Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4

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Writing Center Sustainability Through Research

Bryna Siegel Finer: Southern Vermont College

Jamie White-Farnham: University of Wisconsin-Superior

Jeremiah Dyehouse: University of Rhode Island

with the URI Writing Center Research Group[1]


Siegel Finer, PhD is Assistant Professor and Composition Coordinator at Southern Vermont College. White-Farnham, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Dyehouse, PhD is Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Center at the University of Rhode Island.



The article describes ways in which a multi-year collaborative research project has encouraged sustainability of the University’s Writing Center and empowered the Center’s value as an important site for research and learning in the University, particularly through staff development, shifts in hierarchy among tutors and administrators, and considerations of research ethics. The authors show how a research project extending over several years might encounter challenges such as institutional constraints, and also provide opportunities for sustaining the center as a site not just for tutoring but also for research.


Writing center research promises a rich and expanding set of understandings for scholars in higher education: understandings about writing pedagogy, about educational interactions, and about writing and rhetoric as activities, to take the most obvious examples. In 2000, Kincaid and Harris described a future in which “writing centers will assume a more prominent role in researching [and will] increasingly be viewed and valued as sites for research” (p. 24). Since then, writing center researchers such as Gogan, Belanger, Patriarca, and O’Neill, (2010), Rose and Groban (2010), and Henson and Stephenson (2009) have demonstrated the truth in Kincaid and Harris’ projection. Rose and Grobman describe writing center research as a “complex form of inquiry,” one that “validat[es] the intellectual work of tutoring” (p. 12). Noting that “writing centers […] have a long history in the discipline as sites for research,” Gogan et al establish research as a way that writing centers might sustain themselves in institutional cultures that often value publishable research over pedagogy (p. 338-9), and Barnett (2007) suggests that centers can make themselves sustainable by performing scientific research (viii). Our own research project, “Mapping Tutorial Interactions” (MTI, 2007-2011), has provided an occasion to consider the roles research plays in sustaining the development of a writing center.


Here we describe research under way at the University of Rhode Island Writing Center. Using terms and distinctions drawn from canonical writing center scholarship (e.g., Blau, Hall, & Strauss, 1998; North, 1984), our MTI project seeks to describe how sessions develop in time and across differing material situations for tutoring. When it is complete (Summer 2011), we hope that our research will suggest patterns in the temporal development of writing center sessions—from predominantly "directive" to "facilitative" kinds of interactions, for instance, or toward "writer-centered" from "writing-centered" exchanges.


Here, instead of reporting the results of the study, we describe how research complications have played an important part in the continual development of our center. Meriting their own discussion, these complications, rather than hinder our progress, extend opportunities and challenges that we describe as “promises and perils.” By sharing them, we encourage others to consider how the process of research, not just the product(s), can aid sustainability in a site of higher education such as a writing center.


MTI: A Brief Description of the Project

MTI investigates several linked questions: (1) When do tutors employ "directive" and "facilitative" tutoring techniques in their sessions? (2) Can we characterize the tutoring interactions resulting from these techniques as more "writer-centered" (that is, focused on educating) or more "writing-centered" (that is, focused on improving a writer's specific text)? Finally, (3) to the degree that we can characterize different kinds of tutorial interactions, how do they fit together, temporally, in particular tutoring sessions? In the short term, we seek to understand how tutoring sessions characteristically proceed, both in our center and more generally. In the longer term, we hope to use our developing understanding of the "shape" of writing center sessions to study how differing material situations for tutoring can affect tutoring and learning dynamics.


To begin to answer the questions, we have developed techniques for observing writing center sessions and for interpreting our observational data. The procedures are as follows: randomly selected writers' sessions are audio taped. Later, a center administrator uses a session transcript to determine the temporal boundaries of particular interactions.  These interactions are plotted on a standard grid: facilitative or directive on one axis and writer- or writing-centered on the other. When the points are connected, the resulting curve summarizes the session's development with time. This "map," represents the unique shape of a particular session, its tutor's techniques, and the qualities of its interactions. In an interpretive comparison of several such maps, we hope to identify repeating shapes (or pieces of shapes), which might suggest generalizations about how different kinds of sessions characteristically proceed.


The main goals of our project are to strengthen tutoring, create new knowledge to share with the larger writing center community, and to extend our research methodology beyond practice as inquiry, as Boquet and Lerner (2008) challenge writing center researchers to do (p. 184). However, we also see our project as an opportunity to reflect on the research process itself.


