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.

Our unique context within the world of higher education has thus influenced what we can and cannot do, not only with respect to our “place” within the institution, but also to our actual physical space. Our story about space and place has 3 chapters: origins, development and reconfiguration.

Chapter 1 or “origins” begins in 2004. Our college–we were Franklin College Switzerland back then–had just created a Writing Across the Curriculum Program and a Writing Center was launched to support the development of that program. The new space started out in a photocopy room not much bigger than a shoebox. The person who created it, my former colleague, could just about fit one desk in there and maybe a bookshelf. This was a windowless room opening onto a hallway near the main library. From an early assessment report, I can see that during our first year of operation, my colleague saw 109 students for a total of 241 visits. For a school with 400 students, these numbers were a great start. But it is difficult to build community in a windowless room.

Chapter 2 of our story, “Development,” started when we moved, literally, to “the other side” of campus, where most of our classes take place. Moving our Writing Center to a more centralized location on campus–and by this I mean simply where there are more classes and therefore more students–led to important transformations in the types of relationships made possible in our space. This is when I come into the picture and the space I inherited in 2010 was a vast improvement over the windowless photocopy room: a 30’ by 30’ former classroom, complete with a couch arrangement, a long wall of windows with a view of the maintenance garage (but windows all the same), and even a corner office, carved out of that space with an L-shaped wall-to-ceiling glass partition.

This new space definitely allowed us to grow. Despite the increased traffic, however, these living conditions in no way produced the right space for a real learning community to thrive. Since part of my job involved coordinating accommodated exams, I soon found myself juggling mutually exclusive space needs. When exams happened inside the center, tutoring was not possible. When tutoring happened, those accommodated exams could not take place. With limited seating, a small group of students turned the center into a kind of “club-house,” virtually excluding, though not intentionally, everyone else. Even the coveted personal office, with its see-through glass walls, functioned poorly. Those with me on the inside felt as though they were on display, while those on the outside felt spied upon. The power relations embedded into this “glass cage” and exercised through a kind of panopticon-like gaze (Foucault), made real community building virtually impossible.

Lefebvre writes that to change society, one needs “the production of an appropriate space” (59). On a smaller, more local scale, one could say the same thing about writing centers: to change their position within the academy, one needs the “production of an appropriate space.” The question is, however, what should that specific space look like? In this, each institution is of course different and what works for one institution will not work for another. In our case, given our small size, a merge with the adjacent library space to create a Learning Commons was exactly what we needed.

We started with research and discovered that writing center space had received some small, but noteworthy attention (Hadfield; McKinney; Singh-Corcoran & Amin; Waller). We also researched the learning commons idea and found that collaboration between libraries and writing centers through a collaborative learning-type space was starting to become firmly established in other institutions (Elmborg & Hook; Kohler; Moore & Wells). A recent survey of 24 campuses shows that 18 of them, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, have already joined writing center spaces and library spaces in some way (Bell). We can thus talk about the joining of these two spaces as a trend that brings Lefebvre squarely into the picture.

This is where chapter 3 of our story comes in, which I call “Reconfiguration.” We did not have in mind simply to move to a new space as we had done many times in the past; instead we wanted literally to reconfigure the space itself and see whether we could create new kinds of community relationships. What surely helped in our case were the numbers. Through the equivalent of a Work-Study Program, we first hired one student tutor for five hours a week, then three, then five, then eight. With increased usage, we found alternative space for accommodated exams and I moved to a real office where I could have real conversations with students. We also hired an Assistant Director of the Writing and Learning Center for twelve hours a week and she started creating a language-tutoring program with another potential eight tutors. So by the fall of 2015, we had sixteen student tutors on a rotating part-time basis, most of them fully booked throughout the week. With one room, however, as big as it was, we were bursting at the seams. Demand was literally pushing us into the hallways.

Following our research phase, and after securing funding from an alumna, the collaboration phase thus began. One of the successes of our project, I think, is that we talked with all the stakeholders before we actually moved forward with the project. The process involved in democratizing our space needed, in other words, to be democratic itself. We thus had town meetings with students to hear their concerns (some did not want to lose the quiet library space); we had several meetings with tutors to hear theirs (they did not want to lose their sense of “home”); and we had countless meetings with the librarians to work out the logistics of what a Learning Commons on our campus would look like. In the end, we found a compromise that simply flipped the space: make the smaller Writing and Learning Center the lesser-used quiet space, and the previously quiet and underused library satellite the collaborative, tutoring and learning space.

