IWCA 2014, “Wonderful World of Writing Centers,” Redux


Building off Mary’s metaphor, I can say that my time at the International Writing Center Association conference brought me in contact with different, equally fascinating writing center kingdoms.

One was the kingdom of writing center outreach to underserved high schools. In a session entitled “It’s a Small World: Creating Collaborative Communities,” Denise Stephenson spoke about the challenges involved in setting up effective collaborations across institutions. High schools have different structures than colleges, different professional jargon, different pressures on teachers (think mandated testing), and different points of entry. This last difference was particularly challenging for Denise, who found herself directed to talk to administrators instead of teachers about the kind of support her consultants could provide. The message got lost along the communication chain, and her first tutors found themselves underutilized—a situation she has since corrected by insisting on meeting with the teachers well before the start of the academic year.

Her co-panelist Christine Corbett’s experience is an example of exactly how magical (Disney pun, sorry!) this kind of work can be when there’s a strong advocate for it within the high school. She spoke of the force-of-nature teacher whose class comes to work with her consultants every Saturday morning. The teacher tells students they must attend, calls their parents immediately if they don’t show up, and basically insists that they take advantage of every opportunity to become better writers. The Saturday morning outreach program has become a job expectation, and Christine’s consultants are deeply invested in the success of their high school students, whose racial and socio-economic backgrounds differ from their own.

In “Exploring the Intersection Between Writing Centers, Disability Studies, and White Privilege,” I heard valuable lessons about how we can all (regardless of our kingdom or sub-kingdom) work to make our writing centers more inclusive. Alba Newmann Holmes shared hard won lessons about what happened when, through hiring, she significantly diversified the racial representation in her consulting staff.  Soon after, she began noticing numerous microaggressions in staff meetings. She knew she needed to talk to her staff about race, and she talked to a sociologist friend about the best way she, a white female director, should approach the conversation. Her friend suggested these guidelines, which may be useful for other directors in the same position:

1) Don’t put any other aspects of diversity on the table (many people will cling to them to avoid a conversation about race)
2) Don’t assume race is something you can cover in a day and let go
3) Keep intentions off the table (talk about words/actions and consequences)
4) Be prepared to be the bad guy.

The other speakers on this panel, Rebecca Babcock, Sharifa Daniels, and Doria Daniels, addressed other ways that we need to move beyond access to inclusion. Though they agree that much of the default practice of WC consultants is already welcoming and tailored to the individual, they believe we need to do more to educate ourselves and benefit writers with disabilities. They look forward to a day when disabilities are widely accepted as just another difference in how people learn. Toward that end, they propose creating resources that provide tips and techniques for consultants working with students with disabilities. They also emphasize that inclusion begins with design, and suggest that in order to provide genuine inclusion, we (not just writing centers, but writing teachers and programs) will need to reconsider not just our spaces but also our assignments and the forms we expect responses to take.

Finally, many presenters answered the age-old question “How are we doing?” in ways that respond to the recent call for RAD (Replicable, Aggregable, and Data-supported) research. Eliana Schonberg and Kara Northway explored whether students are able to transfer what they learn in consultations from one context to another. They conducted exit surveys and focus groups with students at a small, private liberal arts college, a medium-sized private university, and a large public university. Their study showed that 4/5 of the students reported far transfer (being able to transfer their learning to a substantially different situation), and 1/3 reported high road transfer (deliberate transfer depended on reflective processing).

Good news for the entire writing center kingdom!