How to Start and Run a Writing Center With No Budget, or How We Did the Impossible!

Editor’s note: today’s story comes from Cortney Barko and Melissa Sartore, professors at WVU Tech. Their journey bringing a writing center to campus–only to find the process harder than they first anticipated–is a fascinating one!

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Cortney Barko

We work at West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech) in Montgomery, WV. WVU Tech was founded in 1895, and it is now part of West Virginia University—a land grant institution that serves southern West Virginia. Our enrollment currently hovers around 1,200 students. There are 40+ academic programs; however, WVU Tech is well known for its engineering program, and many students come here to major in engineering.

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Melissa Sartore

When we began our tenure-track jobs at WVU Tech in 2011, we found a Writing Center in dire straits. As instructors of History (Sartore) and English (Cronberg Barko), we both knew that a Writing Center was an important resource for students in our disciplines. Very few students were actually using the Writing Center, and the existing tutors were being put through a never-ending tedious training process that ultimately drove them away. By the end of our Spring 2012 semester, our Writing Center was down to one poorly paid tutor who would not be returning in the fall, and hardly any students were coming for tutoring. As a result, we were told that there would be no funding for the Writing Center in the Fall 2012 semester. Essentially, the Writing Center had come to an end.

After discussing the situation, we decided to reassess the organization, training, and promotion of WVU Tech’s Writing Center. We knew the importance of having a Writing Center on a college campus, but we also knew that we had no budget to open and operate a Writing Center. Additionally, neither one of us had ever worked in or run a Writing Center before, although we both used Writing Centers as undergraduate and graduate students. Ultimately, this was going to be a challenge.

What we needed were tutors who would work as volunteers. We thought back to all the volunteer work that we did as undergraduate and graduate students to build our resumes, so we were hopeful that we could find students at WVU Tech who would want to do the same thing. But the question still lingered in our minds: Would students give of their time and knowledge to tutor in the Writing Center for no pay? We wanted to find out. Dr. Cortney Cronberg Barko asked five outstanding students from her English 101, first-year composition classes, if they would consider tutoring on a volunteer basis, for the work experience, a line on their resumes, and to do us a giant favor. All five students happily agreed to do so, and this is where the story of opening and operating a Writing Center without a budget begins.

At the beginning of the Fall 2012 semester, our five outstanding tutors, Kaylah Bovard, Sara Brown, Tory Raynes, Max Riggs, and Tyler Williams arrived at the Writing Center, ready to begin training. We compiled a tutor training manual with the assistance of other Writing Center directors and the Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors by Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli. After reviewing the manual with them, we brought in actual students for tutoring and supervised our tutors. They learned on the job, essentially. Each tutor agreed to volunteer two hours per week to work in the Writing Center so that we could have a reasonable number of hours four days a week, Monday through Thursday. The tutors made it incredibly easy to put together a tutoring schedule for the Writing Center, and they worked exceptionally well together. The Writing Center was rarely without two tutors working at the same time, and this worked out to the benefit of our students. Our tutors consistently arrived for each shift, on time, and never tried or asked to leave early, even on days when no students came for tutoring.

The tutors consistently had positive attitudes and demonstrated the appropriate amount of professionalism with their tutees regardless of where their tutoring sessions took place. The space in which they tutored also functioned as the department conference room, and often the tutors were displaced for meetings. The tutors never complained, never took their displacement as an excuse to leave their shift early, and never even saw it as a problem. Rather, the tutors simply made due and found another space nearby to continue their tutoring shift. The tutors’ camaraderie with one another and with their tutees was evident to all of us, and this strengthened morale and facilitated the growing success of the Writing Center.

The conference room where we met

The conference room where we met

Throughout the 2012-2013 academic year, we continued to spread the word around campus about the Writing Center’s re-opening. Soon the Writing Center saw a dramatic increase in activity compared to the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 semesters. Unfortunately, records of tutoring sessions were not kept for this academic year, so we cannot indicate a percentage of increase. In the Fall 2012 semester, however, when we began keeping records, a total of 22 tutoring sessions took place in the Writing Center. Overall, it should be noted that the Writing Center saw a dramatic increase in activity compared to the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 semesters. At this time, we wrote a memo to the appropriate persons at our institution articulating the growth of the center and the dedication of these tutors. We requested a budget with which to pay our tutors. Unfortunately, the funding was unavailable.

In the Spring 2013 semester, our five tutors from the fall returned on a volunteer basis, plus one new tutor, Alex Perry. The numbers of students seeking tutoring doubled from our Fall 2012 number of 22 students. In the Spring 2013 semester, a total of 48 tutoring sessions took place in the Writing Center. In addition to tutoring these students individually, the tutors also assisted Dr. Cronberg Barko with peer reviewing drafts of English 102 research papers. The students in Dr. Cronberg Barko’s classes reported that the tutors’ written feedback on their drafts helped them to craft more effective research papers. In the Fall 2013 semester, all six of our tutors committed to returning to the Center. At the time of their commitment, however, we could not yet promise them pay or course credit for the Fall 2013 semester.