There were, of course, delays with the furniture and oversights on our part; there were not enough outlets for personal computers, for example. But when we finally opened the new space the day before Thanksgiving 2015, we were more than happy with the outcome. We had created collaborative clusters, with round tables for tutoring and a few sofa-and-chair constellations, moving the long rectangular library tables into the quiet space for individual study. We eliminated the so-called glass cage that had been my private office. We also re-channeled traffic through the collaborative space so that students in the quiet room now had a very quiet room, with all printing and photocopying happening where talking and eating were allowed. By making these small changes, we had literally “produced” a new space, with new usage patterns, new populations using the space, and new forms of collaboration with the community at large.

Space itself, I have come to realize, is always a work in progress. And we are still tweaking things here and there. With several new blank walls, I just ordered picture hooks so that the Art Department can now use our space as a gallery for student work. We also started a “take-one-leave-one” bookshelf that has brought both staff and faculty into the space to pick up and drop off reading material. We have pulled from the library stacks a small selection of faculty resources on teaching pedagogy and assessment so professors can come in and browse. We plan to bring in some newspapers from the main library and have even found a space for the all-important tutor refrigerator.

By reconfiguring our space, we closed out the academic year 2015-2016 with close to 1,200 tutoring visits. For a school of 400 students, this number is a remarkable accomplishment and I owe it to the amazing team we now have working at the Writing and Learning Center. More important than sheer numbers are the kinds of students coming in for tutoring. We no longer reach primarily incoming students, as we did in the past, but find that our visitors come almost equally from all 4 years of our undergraduate curriculum, with a several visits from students in our emerging graduate program. Most significantly, our visits by multi-language students, traditionally students who need the writing center the most but who use it the least, have also dramatically increased.

In this production of new space, to come back to Lefebvre, initial results suggest that we have also created community change. First, we have gone from being a clubhouse for the select few to a democratized space for the Franklin community at large. Second, we have seen that students coming to the Learning Commons to study on their own soon make appointments with tutors. The stigma of “needing the Writing and Learning Center” or the perception of us as a “remedial center for students who can’t write” has dissipated since merging with the library. Third, by collaborating more with faculty — not only by bringing the center to their side of campus but also by opening the space up to them — writing and learning have taken on a more central position in the curriculum at large.

Do all of these community changes simply come down to space? Certainly, we could have done many of the things we are now doing before the space change, and the new space itself did not miraculously cause new kinds of collaboration. Rather than speak about cause and effect, which I myself would question, there is, I would argue, a certain correlation. In our first windowless Writing Center, community space was simply not possible. In our second move, the beginnings of community were established, but the space itself did not allow this community to flourish. With our Writing and Learning Center firmly embedded into a Learning Commons, the infrastructure is now there to create a democratized community space for learning.

Author’s note: I would like to thank the organizers of the Third International Conference on Academic Writing, held at the MOFAT Institute, Tel Aviv, June 27-28, 2016, for their kind invitation to present an earlier version of this text.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Stephanie. “The Configuration of Writing Centers in Learning Commons,” Google Survey. Personal communication.
  • Elmborg James K. and Shiril Hook. Eds. Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration, Association of College and Research Libraries, 2005.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Edited by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1977, pp. 195-228. Original Publication: Surveiller et Punir, 1975. Accessed 2 January 2017.
  • Hadfield, Leslie, et al. “An Ideal Writing Center: Re-imagining Space and Design.” The Center Will Hold, edited by Michael A Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead, Utah State Press Publications, 2003, pp. 166-176. Utah State University Digital Commons, Accessed 23 December 2016.
  • “Keep the NJCU Writing Center Open.”, Accessed 1 January 2017.
  • Koehler, Adam. “A Tale of Two Centers: Writing Centers and Learning Commons.” Another Word Blog, 21 October 2013. Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Accessed 22 December 2016.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991, rpt. 1995. Original publication La Production de l’Espace, 1974.
  • McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. “Leaving Home Sweet Home: Towards Critical Readings of Writing Center Spaces.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005, pp. 6-20.
  • Moore, Anne Cooper and Kimberly A. Wells. “Connecting 24/5 to Millenials: Providing Academic Support Services from a Learning Commons.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 35, no.1, January 2009, pp. 75-85.
  • Oakes, Hillory and Stephen J. Corbett, “CFP: Sharing Common Ground? Writing Centers and Learning Commons.” Blog Post. Writing Lab Newsletter. Accessed 4 January 2017.
  • Singh-Corcoran, Nathalie and Emika Amin. “Inhabiting the Writing Center: A Treatment of Physical Space: A Review in Five Texts.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology and Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 3, 2011, Accessed 28 December 2016.
  • “The State of Writing Centers in the Financial Crisis Era.” MCord, Accessed 31 December 2016.
  • Waller, Susan. “A Brief History of University Writing Centers: Variety and Diversity.” New Foundations, Accessed 4 January 2017.

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