Carol Mohrbacher is a Professor of English and former Writing Center Director (the Write Place) at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Carol, using her many years of experience, advice and input from colleagues, as well as research in writing center practice, theory, and pedagogy, planned, developed, and launched a new Writing Center Administration graduate certificate in the Fall of this year. Below is our e-mail interview with Carol.
WLN Blog: What was the progenitor of your idea to set up this program?
Carol: About seven or eight years ago, it occurred to me that I was supervising too many independent studies on the topic of writing center administration and tutor training. Some of our writing center alums who had completed these independent studies were finding jobs as writing center professionals. In 2009, there was a call from our Provost for the development of ideas that might appeal to the local and state community. Funding would be involved. So, never one to overlook an opportunity for funding, I proposed a course on writing center administration. The proposal almost immediately fell into a black hole, as the Provost moved on to another position at another institution, and the initiative disappeared—a situation that anyone who has been in academia for any length of time will recognize.
In 2012-13, a few years and more independent studies—and two Provosts—later, a new Provost called for innovative certificate programs. Simultaneously, administration pushed for more online offerings. I saw this as an opportunity to develop a valuable program—something that would contribute to the international writing center community, as well as to my own institution. My efforts in 2009 had resulted in a syllabus, and a sort of plan for future topics courses in writing center administration. I decided to build off of that early nugget.
WLN Blog: What were the processes and obstacles to developing and implementing the program?
Carol: The first thing I needed was some direction on what a certificate program looked like. No one seemed to know, so I did my research, looking at programs in IT and Education. One note: generally, this kind of project is the result of group or committee efforts. I was on my own, except for the feedback and editing help of my friend, Tim Fountaine.
What I did not expect were the many levels of scrutiny and research that would be required of me from groups and individuals at all levels—the English Department, College of Liberal Arts, SCSU administration, IT, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities administrative body. Two years later, after 14 levels (I counted them) of permissions and approvals, and after much research and one survey that resulted in 260+ respondents, the program was a go.
The next step was to create the courses that I had proposed and outlined for the various committees and individuals. This semester, I have begun teaching the first 2 courses—Writing Center Theories and Practice, and Issues in Writing Center Administration. So far, so good. I have students from 7 states. They are MA and PhD students and writing center professionals from various institutions from high school to R-1 universities. The engagement and enthusiasm are infectious. I am having a great time working with them.
The final two 2-credit courses for this 10-credit certificate program will be offered at the beginning of summer semester in a 5-week session. They are titled, “Staffing and Training” and “Cases Studies in Writing Center Administration.”
St. Cloud State University students
WLN Blog: With this kind of program development, where did you go for information? What were others doing in this field?
Carol: My own experience in directing a very successful writing center at a 4-year (doctoral granting), regional comprehensive university informed my development of the course. However, this was not done in a vacuum. I attended as many conferences as my straining budget would bear—about 5 per year. I presented, gathered information, and paid attention, particularly when attendees expressed their desire for a writing center admin course of study. When I began my tenure as a new writing center director, I was fortunate to have the mentorship of Judy Kilborn, who worked as a GA for Mickey Harris in the early years at Purdue, and who directed our center from 1985-2000. I am an autodidact like most academics. I read everything I could get my hands on in preparation to teach my first graduate WC writing center theory and practice class.
I also want to mention the writing center list and community. I have followed the list from the first day, and I searched the archives for information on writing center courses and the expressed desire for more director training programs. In my 2nd year, I attended the IWCA Summer Institute at Stanford. I also immediately joined our regional group, Writing Center Professionals of MN (WCPM). All of these things helped me put together my own vision and practice.
WLN Blog: Why is it important to you that there is a certification aspect to your program?
Carol: I believe that in many employment contexts, writing center professionals can be more competitive if they are credentialed. I am hoping also that others will follow. I believe more credentialing programs will support our ethos as a legitimate field of study, and I would love to see writing center professionals and writing centers get the support and respect they deserve.
WLN Blog: Now that the program is running, what kinds of things are you finding from the experience?
Carol: What I was worried about initially is how to structure a class for a group of students with a broad range of education and experience. Some are professionals writing center administrators who are just beginning; one has just received her 501 c3 to set up a non-profit writing center for her school district (with the blessing of her board of directors); two are PhD students; five to eight are MA candidates; many have experience as assistant directors; two are in the high school system; several are in 2-year colleges; two are in R-1 institutions; 1 is in a religion based college; one is in a private college; several are in regional comprehensive universities. Because of this diversity, the challenge for me was not to waste their time or to present clichéd or untimely information. To avoid these pitfalls, I read everything I could concerning issues in writing center administration.
Upon reflection, the most important thing I’ve learned so far is just to present what I discovered in my research, structure reasonable and useful assignments, provide discussion venues and questions, and then just get out of their way. These students are professionals. They know what they want to get out of the program. One delightful surprise—although it shouldn’t be—is the amount of mentoring that occurs during our online chatroom meetings and discussion forums. Another delight is that William Macauley, co-author of Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter (with Ellen Schendel) and Lucie Moussu, author of “Let’s Talk! ESL Students’ Needs and Writing Centre Philosophy,” have offered to correspond with students to answer their questions. This class exemplifies a writing center collaborative spirit.
Finally, and importantly, I have been honest with students about the fact that this semester is a pilot semester for me. I’ve actively sought their input, and have integrated their suggestions in the class structure and assignments. Student feedback has been positive thus far.