In this interview with Dr. Amy Hodges (President of the Middle East North Africa Writing Center Alliance), Dr. Paula Abboud Habre and Hala Daouk of the Lebanese American University Writing Center talk about their center’s initiative to grow writing centers across high schools in Lebanon. The interview took place following MENAWCA’s April 2019 conference in Beirut, Lebanon
Amy Hodges is an instructional assistant professor of English and Writing Across the Curriculum coordinator at Texas A&M University at Qatar, and she is also the president of the Middle East North Africa Writing Centers Alliance (MENAWCA). Paula Abboud Habre is a senior instructor of English and the Writing Center Director at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut, Lebanon; she also serves as the treasurer of MENAWCA. Hala Daouk is an instructor of English and assistant director of the LAU writing center, as well as the IWCA representative on the MENAWCA Executive Board.
Amy: I wanted to interview you both after the outstanding MENAWCA conference in Beirut this past spring. You and the rest of the LAU staff were wonderful hosts, and I wanted many more people to know about the great work you are doing in Lebanon. Tell me a little about the Lebanese American University writing center.
Paula: LAU’s Writing Center was established in 2010 in Beirut and two years later in the Byblos campus. The mission stems from the LAU mission statement which capitalizes on student-centeredness. The Writing Center, which is presently housed in the English Department, supports students from the different schools whether at the graduate or undergraduate levels.
Hala: The LAU Writing Center started with a small team and only a handful of student appointments, but it soon grew to become the essential service it is now at LAU.
Paula: Statistics from Fall & Spring 2019 revealed [that] the total number of appointments in both Beirut and Byblos was 1772. The percentage of undergraduate students was 83.75%, while the percentage of clients from several graduate programs was 7.3%. The Writing Center tutors are part-time English faculty who have undergone training in addition to a few peer tutors.
It is also worthy of mention that Arabic is the first or home language of 78% of the students who visit the Center, and 65.43% of the clients use English as their second language while 4.55% use French as their second language
Amy: The theme of MENAWCA 2019 was “Resilience through Reconstruction.” I thought it was a fantastic theme, and very relevant to Beirut itself and writing centers in the region. Can you tell me about a time – personal or professional – when you have shown your own resiliency?
Paula: At the professional level, I have translated my resiliency by putting together a regional conference in only a four-month time frame after it had been postponed and then cancelled in another country. With the support of the board, but with various challenges, I proved to myself first then to my team that with persistence, one can overcome a number of obstacles knowing that there are impediments in the way. Just like when writers come to the writing center seeking help, I sought assistance from the Development Office, Dean’s Office, Provost Office to make the conference a reality and all of that did not happen instantaneously but with multiple visits until a “final draft” was ready.
Hala: One of the times I can describe as a time I had to be resilient is of course related to my work as a writing center assistant director. Much like many colleagues at writing centers around the world, we face some resistance from our administrations, and that is exactly the time we all need to be resilient because we have faith in how much our writing center can help our students. It is important for me to keep fighting for my position as assistant director at the center because I believe that I have a lot to bring to the center and to LAU.
Amy: And how did you personally come to be involved in writing center work?
Paula: Initially, I was a member of an Ad Hoc committee that was charged to plan for the establishment of a writing center at LAU; the committee was formed of English faculty who were either interested in the initiative or had writing center backgrounds. As a graduate student at Boston University, I had the experience of starting a writing center at the Graduate School of Management there which helped me in the new project even though the needs and student populations in each university varied. After the establishment of the LAU WC, I became a tutor since it operated with full-time English faculty in the beginning. When the founding Director became the Chairperson of the department in 2012, she recommended that I become the Director and that is how the story of many challenges began.
Hala: I joined the center in 2013 as a tutor when Paula became director. I knew a little bit about the writing center as a faculty member at LAU, so it was not completely new to me, but I still had my training like all new tutors. Two years ago, when our services became much more requested by the different departments and schools at LAU, I became the assistant director and started to help more with the day-to-day tasks.
Amy: In addition to the work you’ve done growing the writing center at LAU, you won a grant from the US Embassy for your project Writing Centers at Schools, where you trained high school teachers in Lebanon on writing center pedagogy and administration. Why did you choose to work with high school teachers in your country?
Paula: After having read a lot about writing centers in the US, I learned that writing centers first started at schools and then became operational in colleges and universities. So I thought something should be done at the school level in Lebanon since the idea of writing centers here was almost nonexistent. After the five-year anniversary of the LAU Writing Center in Beirut, I felt we can share our humble success story with the high schools in the country, especially because many of them are feeding schools for LAU, so if their students become familiar with the concept, it is not only of benefit to them at the high school level, but they become better prepared for university writing and become aware of the available writing support services and their operation.[pullquote]After the five-year anniversary of the LAU Writing Center in Beirut, I felt we can share our humble success story with the high schools in the country, especially because many of them are feeding schools for LAU, so if their students become familiar with the concept, it is not only of benefit to them at the high school level, but they become better prepared for university writing and become aware of the available writing support services and their operation.[/pullquote]
Hala: We increasingly found the need to spread the writing center culture among high school students so that they would be familiar with it when they reach university. We often struggle with students (and faculty alike) who resist coming to the writing center because of misconceptions about what the writing center does and how it can help them. We realized that if they were exposed to the philosophy of the writing center in school, they can benefit a lot more from its services at university. Therefore, we chose high school teachers to help us spread that culture.
