Friday, October 14, 2005

The Problems with “Peerness”; Or, When Who Your Are Limits What You Do

But first, something completely different . . . .

"Neal Lerner, Wearing a Baseball Cap & Hanging Out In A Bar At South Park"

"Melissa Ianetta, if she was made out of Legos"


I’ve really enjoyed my “blogging my way to IWCA” for you all this week, and I think this experience has helped me push my thinking on the WPA / WCD relationship in new ways. Some of those ways are the subject of my ruminations today, gentle reader, so please excuse me if some of these ideas are undigested, half-baked, or positively raw.

As our postings yesterday suggested, Neal and I are pretty close together on the notion that there’s something disturbing about the manner in which directing the writing center is often treated as a “junior” wpa gig. But I’m wondering how much of that is a result of the poor fit between our pedagogies and those of our colleagues:

Think about our defining philosophy: In direct opposition to the “Boss Compositionist” model, the writing center is a place of “peerness;” we talk about the ways in which students can help one another, the ways in which all writers need readers. We talk about how every writing center is different and requires different preparation for its administrators. I believe this mantra; in fact, it’s one of the things I love about the field. However, the bread-and-butter of our colleagues across the disciplines is expertise. From this vantage point, the “peerness” of writing center appears a place prior to disciplinary knowledge. If we position ourselves as the administrators of “peerness,” a field with (as recent discussion on WCENTER has shown) no set of best practices or outcomes, it can appear that we are positioning ourselves in a place prior to disciplinary knowledge.

Think about teaching and tutoring, too: there’s a whole body of research out there (to which your humble narrator blushingly admits she has contributed) on the benefits of tutor experience for teachers of writing. While I firmly believe such benefits are real; what are their implications for the disciplinary positioning of the writing center? That is, if we position the writing center in a role where we prepare teachers of writing, are we again locating our administrative selves in a place prior to the administrators “real” writing program? Tutoring isn’t teaching, tutoring is prior to teaching?

Now think about numbers: many many many many of my friends in writing center studies resist any kinds of numbers to do with budgets or statistics. And they certainly resist any numbers that demonstrate any changes may be necessary in the writing center. Rather, they want to argue that “there are things that you just can’t quantify.” I believe this also, but I also believe that such resistance makes a writing center director look less like someone in charge of a program – who can explicitly argue from the precise workings of her program -- and more like “the nice lady in the basement” who’s a bit vauge. Admittedly, we can get away with this innumeracy – often we are far enough under the administration’s radar and so ill-funded that there is no great exigency to stay on top of this data. But poor funding and low visibility don’t seem to me the best basis for an administrative approach. By contrast, if I didn’t keep track of numbers related to the writing programs – projected course enrollments, courses needing staffing, monies to staff courses – the writing program would derail in a highly-visible train wreck that smashes on a grand scale. And, of course, stakeholders across campus want to know what the writing program thinks its doing. In other words, my course-based WPA role forces me to greater numeracy and to greater external accountability than does my writing center work.

Some of these are grim thoughts for a grey day her in DE. But I do wonder if we, as a field, pay enough attention to the costs of some our most entrenched ideologies.
That's all folks. Thanks for listening.


At 10:42 AM, Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for the cool pictures, Melissa! Wish I knew how to do that!

And thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. They have really got me thinking.

I have been both a traditional WPA of a writing program and the Director of a Writing Center, though in my case the WC is part of a larger unit called the Center for Writing and Learning that I direct.

In fact, when I came to OSU in 1980 I directed both programs--as an untenured assistant professor.

I haven't really ever thought of my position as Director of our Writing Center in the ways you describe, but that may be because of my involvement with both programs. I can see how in some places--especially in large universities with highly articulated writing programs--that WC administration could be perceived as you describe. It's just not been my experience.

I do believe very much in keeping statistics and making arguments based in budgets. I feel pretty darn sure that if I hadn't done that our WC would have closed years ago. We certainly came very close to being shut down several times.

I also believe that it backfires eventually if WC directors take the position that "I'll do anything to keep my WC open." Several times I went to meetings--once with the President of my university--and said this: "Here's what we need to keep the WC open. Either fund us to this level or close us."

I would always try to avoid putting myself or anyone else in this position if at all possible, but at the times I felt I had no other choice.

I'm not sure how much sense this all makes. (Isn't it nice how we allow ourselves freedoms in blog writing that we don't elsewhere?) But you've certainly gotten me thinking.

Lisa Ede
Oregon State University

At 1:05 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

Okay, here's my radical idea. I really don't think we'll get anywhere fast if the goal for writing center directors is to be on an institutional par with writing program administrators. I think our vision should be much larger, thank you very much, and we need to figure out how to position ourselves vis-a-vis our institutions. In other words, I don't admire the ways WPAs usually need to get bogged down in administering a class that students and the institution resist and that is largely staffed by exploited adjunct instructors. I'm also fearful of writing center aligned with learning centers funded by student affairs divisions. Nope, that kind of institutional positioning is sheer self-flagellation. I think an ideal model is a Center for Teaching and Learning or Center for Writing of which writing tutoring (in and out of classrooms) is one component, along with WAC activities, faculty development, perhaps even coursework for undergrads and grads (yeah, generate those FTEs!).

Okay, time to go back to that SouthPark bar.


At 1:25 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

I'm with you Neal, on your ideal writing center -- but once you offer courses, how do you avoid the problems that beset the WPA? Same with WAC -- once you take funds to offer something to your institution, you autmatically become accountable to the instuiton.

