Vanishing Graduate Students in the Writing Center?

Via Tsuji, DODO (Raphus Cucullatus), 2006

Via Tsuji, DODO (Raphus Cucullatus), 2006


There is new evidence that anthropogenic climate change may be drawing us all ever closer to a sixth mass extinction. This dramatic event, entailing changes to the planet that are vast and irreversible, is driven by shifts in human resource use and the expansion of human populations. On a much smaller and less dramatic scale, shifts in governance and expanding enrollment are driving changes in the demographics of the campus community and in the ways writing centers do their work. These changes are having an early effect on graduate students.

Graduate students are an important part of many writing centers, but their role is likely to change drastically in the coming years. Today I’ll explain what I mean using the center that houses AXIS as an example of a larger phenomenon.

At the University of Texas at Austin’s University Writing Center (UTUWC) we have recently undergone a major change in staffing practices directly linked to graduate students. Until late Spring 2014, the majority of graduate students studying humanities at the University of Texas at Austin were not limited by explicit funding guidelines linked to their time-to-degree (basically the length of time they’ve been in attendance at UT as a graduate student seeking a degree). There was a general understanding, at least in my home department, that students had to demonstrate an ability and willingness to work steadily toward a Ph.D, but there wasn’t an expectation that that goal would be reached in a specific time frame. Now that general understanding has changed, and graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts at UT are expected to complete their Ph.Ds in six years, with very few exceptions. This has meant that departments have had to restrict grad student hiring by the writing center in order to allow them (at least theoretically) extra time to work, and had departments not made this decision many graduate students would have made it for themselves.

Consequently, grad students in the UTUWC, who previously worked about half of the total consulting hours available, are now in the minority. On a national level widespread changes originating in similar administrative decisions will mean that writing centers across the country that have previously used (or even relied on) graduate student labor will need to re-evaluate their staffing practices. If the 2014 MLA recommendation that humanities programs restrict themselves to five year’s funding is adopted widely, graduate students achieving the expected time-to-degree will be unlikely to seek experience in the writing center unless that is their expected career path, which would mean that the majority of humanities grad students at universities like UT would no longer have the opportunity to work with student writers except in group settings and in an evaluative, directive capacity.

This drastic change should not necessarily be understood as a tragedy for graduate students or for writing centers, but it does have effects. Graduate students make positive contributions to the writing center - I believe that many of us are excellent at consulting with college writers – but writing center work is also incredibly beneficial to graduate students. Consulting is an extremely efficient way of establishing relationships with a large number of students, relationships that are more horizontal and more supportive than is possible when graduate students are acting as the instructor of record in a college course, and the effect of losing this opportunity will only be known in the years to come when cohorts of graduate students pass through humanities programs without a chance to study composition using the experiential, relational, processual methodology that most writing centers promulgate. It should certainly not be assumed that losing graduate students consultants spells doom for the writing center, because undergraduates have long since proven themselves to be highly effective at providing peer writing support; additionally, it is well to recall Chet Breaux’s and Melissa Nicolas’ posts here on AXIS which do an excellent job of complicating the picture of writing center labor far beyond the undergraduate/graduate consultant divide. However, I fear that the loss will be noticeable, changing the experience of writing centers over the next few years and of graduate students over the next few decades.

This shift raises some interesting questions. It is unclear how many writing center directors become directors due to having worked in writing centers as graduate students, but the number is considerable. With fewer graduate students in writing centers, staffing may become a challenge beyond finding enough consultants; if there is already a small pool of prospective writing center directors in the country, it may be about to get smaller still. Additionally, it seems likely that a shift away from graduate consultants may have an effect on graduate consultees, who will either have to find outside sources of writing assistance or make appointments far in advance with the small number of graduate consultants working in any given writing center. Of course it may be that we will see the emergence of more writing centers that serve only graduate students (this would certainly do something to ease job market pressures if post-doc positions became more common ways of staffing graduate writing centers, and the positions became more numerous and remunerative) but to bet on an expansion of services aimed towards graduate students when the trend seems to be towards having fewer of them on campus for less time seems slightly illogical.

If institutions of higher education are changing the ways graduate students are trained, it seems inevitable that graduate students will change the ways they engage in and with writing center work. The vanishing graduate student on campus foretells the vanishing graduate student in the writing center, and like the dodo it may be a loss preceding other, more serious ones.