Editor’s note: This 2-part piece, written by Stacia Lael Moroski-Rigney, is a follow-up to Watkins (now Moroski-Rigney), Stacia, Scott Whiddon, and Rhyan Conyers. “Writing Center Advisory Boards: Administrative Structures and the Good Work We Do.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. (43.3-4) November/December 2018.
After our WLN 2017 article, Scott, Rhyan, and I got many requests for help from writing center administrators around the world. Some were from directors who were told to start a board. Others were from new administrators who needed a team behind their choices. Most, though, were from administrators who simply wanted to improve the visibility, management, and effectiveness of their centers. Through these conversations, we were reinvigorated.
We shared tips that we had learned—both the practical and the theoretical. We presented at conferences and conducted workshops. We worked one-on-one with admins. So much of our research didn’t fit in the article, and we looked for ways to share more.
So, in the interest of sharing and documenting what we learned in our research and what we’ve shared with a segment of our community, below is a practical “getting started” guide to creating an efficient and effective writing center board.
The major work of advisory board creation happens, unsurprisingly, before the first meeting. Most of the advice from our research falls into five main steps for getting started; this blog will focus on these beginning steps.
Technically, of course, assessment is always the first step. You must assess what you hope to achieve with your board. What is missing in how your center works, your center’s outreach, or your center’s mission? If nothing is missing, then, it may not be necessary to start a board at this time. However, if you don’t have contact with your stakeholders, this assessment of your needs can help determine answers to all of the questions below.
According to responses from our survey in 2018, 15% of our respondents had an advisory board. Of course, our research request—a survey on advisory boards—may have privileged the responses. However, this evidence suggests that many of you have already started. Fortunately, most of the steps below may be taken retroactively.
Step 1: Board approval
The first step is considering how official the board will be. Faculty and academic staff (and some students) do much service work. If this work is counted toward tenure and promotion on your campus, consider how your board might become officially-recognized. Also remember, the number of committees on which a faculty member serves may be managed to guarantee that all academic staff have a voice in campus decision-making. The more official your board, the more precarious it could be as your personal tool; the less official the board, though, the less ethical it may be to ask faculty, staff, and students to donate their time.
Step Two: Naming
Advisory or advocacy? Board, council, working group, or committee? In this second step, you should consider the role of your board. Do you want advice? Or do you want advocates? Are there specific roles defined on your campus of committees versus boards? Do you simply want to call it a writing center council so that its mission can be defined in a non-traditional way?
Step Three: The charter (Download a sample WCAC charter here)
A charter has several components that will begin as research and questions for you, your stakeholders, and your staff.
The mission statement pairs with and reflects the mission of your writing center while stating the broader (or more specific) goal(s) of the board. Hopefully, your writing center mission statement also reflects the goals of the university, but if not, consider reflecting the language you see used in your university’s mission statement. That mission is one you have verily agreed to, and service work (i.e. the board mission) should also further these goals.
The purpose of the board may be different from its mission. Why is it being formed/was it formed? Savvy transparency and institutional knowledge is key here. You have more than one audience–an administrative audience (those who will approve and receive data from the board) and a board audience (the members themselves). Both require explanation of purpose, specific to them, that guide the goals of the board.
Roles, rights, and responsibilities
Consider the roles of your board members based on your mission and purpose. Are there differing roles? Who will schedule meetings, reserve space, lead the meetings, set the agenda, or appoint subcommittees? Will you have a chair? Will you call that person the “Chair”? Who will lead the meetings in the absence of the chair? Are subcommittees needed? How will they be organized? What do your committee members have the right to know or access? What are their responsibilities to the chair, the committee, or the center with their agreement to serve?
Is this a 1, 3, or 5 year appointment/election? Would a student member need a shorter term? Are there permanent members based on position (i.e. writing center administrators, the library dean, or the chair of the college?).
Who should be included in this decision-making process? Is there a voting plan necessary? How will members be recruited? How will these choices be seen in the political climate of your university? A board can make a center more or less insular, so these questions may require some research.
Again, the mission of the board is crucial to making this determination. If this is an advocacy board, then, perhaps meetings aren’t necessary more than once a year as a tool for disseminating writing center information. However, if this is a working group, especially one to review, assess, or make substantive change to the center, regular bi-weekly meetings may be necessary. Also keep in mind that faculty, staff, and students have differing schedules. If you hope to meet synchronously regularly, consider the types of jobs of your members. The university registrar might not be available midday, and a faculty member may not work in the summer.
