Winter 2012     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 16, Issue 4

Editorial: Issues and Trends in 21st Century Writing Centers

It has long been acknowledged that writing is a social act. Yet where, and more importantly how, centers for writing should – and do – exist remain uncertain, and in some instances, controversial. In his seminal essay “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Stephen North charges that writing center professionals do not exist to “serve, supplement, back up, complement, reinforce, or otherwise be defined by [external factors]. We are here to talk to writers.” How we as writing center professionals continue to manage the inherent complexity of North’s charge – and to do so innovatively and maybe even unconventionally – is as telling, and timely, as it was in 1984. The contributors to this issue of Academic Exchange Quarterly work to delve into this matter with creative sapience.

Collaborative learning, especially the kind that takes place within the writing center, is a powerful pedagogical tool; Muriel Harris contends that peer tutors in particular are able to introduce students to the “language and conventions of the academic discourse community for which they are writing,” and, furthermore, that tutorial conversations are beneficial in “providing opportunities to try out and learn how to use the language appropriate for that community” (2000). As those with a “foot in each camp” (Harris), Kevin Dvorak, Shanti Bruce, and Claire Lutkewitte depict the work of their university’s writing center in assigning such tutors to students in specific first-year composition courses, both in and out of the classroom. In their review, the authors describe how these first-year students were able to articulate their achievement of learning outcomes.

Going a step further, it can be argued that peer tutors are, at their finest, cross-disciplinary. Erin Jensen details her university’s writing center and their struggle with increased student demand on a diminished budget; in light of these concerns, a program using pre-service English students as volunteer tutors was developed, and offers other institutions a model for providing “high quality” tutoring at a time of limited funds. In pondering the strategies such tutors could proffer, we could look to Michael Pemberton’s position regarding academic breadth in “Rethinking the WAC/writing center connection:” that tutors can help students in disciplines unfamiliar to them by “encouraging [these students] to confront issues of disciplinarity through pointed questions about style, tone, and format” (1995).

Albert DeCiccio describes tutoring as operating on the principle of “shared authority,” “empowering writers and tutors alike to [make] use of the process of negotiation and compromise to reach insight and to achieve identification” (McLeod and Soven). Youn-Kyung Kim addresses this principle in her examination of the ways in which writing center tutors utilize non-directive questioning in their sessions. More specifically, Kim investigates how the negotiation of meaning between tutor and student is intrinsic to non-directive, collaborative strategies and to students’ formulation of revision plans. Upon conducting interviews with writing tutors and subsequently examining the transcripts from those interviews, Daniel Lawson discovered contradictions between knowledge and practice, most particularly concerning the roles of correction and peer review in the tutoring session. Adopting a neo-Lacanian lens, Lawson surmises that these contradictions stem from symptomatic beliefs on the part of the tutors.

In “Training Manuals and Reflective Practice,” Kate Pantelides, Laura A. Ewing, and Karen Langbehn consider what collective strategies entail through the lens of authorship. In the face of significant change, Pantelides, Ewing, and Langbehn illustrate that the collaborative process of authoring their writing center’s new consultant training manual was a reflective one, intended to enhance their center’s positive culture. They advocate the practice (or “shared authority,” as DeCiccio might venture) of self-authoring as a generative exercise for all professionals in the field. A long term director who has organized weekly training sessions, Bonnie Devet deliberates on past and present sessions in her article, and seeks to progress the direction of future ones as necessarily inclusive of theoretical perspectives on centers and broader definitions of “expert tutors.”

Paula Gillespie posits that the complexity of tutorials prohibits defining them in a rhetorical binary of either working with or for the student. It is imperative that, as Devet writes, we seek to be comprehensive in our endeavors. Rula L. Diab extends this conversation through her administration of a faculty survey, the results of which were mixed. Despite an overwhelmingly optimistic attitude towards a newly established writing center, her findings also revealed critical misconceptions regarding the role of the center on campus.

Finally, Michelle Miley brings the conversation into the virtual realm with “The Mediating Lens of the Online Writing Studio.” Here, she discusses an online adaptation of Grego and Thomson’s writing studio: facilitated writing groups that meet regularly in a supportive “space” intentionally separate from the classroom. Such “studios,” Miley asserts, cultivate necessary spaces of mediation for the teaching of writing.

In building on the above queries of where the writing center “fits” and what trials it faces, I am pleased to announce that Academic Exchange Quarterly will again feature the topic titled Writing Center Theory and Practice in its Winter 2013 Issue. In addition to articles exploring theory, practice, and experience, submissions may also consider how writing center professionals cope with the eventuality of needing to expand their efforts in response to new economic, technological, and demographic challenges. I encourage you to submit a piece, and to share this call with colleagues. Please identify your submission with the keyword CENTER-2. Writing center directors and other administrators, professional staff, faculty tutors, and graduate students are welcome to submit. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.

McLeod, Susan H., and Margot Soven. Writing Across the Curriculum: A Guide to Developing Programs.
             Colorado: WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies, 2000. Web.
Pemberton, Michael. "Rethinking the WAC/writing center connection." Writing Center Journal. (1995): 15. Print.

Kellie A. Charron, M.A., Feature Editor
Instructor of Academic Coaching, Study Skills, and Executive Functioning
Stern Center for Language and Learning, Williston, VT
Editor of upcoming book: Sound Instruction Volume III