Writing Centers Look Back: A Focus on Methodologies and Institutional History

Cassie Book, Associate Director 

Last week I attended the annual International Writing Centers Association conference in Denver, Colorado. In 1983, the first ever conference for the organization was held in Denver (pro tip: it used to be the National Writing Centers Association). Fittingly, this year’s theme was “frontiers,” which allowed writing center scholars and practitioners a moment to consider connections to our past. Conference organizers, including conference chair John Nordlof, also asked participants to question new territories and critically reflect upon colonial, capitalist, racist ideologies that persist in writing centers and institutional spaces. As Shannon Carter has argued, writing centers are paradoxically caught between institutional priorities and our educational commitments to literacy.

Everyone experiences a conference individually— through sessions selected, dinner conversations, tweets (#iwca2016), and scribbled notes in the program’s margins. As I followed the crumbs of my own writing center interests, a theme emerged. I noticed the complexity in looking to the future when we’re in a field saturated with the richness of situated and lived experiences of teacher-scholar-practitioners. I saw this in both explicit critical reflections on research methodologies and implicit acknowledgements of the effects of local institutional histories on current and future practices.

More than last year, I noticed presenters thoroughly engaging with and reflecting on methodologies for creating knowledge in writing center studies. For instance, Holly Ryan’s survey results seem to indicate that a video demo compared to an in-person demo of a tutorial have equally positive effects on students’ intentions to visit the writing center. Yet, Ryan didn’t stop with results and implications. She encouraged the audience to both follow our intuitions and consider the limitations of survey research; she even provided examples from other disciplines. Steve Sherwood took a wider view in his reflection on scholarship and research trends. Though he was generally supportive of the current landscape, he admitted his unease with the current push toward valuing replicable, aggregable, data-driven (RAD) studies. Sherwood said he certainly sees the value, but wonders: what is lost? What happens to our practitioners’ knowledge? Building on the notion of questioning RAD, Rebecca Hallman proposed that qualitative writing center researchers, in order to account for local situations, cannot neatly or ethically replicate methods of past studies. Again, using the opportunity to “look back,” presenters turned a critically reflective lens onto their and the fields’ methodologies.

I also noticed the pull of the past in presentations focused on new initiatives. For instance, I presented with a panel analyzing writing centers’ move into learning commons. Both of my co-panelists, Mary Beth Simmons and Melissa Manchester, included how their institutional histories affected their current situation. I’m reminded that I too should more thoroughly consider institutional history as I research how UofL’s University Writing Center can best collaborate with our new neighbors in Ekstrom Library’s Learning Commons. In the digital realm, Megan Boeshart reminded her audience that digital technologies have institutional histories too—online tutoring must be developed and maintained within the affordances and constraints of available campus technology, student familiarity, and tutor expertise. If not, online tutoring, though available, might not be accessible. Finally, I noticed attention to graduate student consultants. Like UofL’s University Writing Center, many centers employ graduate students. However, as presenters such as Deanna Babcock, Molly Tetreault, Bradfield Dittrich, and Bridget Carlson argued, graduate student consultants bring with them their developing disciplinary identities, and varied goals for themselves as teachers and professionals. The writing center may or may not play a significant role in their teacherly identity. Yet, graduate student consultants are built into the very foundations of many writing centers, like UofL’s, and rightly so. My point is, when looking to the future, we must take into consideration our local institutional histories. I appreciated the presentations that attended to the messiness of their local situations.

For writing center scholars, writing centers are both our subjective daily lived experiences and an object of our scholarly attention. IWCA’s exercise in variations on “frontiers” has allowed me to see that writing centers studies may be in a formative space as we begin to question the strengths and weaknesses of methodologies, such as RAD, and look to how our local institutional histories affect current and future practices.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon. “The Writing Center Paradox: Talk about Legitimacy and the Problem of Institutional Change.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): W133-W152. Print.

International Writing Centers Association Annual Conference, Denver, CO, October 2016. Conference program. 19 October 2016. Web. 


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