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

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Composing Collaboration: An Integrative Pedagogy

 

Russell G. Carpenter, Eastern Kentucky University
Leslie Valley, Eastern Kentucky University

 

Russell G. Carpenter, Ph.D. is Director of the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity and Assistant Professor of English.  Leslie Valley is Coordinator of Writing in the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity.

 

Abstract

For many years, writing centers have existed on the periphery of campus, having to prove their worth on a year-to-year basis. An integrative approach to writing center design centralizes services within campus communities while enhancing visibility and embedding collaborative pedagogies among students and faculty. Integrative collaboration displays the writing center’s worth to the campus community.    

 

“The improvisational collaboration of the

entire group translates moments of individual

creativity into group innovation”

(Sawyer 17).

 


Like many writing centers, Eastern Kentucky University’s (EKU) occupied a hidden space on campus—the basement of an old, converted dorm. An internship between the then-writing center director and dean of libraries resulted in a plan to move the center to an unused portion of the library. In 2003, this plan was for merely a physical transition. However, as the discussions evolved, more departments became involved, envisioning the possibilities for renovation. The mission and vision for the relocation of the writing center to the library changed to include representatives from the library staff, department of communication, and department of English who expanded the concept of what the writing center could be. The vision became more collaborative, and the mission expanded to consider the ways students and faculty create and communicate in the 21st century. These administrators quickly became visionaries, thinking about the interconnections between research, writing, and oral communication. Seven years later, the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity became a reality at EKU, supported by a compelling university mission of developing informed critical and creative thinkers who communicate effectively. To capture the campus-changing developments and impact the Noel Studio has had at EKU, we explore how the integrative mission and vision of this exciting new project embed it into the campus community and offer it as a model by which writing centers can demonstrate their worth on campus.

 

On many campuses, faculty refer students to the writing center or use it as a punishment for poor writing. Having spent years in writing centers, we have seen bookmarks stapled to papers, notes that say, “Go to the writing center,” and assignment requirements that involve a visit to the writing center. We ask, though, whether these practices further the connection between the writing center and campus community. We find this referral practice problematic. For one, simply referring students to the writing center does not suggest that there is a relationship between the feedback received in the classroom and that of the writing center. Second, this handoff seems to imply that the writing center is responsible for fixing student issues. We suggest that there is much to be gained from tightening the relationship between faculty and the writing center. This article suggests that writing centers should question the benefits of students who are referred to or required to visit the writing center without any context for their visit. Furthermore, this article also argues that faculty, students, and writing center staff can learn more and do more when passive referrals turn into integrative partnerships that involve all of these parties in the development of improved writing practices. Thus, we pose two questions:  

Our purpose here is to examine an integrative model for writing centers and, because we work in a newly developed space, help those in the writing center field appreciate what this model can offer. But first, we need to explore the relationship between collaboration, a familiar term that involves engagement, and integration, which requires commitment on all sides.

 

An Integrative Philosophy
Writing centers and the communities they serve stand to benefit a great deal from collaborative efforts that involve students and faculty, but writing centers often miss opportunities to involve faculty in the learning process. An integrative model builds faculty into the mission and vision of the writing center. This concept extends from Muriel Harris’s early work on collaboration. Writing centers might benefit from deeper collaboration, integrating their work and voice within their campuses. Collaborative efforts that involve faculty are preferable over passive referrals, moving not only students but also faculty “from the traditional passive stance of receiving knowledge from an authority” (Harris 369) to a more active, engaged, and cyclical learning process. Previous models promote collaboration but primarily as it relates to students and writing center staff, rarely considering the role of faculty. Current models highlight the benefits of a more inclusive type of collaboration, specifically between writing centers and libraries. As James K. Elmborg explains, “Integrated as they are across the curriculum, libraries and writing centers can increase their influence tremendously by sharing their reputations and expertise, leveraging their strengths and learning from each other” (18). For example, Johanna Einfalt and Janet Turley overview a three-way collaborative model that places students at the center in an effort to engage them in research and academic skills such as writing (44). Similarly, Sarah Leadley and Becky Reed Rosenberg present a model for team-teaching designed to enhance writing and information literacy, explaining that “this synergistic approach also functions to dismantle the division between ‘skills’ and ‘content’” (59). Even in these models, however, the collaboration seems to occur primarily between the writing center and the library, leaving the role of faculty ambiguous.

