Interview with Dr. Genie Giaimo

Today's Axis blog entry features our conversation with Dr. Genie Giaimo, the director of the writing center at The Ohio State University. Dr. Giaimo will be editing a special issue of Praxis focused on writing centers at community colleges and other two-year institutions, slated for publication in fall 2017. 

1. What initially drew you to pitch this idea to Praxis specifically?

I’ve been a reviewer for Praxis for nearly four years and I have enjoyed watching the journal develop and expand. In part, my idea was to pitch an article on RAD research within a two-year college writing center context, which was in response to a previous interview that I gave with the journal in which I discussed empirical research and my growing preoccupation with writing center methodology and the things that often go unsaid about a study and its method. I have given a lot of feedback related to methodology on subject recruitment, statistical significance, and the ways in which researchers develop and study their particular research questions. My research on two-year colleges and RAD (replicable, aggregable, and data-supported) methods responded to a number of other journals’ focus on similar methodology (here I am thinking about Writing Center Journal in particular but also The Journal of Writing Assessment) but with a community college as the primary research site, which is far less typical for writing center research. But, as I pitched my manuscript to Praxis, I realized that there was actually an even larger opportunity to create the first-ever writing center special issue focused on two-year college research conducted by two-year college researchers and WPAs. Although TETYC did a focus issue a decade and a half ago, it only contained three articles about writing centers at two-year colleges and one of these pieces was an historical one. This, I thought, was a real opportunity to share current research from some of the movers and shakers in an emergent research field. Of course, two-year colleges have a vibrant research culture, but writing centers have been under-examined within this scope. I realized this when I became a two-year college WC Director I was constantly asked to justify the “best practices,” however sticky a term that might be, that my field relies upon—many of which simply do not work in the same way in two-year and four-year institutions. I realized that, in many ways, two-year and four-year college writing centers were operating in separate spheres with some crossover, and that the conventional wisdom and “best practices” were being developed out of four-year college writing centers with their particular institutional contexts and student populations, in mind.

2. Can you tell us a bit about how this issue came to you? How did your interest in two-year colleges as an unfortunately overlooked site for assessment begin?

Well, I was trained by Neal Lerner at Northeastern University and there I was trained in a very common WC model: peer run, mostly graduate consultants, process-oriented, non-directive, and ever expanding into the composition and rhetoric theories du jour: multimodal writing support, multilingual writing support, online writing support, etc. When I arrived at my first job at a community college, however, the model was entirely different. It was a faculty and adjunct-run center with mostly walk-in hours, no online support, and very little training and professional development for staff. While I recognized that the model I had been educated in was one that had a lot of value, I also recognized the difficulty of changing the current model I was encountering wholesale. I set about trying to justify adding peer tutors back into the WC, trying to train staff in minimalist and non-directive tutoring methods, and exploring online tutoring options. All of this was done through RAD research because every time I went back to the literature, I found articles about four-year colleges that were residential and predominately staffed by peer-tutors and graduate students. It wasn’t that there was NO research on community college writing centers out there—Clint Gardner has done some great work both for TETYC and through IWCA, as an example—but there wasn’t nearly the robustness of research on the particular challenges that I was facing, given the WC model I inherited and the student population that attended the WC. Everything that I thought I knew about Writing Centers had to be re-worked in order to fit a far more diverse population than I had ever worked with before!

3. In the CFP for the special issue, you write, "Writing Centers are an important part of the community college open-access mission, yet, overwhelmingly, there is a dearth of centralized research on two-year writing centers that is produced by community college writing center administrators and faculty." 

How did you arrive at this conclusion? Was there a moment that you realized that writing center scholars simply weren’t taking advantage of the research available?

Well, as I noted previously, I arrived at the conclusion that there is a lack of research on two-year college writing centers when administrators and others were asking me for justification of policy changes and the only articles I could find to demonstrate “best practices” were studies conducted at four-year institutions of higher learning. Similarly, in the peer tutoring practicum course I taught, most of the articles that we read and discussed were from four-year-colleges—research universities, no less! Even the students became aware of this phenomenon when they started conducting original research and wanted to use two-year-colleges as their research site. It was difficult to explain that many of the things that we take for granted in the writing center world—globally-focused, non-directive, peer-led tutoring methods—were efficacious models that worked within four-year contexts and could work within two-year contexts, as well. I was trained to value these methods of tutoring and prioritize a peer tutoring model, but it was difficult to explain these concepts to a site that hadn’t had peer tutors for over 10 years and was run mainly by adjunct faculty who were incredibly directive and locally-focused in their sessions. The research was simply not there for explaining how community college WC sites are different from four-year college WC sites, including taking into account student demographics, non-residential college structures, and low technology access, all of which were factors that contributed to the policies and tutoring model in place before I arrived. While I was dealing with the realities of an incredibly diverse student body, and with far lower technological skills, on the whole, than anywhere I had ever worked before, the research took for granted a number of givens about student populations, their abilities, the amount of time they spent on campus, and their access to a non-interrupted education. That simply was not my experience working at a two-year college (and this experience will vary from community college to community college!) So, we needed to find out for ourselves what our population knew about writing centers, what type of support they wanted, and what kinds of tutoring models they benefitted from. In short, we had to rebuild the Center from the ground up but we needed original data to justify that need because the current data wasn’t really featuring our particular student demographics, institutional structure, or service challenges.  

