Writing Center Topographies: Art, Space, and Stature

Geoffrey Middlebrook

Geoffrey Middlebrook

Editor’s note: I met Dr. Geoffrey Middlebrook at IWCA this year and loved hearing about the redesign of his center. I asked him to share a bit about how they partnered with various departments around campus to create a student art gallery in their space!

We who work in or with writing centers know that one of the many enduring challenges is space, or in the words of Nathalie Singh-Corcoran and Amin Emika, “where a center should be located, what a center should look like, what a center should feel like.” Another and related challenge for writing centers is establishing prominence on campus, which can be cultivated through, among other things, intra-institutional relationships (the collection Before and After the Tutorial contains a broad discussion of this topic).

Opening Reception

Opening Reception

In October 2015 I examined the intersection of these spatial and statural concerns at the IWCA Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, with a presentation on a project at the University of Southern California (USC), where I am Director of the Writing Center. It was fortuitous that the IWCA call for proposals highlighted how writing centers might utilize visual arts, allow students to create and connect, and join in partnerships and campus-wide initiatives and activities, for the USC project aggregated all three.

USC1

By way of context, in 2013 the USC Writing Center was relocated from a long occupied and highly visited venue to temporary quarters that were far less suitable for consultations and workshops. During the period of displacement, while the new accommodations were being prepared, demand for our services declined as did our campus status, and the Center became a version of what Marc Augé has called “non-space,” or a “transient, temporal, and intermediary” place through which people move but where they do not acclimate.

USC3Once we settled in our new abode, the Center rapidly recovered rates of traffic, yet the otherwise desirable setting suffered from bare white walls that detracted from the welcoming ambiance writing centers like to offer. To address this aesthetic shortcoming, in March 2015 we joined with Richard Fliegel, USC Dornsife College Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs, to commission student-produced original art for those unwelcoming walls. Concomitantly, to help restore the Center’s profile, we arranged USC sponsorship for the art commissions through the Provost’s Office of Undergraduate Programs, Dornsife College Office of Academic Programs, Writing Program, Roski School of Art and Design, and campus chapter of Phi Kappa Phi.
IMG6Our project’s call for proposals specified that the art be inspired by a published written work, and required students to include a sketch of their proposed piece as well as prior examples of their art. By the May 2015 deadline twenty-two proposals had been received, in response to which we formed a committee to review the submissions and select five to commission. I should note that the committee was pleased with its decisions, as we chose a diversity of artists (male and female, domestic and international), inspirations (novels, a Buddhist sutra, Freud), and media (oil on canvas, sculpture, cut paper, plexiglass relief, and photo collage). The contract awarded $500.00 to each artist, assigned Professor Margaret Lazzari from the School of Art and Design as mentor, established copyright restrictions and project timelines, and addressed delivery and installation expectations.

USC2With the assistance of a professional installer who came recommended by USC’s Fisher Museum of Art, the five pieces were mounted in early October 2015, and in the middle of that month the Writing Center held the opening reception for its new art gallery. That nicely catered event was a great success, in large part because the artists were present to discuss their works with the many students, staff, faculty, and administrators who attended. Moreover, the gathering brought widespread and favorable attention to the Writing Center and its mission, as did a feature story in the Dornsife Connect e-newsletter.

Photo by Peter Zhaoyu Zhou

Photo by Peter Zhaoyu Zhou

In sharing this project, my hope is that it will encourage other writing centers to consider and capitalize on their opportunities, whether those involve art or something else. If these centers prudently pursue collaborative campus relationships and wisely leverage their assets, the outcome may well be a combination of refined appearance, raised profile, increased traffic and, most significantly, improved service to students.

Should there be any questions about the USC initiative, please feel free to contact me.

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