On Retaining Highly Qualified Directors in College and University Writing Centers

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'Untitled' 2016

Thomas Spitzer-Hanks, 'Untitled' 2016

Editor's Note: AXIS is, obviously, wholly in favor of the field of writing center studies remaining both extant and vibrant. The Praxis editorial team sees AXIS as a forum for conversations on how to achieve that, and to that end we solicit posts on various writing center-related topics. Today we have asked scholars in the field who are studying writing center labor practices to make a statement about recent administrative decisions related to specific writing centers- decisions that have attracted a great deal of attention in the field. Their statements are reflective not of AXIS' or Praxis' editorial stance but of their own, and we are grateful for their willingness to enunciate their stance with such vigor and clarity. We welcome responses to and elaborations of this post, as we do with all AXIS posts.


On Retaining Highly Qualified Directors in College and University Writing Centers


Typical conversation on the wcenter listserv tends to involve calls for papers, everyday writing center operational issues, and topics pertaining to peer tutor education. Increasingly, questions involving writing center labor have come to the fore, as they did in late April of this year. In the flurry of emails sent over the course of a couple of days, two writing center directors shared news of the fact that they’ll no longer be at the helms of their respective centers. The problem in both cases--and in numerous other cases--is an effort to restructure that comes from high-level administrators who, more often than not, are looking to save money. When directors work on contingent lines such structural changes perhaps get little notice, and, as Emily Isaacs and Melinda Knight report, “writing centers are directed by people in non-tenure-track faculty positions predominantly (71%)” (48). The problem of tenure-line directors losing their centers perhaps gets more recognition, but in both cases the writing center community has little sense of how to help, and the consequences of inaction could be grave. The field of writing center studies may well transform before our eyes as we sit by without a clear sense of how to counter cost-saving measures that have devastating consequences for us.  We as writing center professionals need to take action to protect not only our own jobs but the very existence of our field as an area of study in the academy.  Ignoring the problem is not an answer, and neither is expressing sympathy or outrage each time a center a director loses a center but doing nothing more to try to keep these losses from happening again and again.  Allowing administrators uneducated in writing center theory and praxis and the value of a trained writing center director to make bad decisions about any writing center anywhere is unacceptable.  Such decisions haunt our field.  We need to educate administrators.  We cannot assume that they will automatically know what writing centers are, what their theory and practice is, or how removing a qualified director threatens the integrity, longevity and success of a writing center.

We feel that writing is action that can make change and bring awareness to those who are making ill-informed decisions about writing centers.  When the four of us got to talking about the news we heard via the listserv, we thought we should write about it. Doing nothing certainly felt more exhausting. Hence we wrote an open letter that outlines the problem at hand and calls for writing center workers and those who support them to sign. It went live on the night of April 25th and garnered over 200 signatures in fewer than 24 hours. It also inspired a range of telling comments from writing center workers from across the country.  As Risa Gorelick writes, “I'm signing because this happened to me, in 2013, at the College of Saint Elizabeth where I directed the Conklin Academic Skills Center. I was the only full time person in my office. My position was eliminated, leaving a part-time assistant director without training in writing center [pedagogy] (she was a nutrition MA student) to run the center.”  As Ann Kottner writes, “Writing centers are on the frontlines of student retention. They need experts to lead them and staff them and guide peer tutors. Forget the administrative student retention offices. Pay for office hours and expert writing tutoring and watch your retention soar.”  And as Kathleen Shine Cain writes, “If Writing Centers are to continue to help students develop as writers, rather than simply helping students produce better products one paper at a time, those centers must be founded on solid writing center/rhetoric-composition theory and engage in legitimate disciplinary practices.”

To sign the petition and leave your own comment, go here

Like the petition, the research we’re presently conducting will work to draw further attention to the labor problems that covertly plague writing centers. With funding from a 2015 International Writing Centers Association Research Grant, we’re exploring contingency in writing centers via a study titled “An Investigation Into the Working Conditions of Non-tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers.” Among the directors we are interviewing are those who lost their jobs or centers--directors akin to the ones who led us to write our petition. Because Isaacs and Knight also identified that 81% of today’s writing centers are staffed by students (49), we’re also treating peer and professional writing consultants as contingent workers of a grossly overlooked sort and are interviewing them, too. You can read more about our research here. Guiding our thinking is the notion that in order to do something substantive about the problem of contingency as it exists in writing centers, we have to better understand the problem. We have to better understand what writing center workers know about the problem and how they view their working conditions as contingent workers. We need to talk to each other.

Our hope is that research and activism such as that which our petition constitutes continue to intermingle in noteworthy ways to redefine what it means to be a writing center professional and researcher. We want directors of writing centers who are losing their centers or their jobs to know that the writing center community can and will actively support them. We want leaders in the wider composition field to actively support them. We want to save our colleagues’ jobs and reinvigorate the field in the process. As our petition puts it,

We know that in order to provide students with the help that they need to improve as writers, language users, critical and innovative thinkers, composers, and designers, they need a highly qualified writing center director with expertise in how to teach writing, who is committed to remaining current on best practices, and who engages in on-going professional development and scholarship. We know that students who serve as writing and literacy tutors need a writing center director who can train them in the best pedagogical methods, supervise their individualized application of those methods to their work with diverse learners, and mentor them as they take on the great responsibility that comes with tutoring. Providing students with anything but the most highly qualified writing center director will only harm students’ and tutors’  success.

The responsibility of making a reality of what we know works in writing centers is up to us. What can you do to help?

Beyond simply signing our petition, consider creating your own petition if you see a problem involving writing center labor.  Likewise, attend panels on labor issues at conferences in the field, and consider attending our Special Interest Group on labor at a future International Writing Centers Association conference.  Finally, consider what assessments or research projects you might take on to show evidence of what makes for an effective writing center to an administrator at your institution.  And remember to enlist the members of the writing center community in your initiatives if you need help with them. Together, we can organize for labor justice in writing center work.

Works Cited

Isaacs, Emily, and Melinda Knight. “A Bird’s Eye View of Writing Centers: Institutional Infrastructure, Scope and Programmatic Issues, Reported Practices.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 37.2 (2014): 36–67. Print.