On Community College Writing Center Scholarship and Empirical Research: An Interview with Genie Giaimo

Michiel van Zanten, 'Locked In' 2015

Michiel van Zanten, 'Locked In' 2015

Back in January of this year, during a visit to Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, President Obama announced a plan to provide two free years of community college attendance for eligible students, and earlier this month the U.S. Senate began to draft a bill intended to put the initiative into action. This follows intense lobbying that has made public and private HBCUs and minority-serving institutions part of the initiative, and the 90 billion-dollar plan is under intense scrutiny from all sides. The question this raises is why the existing challenges of community college students and scholars are not.

I ask this because, both as a former employee of a community college and as someone who is proud to have served his community through that work, I notice that we don't talk enough about community colleges, either in higher education generally or in the pages of Praxis. Today our interview is meant to change that. While a historic expansion in community college access is on the horizon, there is still too little work done that focuses on the specific needs of that student population, and too little attention paid to those of faculty and staff as well. Genie Giaimo aims to change that, and to find out how, Managing Editor Thomas Spitzer-Hanks sat down with Giaimo recently to talk community colleges, writing centers, and research. Dr. Giaimo is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Centers at Bristol Community College in Fall River, MA.

1. Genie, you and I have talked before about how under-represented community colleges are in scholarly journals, including Praxis, and I'm wondering: why do you think that is? Is there something in the working conditions or in the intellectual climate that makes it harder or less worthwhile for academics working at CCs to publish?

This is a great question that has pressed upon me since I accepted my position at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts. Given the high teaching loads for full time faculty, the paucity of professional development money for conference travel and research programs, and the large number of contingent labor employed at Community Colleges, I think there are a number of institutional and systemic issues surrounding the development and maintenance of a robust research program. Too little time, too few resources, and, perhaps, little incentive from administration and tenure review boards to take on this extra work.  Furthermore, the professionalizing of student support services, such as writing support, and the movement of those positions out of academic departments and the hands of faculty, eliminates a very vibrant area where scholarship of all types—historical, pedagogical, empirical, theoretical—can take place. My position as both a full time faculty member in an English Department and a Writing Center Director is unique among fellow Community Colleges in my region, and it affords me a way to link my teaching to my administrative duties through research. I am always seeking ways to bridge my research interests with my desire to improve Community College Writing Centers, and Bristol’s Writing Centers in specific!

Still, over the past 15 years community colleges—their histories, their missions, their successes and flaws—have become a topic of intensive educational research. Another area where community colleges have seen a growth in research interest is in the development of College-specific Institutional Review (IR) Departments, as well as in State assessment boards (Cohen and Brawer). NCTE’s journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College also offers scholarship on the teaching of writing at the two-year college level and put out a special issue on Two-Year College Writing Centers (Vol. 33 No. 3, March 2006). Still, as I prepared for my position at BCC, I noticed the rather light amount of focus on two-year college Writing Centers in other Writing Center journals and in edited collections and resource books, such as The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book and The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship, just as two examples. This dearth in scholarship can be explained by the lack of resources and the various time demands made on faculty at the community college level; it can also be explained, in part, by the professionalization, and often adjunctification, of Writing Center Coordinator/Director positions. Still, this seems to be only half of the issue, because research—especially for those of us who successfully completed academic Masters and Doctoral programs—can propel our teaching interests and enrich our everyday roles as members of academic institutions. An unwillingness, or fear perhaps, to engage in academic research might result from the same “failure complex” that students at the Community College level (and other levels of higher education) struggle with: the belief that our work is not worthy of scholarly inquiry or research and the fear that the research might fail to produce “important enough” results and thus be a waste of already precious and carefully meted out resources. Fear of failure, it seems, pervades the rhetoric surrounding community colleges, perhaps because our goals have, from the inception of such institutions, been at odds with each other: providing enlightened and more informed citizenry, providing access to education for all, training competent workers and securing them jobs.

2. On a related note, is there really a way of making fair generalizations about community colleges or CC scholars? I know that community college governance looks different from, say, your typical research university, but I don't know that all community colleges work in the same ways. I remember reading in the first volume of Geiger's history of American Higher Education that during the late 60s and much of the 70s the rate of community college establishment was something like one a week, but that doesn't necessarily indicate an across-the-board uniformity.

The American Community College by Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer offers a really interesting historiography on the creation of community colleges in the United States. Apparently, there were a lot of different models—some of which were integrated into local high schools as a grade 13 and 14, some of which were private models, some of which were extensions or annexes of large State Colleges and Universities, and many of which were public stand-alone institutions. What I find compelling about the history of the establishment of community colleges is the civic pride that local populations took in their two-year colleges. A source of revenue, jobs, service and other opportunity, the number of established public and private community colleges numbered roughly the same in the 1970s as they do today (1,141 in 1972-1973 and 1,173 in 2004–2005) (17). On the South Coast of Massachusetts—an economically depressed area once renowned for textile manufacturing, shipping, and whaling—Bristol Community College still contributes to feelings of civic pride and engagement.

