The Living Bridge, a footbridge connecting the Co. Limerick campus to the Co. Clare campus, crosses the River Shannon
Established in 2007 as Ireland’s first academic writing centre, the Regional Writing Centre at the University of Limerick (RWCUL) is essentially the same writing centre that was profiled thirteen years ago in Writing Programs Worldwide (Thaiss, et al. 2012). One significant change, though, is the recent loss of my Co-Director, Íde O’Sullivan, who was moved to a newly created curriculum design position within the university’s Centre for Transformative Learning (CTL). Íde and I worked together from day one to build the centre we now have. Her loss required a rethink of what could be done with only one Director, an undergraduate administrative assistant and an extremely modest budget for peer tutors, accommodating hundreds of programmes, thousands of modules (U.S. = courses) and many thousands of students, 13,000 last count and growing. The scope of what we do has narrowed, for sure, but the centre is safe in its mission. The centre’s main goal remains the initiation and perpetuation of a local, national and European-wide conversations on writing and writing pedagogy.
Lawrence Cleary, Director RWCUL
When I reflect on the uniqueness of our centre for this blog post, my reflections take me back to conversations that I had with other writing centre or writing provision administrators at last December’s meeting of the Irish Network for the Enhancement of Writing (INEW), hosted by Zeljka Doljanin, Managing Director of the Dublin City University (DCU) Writing Centre. I was surprised to learn there that not one of the writing centres or writing support programmes represented at the meeting—and, as far as I know, only one or two not represented at the meeting—are directing their provision beyond the students, to the staff (as teachers or as writers) or to the community beyond.
As I wrote in ‘At the Centre of Changing Contexts: A Writing for Life Centre’ (Cleary 2019, p.116), Irish law obligates our universities to be outward facing: “…we are a face looking in two directions simultaneously, back to a student’s life before matriculation and forward to the life the student faces when they leave.”
Moving forward, we will continue to host a national essay-writing competition for secondary school students, engaging them in debates about social issues that are relevant to them as a way of preparing them for future civic engagement.
The future will also see our centre offering continuous professional development initiatives for secondary school teachers wishing for an approach to writing pedagogy that transfers across contexts and for a better understanding of how writing can facilitate a deeper learning experience. We will not shy from opportunities, when they arise, to engage with employers to better prepare graduates for those workplace communicative contexts by offering subject specialists at university a framework around which conversations about writing in the field can be organised. Our centre will also persist, despite the changes resulting from Íde’s departure, in reaching out to people from special interest groups in the region such as adults who are considering a return to education, Traveller women participating in the Primary Health Care for Travellers Project
or even participation in the upcoming annual Limerick Lifelong Learning Festival
Winners of the 2019 National Secondary School Essay-writing Competition
One consequence of losing Íde is that I will have to shift away from the labour-intensive and time-consuming Writing in the Disciplines (WID) work, proceeding instead with Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) work, focusing more on our framework for talking about writing in general. The centre will also need to retreat from its previous participation in the Centre for Transformative Learning’s teaching certification programme, Certificate/Diploma/Masters in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship, though there will still be room for occasional workshops for postgrads and academic staff on writing for publication. However, my main focus in my interactions with academic staff will be in engaging with them through writing-to-learn and features of writing pedagogy that apply to all disciplines, features such writing clear assignments, clarifying grading criteria, giving effective feedback, using peer-review and assessing writing.
Further afield, finally, our writing centre will continue to engage in European and international conversations about writing and writing pedagogy through the European Writing Center Association (EWCA), of whose board I serve, the International Writing Center Association, of which I am a member, the European Association for Teachers of Academic Writing (EATAW), for which we held a conference in 2011, and the International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research (ISAWR) and the Association for Writing across the Curriculum (AWAC), both of which I am a member, and for whom I was to present this past spring and summer, respectively, but for the pandemic.
A second revelation from that meeting was that few of the writing centres or writing provision initiatives in Ireland employ peer writing tutors, preferring ‘expert writers’, usually PhD candidates and faculty. And, again, as far as I know, only our writing centre employs undergraduate peer tutors in addition to postgraduates. In fact, our centre only hires students. If an academic staff member wants to talk to an ‘expert’, they would come to me; otherwise, they would talk to one of our peer tutors. Our undergraduates tutors have achieved a high score in our Peer Tutoring in Academic Writing module, an ‘optional extra’ 3-credit module that does not count toward their degree. It is a twelve week course that is very rigorous, especially when you consider that these students are taking up this course on top of the modules required by their programmes. Our postgrads are selected based on the quality of their submitted writing sample and their responses to interview questions. Our ethos requires that our tutors adopt a non-invasive, Socratic approach to tutoring. All of the tutors are trained to understand that the peer tutoring situation is a collaborative learning experience/opportunity. There is always something new to learn about writing and ourselves as writers. I will pester the tutor who writes to me to say they do not know anything about the issue a student is bringing to the session to remember that we hired them not only for what they know but for their ability to learn. I try to instil in them that they are good writers. They don’t need to know what the student coming to them needs to know. The student coming to them needs to know it, and our job is to help them figure out how they go about knowing it. Our tutors’ job is to model what good writers do when they are confronted with a new writing situation or an obstacle to reaching their research and writing goals. The tutor is modelling their research and writing processes, their understanding of the academic context for writing and the strategies they typically employ to overcome obstacles to their research and writing goals in this context.
Our writing centre’s framework for talking about writing is designed to highlight the importance of understanding the context for writing and how processes and strategies are affected by the constraints and affordances of that context. It is this framework we are bringing to our WAC workshops for students and teachers, our tutoring sessions and our online resources, which are available to anyone who has internet access, anywhere in the world. If we could bring writers in educational, workplace and wider community contexts to a better understanding of how to analyse their writing situations, it might make the transfer of knowledge about writing a bit more fluid. At least, that’s the thinking moving forward.
Cleary, L. (2019) ‘At the Centre of Changing Contexts: A Writing for Life Centre’. In Essid, J. and McTague, B. (eds.), Writing Centers at the Center of Change. Routledge, pp. 106-128.
O’Sullivan, Í. and Cleary, L. (2012) ‘The Regional Writing Centre at the University of Limerick’. In Thaiss, C., Bräuer, G., Carlino, P., & Ganobcsik-Williams, L., Writing programs worldwide: Profiles of academic writing in many places. Parlor Press/WAC Clearinghouse, pp. 261-70.