighted the collegial nature of our work. We put a human face and a human heart onto academia for the many students who come here and struggle to find elsewhere the level of care and personal attention that a writing centre can provide by virtue of the way it works – certainly we find this in our case based on student feedback. We work hard to create a space in the Writing Centre where we can share with one another as a team – our ideas, struggles, achievements, triumphs – and where students can share with us their struggles and successes with academic writing. This is a place for mutual learning; where mindsets and ideas can be shifted and changed without fear of judgement or criticism; where we support and guide one another as we support and guide students in their academic and personal journeys, because the two are never separate and discreet. We all find our particular writing centre to be a true ‘happy place’, where we have friends and colleagues we can laugh with and learn from, and where, every day, we get to make a difference, however small, in the lives of the students who choose to come to us for help. This really is rewarding and challenging work, with huge potential to transform those who do the work, and those who benefit from it, and also the wider institutions we are a part of (see Nichols 2011).

So, now I pose the question to our readers, and we would love to hear your thoughts: what is a writing centre in your contexts, and how do you work in ways that are similar or different?

References:

Archer, A. 2010. ‘Challenges and potentials for Writing Centres in South African tertiary institutions. SAJHE, 24(4): 495-510.
Harris, M. 1995. ‘Talking in the middle: Why writers need writing tutors’. College English, 57(1): 27-42.
Nichols, Pamela. 1998 [2011]. ‘A snowball in Africa with a chance of flourishing: Writing centres as shifters of power in a South African university. In Archer, A. and Richards, R. (Eds). Changing Spaces: Writing Centres and Access to Higher Education.Stellenbosch: SUNMedia Press.

Our first posting – is anyone out there?

Welcome to our new blog!!


This is the first of what will hopefully be many postings, and the start of a new online community interested in talking and thinking and writing about academic writing in higher education. There are so many angles from which teachers, tutors and academic literacy practitioners approach the teaching and support of academic writing – for their students and their peers. We at the UWC Writing Centre hope that those of you reading this blog who are interested and involved in working with student writers (or any writers, really) will find these posts helpful and thought-provoking, and we hope you will add to the conversation and help us create this online community. We hope this will be a very vibrant, challenging and also supportive space where we can all share our thoughts and ideas about writing.
 
If you would like to find out more about the UWC Writing Centre please visit our Facebook page (The UWC Writing Centre) or our website (http://www.uwc.ac.za/writingcentre).

Happy writing in the meantime – more news and scribblings soon!