Yet, as you note, community colleges—despite a shared (though often at-odds) set of missions—are not uniform. They vary in administrative structures, curricula, publication requirements, student demographics, funding allocations and structure, and need. Working in the Massachusetts Community College system, in a fairly isolated portion of the State, with little public transport access to Boston and surrounding smaller cities, generates a host of needs and access issues that, say, teaching at a CUNY in New York City does not. Using the CUNY system as an example, proximity to other two-year and four-year colleges also contributes to different publication and collaboration standards, which, so far as I understand them, are required.

3. In addition to the question of standards, there's also the question of what is being published, isn't there? I don't know of a database that could nail down exactly what kinds of research are being published, broken down by authorship and where the author's employed, but I think we share a sense that empirical research is one of the areas that both CC scholars and writing center work are less known for. Do you see some ways in which that's changing, and are there directions you'd like to see more CC and writing center scholars take? Are there other disciplines whose tools we're not utilizing with as much effect as we should?

There was a really great email that went around the WPA-L ListServ recently on the ethical obligations that writing administrators have to conducting empirical research on their programs. It did not produce the outcry I thought it would but I agree that a number of Coordinators/Directors, as well as faculty that I have spoken with seem less than comfortable with doing big data assessment or empirical research of most kinds. Furthermore, my work as a reviewer for both Praxis as well as WLN has demonstrated to me the need for more specific parameters for conducting empirical research on writing centers. Organizing WC research through science writing (Intro, method, results, discussion or IMRD) as well as making deliberate and well-articulated decisions on choosing one research method over another—survey versus interviews, quantitative versus qualitative, for example—and avoiding bias in question design are just a few bits of advice that I have for scholars who are interested in conducting empirical research on writing centers. Also, articulating distribution methods, coding and storage of data, as well as statistical analysis of results are all also well appreciated by reviewers and readers; method matters insofar as statistics and coding either confirm or disconfirm a hunch that your gut is telling you!  Haswell’s work on RAD (Replicable, Aggregable, Data Driven) Research is a great resource. Similarly, Colorado State University’s Research Exchange, once it launches. (Editor's note: we here at Praxis are also launching a research exchange in the next few weeks, so contact us if you want to participate!)

4. One of the things I find most surprising about the dearth of conversation around CCs in the writing center community is that CCs would seem to fit the ethos of the writing center so well! My time spent employed by a community college was really a joy, precisely because I felt the community in that college in a way one often doesn't in either a public or a private university. The students and the instructors were often from the community, at least where I was, but more than that the college was really turned towards the wider community and saw itself as serving that community; since writing centers tend to envision themselves as serving the campus community wherever they're located, why hasn't this shared service-oriented ethos resulted in more visibility for CC writing centers? Or do you even agree with my characterizations of CCs and of the ethos they supposedly share with writing centers?

I think that, as with most institutional organizations, when they are run responsibly and have vision and focus, community college writing centers can make profoundly meaningful changes in the lives of students. Community members, alumni, faculty, staff, and current students can all benefit from the writing center’s services—getting out from under that remedial heading, though, is a step that CC WCs have not fully taken, in my opinion! Yet, from a practical place, writing centers have been identified as helping to contribute to retention and matriculation rates. As Sandy Shugart said in his keynote talk at BCC this past spring, we faculty are often students’ first and only point-of-access. They move between cars and classrooms. Thus, the Writing Center could make significant impacts as a go-between for students that are not only struggling but those who are thriving but are also seeking out new work and professional/creative opportunities. The trick, I think, to establishing the community of a community college writing center is branding—a marketing term, yes, but also a psychological one. Students don’t want to be punished or otherwise banished for “bad writing” to a resource room. Many CC students were disenfranchised by their previous education and the skills and drills approach simply didn’t work—I know it didn’t for me during my own high school education in a public New York City school! Thus, a community college writing center needs to walk the fine line between access and opportunity: between facilitation and creation.

Ways in which to achieve this more subtle approach include investing in infrastructure and faculty Directors, as well as creating training, mentorship and research/scholarship programs; all of these investments have, as my mentors say, “teeth” in that the person running the Writing Center is seen as the expert. I use my Writing Center(s) as a hub of student and faculty research—no question is too small, no outcome too fanciful. Borrowing from Science the apprentice/mentorship and Principle Investigator (PI) models, I try to instill a sense of responsibility and personal investment in my peer and faculty tutors. I keep telling everyone that we aren’t “just” a community college writing center; that our ethos, as you term it, is a bit grander (and more pedagogically and process-focused) than teaching citation method and grammar. Many of these debates about the role of a writing center have already occurred at the four-year college level; it appears that two-year colleges stand poised to follow suit. 

Dr. Genie Giaimo is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Centers at Bristol Community College in Fall River, MA. Praxis would like to thank Dr. Giaimo for participating in this interview and for furthering writing center scholarship.