The Middle East Technical University Academic Writing Center: A Story of Volunteers

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Coordinators Deniz Saydam and Cahide Çavuşoğlu

Editor’s note: The questions around volunteering in the writing center are always contentious ones! Even in the last year, Barko and Satore’s article “How to Start and Run A Writing Center With No Budget” produced a lot of interest, including a thoughtful response on “Volunteer Tutors” from Diana Hamilton.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Deniz Saydam and Cahide Çavuşoğlu, who share the story of their graduate writing center in Ankara, Turkey, and state that “teaching is a low paid job in Turkey and yet many teachers choose to be in teaching for the outcome, not the income. As the Turkish culture values all forms of sacrifice made for children and students, and thus, the development and future of the country, our instructors’ attitude to volunteer tutoring may be different.” I’m glad they’re willing to share their story, below, and continue to think about the cultural dynamics and logistical challenges that shape the invaluable work they do.

Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey is a prestigious university counting 3 campuses (the main campus being Ankara) and 29.000 students, about 8.000 of which are graduate students. The Academic Writing Center of METU was established under the School of Foreign Languages (SFL) in 2001 and has since then served as a graduate writing center for Masters and PhD students as well as faculty and research assistants. It is located in the Central Engineering Building, a central point from where it serves the whole Ankara campus. The space consists of two coordinator offices, a meeting room, a cubicle room, a computer assistant room, and a utility room.

The center has two coordinators, one from the Department of Basic English (200 instructors of English), where undergraduate and some graduate students are enrolled in a year-long intensive English preparatory program, and the Department of Modern English (85 instructors), which offers the post preparatory freshman and sophomore academic English courses as well as other languages in the undergraduate programs.

7Today, we coordinate the writing center, but we started off as two of the first tutors 15 years ago when the center first opened its doors. We both volunteered to work 2-3 hours a week and since then we have continued to volunteer to be on the team. Now as coordinators, we are responsible for managing the center under the Assistant Director and Director of the SFL. We have no secretary, so we answer phones ourselves, give information, make appointments, prepare supplementary materials, manage the AWC library, organize writing retreats, conduct short seminars on departments’ request, prepare activity reports, conduct periodic assessments, and promote the center within the university. We have a reduced teaching load of 4 hours in our department but are full-time in the writing center and receive the regular instructors pay who teach their weekly load of 12, 15, 20 or 25 hours in their department, depending on the level they teach. The regular course load is 12 hours, and instructors receive the equivalent of about 3$ for every hour they teach beyond 12 hours.

Our tutor team consists of volunteer English instructors from both departments, who work 2 hours per week upon their regular teaching load. Since tutorial hours do not qualify as course hours in the university regulations, it is legally impossible for the SFL or the university to pay for these hours. In addition, the center does not have a separate budget, but operates on the school budget. All the material needs of the center, such as computers, printers, printer ink refills, paper, photocopy machine, maintenance of the rooms, etc. are met from the budget allocated by the university to the SFL under which the center operates.

5Of course this brings with it certain difficulties. Although some tutors volunteer and stay with the writing center year after year because they enjoy being a writing tutor, the number of tutors working in the center changes every term. Some instructors do not tutor more than one term. Others continue for only two or three terms, or until they are asked for other paid work in their department. This affects the sustainability of consultancy services in the academic writing center. Under the present conditions, the AWC can only offer part-time services. Last term, we had 9 volunteers, which added up to 18 tutorial hours per week, in addition to the minimum 4 tutorials that the coordinators conduct (and which increase as demand increases).

Some tutors, on the other hand, continue volunteering because, they say, they like the nature of tutoring. Tutoring graduate students allows them to deal with more mature writing produced by much older students/writers, and this, in itself, is very satisfying. The language they deal with is advanced and the topics encountered are sophisticated and interesting, unlike what they experience in basic or freshman English writing classes. Tutors can learn about the latest developments and research topics in various non-linguistic fields, for example, genetic manipulation, mechanic design of tooth implants, and the like. Moreover, tutors like to work one-on-one and find time to discuss writing in a meaningful and productive way with a mature writer within a reasonable time frame.

