Rewind & Reset: A Conversation with Ben Rafoth

Editor’s note: With technology rapidly shifting how we write and read, we at CWCAB are thinking about what different digital innovations mean for the writing center’s work and its relevance in the academy. That’s why, for this week’s Rewind & Reset, we are sharing a portion of a conversation between CWCAB’s former editor Josh Ambrose and Ben Rafoth that took place in August 2015. In this part of their conversation, Rafoth suggests innovations that might defy some of our long-held beliefs about tutoring but could still help us stay relevant.

Ben Rafoth

Ben Rafoth is a leading scholar and author in the field of writing centers and writing studies. Ben is Emeritus Director of the Kathleen Jones White Writing Center at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  During the time of this interview, he shared with Josh Ambrose, our first WLN blog editor, that “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had great teachers and awesome students, and the hundreds of tutors I’ve been fortunate to work with in my writing center at IUP have made all the difference.” He teaches graduate courses in the Composition and TESOL program at IUP, and has served as its director. In 2010, Ben was named IUP’s Distinguished University Professor, a lifetime title and the highest award for faculty at IUP.

And now, Ben Rafoth:

Thoughts on the future:

The past few decades have seen big growth for writing centers, and while some centers are clearly thriving, that growth may be slowing in many other places. Higher education is changing, and there are more changes to come. How will writing centers adapt? What will they look like ten or twenty years from now? It’s impossible to know for sure, but I expect our current focus — one-to-one, face-to-face tutoring — will look much different than it does today. Today, most of what students visit a writing center for — ideas, organization, editing, proofreading, conversation, encouragement — can be found online. There are apps for each of these, or there will be soon.

I think it’s important to look at the many things we could be doing but are not. We might start with the fact that there is a significant unmet demand for high-quality editing, both on campus and in the world at large. Writing centers are a logical place to provide editing, and yet we wear the taboo against editing as a badge of honor. I’m not sure that’s wise.

Or let’s go further. The internet has made it vastly easier and cheaper to download papers and submit them as one’s own, and most campuses punish students severely for doing this. Still, they take the risk because they decide they can’t or don’t want to write the paper themselves. Turnitin is making a fortune policing this, and universities believe they are monitoring the good moral behavior of their student writers when they check for plagiarism. But is this any way to teach students to write?

Consider, for instance, a writing center whose tutors wrote papers with students — together, both coming up with ideas, both putting ideas into words, both editing and proofreading. As an instructor, I would prefer that over a student handing in a paper he or she didn’t write at all. I don’t think every student or instructor will choose this option, but many will because it offers a different model for teaching and learning.

IUP tutors standing at the entrance to the writing center

We can imagine other changes to our writing centers. Some will fly in the face of current policies and may not be suitable for some centers or campuses. Others will be very creative and usher in new kinds of thinking and talent. Writing centers can be the laboratories of innovation they once were, as Neal Lerner found.

I think there are many frontiers left to explore in the field of writing centers, and I hope that the many changes higher education is going through will open new doors for writing centers. Diversifying the range of practices and policies we follow could help to make writing centers are stronger and more vibrant presence in education.

What do you think about Rafoth’s ideas? Let us know in the comment box below. Check out the entire conversation by clicking this link.


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