THE PROBLEM OF "OPPORTUNITY": NEGOTIATING A WRITING CENTER ADMINISTRATOR'S WAC(KY) PUBLIC IDENTITY
University of Wisconsin- Stout
In his essay, “Writing Centers in the Small College,” Byron Stay explains that the magnified institutional visibility of writing center directors – especially directors on small campuses or directors of new centers – can be problematic and is “not necessarily a good thing” (149). However, he also makes the case that directors can “take advantage of their visibility,” turning it into an opportunity to “incorporate their writing centers into the academic structures of their institutions…especially writing across the curriculum programs” (150). Yet, the line between “problem” and “opportunity” is often tricky to discern, and as a co-founder and co-director of a relatively new campus writing center, I often find myself struggling to figure out how much professional time and energy I want and need to expend when it comes to work that falls outside our writing center’s core mission and day-to-day operations. It’s not uncommon for me to be viewed on campus more as generic writing expert (aka a “writing person”) than a director of a campus center.
For many writing center directors, the boundaries between “problem” and “opportunity” become especially murky when it comes to writing-across-the-curriculum work, particularly for those directors like myself whose campuses lack formalized WAC programs. I will first examine how and why this lack of formalization often results in writing center directors becoming “de facto” WAC leaders on their campuses. Next, I will investigate a host of institutional politics and potential problems facing writing center directors who assume administrative roles and duties for which they are not formally recognized nor compensated. Finally, I will offer up specific strategies to help writing center directors respond to Stay’s call to “take advantage of their visibility” and take responsible action to advocate for their own positions and potentially meaningful and sustainable WAC initiatives on their campuses.
Of course, as Martha Townsend has observed, “WAC programs are highly idiosyncratic,” and they need to be contextualized to be understood (47); therefore, it might be helpful to begin by offering some brief background on the institutional challenges and framework at my particular university, a regional Midwestern public institution serving approximately 9,000 students. When I arrived as a new faculty member in 2004, there was little in the way of campus-wide writing programs or initiatives, and certainly no writing center. Beyond a newly formed Technical Communication Program, there was essentially no institutional writing culture. In 2005, a departmental colleague and I founded our university’s first writing center, a center whose primary mission involves offering tutoring services to all students on campus via one-on-one consultations by trained peer tutors; we each received (and continue to receive) 25% reassigned time (a one-course reduction from a 4/4 teaching load) to co-direct the center.
Over the past several years, our campus climate has changed and improved: in addition to the creation of the writing center, I was able to formalize our first-year composition program, becoming its first director in 2008. As part of the program, we’ve ushered in curricular reform, created regular professional development workshops for instructors, and pursued grant opportunities. These developments have coincided with the hiring of several Rhetoric and Composition Ph.D.’s in the department who are well versed in current composition theory and pedagogy. As a result of these developments, in the past several years, we’ve certainly seen glimpses of institutional change, in the growing recognition that composition and “writing studies” is a discipline to be taken seriously and shared across the university.
Despite these positive developments, however, and despite several conversations about some form of sustained WAC activity on campus, my institution still lacks a formal, comprehensive WAC program. By “formal, comprehensive program,” I should clarify that I’m using the definition laid out by Susan McLeod and Elaine Maimon in their classic article, “Clearing the Air: WAC Myths and Realities,” an essay whose principles remain current today and are reflected in the International Network of WAC (INWAC) Programs’ newly published “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices.” Specifically, McLeod and Maimon contend that a strong WAC program should be made up of several elements, all of them intertwined:
- Faculty development (workshops, consultations, etc.)
- Curricular components (writing emphasis courses, writing in the discipline requirements, etc.)
- Student support (workshops, tutoring, etc.)
- Administrative structure and budget, which they deem “most important” – WAC requires leadership by someone with experience and release (reassigned) time (580-81).
My institution has some of the above elements in place, but not all; while there’s been plenty of talk and theoretical support from upper administration to establish the robust program that McLeod and Maimon envision, ultimately no money, release time, or clear “home” for the program has been established.
