Transnational Collaborations and Writing Center Development at an English-Medium University in Lebanon

Anna S. Habib has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction (2006) and is near completing her PhD in Writing and Rhetoric from George Mason University. She served in several positions in the Mason Writing Center, from graduate tutor to Acting Director. Currently, she is the Associate Director of Composition, managing the undergraduate composition courses for multilingual students at both the George Mason University home campus and at the branch campus in Songdo, South Korea. She also coordinates and teaches the Graduate Writing across the Disciplines courses for INTO Mason, Mason’s pathway program for graduate and undergraduate international students.

WLN blog: Can you share some of your story?
Habib: I was born in Beirut during the civil war[1] to an American mother and a Lebanese father. At the age of four, when the war began to escalate, my parents, sister, and I fled the country on a small boat with other refugees who had found an illegal way out of the country. We made our way to the island of Cyprus where I grew up in a community of immigrant/refugees from Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, and the former Soviet Union. My father’s family opened a branch of their Lebanese school in Cyprus for this community of displaced students. The school followed the French Lycée curriculum, meaning all subjects were taught in French (a consequence of Lebanon’s post-colonial history), but the curriculum also included Arabic literature and language and English and Greek as required courses. When I turned 15, my family emigrated to the US to live with my mother’s parents. The shift from a tiny Mediterranean island surrounded by my native languages and my community of friends to a North Jersey high school in a wealthy community was extremely jarring.

I managed to find my way through high school, and then moved to Virginia to attend George Mason University as an undergraduate student. The campus felt a lot more comfortable than my high school environment—I was surrounded by other students from the Middle East and North African region and began to form friendships again with peers who also spoke Arabic as their first language or who had had similar international experiences.

View from University of Balamand

WLN blog: What was the role of writing centers in your academic experience in the US?
Habib:
I didn’t encounter the concept of a writing center until my undergraduate studies at Mason. In the Lebanese school/French lycée system, writing was not taught as a process. Students were often required to write decontextualized essays in class or at home that demonstrated their mastery of literary/philosophical concepts without any feedback or conversations on drafts. During my undergraduate studies at Mason, I visited the writing center once, but couldn’t appreciate the possibilities of the peer-feedback approach yet. It wasn’t until I was hired as a graduate research assistant for Terry Myers Zawacki and Chris Thaiss’ book, Engaged Writers, Dynamic Disciplines (2006), that I learned about the work of writing centers. I sat in the back hallway of the writing center and transcribed dozens of Terry’s and Chris’ interviews with faculty across the curriculum describing their own experiences as writers, and how those experiences informed their writing pedagogy. As I typed and typed for hours, I watched students and tutors interact in thoughtful conversations about writing projects. Through listening to faculty perspectives and observing tutors and students in action, I began to understand pretty clearly that the role of writing in the US academy was significantly different than its role in non-US academic contexts like the one I grew up in. Continue reading “Transnational Collaborations and Writing Center Development at an English-Medium University in Lebanon”

“Creating ‘click bait’ and sound bites to incite controversy”: A response to the CHE piece, “What’s Wrong With Writing Centers”

Julia Bleakney is Director of the Writing Center, Elon University.

 

There are many statements in “What’s Wrong with Writing Centers,” an interview with Lori Salem in the Feb 5, 2018 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, that highlight bad practice for writing centers. The interview presents Dr. Salem as a maverick writing center director, unique in the writing center field for using statistical and quantitative research and whose ideas are radical and forward–thinking in a field of status-seeking writing centers using outdated strategies that don’t serve working class or minority students or those for whom English is not a first language. The interview, conducted by Rose Jacobs, suggests that writing centers cater to privileged students who don’t need them, lest centers be considered remedial, and that writing center policies that have consultants focusing on higher-order concerns or using non-directive strategies is time-wasting and ineffective for students who need more direction.

If writing centers adopted this “one size fits all” approach to working one-to-one with the privileged students they supposedly prefer, and if they shunned empirical research methods in favor of lore, we should be alarmed. But the fact is that most of the claims made in this interview are simply not true—not true of the majority of writing centers in the U.S. and certainly not true of the Writing Center at Elon University. Many writing centers, including Elon’s, train their undergraduate student consultants based on current writing education scholarship; at Elon, for instance, the students in ENG319, Writing Center Workshop, prepare to become writing center consultants not by following lore about how to work with students on their writing but by learning about contemporary research in educational scaffolding, transfer of learning in writing instruction, and working with diverse learners. While there are a range of research approaches used by writing centers, for the last ten to fifteen years, as a field we have not shunned statistical or quantitative research and instead use empirical evidence to test and support claims about the value and impact of writing center sessions on students’ writing knowledge and confidence. In more recent years, writing center scholars have begun several large-scale, multi-site, and longitudinal studies on writing centers and their impact on student writers.

The most alarming claims in this interview are the ideas that writing center consulting strategies adopted as policy discriminate against minorities, multilingual learners, or working-class students and that transformative learning is not happening in writing centers. When Dr. Salem spoke with the Chronicle, she assumed she was speaking to a colleague who would respect a field’s need to continually self-assess and improve, not a writer intent on creating “click bait” sound bites to incite controversy. What the interview gets wrong, in fact, and what we know from empirical studies of writing center practice (for instance, Mackiewicz and Thompson, 2015), is what’s right about writing centers: that consultants, especially peers, do an excellent job identifying, through dialogue, each student’s unique needs at that moment and then tailoring feedback to suit that need. Ask any writing center consultant, at Elon or elsewhere, and they will tell you that it’s simply not possible to use the same technique with every student and that adjusting to each student’s learning style is one of the most important aspects of writing center work; consultants will also tell you that students will receive help with whatever they need, whether it’s organization, punctuation, or understanding an assignment’s purpose. What the interview gets right is the invitation to think carefully and continuously about how we can serve each and every student in our writing center; how our practices might intentionally or unintentionally exclude or discriminate; and about the evidence we collect and disseminate that shows the value of our service to students. While we have work to do, as does any academic program, individualized learning is at the heart of writing center practice.

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Read Lori Salem’s response to the CHE article. (Editor)