Let me start by thanking Muriel Harris for the opportunity to fire up the time machine and allow me a few moments to reflect on my 1997 Writing Lab Newsletter article, “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count, ” and what the last 18 years have meant to writing centers when it comes to assessing the impact we might have on students and on our campuses. It is extremely gratifying for me to know that “Beans” might have had some effect on the ways that writing center professionals have approached assessing the work of their writing centers.
In 1997, I was less than a year removed from completing a doctorate in education degree and was charged with creating a brand-new writing center at a college of pharmacy and health sciences. That first year, I had been hired part-time, initially a 50% appointment that I was able to expand to 75% by also teaching a section of first-year writing. I describe these circumstances to offer an idea of the exigency for my study: If I wanted that part-time employment to continue and perhaps even become a full-time job, I needed to show some measure of “success” for the writing center I had just recently created. I was very fortunate to have the support of my department chair, who helped me gather the data—first-year students’ SAT scores and grades in first-year writing—that went into the initial “Beans” study. It did not occur to me at the time that such data is hard to gather or not readily made available by college and university registrars. In fact, I distinctly remember an email conversation that Mickey and I had in which she expressed amazement that I did have easy access to such data! But, fortunate I was, even if it meant seeing that some of my colleagues gave all of their students A’s without fail (a finding that my chair told me in no uncertain terms would not be released for public consumption).
Here’s what I have learned in the last 18 years (Can it really be so long ago that I published this article? It was two children, three jobs, and many grey hairs ago!): My then fortunate circumstances are altogether too rare for the many writing center directors who occupy tenuous positions at their schools, colleges, and universities. I applaud Scott Pleasant’s thoughtful account of his coming-to-numbers experience, and certainly agree with his four tenets for embracing writing center assessment and quantitative approaches. But I also wonder how many writing center directors simply are not in positions to be able to do so. It is partially a matter of a lack of access, autonomy and authority. It is partially a matter of lack of exigency (i.e., some writing centers have a comfortable niche and no need to assess—or so they hope). It is partially a matter of lack of specific skills to conduct evaluative work that will be valued by those holding and apportioning the beans. This dilemma is certainly frustrating for many of us, despite lots of fine guides for assessment work, such as Schendel and Macauley’s Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter. The opportunity lost here is not merely assessment of our particular centers, but research on writing centers more generally, the essential knowledge we need to build an academic field.
I want to be hopeful, however. I want to believe that the next 18 years will see writing centers turn outward and connect to assessment efforts coming out of institutional research or from teaching and learning centers or other university partners. I hope for a future when writing centers directors will more clearly see themselves as part of larger conversations, such as those around the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ High-Impact Practices and Essential Learning Outcomes. And, in turn, I hope for a time when our schools, colleges, and universities look to our writing centers as models for learning and teaching that are not merely assessed, but celebrated.
Lerner, Neal. “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count.” Writing Lab Newsletter. 22.1 (1997): 1-3.
Schendel, Ellen, and William J. Macauley. Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter. Boulder: Univ. Press of Colorado, 2012.