As on many campuses, we have faced some resistance about the potential curricular components of WAC: the usual debates about what a “writing emphasis” (WE) class would look like; how WE classes could be added to already bloated program plans and requirements; how faculty teaching WE courses would be trained or surveilled, etc. I suspect this experience sounds familiar to many writing center directors at institutions similar to my own. We’ve even had a few folks offer up the old gem that our “students write well enough,” and if they don’t, that’s the English Department’s business. Yet, despite these complaints, of all the elements of WAC on McCleod and Maimon’s list, it’s the creation of an administrative structure and budget (again, the element they deem “most important”), which is resisted most on our campus. In the aforementioned “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices,” the authors share McLeod and Maimon’s sentiment, arguing that for a WAC program to be “effective and sustainable,” it “requires administrative support such as course releases for program leadership, a standing budget, and support for professional development.” Despite how crucial this formal administrative/budget structure is for WAC, it’s resisted, I suspect, often because campus administrators don’t understand how complex WAC is or should be, or they think that with an existing WPA and/or writing center director on campus, there are enough “writing specialists” to handle all things writing-related on campus.
taking on too much: assuming the position of 'de facto' wac director
So, in light of this resistance to formalizing a full WAC program, we--either as WPAs or writing center directors--often find ourselves serving as “de facto” WAC leaders on our campuses: holding workshops, consulting with faculty, doing research, running assessment, etc. This begs the obvious question of: why? Why, even though we know better, are we compelled to take on this work despite little recognition or compensation? Why do we venture into aspects of WAC for which we do not have adequate time or resources? While there are no definitive or easy answers, investigating these questions is important in order to begin solving the problem.
One reason we often take on too much might best be illustrated by way of a 2012 thread on the Writing Center Mailing List (WC listserv). A writing center director noted that her center was about to launch a series of pedagogical writing workshops for faculty across campus and was soliciting advice about what topics to address and how to advertise the sessions. Many participants on the list, while not offering advice, expressed an interest to “hear more” from others, as they, too, had interest in holding similar workshops on their campuses. In the midst of this feel-good sharing, veteran scholar Jeanne Simpson posited a simple question which turned the conversation into a meta-exploration of the issue at hand. “Why,” she asked, “is everyone clamoring to do these workshops in the first place?” While she noted that folks might have clear and compelling reasons, she wrote: “There’s one reason I hope is absent: the need to cover a sense of inadequacy or low status. If one walks like a victim and quacks like a victim...one will be a victim.” Simpson’s warning resonated with me, as I, too, have often felt pressure to do extra WAC work under the writing center umbrella, in an effort to “prove my worth” and “earn my keep,” especially in times of deep budget cuts and financial uncertainty at my university.
This desire to “prove one’s worth” is especially prevalent among new writing center directors or directors of new centers. Reflecting on their own experiences as first-year administrators, Lauren Fitzgerald and Denise Stephenson in their article, “Directors at the Center: Relationships Across Campus,” explain that it’s easy and tempting to take on too much in the first year since new directors are often “uncertain about the parameters of [their] jobs,” and “desperately want to fit into their institutions” and “be seen as contributors” (122). In some cases, new directors may be their own worst enemies, feeling as if they must continually justify their center’s worth by taking on additional work or services, even when this work does not clearly relate to their center’s mission, fall within the parameters of their job description, or fit comfortably into their slice of reassigned administrative time. In the race to take on more and more, there is little time to critically assess if anything is being done well; it’s also a true recipe for burnout, as directors may feel like firefighters, always “on call” to put out the next blaze for anyone on campus who asks them to.
A second related reason, I believe, writing center directors often become de facto WAC directors could most succinctly be wrapped up in the question: “If not us, then who?” Compositionist Donna Strickland notes that by virtue of our graduate training, rhetoric and composition specialists are “affectively aligned” with writing program administration and are prepared for the “inevitability” of taking on such tasks (80). Given the Rhet/Comp background of many writing center directors, when we see an opportunity to take action, we might panic, knowing that theoretically, we could do the work and do it well. And often, the answer to the “if not us, then who?” question doesn’t just address a black hole of nothingness if we don’t step up to the plate, but, perhaps, a less savory alternative altogether. Last year, for example, the director of our Teaching and Learning Center on campus approached my fellow writing center co-director and I, asking us to run some faculty WAC workshops on writing assignment design and assessment. She explained that if we were “too busy” to put together a customized workshop, she had discovered some podcasts which offered pre-packaged (and, I discovered, not very current/sound) advice about writing pedagogy that she thought might suffice. After just a cursory review of these podcasts, we found ourselves rolling up our sleeves and planning the workshop—feeling as if we had to step in and save the day.
tackling the politics of 'wac-lite'
While these reasons for becoming a de facto WAC director are understandable and often well intentioned, I’ve begun to see them as especially problematic. I’d argue that when, as writing center directors, we do take on WAC responsibilities which fall outside the core mission of our centers, given our lack of reassigned time, compensation, etc., it’s often “WAC-lite” – an unstructured, poorly funded, non-sustainable enterprise consisting of little more than a workshop here and a random consultation there. Basically, WAC-lite presupposes a troubling “something-is-better-than-nothing” platform, which, in and of itself, might serve as another philosophical reason/justification to take on WAC work.