In the summer of 2013, we received word that our request to pay our tutors would be answered. Our newly developed Student Success Center would pay the tutors and they would be housed there. We were thrilled that the tutors would finally be paid for their work and have a much-improved working space in which to tutor students. When we accepted this offer, we assumed that we would continue serving as the Director and Assistant Director of the Writing Center and that the Center would remain its own entity on campus.

Unfortunately, the Writing Center did not fit in with the comprehensive model of tutoring being implemented at the Student Success Center and, as a result, the Writing Center at WVU Tech was dissolved. There are still writing tutors, now termed “Writing Specialists,” and the Student Success Center has taken over the training, scheduling, and supervision of writing tutoring. Unfortunately, we do not have any information as to what model of training the Writing Specialists undergo in the Student Success Center. We can only hope that the tutors are being trained to meet the needs of our students.

We believe that readers can take away a lot from our story. We like to think that we engage our students and give them ownership of their writing, and that this approach to teaching makes for successful, voluntary, tutors. We also believe that volunteer tutors were a wonderful way to approach the staffing of the Writing Center. Our tutors truly cared about helping other students with their writing, and that sense of purpose gave the Writing Center a very positive atmosphere. We both feel that we would do this all again. And, in fact, there is a current conversation about starting up the Writing Center again, with volunteer tutors, while the Student Success Center continues to have writing specialists. Stay tuned!

Does Cortney Barko and Melissa Sartore’s story sound familiar? Any suggestions or advice you have for them? Comment below!

2 thoughts on “How to Start and Run a Writing Center With No Budget, or How We Did the Impossible!

  1. Pingback: The Middle East Technical University Academic Writing Center: A Story of Volunteers | Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders (CWCAB)

  2. Greetings, professors Barko and Satore:

    I find your story touching, educational, and inspirational. It gives me hope and makes me think that things are not as bad is they seem to be in my case.

    I am currently the director, assistant director and only tutor in the writing center I started in UACJ, a Mexican university located in Ciudad Juárez, northern México, in the border line with the US. I went to UT for college and became an undergrad writing tutor there. I loved it. I loved it so much that, after grad school, I returned to my hometown and approached the local public university to start a writing center, along with a full time professor who didn’t know much about writing centers at all but wanted in in such an unusual project (currently, in México, there are only five schools who have a writing center on campus). However, things didn’t work out as we expected, for the dean and the university’s committee took a turn by hiring and appointing me director of this new project and leaving out the other teacher who was going to be director and my boss (politics, I guess). Moreover, instead of starting the project in the northern campus (which is where the majority of schools are), they decided to start it in the southern campus, located several miles away from the city, actually in the middle of the desert, where there aren’t many services and people around. This was a very bold move because of several reasons. First, I didn’t have any experience running and starting a writing center, much less in México; I only had experience as a writing tutor. Second, I didn’t know the university at all; I never worked with Mexican students at Mexican universities. Third, besides some furniture and space, the university didn’t do more for the writing center. Forth, just like in your cause, finding tutors was very difficult. The UACJ’s strong is located in the engineering and social sciences, not the humanities. Besides, students here have to write a thesis before graduating, which is different to the way in which students graduate in the US. Not only do students have to write a very large paper, but they also have to think scientifically. Fifth, the way the UACJ teaches composition is very product-oriented. The university don’t have composition courses as such; rather, they have communication courses in which they teach writing in the way it is taught in foreign language courses. Sixth, the southern campus, because of its location and far away distance, makes the school seem more like a factory in the middle of nowhere rather than a higher-learning school located in the vibrant hart of a alive city: there is nothing much to do or look around here but the desert and the sand and the blue sky; for the same reason, the students only come to classes and leave immediately after in the buses the university sends to pick up and return everyone to their destinies. There aren’t many cultural or extracurricular activities to do here but to play ping pong or chess in the tables the university bought to keep the students entertained. The students don’t stay here too long so they can make use of what the writing center offers them. All of this combined, besides the unacquaintance of administrators with the idea of the writing center, have made the beginning of this center very difficult. Sometimes students with the idea that we will tell them what to write, to edit, to erase.
    Nevertheless, your story makes me think that, even though the writing center is such an important and beautiful project to have at any college and university, the founders of them – so to speak – do not always start right where we wish; we have to work with what we have and take it all from there. I really appreciate you putting out there this story. For someone who only had the *brilliant* idea of starting a writing center in a Mexican university, it gives me hope to read that even teachers in the US had trouble running a writing center. Like I said in the beginning, it gives me hope and helps me not to succumb to pessimism. This is reason enough to thank you and congratulate you for the effort, passion, love for teaching writing, and, of course, the obtained results. I wish you and WVU’s writing center in its current form, all the best.

    Alan Gutiérrez

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