 

We posit that writing centers can create integrative collaboration—a model that encourages a more inclusive collaboration or tightens the relationship between the teaching that takes place in the classroom and the activity that takes place in the writing center. In integrative collaborations,  new modes of thought and art forms thrive through joint efforts inspired by transformative changes (John-Steiner 203). In 1999, Dave Healy questioned, “Just what kind of place is the writing center? Is it an extension of the classroom or an alternative to the classroom?” (231). We suggest that it is neither. Through integration, the writing center can be part of an intentional, active pedagogical structure by creating specific shared goals with faculty in the collaborative process traditionally constrained to student-writing center roles. We agree with Sawyer “that these intimate collaborations are the most radically innovative, the ones that have the potential of transforming ways of seeing to create a completely new vision” (134). To take the integrative collaboration concept one step further, we might look more closely at the role of group work within these relationships. Integrative collaboration, especially between the writing center and campus community, highlights the need for group work and cooperation between writing center administrators, student consultants, and faculty as methods for successful integration. Elizabeth Cohen argues that

cooperation aids in the development of higher level cognition and the ability to communicate thinking: discussion within the group promotes more frequent oral summarizing, explaining, and elaborating what one knows; cooperative learning promotes greater ability to take the perspective of others… in the group setting, one’s thinking is monitored by others and has the benefit of both the input of other people’s thinking and their critical feedback. (15)

The ability to take the perspective of others allows writing center staff, faculty, and students to approach the collaborative process as equal participants in the students’ development as writers. Therefore, the collaboration and resulting critical feedback enable participants to refine their own processes while actively supporting each other. John-Steiner suggests that transformative co-construction, braided roles, and visionary commitment help construct integration as a collaborative pattern (197). Together, these traits help inform integrative collaborative efforts and will serve writing centers well when integrating with campus communities, thereby becoming critical components of their universities.  

 

Establishing Worth through Integrative Collaboration
Writing centers have long existed on the periphery of campus. Spatial politics permeate much of what writing centers do and the roles they serve. Physical location carries with it a political edge (Haviland, Fye, and Colby 85). Many writing centers determine worth by reporting usage statistics; however, we must ask how much these numbers say about a center. Do these figures determine the “worth” of the center within the campus community? Certainly, usage is important to any writing center, but we argue that the center’s worth is not only about numbers but should also consider the pedagogical activities taking place within. Integrative collaboration engages members of the campus community, creating multiple vested interests in the success of the writing center and its contributions to students’ growth and development. These collaborative efforts become crucial to academic success.

 

Aligning complementary areas that extend and strengthen one another is critical to developing an integrative mission and shared vision for the writing center. When writing centers feel like they are not supported by faculty, it is often because faculty have not been involved in shaping its mission and vision and therefore do not feel as though they are engaged contributors to the success of related initiatives. The relationship between writing centers and faculty should go far beyond a simple, one-time meeting, and involve attempts to understand each other’s goals and challenges so that they can be navigated together, with the aim of moving toward a recursive learning process.

 

At times, the future of writing centers seems uncertain because of changes in administrative structures, university-wide downsizing, and budgetary constraints. An integrative writing center increases its sustainability by developing closer connections to other critical initiatives on campus. A writing center that is situated as a central entity establishes itself both politically and intellectually, displaying its value and worth to the university as a whole.

 

How do students, faculty, and writing center staff learn successfully through integrative collaboration? Based on one year of operation in the Noel Studio and the early development of an integrative philosophy, we have refined six foundational concepts that have contributed to successful integrative efforts:

For the Noel Studio, these foundational concepts for integrative collaboration have evolved its practices through happenings. These happenings, because of their power and ability to engage a diverse range of members of the campus community, deserve further consideration.

 

Happenings as Integrative Experiences
Happenings allow the writing center to extend beyond its traditional space and usual collaborators to promote active engagement with and alignment to a wide range of participants. Here, we trace the happening’s origins and history, while framing it as an important component in an integrative vision.