Particularly in its attempt to involve our center’s whole staff in inquiry, our project has so far resulted in a unique set of implications for our work as researchers. While the object of study in the research project is the nature of tutoring interactions, by maintaining as a key value and practicing reflection in both our writing center pedagogy and research, we have also been studying our research paradigm, processes, and technologies. As such, we explain some unexpected impasses imposed by the research technologies whose use is mandated by the University and their effects on a collaborative research paradigm such as ours.


Promises: Collaborative Research as Staff Development

Our center has a tradition of shared research projects and collaboration, as evidenced by the collaborative publications between various directors and tutors in our center (e.g., Ortoleva & Dyehouse, 2009; Miles, Gormley, Fox Volpe, Roche, Hayes, & Amidon; Shamoon and Burns, 1995). This continuing commitment to collaboration motivated one of our original research goals: to carry out the research with as many members of the staff on board as possible. It seemed natural to include the whole staff as a good opportunity to encourage all to contribute and participate more fully in the sustainability of our center as a community[2]. 


In this section, we describe the three main benefits that the early phases of our study afforded for staff development: 1) the staff has shown an increase in pedagogical knowledge and has engaged in new professional development opportunities, 2) the hierarchy of power has been productively challenged, and 3) we have operationalized the study’s key terms, enhancing our study’s validity and our group identity.


Pedagogical Knowledge    

The MTI project has provided several opportunities to expand our staff’s pedagogical knowledge-base. For one, it has allowed us an opportunity to implement a more formalized staff development program, making use of our staff meetings to present and discuss readings in rhetoric and composition and writing center scholarship. In fact, our research agenda stems from the staff’s discussions of what we call “facilitative” versus “directive” tutoring (Brooks, 1991; Shamoon & Burns, 1995; Blau, Hall, & Strauss, 1998 ). These terms serve as a frame for discussions and problem-solving in nearly all our staff meetings. One practical benefit of this new knowledge from shared readings has been the implementation of several workshops on making tutoring sessions more dynamic and interactive, which have provided tutors with a figurative toolbox of accumulated practices with which to work when a session calls for facilitative tutoring. 


Staff knowledge has also been increased through exposure to the larger writing center community. Members of our staff have presented parts of this research at NEWCA, allowing opportunities for feedback and enabling tutors to participate in disciplinary professionalization. Other professional opportunities have included collaboration on this article (which has been peer-reviewed by the entire staff), as well as work on a second article to report the findings of the MTI research project.


Tipping the Hierarchy  

This project’s second benefit concerns how our Center’s institutional hierarchy has, several times, been tipped on its head. Since we encourage all tutors with interest in the project to come aboard, regardless of experience or department status, the roles of “principal investigator” or “student investigator” have been significantly challenged. We think this tipping means we’ve established productive relationships, a comfortable working environment, and a mission mutually worth working toward. So, although our Director and Assistant Director first developed the project and drafted the Institutional Review Board proposal, an undergraduate designed the pilot study and managed it. Eventually Matt and Jamie, two graduate tutors, took an interest as well and led segments of the Research Group's second conference panel on the project. More generally, each staff member contributed to the project as it has developed; our center has often been abuzz with collaborative mapping and transcribing activities happening at different tables.     

While exciting, this tipping of our hierarchy comes with particular challenges, including a potential threat to grades, credits, scholarly reputations, and even interpersonal relationships. In the end, we’ve ultimately embraced the hierarchical shifts as part of a progressive educational tradition and as a byproduct of collaborative research worth celebrating.


Sustainability of Research and Center

The third benefit we have happily embraced came to us through a test of our research instrument’s validity. In one especially collaborative staff meeting, the staff practiced mapping tutoring interactions as a group. Working from a page of writing center dialogue (from Blau, Hall, and Strauss’s “Exploring the Tutor/Client Conversation”), each tutor applied the mapping method[3]. In particular, each tutor tried to determine whether the tutoring interactions represented were more “facilitative” or more “directive.” Do these interactions, we asked, focus more on the writer, or more on the text?   


When everyone finished their individual maps, we put maps of a few of the interactions on our white board. To our surprise and delight, our tutors’ maps were strikingly similar on almost every interaction. Our staff members all understood the terms similarly, and we were able to recognize kinds of interactions independently. This session had been designed to check the validity of the study, but its result was a powerful demonstration of our own, shared understandings. In short, this brief research-focused exercise enhances our staff's group identity.  


Finally, in terms of sustainability, since several “generations” of assistant directors and tutors have passed through our center since this research project began, we have ensured that the project won’t merely disappear. The sustainability of MTI is at once extremely practical as well as reflective of the continuity of our center’s research tradition. The benefits to the staff have included new practices for tutoring, new knowledge, a contribution to the writing center community, and an influence on our research design itself. We see these implications of staff development, even alongside tutor training, play out in various promising ways in our community of practice and inquiry.


