In late October of last year an active member of the Praxis Editorial Review Board and an esteemed colleague, Liliana Naydan, wrote me to ask if she could solicit survey responses for a research study via Praxis’ facebook page. The study, “An Investigation Into the Working Conditions of Non-tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers,” is obviously well within the parameters of Praxis’ editorial mission and I replied that of course she could. I added that the project she was involved with sounded interesting, and then I promptly filed the matter in the deep recesses of the back of my mind. Family life and schoolwork intervened, we had an issue to publish and I had a semester to complete, and I am only now returning to the timely and important questions about work and labor in the writing center that the project is asking.
The researchers who are conducting the study, Dawn Fels, Liliana Naydan, Maggie Herb, and Clint Gardner, describe the impetus behind their study in a new blog post on The Writing Center Journal blog: writing center work is performed in labor conditions that are neither well understood nor, judging from what little evidence exists, particularly salutary. From tutor to director, employment is insecure and people struggle for recognition and respect, both from each other and from outside institutional actors; in addition to this there is too little data on writing center working conditions to even ask basic questions about how to improve them. Fels, Naydan, Herb and Gardner describe anxious listserv and conference-bar conversations about how specific writing centers will do their work after a director’s departure, or budget restrictions slash tutorial services as happened recently at the College of Southern Nevada, but a real dearth of discussion about how they did that work before the blow fell, and the co-investigators ask: was that final loss just an extension of the already-troubling situation pertaining not just to an individual center, but across the field?
My own suspicion is that the situation is generally dire. Writing centers have come of age in an academy ruled by a budgetary logic imposed from without, their parent institutions locked into an economistic calculus that leaves too little room for the kind of human-scale, interpersonal service writing centers provide. Even private universities are ruled by the immense financial pressures legislatures put public collegiate institutions under through the action of mimetic pressure, and in addition (or as a result?) there is a generalized inclarity about the purpose of contemporary higher education: do colleges and universities exist to train workers, or to engender citizens? Departments of English and of Rhetoric, where the latter even exist, are caricatured as collections of useless prevaricators, the vital role of composition and of critical reading practices in higher education largely neglected in favor of more obviously saleable (and scaleable) skills, and the fact that writing centers lack some of the budgetary cushion like required classes and graduate programs that the programs we are affiliated with enjoy indicates that where they strive for recognition, we struggle for survival.
However, it is important to note that what is being addressed in “An Investigation Into the Working Conditions of Non-tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers” is not the individual culpability for or institutional complicity with these trends. However troubling the direction higher education may seem to be taking, it is a process involving thousands of decisions made by millions of people, and the research Fels, Naydan, Herb and Gardner are performing is not focused on populating a rogue’s gallery of anti-writing center administrators, professors, or legislators. Instead the study seeks to map out how the web of exploitation and opportunity writing centers exist in affects the labor conditions in which their work is done, and the people who do it.
If you would like to participate in this study, please fill out an initial screening survey at https://pennstate.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_cw0FTcVmA2KsuBD. Initial response to the study has been good, but investigators are particularly hoping to include more tutor responses in the study, so if you are a peer tutor or a contingent writing center worker please consider using a few minutes of your time to fill out a survey.