Knowing When to Shift Our Stance

Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Lori Salem, long-time director of Temple University’s Writing Center, whose paper won the International Writing Center Association’s 2017 Best Article award. Steiner’s work grows out of a quantitative analysis of who was and was not visiting the writing center—an analysis that leads her to claim that the methods that are now standard in writing center theory and practice are not necessarily suited to the students most likely to visit.

Further, Salem argues in the interview that writing centers have been too “status-conscious,” and in working to avoid being seen as “remedial,” have failed to serve the students who both need and use them the most.

In particular, Salem and her co-authors argue that the non-directive/non-evaluative approach to consultations is one that offers the most benefit to already-privileged students with stronger academic backgrounds and language skills. Yet most students who visited the writing center were either struggling academically or were English language learners. Non-directive methods, the authors argue, are more likely to frustrate students and to fail to meet their needs and expectations.

Some of what Salem had to say struck a chord with me. So did some of what she did not address. Salem is clear that this is only one study of one specific location, and many of the phenomena Salem describes are related to academic politics at the university, writ-large. Yet universities are not the only places where writing centers touch students’ lives.

Before I came to the University of Texas, my job was to build and then manage a writing center at my campus of an open-admissions community college. One notable difference between my old situation and my current one is that, while UT does not even offer a course in Basic Writing, prior to moving to a Directed Self-Placement system, nearly one-third of the community college’s students began their academic careers in remedial/developmental coursework. In fact, my campus’s development of a new writing center was a direct result of moving to Self-Placement, and to the immediate decline Reading Comprehension and Basic Writing course enrollment. The new writing center was attached to a general tutoring lab (which I also managed), and one of our founding goals (and mandates) was to provide help and support to the many first-generation college students who might find themselves struggling as they adapted to college. 

The entire campus was set up with this particular ethos, as well as the entailed assumptions. Our new Writing and Learning Lab was an extension and a visible marker of the college’s (albeit loftily characterized and ready to be critiqued) mission: to transform lives. This is a goal that Salem suggests writing centers have set for themselves. Yet, the idea that the writing center is a special part of the university where that can happen is a striking contrast with the idea that the writing center is a manifestation of a shared campus goal. And in that context, I have experienced exactly what Salem describes as students’ confusion and irritation with an approach that does not give them what they came for. Yet, perhaps the different constraints we were working with in the community college's tutoring lab lent themselves to a greater sense of latitude for our tutors than appears in Salem's description. Our policy was officially non-directive and non-evaluative, focusing first on HOCs, and improving the writer more than improving the paper. But in order to improve the writer, we knew we also had to find a way to help the students who came to us feel like part of a community they could trust. We wanted students to think of our center as a place they could come back to. And, in order to establish that trust, sometimes we had to answer the questions the students came with, first. Sometimes we had to stop a discussion about a paper to talk about reading comprehension strategies, or even to talk about general study skills.

All of which suggests, to me, that Salem is onto something when she says that we need to pay attention to who is really coming into the writing center, and to whether students believe in any of the “transformative” claims we tend to make. Non-directive approaches are there to help students develop. But as we train tutors, part of that training may need to include some consideration for knowing just when it’s important to temporarily alter the stance. That’s a risky thing to do, and it may go without saying that each campus will have its own set of unique considerations. But that’s exactly what we need to set out to determine and develop. And if, in doing so, we help campuses to transform even just a little bit, then we may begin to do what writing centers promised to do from the start.