Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year. How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty. I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors. Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

The C.L.E. Writing Retreat 2012 by Andrea Raiker & David Mathew, Centre for Learning Excellence, University of Bedfordshire, UK

This year’s residential Writing Retreat, the fourth in consecutive years, took place between the 11-13th of April at The Priory in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. The Writing Retreat process began in 2009 when the first retreat was held at Streatley, Oxfordshire. This retreat and that held at Highgate Hall in Northants in 2010 were organised by the University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to produce two internally published books charting different departmental perspectives on the significant curriculum changes introduced during that time.

The 2011 and 2012 writing retreats had a different purpose: to produce individually authored articles for externally published academic journals. So the overall aim of these events was for each participant, including us, to finish an academic paper, the first draft of which had been submitted to the CLE for editorial review as part of the application process several months earlier. The objective was for all authors to submit their papers electronically at the end of the three days. This objective formed part of the Centre for Learning Excellence’s strategy to support the University’s ethos of scholarship by encouraging academic writing for publication. Writing Retreats are the final event of a process that includes our Writing for Publication seminars and the establishment of the Journal of Pedagogic Development. Having gained experience of writing and publishing in this process, Writing Retreats allow delegates the opportunity to dedicate time and concentration to a specific piece of writing with the support of their colleagues. By taking the delegate away from his or her more customary work patterns and rhythms of the working week, the Writing Retreat provided space to focus and for the words to flow. Although the three days were busy with activities, workshops and tasks, the focus was very much on completing the paper in question, or getting as close to completion as possible.

In attendance at this year’s event with the two of us were ten delegates from the University, all from different departments. This wasn’t regarded as a problem. One delegate noted this: ‘If we are all from one discipline there would be differences of opinion of content or subject, but that hasn’t got in the way at all…’. We also had an invited Guest Editor, Professor Hilary Constable. We invited Hilary to the retreat because we believe that is important for the authors to have the experience and perspective from an external authority in research scholarship focussed on their work. Six of the ten participants had never been on a writing retreat before. Naturally, there was an air of anxiety when we first assembled. Not only was there concern about writing at the perceived standard and finishing; there were the other delegates. Would everyone ‘get on’?

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