I’m a writing center director who started the first writing center in a Central Asian country. For those of you who are starting a writing center in your country, wherever you are,  you may be the first or one of the few who start a writing center, I offer some cautionary advice as we listen to each other talking about our writing centers.

One of the complications of writing a few paragraphs on the local reality in my country is that it’s so local and contextual that it may say little about what exists in your country. I feel that what I would have to say would be, especially in terms of “advice,” useful only within the country where I am. Maybe we can begin to share some differences to be alert to. But my cautionary advice is not to assume that what someone else says about his or her country, even if it’s a nearby one, is relevant to you. The cultural norms that exist there may—or may not—apply to your situation.

It is possible that a university wants a writing center, but their idea of one will vary a great deal from the notions a new director would have, especially coming out of the context of a university in the USA. Some foreign universities may have an interest in modeling their student services or academic support on the Western models, or what they have read about Writing Centers in the U. S. A.  There is significant cultural capital in resembling Western education.  Also, there can be the age-old assumption that a writing center will come to the rescue in terms of students’ second language skills (read “grammatical” errors), which are often more problematic/pronounced in academic writing than in speaking.

You may have the title of Director or Coordinator of a new WC but have no budget to work with, no WAC support or institutional support for one, very limited staffing options, little administrative support, no software to use to track usage, no on-line tutoring options, a WC tucked away in a room that is far from the library or student union, no faculty understanding about the “mission” of a WC and its non-traditional support of writers, and as a result you might realize that you have embarked on a 10-year project.  To leave after a basic two-year contract is probably to see the fledgling WC collapse after you leave.  However, it is very possible that a new WC Director will be given release time, and teach writing courses only half time. But because the definition of the WC and the duties of the Director will be undefined and may take a long time to define, a host of other English department administrative duties make get dropped on your desk.

My advice?  Be very, very flexible. Expect little, and try to be happily surprised. And remember a part of baseball: sometimes you get hit by a pitch, but there’s no use charging the mound. Just walk it off, and then get back and play the game.

What advice would you offer to new writing center directors working outside the U.S. context? How can you help faculty unfamiliar with writing center pedagogy understand our work (and, hopefully, learn to value that work)? Despite the cultural differences from country to country, there are successful writing centers. They do exist,  and we can help each other by sharing advice to lead us on the road to succeeding and offering students the writing assistance we know they need and want. They will welcome us. Let’s just stay aware of our differences.

4 Comments

  1. daspi May 25, 2012 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. I also found Lotte Rienecker’s piece on “How to Start a Writing Center” helpful: http://bit.ly/L1JExt

    • Mary June 10, 2012 at 7:43 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the link, daspi. Very useful.

  2. Balsi September 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm - Reply

    Starting a WC out of nothing in a middle of a crisis.
    That is how my WC at the School of Education at University of Iceland started at the end of 2009. Before I started I had the opportunity to meet three persons and learn from them: Leigh Ryan, Muriel Harris and Lotte Rienecker. Thanks to their advice I have had a resonable success so far and I believe these key issues are of importance:
    0. In the time of crisis people try to save money. If people are not sacked we have to find them other work — like starting a WC 🙂 Try to explain how a WC saves money and makes life easier for others.
    1. Get allies within the institution, introduce the WC as a solution to the problems of others, too much work guiding students’ writing, coursework and theses. My best allies are those teachers tutoring masters theses. They realize better than others how badly the students write. I tell them: If you are tired of the problems the students have with their writing, send them to me :). They sigh with joy. The best recommendations are when the students return from the WC with considerably better paper.
    2. Introduce your idea to the head of the institution as an independent project, serving teachers and students across the institution. My president has full understanding of the WC mission and I have support from the masters’ programme.
    3. Find a table in the library noone is using, and explain to the director of the library that tutoring student writing at this table will increase the number of visits in the library and add to the service. The life of the WC in the library is like a happy marriage. We work together on courses and workshops and the library has become a lot more lively place.
    4. Educate peer-tutors. It is difficult to get them but once you have them they are dedicated to the job.
    5. Offer teachers tutoring help on course assignments. Your peer-tutors become professionals on assisting students, teachers get better work done and everybody is happy.
    Have a happy weekend, there is more to say, but this must do for now.
    Best wishes
    Baldur Sig, Reykjavík

  3. aminton September 29, 2012 at 1:28 am - Reply

    I feel very fortunate to have found this blog and to realize That am not alone in my frustration in starting a writing center. My regret is that I did not find you earlier. Your advice is more helpful than you know, and is definitely “on target.” I find it both fascinating and “awesome” that I (in the process of starting a writing lab in Oklahoma, USA) could be sharing the same concerns with writing lab directors in Central Asia and Iceland. A million thanks,

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