4.What do you think we're going to find as we collect more data from writing centers at community colleges and smaller institutions?  I know this is speculative, but are there patterns you imagine will emerge that we can learn from or will be surprising or illuminating as we continue to theorize about writing center pedagogy and how community colleges fit into this larger conversation? 

Well, having already accepted proposals for our special issue, I know we will find that a lot of two-year college writing centers are tethered to developmental writing courses and function within a course-credit model that is more common to older writing lab models that Neal Lerner, Elizabeth Boquet, and others have written about. We will also learn a lot more about the incredibly regional nature of community colleges and how that regionality affects student populations and, consequentially, how writing centers are run successfully. While some community colleges have little-to-no international student population—which is so common to four-year colleges now—many have a disproportionate number of first generation and L 1.5 students: students who were raised in the United States and have a grasp of colloquial and idiomatic English but who live in households where languages other than English are predominately spoken. We have contributors to the special issue that explore such linguistic and cultural varieties among their student populations and offer training modules and other research-based pedagogical tools for working with such students. 

I also think we are going to find that there are a lot of differences between two-year and four-year college writing centers and that these differences need to be recognized and studied in order to develop appropriate training, staffing models, funding models, and research models. The reality for many community college writing center administrators is that the work is far too time consuming to conduct extensive research. This is where I think the article by me and my colleague, Katherine R. O’Brien, will be useful; it is a primer on how to develop and harness student researchers to conduct big data assessment on past and current policies and tutoring models/methods.

5. One thing I’m particularly interested in as a budding writing center director or administrator of some other kind is the political and financial realities of community colleges. I know it can be hard enough to secure funding at larger schools—given your experience, could you talk a bit about what this is like for community colleges and smaller institutions?

Well, it’s important to learn about the different types of funding lines at your particular institution and whether or not the Writing Center qualifies for said funding lines. At the community college, for example, there’s the standard college budget line items for personnel, supplies, technology, etc. but there is also special funding through government grants and agencies, such as TRIO or Perkins—some four-year colleges also have TRIO programs. Of course, how these types of funding lines can be used is very specific. Perkins, as an example, is limited to supporting students in technical education programs. So, while funding is tight everywhere, it is far tighter, in my experience, at public two-year colleges, thus it is important to explore different types of funding avenues and to make sure to spend the funding lines that you have already secured. Also, tracking how money is spent is critical to fulfilling any particular budgetary lines with attention to detail on particular specifications (number of students from xyz major served per semester), or target effects on particular demographics (increase in passing grades or retention from semester-to-semester, as an example), thus securing a data and usage tracking system, such as WCOnline, is critical to such reportage efforts.

Another point related to the question of funding is that developing relationships with local private and business donors is crucial to furthering a writing center’s mission and reach without calling upon already overtaxed institutional coffers. Donor-ship and foundational giving are areas that I am exploring at the moment. I am learning that setting-up donor-organization matching requires a lot of finesse and relationship building. So, going through the official channels at your institution to start the process of discussing donations and foundational giving is vital to securing external funding.

6. With the job market being what it is, many of us will work at community colleges and smaller institutions. How do you envision training for graduate students proceeding in the future, or accounting for this reality?
 

This is a really great question and one that I could go on and on about. I recently reviewed an article for TETYC, which I don’t think has been published yet, but it offered a training model for aspiring community college professors through an articulation agreement and externship program model between a local Ph.D. program and community college. The general conclusion of the study was that while a lot of literature Ph.D. students end-up working at community colleges, many of them are simply not prepared for the type of course load, developmental needs, and even political structure of community colleges. I would argue that there is a similar set of circumstances informing those of us who make the transition from four-year public and, especially, private higher education settings to two-year ones, even in rhetoric and composition/writing center studies. If I were to run a training for would-be community college WC Directors, I would run it as a practicum and I would want there to be a mentorship component in which emerging WC scholars and administrators worked and learned alongside more seasoned community college educators, directors, and staff. Of course, given the financial climate of community colleges and many state schools, it is difficult to say whether or not there would be enough money or time for this type of practical hands-on learning, but, in an ideal world, no graduate student would be thrown into working at a community college with a 4/4 or 5/5 teaching load and directing a WC totally unlike what she or he was trained in.