Perils: Institutional Constraints on Collaborative Research

This section describes the effects of institutional research technologies on our writing center’s research project. Initially, we approached various research mechanisms with an instrumentalist view of technology by simply following the required steps of research: submit documents to the University office that reviews research involving human subjects and then get on with the tape recording. However, as we formalized our research project, submitting it within the ethical standards of the Institutional Review Board (IRB), we grew aware of the complications that inquiry can occasion. At the very least, storing transcripts in locked file cabinets and refraining from photocopying session transcripts to guard participants’ privacy became significant administrative obstacles, as did the graduation of research team members who had undergone IRB training and earned the official credentials to participate. More importantly, these measures threatened the project’s coherence and continuity for us as a research community, even while they were meant to maintain ethical standards for University research.


Research ethics remains, as it was for us, an oft-neglected topic in the largely informal and naturalistic tradition of writing center research (Henson and Stephenson, 2009, p. 2). However, in the course of our project, we encountered the discourse of research ethics in two main ways: first, though the University bureaucracy and second, through several of our graduate tutors’ study of a primary source in research ethics, the 1978 Belmont Report. These two related bodies of discourse push us to consider the ethical dimensions of our research beyond what was required by the IRB, challenging us to account more fully for our projects’ “vulnerable populations,” including our undergraduate co-researchers (“Belmont,” 1978). 


In particular, the process of IRB review forced us to reconsider some of our early ideas about the undergraduates selected as both subjects and researchers, complicating our regular tutoring practices and our research process. For instance, the IRB-approved procedures prohibit us from recording sessions on a regular schedule or providing a posted, blanket explanation of the project. The commitment to the selecting subjects randomly and securing their informed consent necessitates complex arrangements (to avoid bias of one tutors’ regulars over another’s, for instance). Additionally, the whole process distracts time and attention away from the writer’s purpose for visiting the center.


Of course, we do not require participation of either tutees or tutors; we seek to make clear that refusing to participate will negatively affect neither a tutee’s nor a tutor’s experience in the writing center. Raising this question in terms of protecting vulnerable participants, two of our then graduate student tutors, Matthew Ortoleva and Matthew MacKnight, focused especially on justice for undergraduate co-researchers, leading us to realize that the tutors, who work for academic credit, cannot be required – or even strongly encouraged – to participate in the project. To that end, the syllabus of the course in which tutors are enrolled for credit, “Field Experience in Writing Consultancy,” was revised to list participation as a suggestion, not a requirement. Tutors can choose an alternative to satisfy the course’s learning outcomes, such as an individual reflective project. We have sought, however, to emphasize the potential benefits of participation in the research in terms of undergraduates’ educational experiences, and we have been fortunate in many semester of data collection that at least a handful of tutors have willingly participated.



We’ve described the results of critical reflection on our writing center’s research project in a comparative trope: promises and perils. And, though few aspects of research can be so easily simplified, we feel that in the areas of staff development and research ethics, our center’s project poses an interesting case for researchers in higher education who are interested in the sustainability of settings like writing centers. At present, the main promises our project offers are the benefits to the staff. Also, and significantly, however, we have become more conscious of the complexities of administering a project in which different kinds of writing center staff members participate as co-researchers. The “peril” here lies not only in the difficulty of negotiating between the University’s research standards and a main value of our discipline, collaboration. We also foresee “peril” for those who do not critically examine institutional contexts for research or who end their work instead of adapting it in the face of complications in order to protect their center’s image as uncomplicated and hence sustain its value to the university. We hope that reflecting on our own process will encourage others to begin—or to continue—their own work to strengthen, expand, and sustain writing center theory, practice, and especially inquiry.



[1] This research group has changed over the course of several years, demonstrating one of the challenges of collaborative research. However, the main participants of the pilot study in 2007-08 and our presentation at Northeast Writing Center Association annual conference in Spring 2008 include: Patrick Baranski, Tasha O’Hare, Cassie Feeney, Kim Dubois, Matthew MacKnight, and Matthew Ortolvea, along with the three co-authors.

[2] We are indebted to our program director and former writing center director, Libby Miles, for her emphasis on reflection as initial plans were laid for this project several years ago, as well as her suggestion to use reflection as a foundation for scholarly inquiry into our research.

[3] For a full explanation of postmodern mapping as an instrument of critical research methodologies, consult Opening Spaces by Sullivan and Porter.



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