However, Barbara Walvoord critiques the sustainability of this platform when she argues against the common WAC workshop and follow-up model of faculty development.
The word ‘follow-up, ’ after all, reveals an underlying assumption that the centrally located workshop led by a writing specialist is the key transforming event, which needs only ‘follow-up’ to maintain the conversion. The thought pattern spells demise or stagnation once the recruitable faculty have been through a workshop. WAC must see itself not as a transforming workshop plus ‘follow-up,’ but as part of a sustaining set of services, a network, a culture, within the university, that supports ongoing, career-long, self-directed growth for faculty. (26)
Also, the “something-is-better-than-nothing” platform is tricky because WAC-lite is seldom viable from a workload standpoint. Doing a little bit of WAC is difficult; after our recent workshop on assignment design, for example, my fellow writing center co-director and I (praised for doing such a wonderful job) were asked to lead a series of grammar workshops for faculty and hold follow-up one-on-one consultations with participants from the assignment design workshop. Some work begets more work, and the cycle is unending.
Finally, having writing center directors do WAC-lite or WAC-on-the-side can set a dangerous administrative precedent. Doing uncompensated WAC work as a writing center director sets us up to be what Donna Strickland calls, a “not-quite-administrator,” with no official title to validate this labor. As a result, Strickland points out, this “intellectually rich work will be relegated to what the WPA Council has called the ‘ill-defined and seldom rewarded category of service’” (81). Hence WAC can be viewed as an activity that can always be done on the side or in addition to one’s other duties. Yet, the WPA Statement on “Evaluating the Intellectual Work of Writing Administration” rightfully argues that creating a WAC program and running it well is a form of scholarship; the foundation (administratively and curriculum-wise) has to be set properly if a program has a chance of succeeding or gaining momentum – certainly a tall task for a “not-quite administrator.”
taking responsibility: thinking 'wac-aligned' vs. 'wac-lite'
So, when all is said and done, what can we not-so-quite WAC administrators do – especially those of us who are encouraged by administrators on campus to pursue WAC-related “opportunities” or who are on campuses where developing a full-fledged WAC program, complete with a director, isn’t a top priority? Instead of feeling that the only responsible or ethical action is to do what we can “on the side” or in addition to our other duties, I would argue that our first responsibility should be to the programs we’re contractually charged to run, develop, oversee, and grow. That said, eschewing all WAC-related duties and activities is not a savvy, a realistic, or—as I’ll point out shortly—a necessary course of action for writing center directors. Therefore, in the remainder of this essay, I hope to offer some ways in which we can simultaneously take responsibility for our own centers and support WAC, without becoming uncritically caught up in the political and professional quagmire of WAC–lite.
The first step in taking this responsibility might, perhaps counterintuitively, involve stillness and retreat. As I illustrated earlier, writing center directors often feel compelled to become de facto WAC leaders because they are driven by a strong sense of panic and anxiety to act quickly. As Laura Micciche points out in her essay, “For Slow Agency,” “pressure is constantly exerted” on those of us who run writing programs and centers, “creating conditions that are made to feel like emergencies, warranting immediate action or intervention,” but “rarely does this reality bear out” (82). Therefore, Micciche urges administrators to slow down, reminding us that “agency operates on a continuum that includes action and change, as well as less measurable but no less important forms of action like thinking, being still, and processing” (74). In short, Micciche reminds directors to be reflective practitioners.
Space for reflection is a must, and a good place to focus this reflection is on one’s mission statement. If a writing center director’s head is swimming in a sea of WAC demands or requests, this is the perfect time to get back to the basics and revisit the center’s core mission. As Kelly Lowe explains, a mission statement is “a statement of what an organization is, why it exists, and the unique contribution it can make” (73). From a practical standpoint, mission statements help directors map out the flesh and bones of a center – charting the center’s institutional structure, staffing, budget, training, core services, and determining who is responsible for each aspect. Reviewing a mission statement can help a director take the center’s pulse, so to speak, and isolate key areas or services (e.g. online tutoring, tutor training, etc.) which might need more attention, focus, or budgetary support. It makes little sense, after all, if a director is out running faculty WAC workshops at the expense of thorough training of tutors – if, as if often the case, peer tutoring is at the core of the center’s mission.