In some sense atI think that once you grab hold of writing, you're inevitably grabbing hold of resistance b/c there's *always* people who resist one's notion of the writing process and the teaching of writing.


At 1:28 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

BTW, I'm all about what Lisa said too: when my former university asked me how I would maintain our current level of center services with half the budget, I simply said I wouldn't. They never cut the budget.

Thanks for the great responses so far, everybody!

At 12:31 PM, Blogger spiral said...

Okay, I am such a marginal person in this discussion, but here's a take from the world of community colleges.

After being a graduate student who assistant directed a university writing center, I'm finding in Kansas City community colleges that most writing tutoring takes place within learning center environments that affiliate more with CRLA than IWCA or a regional writing center group. At the college where I do most of my adjunct teaching, we have a Teaching/Learning Center (TLC) that was supposed to have goals like those that Neal discusses plus some: multiple fields are tutored (writing, math, etc.), but the Center was supposed to also have faculty professional development as part of its aims. The "Teaching" part hadn't been much of a focus for years (though that is certainly changing with a new director).

What is difficult about attempting any faculty professional development is the status of the people in the TLC: they are mostly part-time staff, which complicates the picture.

On another note about faculty professional development, I find that the same people typically participate in assessment and professional development projects at the community colleges where I work, and it is extraordinarily difficult to involve people outside of this core group of movers and shakers. Besides time constraints, which are always a factor, and the notion that more experienced faculty members don't need professional development because they have done it all, it seems like newer, non-tenured faculty (the people I expected would be interested in professional development) are hesitant to participate because they fear they will be perceived as inadequate. The thinking seems to be, "I won't be given tenure if I look like I need training--I should be giving adjuncts training instead." Such thinking may not be the case at universities, where conference-type professional development is considered in the tenture process, but at community colleges, where the emphasis is often more on service to the school, I have encountered that thinking.

On a whole different topic, largely because of the culture shock I encountered going from an IWCA-affiliated, university-level writing center to a CRLA-affiliated, community college learning center, I would be interested in more diverse perspectives about community colleges and the role of writing centers within them.

At 2:54 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

Hey Spiral --

There's a great community college writing center group that I "see" around WCENTER. Maybe some of them will show up here and give you a shout out? If not, post to WCENTER, and I'm sure they'll self-identify. That's how I found my (Assistant Professor Administrator kith and kin). I bet they can offer you some good ideas -- and sympathy!

At 2:56 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Spiral,
Thanks so very much for your comments, which I find ***very*** helpful. They are such a good reminder of how situated writing center work is. We can speculate about this or that ideal writing center or writing center situation, but we'd always have to factor in the kind of factors and forces you describe in this post.

Again, thanks!
Lisa Ede

At 4:50 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

Spiral, some of the must-talk-to CC writing-center folks are Howard Tinberg at Bristol Community College here in MA, Jill Pennington at Lansing CC in MI, and Clint Gardner at Salt Lake CC. All are very generous folks and have created terrific programs within the constraints and opportunities of their particular institutions. There are other people, of course, but those three are excellent starting points.

Good luck!


At 4:15 PM, Blogger spiral said...

Wow! Thanks for all of the feedback. I'll be at IWCA presenting, so I'll do my best to track down some of the suggested people. I've been feeling more and more interested in exploring the pedagogy that informs community college writing centers, writing center within learning centers, CRLA-affiliated centers vs. IWCA-affiliated centers (if such a distinction even exists beyond my limited perspective), etc. You've given me excellent starting points.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger /WCJ/ said...

Glad to hear you'll at IWCA, Sprial. See hi if you see me -- I don't know who you are, but I'm sure you could pick Neil or I out by the pictures at the top of this entry ;-)

On in MN! Melissa

At 5:01 PM, Blogger Heather Jordan said...

We're happy to announce that issue 1.2 of the Community Literacy
Journal will be out in March. You can subscribe now and receive both
issues in the first volume (1.1 and 1.2):

In the latest issue:

"Older Adults and Community-based Technological Literacy Programs:
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Heidi McKee
Kristine Blair

"Community Literacy, Labor Market Intermediaries, and Community
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Michael Pennell

"Putting Women at the Center: Sustaining a Woman-Centered Literacy Program"
Betsy Bowen

"Minding the Gap: Realizing Our Ideal Community Writing Center"
Julia Doggart, Melissa Tedrowe, and Kate Vieira

Case Study: A Community Literacy Graduate Pedagogy
"A Reflection on Teaching and Learning in a Community Literacies
Graduate Course"
Michele Fero, Jim Ridolfo, Jill M. McKay Chrobak, Deborah VanDuinen,
Jason Wirtz, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey T. Grabill
Michigan State University

Book Reviews

Creating a New Kind of University: Institutionalizing
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Reviewed by Chris Warnick

Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope.
Reviewed by T. Mercadal-Sabbagh

Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-Story Writing.
Reviewed by Suzanne Van Dam

Community Media: People, Places, and Communication Technologies.
Reviewed by Jessica Rivait

Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households and Classrooms.
Reviewed by Chiara Cannella

Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness.
Reviewed by Shelley DeBlasis

Also, please consider sending your community literacy work on adult
education, early childhood education, reading initiatives, lifelong
learning, workplace literacy, or work with marginalized populations
for publication in the journal:

Heather L. H. Jordan
Assistant Editor, Community Literacy Journal
Rhetoric and Technical Communication
Department of Humanities
Michigan Technological University
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, MI 49931

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