Editor’s note: Here is the third installment of a series by Dr. Tom Deans (University of Connecticut) in which he is documenting his experience starting a writing center at Uganda Christian University (UCU). To read Part One, please open this link: “Another Way to Connect Across Borders: Consider a Fulbright Scholarship”. For Part Two, please open “Roundtable on Creating a Writing Centre in East Africa”.
A proposal for a writing centre at Uganda Christian University (UCU) is working its way through the university’s layers of shared governance. While it has earned endorsements from several key committees, no actual center will open until sometime in 2022. What I can share now is the plan under consideration, which follows on months of consultations with administrators and writing instructors.
My Ugandan colleagues are inclined to give the North American model of peer tutoring a try, to make it part of both a longstanding commitment to undergraduate education and a cluster of nascent efforts to enhance teaching and learning. Yet they will also, in some significant ways, plan to depart from the familiar model.
The most salient departure is one of scope: the center will be designed to serve not only undergraduate and graduate students but also faculty and staff. While I am aware of some writing centers that include faculty writing and publication support in their remit, it is rare to find ones that explicitly enlist administrative staff, inviting them to grow as workplace writers or enhance their own professional mobility.
Here is how the scope is articulated in the proposal (using UCU nomenclature of “post-graduate” for graduate students and “academic staff” for faculty/instructors):
The centre should serve not just undergraduate and post-graduate students but also academic and administrative staff. All can benefit from a structured and sustained engagement with writing as a social and iterative process, although goals and methods may vary by constituency:
- Undergraduate: drop-in peer coaching for course assignments and/or course-based peer tutoring, with emphasis on collaborative learning, writing and research skills, motivation, student leadership, and university mission
- Post-Graduate: programming (workshops, writing groups, guest speakers, dissertation bootcamps, etc.) and peer coaching, with emphasis on timely degree progress, motivation/persistence, and writing skills
- Administrative staff: programming (workshops, clinics, etc.) with emphasis on productivity, communication skills, adaptability, and professional advancement
- Academic staff: programming (workshops, writing groups, writing retreats, advice sessions with research-active academic staff, etc.) with emphasis on research, publishing, and grant writing
The undergraduate approach will be familiar to writing center folks but prove novel at UCU, where there is little tradition of drop-in peer tutoring. (We may call it “coaching” to avoid confusion with how “tutoring” gets used in British-influenced educational systems; for the same reason we also plan to use “fellow” instead of “tutor.”)
The proposed staffing plan is to hire a director (part-time or full-time still unsettled) and twelve paid student fellows, one from each of UCU’s faculties: Agriculture, Business, Dentistry, Divinity, Education, Engineering, Health Sciences, Journalism, Law, Medicine, Research & Post-Graduate Studies, and Social Sciences. Recruiting a fellow from each faculty broadcasts that the centre serves the entire university; moreover, because the faculties are relatively autonomous, we think that having on board those who understand the various curricula and can reach out to their respective home units is a wise strategy. (Because medicine and dentistry are not on the main campus, we may swap those slots for fellows who can bring a special commitment to working with UCU’s required Writing and Study Skills courses.)
The library is an enthusiastic partner and has promised prime tutoring and office space. The librarians see a writing centre as a timely and welcome extension of their efforts to build a learning commons.
Beyond mentoring and managing the peer fellows, the director will need to organize and implement programming for post-graduate, administrative staff, academic staff constituencies. That’s a lot, and of course the scale of such work will be constrained by the director’s time and budget. Most such programming is likely to follow a workshop or short course model. In past years, Research & Post-Graduate Studies has offered MA and PhD thesis writers a “Post-Graduate Research and Writing Seminar,” created and led by a volunteer from the US who comes to UCU for several weeks most years. A centre could provide a year-round, sustainable infrastructure for that and related initiatives.
There is still debate about whether to offer revenue-generating services—editing, translation, dissertation binding, and certificate courses, for example. Uganda is one of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world, and some at UCU see this kind of fee-for-service portfolio as making the centre more relevant and sustainable. In fact, an earlier proposal for a writing and research centre—one that circulated before I arrived at UCU and started talking up the peer model—foregrounded this emphasis and imagined serving mainly post-graduate students. There’s a fair chance that the two proposals will be blended.
As we all know, universities express what they value not just in good intentions and committee votes but also (even more so!) in personnel lines and budget allocations. Come 2022, there will, I hope, be something to report about those.