Yet, as noted in the “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices,” writing centers are generally considered “natural allies for WAC.” Further, when reviewing the “typical goals of US WAC Programs” as laid out in the “Statement,” many of these goals have significant overlap with the mission of most writing centers: e.g. “To sustain the writing of students across their academic careers”; “To increase student engagement with learning”; “To increase student writing proficiency”; and “To create a campus culture that supports writing.” As referenced earlier, one of the key tenets of McLeod and Maimon’s definition of an effective WAC program is “student support” (580), something which constitutes the heart and soul of most writing centers. Therefore, when reflecting and taking inventory of their centers’ mission and services, I would urge directors not to focus their energies on or get sidetracked by WAC-lite, those uncompensated, non-sustainable duties which feel “added-on” and disconnected from their centers, but rather on the existing duties and services their centers provide which are, what I call, “WAC-aligned,” work that is a natural fit for some of the “typical goals” shared by both writing center and WAC programs.
For example, in the context of my own center’s mission, not only is peer tutoring an activity which could be considered WAC-aligned, but so are the tutor-led series of student writing workshops we hold each semester; the many inter-disciplinary promotional classroom visits we provide; as well as the partnerships we’ve built with Distance Education to offer online tutoring; and Residence Life, to offer evening and weekend satellite tutoring and study sessions in campus residential halls. In other words, upon reflection, most centers (including my own) are doing important work – in an effective and sustainable manner – as “natural allies of WAC.” While such private reflection and recognition of this work is valuable in terms of where and how a center’s needs and mission are both unique and WAC-aligned, it’s not enough. As Kelly Lowe argues, a mission statement “is perhaps the most important document your program can have. Not only does it spell out what you will and won’t do, it can, in times of struggle, protect you from being (intentionally) misunderstood by others” (74). In short, a mission statement is a key educational and political tool.
A second step, then, in taking responsibility is to communicate the mission and role of one’s center clearly to all interested parties. I would first strongly urge directors to map out a list of key administrative stakeholders in their center—this list should include the director’s immediate supervisor as well as any other administrators (e.g. provosts, deans, etc.) who frequently inquire about the center or request the director’s services for WAC-related activities. Directors should then periodically schedule formal meetings with each of these individuals to review the center’s mission and to share two lists of duties: a routine list of usual labor and daily/weekly activities, as well as a list of “signature initiatives,” new activities and programs the director has undertaken (e.g. creation of satellite tutoring locations, growth of online tutoring initiatives) to enact and carry out the center’s core mission and commitment to student learning.
Further, in both the routine and signature initiative list, a director should highlight those duties and services which are WAC-aligned, to clarify that the center is already “doing” and supporting WAC in important ways. Administrators need to see that a director is not only maintaining the center through usual duties and routine, but also growing and improving the center, as well. And, if directors do not take charge of this growth and improvement – or do not showcase it to administrators in a compelling way – they are likely to be charged with more WAC-lite duties; they also run the risk of others swooping in with their own agendas which might only tangentially, or not at all, be aligned with the mission of the center. While writing center directors are often adept at publicizing their center’s services to students, they need to be equally adept at publicizing their own workload and accomplishments to campus administrators. Unless directors proactively share their center’s mission, as well as their own duties and signature initiatives, their labor is too often invisible and undervalued, and they risk being seen as generic “writing people” on campus who can and should gladly take on any and all writing-related ideas and programming.
Taking responsibility in the ways I’ve just outlined can, indeed, give directors a sense of control and agency over their campus identity and relationship to WAC. However, in closing, it’s important to acknowledge that even if directors are to take such responsibility, some (particularly those who are untenured or non-faculty) may, no doubt, still feel real pressure to fold more and more WAC programming and duties into the writing center. In such cases, I would urge directors to carefully select work which is aligned and fits logically within their center’s current mission; in making this determination, directors should consider a few questions: 1.) Can this initiative draw from current staffing/labor configurations? 2.) Can current programming be altered or adjusted in a way to accommodate this initiative without harming core services? 3.) Do I, as director, have enough time and resources to carry out this initiative (e.g. in terms of training, research, and assessment)? If not, are there non-essential, existing duties or initiatives I could cut or re-allocate?, and 4.) Is this initiative sustainable over time? If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” then the initiative is not likely a good fit for the Center; however, if the answer to just one or two of these questions is “no,” then these are specific areas in which a director might have to ask for additional funding or support. And, of course, a director is much more likely to be successful in receiving additional funding or release time if the need for such funding is carefully vetted, specific, and clearly articulated; the above questions offer a lens through which to research, organize, and present one’s request.