They also say that tutees’ appreciation of their tutoring in the center contributes to their job satisfaction as well. Graduate student writers who come to the center to consult are willing to receive feedback and are highly motivated to learn how to write more effectively. At the end of a tutorial, writers usually express how useful the tutorial has been for them and show gratitude to tutors for their consultancy.

Tutors also say that tutoring contributes to their professional knowledge and practice because it is different from teaching in class. They are exposed to different English writing discourses used in academic writing in different disciplines. These discourses add to their own knowledge of and familiarity with English language uses. Secondly, tutors are not in the role of expert; they are learners as well as collaborators who have to be understanding, patient, and accepting “not to know everything”. They have to be more flexible and adaptable to different needs. As such, it is a different educational and professional experience for them, which can make them a more effective classroom writing instructor as well.

6Although many tutors’ decision to sign up their name to tutor for a term in the center is a result of self-motivation and/or curiosity, through the years, the administration has used some opportunities and strategies to attract tutors and to build a team of loyal supporters of the AWC. We ensure that tutoring for the center brings our tutors recognition and prestige in their department as well as the SFL. We have their names mentioned by chairpersons and shown in the relevant meeting slides during the beginning-of-term departmental meetings held twice a year and attended by the Director of the SFL. We invite those curious to visit the center for more info, and thank the instructors who contributed in the past and who will contribute to the center in the upcoming term. Recognition and prestige cost nothing but motivate tutors.

We ask chairpersons to relieve instructors who tutor in the AWC as much as possible from extra tasks such as staffing the departmental stand in school fairs, proctoring resit or amnesty exams, duplicating exams, and other less attractive work that needs to be done.

Moreover, tutoring in our center has career opportunities attached to it. Tutors know that AWC tutor seniority is considered when appointing coordinators to the center. Therefore, the wish to build up AWC seniority to become one of the coordinators may be motivating tutors to accumulate expertise and continue volunteering for the AWC.

We recognize the fact people like to work in environments that make them happy. Therefore, we try to create a pleasant atmosphere in the center for our tutors and have our fresh coffee ready when they come to tutor. Our tutors love that smell of coffee. It is a small cost to us but may contribute to their positive feelings about the center and keep our center running.

Although it is possible to sustain a center with volunteer English instructors, it does limit our endeavors to improve. We would like to run a rigorous tutor training program but know it is not realistic to subject volunteers to, say, a 14 session training program to prepare them for their role as a writing tutor (rather than writing teacher). Instead, we hold an orientation meeting where we summarize the history of and rationale behind writing centers, the essence of writing center theory and practice, the role of collaboration, the differences between teaching writing in a class of 30 and tutoring one-on-one, the elements of tutorials, etc. At the end of this meeting, we provide them with a file that includes all this information in full, accompanied by journal articles by pioneers in the field of writing centers and references to other relevant literature. Then, we encourage our tutors to observe different tutorials that we conduct so as to familiarize them with the procedures involved and form a more concrete idea of what we do in the center. We know that this is far from ideal training, but we cannot ‘scare off’ our volunteers.

Aware of our limitations, we continue to strive for development. We have planned informal meetings with our tutors to discuss tutoring challenges and issues in writing center practice together. Further, we are preparing to go online for our graduate students on our Erdemli (on the south coast) and Northern Cyprus Campuses.

In April, we will hold our first national conference with the aim of bringing together people working in the academic writing centers throughout Turkey and those who plan to start one.

We will continue our efforts to attract more volunteer English instructors to our writing center, as that is all we can have until pay related legislation for higher education changes.

Have a question for Deniz Saydam and Cahide Çavuşoğlu? Concern? Piece of advice? Comment below!

One thought on “The Middle East Technical University Academic Writing Center: A Story of Volunteers

  1. I write in my capacity as leader of an academic literacy and language unit in South Africa, the writing lab we have hasn’t taken off because of human resources issues however I wish to begin by getting volunteers from faculty. Thank you for the ideas from what you do, I will appreciate if we could collaborate going forward. I work in a university of technology.

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