Amy: What have been the outcomes of this grant?
Paula: Such an outreach project needed funding, so I applied for a small English language grant that the U.S. Embassy offers annually. The timing was perfect for the outreach idea and it permitted us to train high school teachers initially at LAU and later in their schools. In brief, the outcomes of the grant were the establishment of five new school writing centers coupled with ongoing training and assessment with the new directors and other administrators.
Amy: From talking to some of the high school teachers at the MENAWCA conference, I learned that many of them and their students are trilingual – Arabic, French, and English. How do you think language diversity impacts the work of their writing centers?
Hala: This language diversity impacts our centers in general here in Lebanon as we find ourselves switching languages most of the time. At the level of high schools, one of them is currently operating an English and Arabic writing center as the director saw that the need to help the students in Arabic required them to do so. I believe that even if a writing center is not officially operating as bilingual or trilingual, high school teachers are still managing to help their students in any language they require while applying the same philosophy in the three languages [pullquote]This language diversity impacts our centers in general here in Lebanon as we find ourselves switching languages most of the time. At the level of high schools, one of them is currently operating an English and Arabic writing center as the director saw that the need to help the students in Arabic required them to do so. I believe that even if a writing center is not officially operating as bilingual or trilingual, high school teachers are still managing to help their students in any language they require while applying the same philosophy in the three languages.[/pullquote]
Paula: Many schools in Lebanon teach Arabic and English from the age of three while others teach Arabic, English and French. Surprisingly, one of the schools decided to have a trilingual writing center, so it created a section for Arabic writing support, another for French and of course an English section.
Amy: What have you learned from the high school teachers as a result of this project?
Hala: As much as it was difficult to start a writing center at a university, it is maybe more challenging to start one in a school in Lebanon. In addition to the challenge of introducing this new concept to the administration and other faculty members, there are numerous challenges that stand in the way of a successful center. We have learned that their passion to help their students outdoes any challenge they might face. They had to work around difficult schedules, difficult administrations, unpaid hours, among others. We have also learned that there is not one writing center concept that fits all institutions alike. They are all operating in different ways that suit their institution, and they are working hard to sustain their centers.
Paula: As a result of the project, I learned from the school teachers that they have similar challenges like we do but also have particular needs. Opening hours was an issue in addition to the remuneration of professional tutors or even peers. I also learned that it is equally challenging to convince administrators and fellow teachers of the value of a writing center. What is of concern is the sustainability and continuity of such a support service on the long run.
Amy: Not only have you sustained your own writing center and consulted with high school teachers in Lebanon, but you also hosted the 6th biennial MENAWCA conference this past April. Why did you want to bring MENAWCA members to Beirut? [Insert pics sent by Amy from conference]
Paula: After having attended a number of MENAWCA Conferences in the region, I felt it is time for MENAWCA members to experience Beirut as the “hub” of educational institutions in the Middle East and since the name of the alliance covers a wide area, it should also have a representation from other countries besides the Arabian Gulf region. I also wanted to share with them the school project in the hopes that it spreads to other MENA countries since it has proven to be of benefit to student writers in my country.[pullquote] I also wanted to share with them the school project in the hopes that it spreads to other MENA countries since it has proven to be of benefit to student writers in my country.[/pullquote]
Hala: We have seen how [the MENAWCA] conference brings together writing center tutors, directors, and writing teachers, so we wanted Beirut to be the meeting point for this passionate group of people. We also wanted to shed the light on our high schools’ project, and there is no better place to do it than here at home where we can give a chance to the high school teachers to present about their centers and their work. We also wanted the MENAWCA members to come to Lebanon and experience the beauty, uniqueness but also diversity of Beirut as we thought that it has a lot to offer despite its small size and many challenges, two characteristics that often describe our own center at LAU.
Amy: The members of MENAWCA have a lot to thank you for after this conference. You welcomed us with open arms, wonderful food – and a Lebanese dance party! You facilitated thoughtful conversations during the conference and connected professionals across the region, many of whom are the only people doing writing center work at their institution. How has being a member of MENAWCA benefitted you?
Hala: Being a member of MENAWCA is one of the most beneficial ways of staying in contact with other professionals in the field and learning of their news and the achievements of their centers. It has helped create a connection and closeness despite the distance and the difficulty of meeting regularly.
Paula: Being a MENAWCA member has benefitted me tremendously before, during and after the conference; it has exposed me to a number of professionals in the field and made my mind more open to regional needs. It is a venue of sharing ideas as well as frustrations that cannot be exposed elsewhere. It feels like a writing centers family whose members live in different places but are always connected with a unified bond to keep the mission of writing centers alive in the region.
Update: Since this conversation between Amy Hodges, Paula Abboud Habre and Hala Daouk took place, the LAU writing center has had to provide e-sessions and in lieu of face-to-face appointments as a way of adapting to the current tenuous situation in Lebanon. Paula has indicated that LAU’s Writing Center attempted to keep their operations going during the past month’s revolution, but the protests expanded to the point that many students were unable to commute to any of the LAU campuses due to roadblocks and others wanted to participate in the uprising to show solidarity with all different classes of society.
For more information about the Lebanon situation, click on this article by faculty at the Lebanese American University.