 

Happenings invite collaboration through innovative hands-on sessions that engage students, faculty, and writing center staff. Susan Sontag saw the happening as a spectacle (265). She explained that the primary aspect of a happening was materials and the incorporation of audience into the event (267). Years later, William Lutz, building on Sontag’s earlier definition, saw the happening as juxtaposition, the essence of creating experiences about which students could write, an experience of the audience rather than a performance witnessed (36). In 2002, Geoffrey Sirc described the teaching of composition as a happening for its performative elements and the “freedom of working without rules” (125). In the Noel Studio, happenings encourage students, faculty, and staff to develop new insights through shared experience. Happenings blur the lines between audience and performer, student and teacher, and have, in a sense, informed integrative collaboration for the Noel Studio.

 

Integrative collaboration in the Noel Studio brings together students, faculty, and staff to achieve a common goal. As John-Steiner explains, integrative collaborations,

require prolonged periods of committed activity. They thrive on dialogue, risk taking, and a shared vision. In some cases, participants construct a common set of beliefs, or ideology, which sustains them in periods of opposition or insecurity. Integrative partnerships are motivated by the desire to transform existing knowledge, thought styles, or artistic approaches into new visions. (203)   

Happenings, as creative and generative collaborations for the writing center, can take a variety of shapes and forms. Primarily, they should connect the writing center with the campus community. Happenings in the Noel Studio offer members of the campus community opportunities to immerse themselves in the critical and creative-thinking process that is central to the development of composition practices. 

 

In the Noel Studio, we have sought out collaborations with faculty to integrate ourselves into the students’ process within the context of the classroom. We have partnered with several faculty members to make the Noel Studio a part of the assignment—not merely as a required visit, but as a carefully planned strategy designed by the professor and the Noel Studio administrative staff. In a childhood psychology course, for example, students are required to collaboratively research a controversial topic such as spanking, write a group paper, and present an in-class debate on the issue. Before we partnered, the professor required her students to visit with consultants in the Noel Studio, but there was no specified goal for those consultations. The professor saw that the students viewed the course as including three separate assignments, rather than an informed recursive process. More specifically, she articulated the need for more cohesion between the research, writing, and presentation stages. After discussions with Noel Studio staff, the professor changed the design of the assignment to require three goal-oriented consultations:

1) the groups met outside of class with a consultant to brainstorm their research approach;

2) five consultants visited the class to consult the groups’ written products, and

3) groups met outside of class with a consultant to plan the in-class debate.

Students reported feeling much clearer about the relationship between writing, speaking, and researching about their projects. The professor also reported more confidence in the students’ progression as researchers, writers, and communicators. At the end of the semester, during a debriefing meeting, both the professor and the Noel Studio staff independently recognized the need for an additional visit for research in the future.

 

This collaboration establishes the Noel Studio as neither an extension nor an alternative to the classroom. Instead, the Noel Studio has become embedded pedagogically into the curriculum as an intentional addition to the composition process, thereby demonstrating integrative collaboration. Students learn about crafting effective writing based on valid information and take away strategies for conducting research and integrating it into their writing. The professor feels more confident in the assignment and views the Noel Studio as crucial in helping students connect course content and academic skill. Group work and collaboration take on more pronounced roles within this powerful learning environment, prompting students and the professor, side-by-side, to engage in an experience that has the potential to transform the ways learning occurs and affirming the academic importance of the writing center. 

 

Conclusion   

The transition from traditional referral practices to a more inclusive collaboration that involves faculty as participants has allowed the Noel Studio to connect classroom-writing center gaps left by traditional writing center models. Whereas traditional writing centers are perceived as tangential to learning, with faculty assigning visits and referrals due to bad grades, an integrative approach creates renewed interest in developing a centralizing space by partnering with faculty and students to design intentional strategies to refine goals for assignments and processes. Benefits of group work and collaboration are evident in current writing center collaborations, especially as they occur between writing centers and libraries.

 

The model we have presented here builds on those examples, establishing faculty as key contributors to helping students connect course content and academic skill. As a result of this integrative collaboration, the writing center pedagogy informs, and is informed by, the different facets of the university. Integrative collaboration creates a space whereby writing centers showcase their pedagogy and establish value-added to the university for what they do well.

 

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