Member development and orientation
If your members are not all former writing center staff or administration, some orientation and professional development will be necessary. This training is essential for the board to understand the purpose, mission, goals, and intended learning outcomes of your center and to be able to provide the best possible service to and representation of the center. Perhaps this is an asynchronous unit; it could be a regular or one-time visit to use the services of the writing center; it may be an hours-long collaborative workshop with the tutors.
Step Four: Board assembly
This step is perhaps the most difficult because—by deciding who is on your board and what the size of your board should be—you can either limit or expand the writing center’s purview on campus.
According to Blue Avocado: Practical, Provocative, Food for Thought for Nonprofits, the average board size in the US is 17, and the recommended size is no smaller than 7 and no larger than 18 for maximum efficiency. However, your choice will need to be made based on your specific context.
Who are your main stakeholders? Who do you want them to be? This decision is an opportunity to create a community for your center and to open up your center to areas on campus who have not historically been a part of your conversation.
Will you have student reps? Staffers or non-staffers? Will your board be made up of only students? Will university administrators have a seat at the table? Department representatives? College representatives? Student support services or the library? Community members? Donors or alumni?
Choosing members is also a chance to increase the equity and inclusiveness of your center. Does your center staff represent a cross-section of your campus? Often, it does not. This representation includes but is not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and (dis)ability. If you have disabled members of your board, how does that change the charter, where you meet, or how your training is disseminated?
Your board can be a way to include relevant voices in conversations about language, grammar, workshop offerings, center hours, disability and access, and the comfort of your physical and virtual spaces.
To complicate these questions, we may also consider research from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point that recommends the consideration of three types of board members: Connectors, Mavens, and Salespeople. Connectors bring with them a social network, be it a college, a community, or an office. Mavens bring specialized knowledge or information that will be necessary to the work being done, and salespeople are charismatic negotiators who can also manage and resolve conflict between members.
Step Five: Assessment plan design
Assessment is also step five. Once you have a charter and list of potential members, the questions become: how will you know what the committee is achieving, and what success will look like. Assessment is research. It is data collection. It is answering questions. As with any assessment plan, both formative and summative assessments will help you determine the effectiveness and efficiency of your board. These strategies are not limited to the suggestions below.
Formative assessments: Willingness of members to serve or to work, minutes (and narratives?) of board meetings, regular post-meeting surveys
Summative: simple counts of volunteers or members, simple count of time spent by members on the work of the board, pre-/post-orientation/development survey, Faculty/Staff Learning Outcomes (FSLOs) and measurements, annual board satisfaction surveys
As we noted in the WLN article, “The design of WC advisory boards will most likely depend on the type of institution in which the board is created…. However, such boards have the potential for increasing the impact of both a director and a WC when it comes to creating a more sustainable campus culture of writing.” In these tips for getting started, I hope you, too, have been inspired to work toward this sustainable culture for your center.
Stay tuned for part 2 next week on setting up the first meeting and maintaining a successful board.
Works Cited and Consulted
Blue Avocado: Practical, Provocative, Food for Thought for Nonprofits. (n.d.) “What’s the Right
Size for the Board?”
Gladwell, M. (2002). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown, and Company.
Kotter, J. (2012). Leading Change. Harvard Business Review Press.
The National Council on Nonprofits. (n.d.) “Finding the Right Board Members for your
Shachter, Amy, and Karen Kashmanian Oates. (2016). “Coaching Change Agents: Planning, Implementing, and Sustaining Reforms.” SENCER Summer Institute.
About the author: Dr. Stacia Moroski-Rigney is Director of the CAL Citizen Scholars Program at Michigan State University as well as an academic specialist and affiliated graduate faculty member in Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures. Stacia co-authored The Pop Culture Zone: Writing about Popular Culture (1st ed.), contributed a chapter to COMPbiblio: Leaders and Influences in Composition Theory and Practice, and published articles in WLN and in SDC: A Journal of Multiliteracy and Innovation. She is a former President of SWCA and a former co-chair of the IWCA Summer Institute. Stacia also works as a consultant for universities in first-year experience, writing programs, assessment, and writing centers.