This post is a followup from Carol’s piece, Two Provosts Later: Establishing a Writing Center Administration Graduate Certificate Program, from February 2017, with reflections on the program from students. Carol Mohrbacher is a Professor of English and former Writing Center Director.
In spring 2017, St. Cloud State University’s Writing Center Administration certificate program offered its first two courses, “Writing Center Theory and Practice” and “Issues in Writing Center Administration.” Students became bonded early on. Friendships and collaborations for research projects and conference presentations grew during that semester and continued into summer term with the final two classes, “Staffing and Training” and “Case Studies in Writing Center Administration.” Because the program is delivered entirely online, I was surprised at the strength of the community, which was much more than I’d hoped for during the 2 ½ years it took me to slog through the morass of bureaucratic speed bumps on the way to program approval. As I said in the earlier article/interview, I’d had to secure approvals from 14 different individuals and committees along the way. This was an intense, real-world lesson in discovering audience expectations, a topic we discuss throughout the WCA program in all of the courses.
The most significant challenge in designing the WCA program has been providing sources, instruction, and assignments that allow students to personalize a learning experience most beneficial to each one of them. Last year’s students represented a range of experience from zero to nine years in WC administration. Some were new MA students; some were PhD students; some were professionals in the field. They represented public and private institutions at the high school, 2-year, and 4-year college levels. One student had developed an independent writing center and had tax-exempt status and a board of directors in place. One, a high school teacher, had never worked in a writing center before and knew just a little about them, but hoped to help build one at her school. This year, there are more graduate students and fewer professionals; however, we have, for the first time, an administrator from a private high school boys’ preparatory school and also an assistant director from a writing center in China. Caswell, McKinney, and Jackson note the development and variety of non-standard writing centers in their book, The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors, a longitudinal study of nine new writing center directors.
That our participants include writing center directors in a charter school and in a European boarding school is emblematic of the times. Writing centers have been sprouting up in secondary schools and in non-US settings at a growing rate. As this happens, we think we’ll see that more alternatives to the US university model will emerge as different though effective, ways to do writing center work. (199)
To reflect this diversity in the WCA certificate program, course materials cover a variety of common contexts and issues pertaining to writing center administration, like navigating institutional relationships, researching the writing center, creating assessment activities and reports, grant writing, hiring, training, and other shorter units. Assignments are flexible enough so students can create individualized documents that might be included in an application portfolio or provide a model for their home institution or for the type of writing center setting they are most interested in.
Now that I am in my 2nd year, I view at the program with a perspective emerging out of a year and a half’s experience. I’ve learned that cohorts differ from year to year. The first year’s class was energetic and immediately collaborative; this year’s cohort is quieter and less bonded than the first—but they are similar in their creative energy and commitment to writing center administration studies.
This year, I adjusted some procedures and processes, including removing some submission deadlines and opening all weekly discussion topics and keeping them open throughout the semester. Next year, however, I will return to releasing the discussion topics one week at a time as some students are inclined to post and comment on all of them as quickly as possible in a race to complete the course requirement, rather than posting and commenting more thoughtfully in the development of full discussions. The releasing of all topics all at once may be one reason why this year’s cohort is less bonded, since student engagement with each other in a full discussion is less developed. Another change for next year will be to survey the third cohort before the first classes begin to obtain more information about experience, education, and preferred level of administration. Data from the survey will help in tailoring course instruction to the group. When the courses are complete, we will survey again to determine what could be improved for the following year.
Next year, some reading materials will change since the field of writing center studies is dynamic. We are currently reviewing some new texts for possible inclusion, including R. Mark Hall’s Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education and Elizabeth H. Buck’s Open Access, Multimodality, and Writing Center Studies. I am also looking for additional case studies to include in the class, “Case Studies in Writing Center Administration.” I will gratefully accept any suggestions.
Throughout this experience, I’ve tried to respect the knowledge that my students bring to the program, and encourage collaboration and storytelling. We teach each other; we learn from each other. As a result, the WCA has been my most valuable teaching experience to date.
The following students, Meghan Perry and Stephanie Liu-Rojas offer their commentary and reflection. They are from opposite coasts and very different types of institutions—Meghan from a Boston private boys’ preparatory school and Stephanie from a 4-year college in Pomona, California.
I was in the process of planning a new writing center at my private secondary school when I discovered St. Cloud State University’s Writing Center Administration certificate program. Though I had tutored in a writing center as a graduate student a decade earlier, I did not feel as well-versed in writing center pedagogy and management as I wished to be. As a full-time educator and mother of two young children, returning to school felt like an ambitious undertaking, but the content and flexibility of the St. Cloud program appealed to me. No other program seemed remotely as pertinent to my career path. After a few email exchanges with the program’s director, Carol Mohrbacher, I was ready to take the plunge.
The timing of the program proved serendipitous. The first classes began in January, four months into my first year as a writing center coordinator—long enough for me to have ridden the rollercoaster of challenges and successes that directors of new centers inevitably encounter. Right away, I found myself tearing through the course readings, ravenous for perspective. In truth, I felt behind. “I wish I had read this sooner!” was a thought that ran frequently through my head as I finished each assignment. Though most of the articles pertained to university writing center issues, I discovered many, many overlaps with secondary school writing center administration. I shared several pieces with my staff, who found them equally helpful. In fact, threads on the course discussion site often inspired me to take up similar topics with my own tutors.
The most valuable thing I have gained from St. Cloud’s WCA program is a sense of solidarity with the writing center directors’ community. I have learned that the challenges I face are not unique. My knowledge and appreciation of the evolution of writing centers has grown, as has my awareness of the many resources available to writing center professionals. Reading so many excellent texts and swapping stories with classmates has enabled me to avoid some common pitfalls and establish more specific and realistic goals for my center. Additionally, I have gained confidence as an administrator, which has helped me to establish new partnerships within my institution, develop better programing for my students, and advance the cause of secondary school writing centers.
The Writing Center Administration Certification program taught me the tools and resources I need to run a Writing Center: from developing faculty and administrative support, writing effective grants, building strong assessments, implementing campus wide programs, and hiring and training tutors.
However, I never expected the program to promote friendship, collaboration, inclusion, diversity, and break down power structures in academia. With only a Bachelor’s degree, I didn’t think I had anything to teach someone holding a doctoral degree, while learning from another classmate about applying motivation theory to tutoring practices. Another classmate taught me that sometimes you just have to throw out everything you know about theory and practice, and just talk about making eggrolls to get your students excited about writing. Every time the concept of English dialects is mentioned, I think about my classmate’s student who articulated his great ideas in Southern Georgian vernacular. And I fondly recall how a classmate always managed to teach us how mindfulness can always be implemented within tutorials. Carol Mohrbacher’s program did not just teach me the logistics and the how-to of running a writing center, but she created a community where the students support, guide, learn and provide expertise to one another.
I now hold the skills and confidence to lead my first conference panel, accept a job as an editor assistant, and become a stronger candidate to obtain my Master’s degree in TESOL at the University of Southern California. Most importantly, I also have the support and guidance from these unexpected friendships.
Buck, Elizabeth H. Open Access, Multimodality, and Writing Center Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
Caswell, Nicole I., et al. The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors. University Press of Colorado, 2016.
Hall, R. Mark. Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education. University Press of Colorado, 2017.