 

If a training program wasn’t available, which is far more likely than the scenario I just described, I would suggest that aspiring community college educators seek employment at a community college while still in graduate school. A colleague of mine volunteered in a writing center at a community college in the Boston area before she was able to secure paid teaching; this is, of course, because many community colleges are unionized and priority-of-hire from semester-to-semester is given to workers with previous experience and seniority. Also, unfortunately, graduate students and those who have never worked in a two-year college setting are sometimes viewed with suspicion or skepticism by would-be employers—thus, getting that vital work experience is necessary before applying to two-year college jobs. While I never worked in a community college, I attended high school bridge classes at my New York City public school, through Kingsborough Community College, and I am a first generation college student. I also taught pre-literacy courses to adult learners who could neither speak nor write in English or their home language(s) at Rosie’s Place: a women-only homeless shelter in Boston. These experiences were vital speaking points during my interviews. And, while in graduate school I witnessed a lot of people refusing to talk about their background if they were not from privileged or academic families, it is quite the opposite at two-year institutions: having diversity-of-experience makes you a more attractive and potentially empathetic candidate than someone right out of graduate school with no experience with the two-year college model and little experience working with developmental education models, non-traditionally-aged learners, etc.


7.  Can you speak a bit to your experience with collaboration with other disciplines during your time working at a community college? How could this be improved, or what have you seen already working about it? 

 

Collaboration is a necessarily element of any writing center-college relationship. There are instances when the writing center director acts as a de facto writing across the curriculum professional. That was the case at my institution, as there is no writing program or WPA. So, I worked with faculty across the disciplines. For example, a consultant and I developed a workshop for an introductory chemistry course for non-majors (it was common for majors to be quite broad, such as “Liberal Arts,” or “Health Sciences” at the Associates Degree level). Together, we met with the faculty member, discussed American Chemical Society (ACS) citation method and IMRD (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion) formatting, as well as passive voice, and third person. It was a long workshop! The point, though, with this workshop was to introduce students to how our Writing Center can support writers of all disciplines and across various rhetorical and generic contexts. Because we were seeing few STEM students in our Centers, we thought that marketing and promotion, as well as introducing students to our services and philosophies, would help to bring different kinds of writers to the WC.

Another collaboration that occurred across the disciplines was with criminal justice and their annotated bibliography assignment. Although there was some resistance when policies about signing-off on required attendance (another area that I research) to the WC were put into place, it was important for us to offer alternatives to this type of checking-in mechanism. Thus, we developed annotated bibliography workshops and determined we would offer drop-in hours for CJ students in the coming semesters and assess whether or not this strategy was an effective and satisfying replacement for the signing-off requirement that some faculty implemented for the assignment.

Thus, while collaboration across the disciplines is very important—not everyone knows about a writing center’s mission or potential services—it is equally important to offer disciplinary-specific support and work in coordination with faculty and staff to develop content. It’s often a work-in-progress, but I recommend that new WC Directors and Coordinators hit the pavement when they arrive at a new job. Find out all of the student support services, such as the office of disability, veteran’s affairs, as well as student life initiatives, such as counseling. Get to know each department’s mission and learn more about their strategies for supporting students. And, if you are at a community college especially, build relationships. Get to know both adjunct and full time faculty members, and meet with deans and departmental chairs. Try to get on the agenda for required meetings, even if only for 5 – 10 minutes to introduce yourself and your center. And, most important of all, listen. Community colleges can be insular and community-driven places. Change doesn’t come easily to them, or at least that has been my experience. So, when you encounter resistance, take a step back and reflect. Consider that many of your colleagues have been working at the same institution their entire career; some will have, over the course of decades, witnessed college expansions and contractions, hiring and firing, and all types of union-related and State-imposed issues. Every decision will take time and deliberate reasoning. Thus, collaborations come in handy for piloting new initiatives and creating a positive buzz about the changes. Collaboration is key at a community college, as I know it is elsewhere in higher education for writing center administrators.

Thanks for your insightful answers, Genie! Be on the lookout for the issue that Genie is guest-editing this fall.