Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Amy Hodges (University of Texas at Arlington), Inas Y. Mahfouz (American University of Kuwait), Sahar Mari, (Texas A&M University at Qatar), Maimoonah K. Al Khalil (King Saud University), Paula A. Habre (Lebanese American University), and Hala Daouk (Lebanese American University) for writing this piece. To learn more about MENAWCA, visit https://menawca.org/.
Three years ago at the 2019 Middle East North Africa Writing Centers Alliance (MENAWCA) conference in Beirut, Lebanon, around 30 writing center directors, tutors, and teachers met to discuss the challenges that faced writing center researchers in the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region. Two key challenges to regional writing center research were expressed in that session.
The first challenge was that MENA writing center professionals did not always know where to locate relevant research, and often, this search was limited because their institution did not have access to the same resources as their North American counterparts. Libraries subscribed to different databases, and at that time, the Writing Center Journal was not open access, as it is thankfully now. Most postgraduate programs in the MENA region are in TESOL, linguistics, or literature, so writing center professionals in the MENA region are less likely to be familiar with scholarship and practice in writing center theory and pedagogy, as would be the case if they pursued postgraduate training in rhetoric and composition or writing program administration. Overall, the participants in the session expressed the need for an open-access mechanism for sharing research relevant to MENA centers.
The second challenge was that when MENA writing center professionals did turn to existing research to answer practical questions about the operations in their center, the vast majority of the scholarship had been conducted in North American centers, which, while the ideas might be relevant, did not always reflect the linguistic needs of MENA students and the unique challenges of MENA centers. In MENA English-medium institutions or programs (often in the sciences and business disciplines), writing centers are by default multilingual writing centers. One frequent question is how to apply the writing center philosophy of prioritizing higher order concerns over grammar and mechanics when the writing center’s clients are mostly Arabic speakers of English. Those who work in Arabic writing centers also wonder about how to enact writing center theory, as the concept of writing centers was developed in Western contexts where the goal was to support students to succeed in Western models for academic writing. Even writing center terminology is a key question for MENA writing centers, as the Arabic translations for the English terms “tutor” and “client” have different connotations in different parts of the Arab world.
Thus, the MENAWCA network was an important source for writing center professionals’ inquiries about regional practices. During the other sessions of the conference and during coffee breaks, conference attendees had gathered to ask questions of each other: Does your center use WC Online? Does your center send a notification to the teacher that their student came to the center? Does your center host events about writing?
MENA writing center professionals have a lot of questions about what we all have in common and what adaptations have been made to the writing center model due to the contexts of MENA educational institutions. We need research that answers questions relevant to our context, such as how MENA writing centers aligned their mission and practices with the missions of MENA institutions, or how MENA writing centers developed tutoring practices that met the needs of MENA students. We lack the data to answer even a simple question, like how many MENA writing centers offered online tutorials before the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, few writing center professionals have time for large-scale research projects, especially those at under-resourced institutions. What we all realized during that session during the 2019 conference was that there was a very strong need to build the research infrastructure in the region and to increase the number of MENA voices in writing center scholarship.
Thus, the co-authors of this blog post – some of whom participated in this session and some of whom responded to an open call to the MENAWCA Executive Board – formed a research team and received the summer 2020 IWCA research grant to begin the process of developing a knowledge database of MENA writing centers. Our team represents four countries in the MENA region with a growing population of writing centers: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Qatar. We also represent a wide variety of work within and around writing centers, including directors, assistant directors, chairs of English departments, coordinators of Writing Across the Curriculum programs, tutors, teachers, and researchers. Several of us were fluent in key languages in the region: Arabic, French, and English. Some were local, meaning born in MENA region countries, and others were expatriates working in MENA region countries.
We examined other insightful sources of data that are already publicly available:
- the National Census of Writing https://writingcensus.ucsd.edu
- the Writing Centers Research Project https://owl.purdue.edu/research/writing_centers_research_project_survey.html
- Estado de la cuestión de los centros y programas de escritura en Latinoamérica, or the State of the Art of Writing Centers and Programs in Latin America: http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_abstract&pid=S0120-39162020000100097
The research team spent one year creating a bilingual (Arabic and English) census survey to be distributed to writing centers in MENA higher education and secondary institutions. This survey shares some questions with the data sources linked above, although some questions had to be modified in order to make sense in the language and cultural context of the region. Writing center administrators were asked questions about their job description, previous experience and education in writing centers, the institutional context of their center, and practices around tutor training. Tutors were asked questions about their job description, training, and experiences working with students in the writing center.
Currently, writing centers in eight countries across the region have taken part in the census, including four high school writing centers in Türkiye and Lebanon and seventeen writing centers at universities and community colleges in Egypt, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Türkiye, and the United Arab Emirates.
To take part in the census or to learn more information, please contact the email address of the MENAWCA Executive Board email@example.com in English, Arabic, or French.
Once complete, results from the survey will be available in both Arabic and English on MENAWCA’s website, facilitating further research and practice in MENA writing centers. Website users will be able to access information on MENA institutional contexts, tutoring practices, and administrative responsibilities. The research team is also following up with some survey participants who have expressed an interest in talking with us about more context for their practices. These interviews have informed our recent IWCA presentation on “The Ecosystems of Work in Writing Centers,” where we discussed labor practices in MENA writing centers and facilitated a conversation on a global framework for writing center labor.
Eventually, making the results of the survey publicly accessible might promote the status of writing centers in institutions in the MENA region and contribute to the improvement of the conditions of writing center professionals and the recognition of the added value of these spaces to those seeking help for a variety of writing situations. Additionally, the sharing of results will not only place centers on the virtual map but hopefully create links for the regional centers to establish real connections to advance the practice and research output.