If directors find themselves pressured to take on the more labor-intensive and less naturally WAC-aligned curricular components of creating writing emphasis courses (e.g. developing department writing plans, or crafting writing-in-the-discipline requirements), they should lay out the resources they’ll need to do it well and to make a lasting impact – drawing upon peer research in making the case. While campus administrators at institutions like my own might not be swayed by pie-in-the-sky descriptions of nationally recognized WAC programs at much larger or better-funded universities, local research often has a lot of sway, especially if directors can find a thriving successful program at a peer institution deemed as a competitor. Directors could go so far as to set up a consultation between upper administration at their campus with a successful WAC director at a peer institution to see what is necessary in terms of budget, assessment, infrastructure, etc. Such consultations are a powerful argument for increased reassigned time or the creation of a separate WAC position altogether.
Finally, I would remind directors under pressure that the most responsible thing they might do is to advocate for a full-fledged WAC program rather than try to run WAC-lite initiatives out of hide. I firmly believe that labor is often better spent gathering data and research and allowing interested others to take up the call. Directors don’t have to be a one-man or one-woman show on campus. Just because they might be vocal about the needs of a formalized WAC program, that doesn’t mean that they need to be the one to head up efforts.
In the opening of the essay, I noted that when it comes to WAC work, the line between “problem” and “opportunity” can be difficult to discern for many writing center directors. However, as I’ve illustrated, the problem of WAC demands can be transformed into an opportunity for directors to revisit their centers’ missions and become more vocal about the work – especially work that is “WAC-aligned” – which their centers are already doing. The actions, strategies and tips presented throughout this piece are just a few suggestions for ways in which writing center directors can respond to Byron Stay’s call to “take advantage of their visibility,” not in ways which will transform directors into amorphous “writing people” on campus, but in purposeful ways which will help directors better define, articulate, and carry out the mission of their respective writing centers, as well as their own institutional identities as writing center administrators.
“Evaluating the Intellectual Work of Writing Administration.” Council of Writing Program Administrators. Council of Writing Program Administrators, 1998. Web. 3 Jan. 2014.
Fitzgerald, Lauren, and Denise Stephenson. “Directors at the Center: Relationships Across Campus.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron Stay. New York: Routledge, 2006. 115-127. Print.
International Network of WAC Programs. “Statement of WAC Principles and Practices.” The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Feb. 2014. Web. 20 April 2014.
Lowe, Kelly. “‘If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail’: Strategic Planning and Management for Writing Center Directors.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron Stay. New York: Routledge, 2006. 71-79. Print.
McLeod, Susan, and Elaine Maimon. “Clearing the Air: WAC Myths and Realities.” College English 62.5 (2000): 573-83. Print.
Micciche, Laura. “For Slow Agency.” WPA:Writing Program Administration 35. 1 (2011): 73-90. Print.
North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46.5 (1984): 433-446. Print.
Simpson, Jeanne. “Re: How Did This Become Our Job?” Writing Center Mailing List. Wcenter, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jan. 2014.
Sherwood, Steve. “Writing Center as Scapegoat: Excuses, Pretexts, and Passing the Buck.” Writing Lab Newsletter 32.7 (2008): 7-11. Print.
Stay, Byron. “Writing Centers and the Small College.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron Stay. New York: Routledge, 2006. 147-53. Print.
Strickland, Donna. “The Invisible Work of the Not-Quite-Administrator, or, Superserviceable Rhetoric and Composition.” Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces. Ed. Michelle A. Massé and Katie J. Hogan. Albany: SUNY Press, 2010. 73-89. Print.
Townsend, Martha. “WAC Program Vulnerability and What To Do About It: An Update and Brief Bibliographic Essay.” The WAC Journal 19 (2008): 45-61. Print.
Walvoord, Barbara. “From Conduit to Customer: The Role of WAC Faculty in WAC Assessment.” Assessing Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Kathleen B. Yancey and Brian Huot. Greenwich, CT: Ablex. 1997.15-36. Print.