Democratizing Space in the Writing Center

Today’s look at learning centers and writing centers comes from Ann Gardiner, the Director of the Writing and Learning Center at Franklin University Switzerland

As the master of “spatialiality,” Henri Lefebvre, wrote in the 1970s, “space is a social product” (26). Even without buying fully into his Marxist ideology or addressing every twist of his dense prose, his observations say a lot about Writing Center space, particularly when it comes to power relations within the institution. Specifically, he asks several important questions applicable to our kinds of spaces, as well as to our “place” within the campus community itself. “If space embodies social relationships,” he writes, “how and why does it do so? And what relationships are they?” (27).

Having recently merged our Writing Center with an adjacent library space to create a so-called Learning Commons–a place for tutoring and collaborative self-study–I would like to share a few personal observations inspired by Lefebvre about our largely successful experience. At Franklin University Switzerland–a small English-speaking liberal arts institution in the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino with about 400 students–producing an appropriate space for our Writing Center within a larger Learning Commons has not only increased the number of tutoring visits, but also helped reposition academic support within the academy. This repositioning, in a literal and metaphorical sense, has allowed us to think about projects that were not possible or even imaginable before.

A few words about the small size of our school before I begin, as managing a learning space for 400 students comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. To give but one example, we have never had multiple academic support centers spread over the campus – one for writing, one for learning, one for languages or STEM etc. Instead, we pretty much do everything under one roof, including organizing the logistics of accommodated exams. Our small size can present challenges in terms of juggling everything, but it also presents opportunities because we offer a one-stop shop for students and we answer directly to the Dean of Academic Affairs.

Because we are not competing with other academic support centers, we do not face some of the political problems with regards to space seen recently in the Writing Center listserv, merging with Learning Centers, for example. Readers of the Writing Program Administrator listserv know that at least one university has recently tried to abolish their Writing Center, the latest victims of budget cuts and administrative reconfiguring (“Keep the NJCU Writing Center Open”). Collectively, both listservs confirm Lefebvre’s claim that as a social product, space is embedded within a web of, often, unequal power relations (26). In our case, power relations play out at both the institutional and accreditation level, as our U.S. accreditors place value on the learning experience, while our Swiss accreditors focus more on research output. This latter emphasis on research may help explain why European universities have traditionally not embedded academic support centers into their respective curricula.

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