Divided Communication: Oral and Visual Presentation in the Writing Center

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In her 1988 Support for the Learning and Teaching of English (SLATE) Statement to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Muriel Harris notes, “While most writing centers work only with writing skills, some also offer help with reading, study, and/or oral communication skills.”  Harris’s statement, situated in the 1980s context of writing centers, still largely holds true today.  Writing centers have been slow to integrate oral and visual communication as essential parts of tutoring practice, especially considering the sweeping changes to composition theory in relation to its focus on multimodality and digital composition. 

Having recently switched from working in a large public university to a private one, it still strikes me how much institutional context governs the structure of writing centers.  For anyone in the writing center field, it comes as no surprise that writing centers vary in size, administrative structure, and even services provided.  Institutional needs—the needs of the students and the university—differ based on student demographics and institutional programming.  At Rice University, the name of our center was recently changed to the Center for Academic and Professional Communication (CAPC).  The rhetoric of a “communication center” requires a moment of pause.  At a university with a large applied science program where the vast majority of students using our services are STEM majors, students need help not only with scientific writing, but also often with poster presentations, slide design, and oral communication skills.  The idea of a “communication center” takes a holistic approach to tutoring communication in all its various forms: oral, written, and visual rhetoric.  However, many, if not most, writing center programs focus primarily on the “writing” of writing centers, making an artificial divide between oral and visual communication tutoring and writing tutoring.  This thought raises a number of questions.  What are the implications of having a center that focuses on communication versus one that solely focuses on writing?  How might a STEM populace benefit from this more holistic approach to communication?

In many cases this divide may be a result of having two distinctly different student services centers, housed in separate departments (i.e. Communication Studies and the English Department). In other cases, even when tutoring is housed in the same center, oral and visual presentation tutoring may be allocated to content-specific tutors.  We might take, for instance, Sarah Pittock and Erica Cirillo-McCarthy’s account of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking:

In 2013, the once-separate speaking and writing centers at our university were combined and housed within a single center for writing and speaking. The Director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking and the Director of the Oral Communication Program have continued to teach separate cohorts of tutors in separate tutor education courses, however, and students have continued to make appointments with either an oral communication tutor or a writing tutor. 

For Pittock and Cirillo-McCarthy, despite integrating the two centers at Hume into one physical space and providing some cross-training to both oral communication tutors and writing tutors, the services remained largely separate.  In other cases, some writing centers will tutor oral and visual presentations, but they do not market themselves as “communication centers,” nor is spoken or visual communication a primary focus. Nevertheless, dividing tutoring services between oral and visual communication and writing makes an implicit statement that these skillsets are only tangentially related, in that they both communicate ideas through different mediums to different audiences.  Yet, writing tutors are often uniquely equipped to tutor oral/visual rhetorical skills, especially when it comes to organization, building clear transitions, and other structural elements of presentations.  Plus, writing center pedagogy frequently emphasizes the notion of writing as a social process and acknowledges the important role that speech and open dialogue play in the tutoring session.

For STEM students especially, the connection between written and oral communication are irrevocably linked.  Beth Beason-Abmayr, a biosciences instructor, and Jennifer Shade Wilson, the current Director of the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, recently published an article on their collaborative workshop to teach bioscience students skills on content selection, slide design, and oral presentation.  They both acknowledge the lack of formal communication training for STEM students: “[Biology students] are expected to write and present about science, despite their lack of formal education in communication, particularly oral communication” (Beason-Abmayr and Wilson 1).  Not only are STEM students expected to excel in various genres of scientific writing, but they also are frequently asked to present their research both visually and orally to both specialized and non-specialized audiences. 

With that being said, the number of self-proclaimed “communication centers” is growing.  According to the National Association of Communication Centers (NACC), the number of communication centers has increased from roughly 80 nation-wide in 2013 to 162 currently registered in their directory.  But this is more reflective of a growth in student services and instructional support, rather than evidence of a pedagogical shift.  Like those who identify themselves as “writing centers,” “communication centers” also suffer from a crisis of identity: some focus exclusively on oral presentation skills, while others also offer writing support.

What is clear is that the notion of “communication centers” and “writing centers” have developed in separate professional spheres, despite their obvious pedagogical links, and more cross-institutional discussion is needed concerning how oral and visual communication tutoring fits with writing tutoring to meet the needs of students.

Works Cited

Beason-Abmayr, Beth and Jennifer Shade Wilson. “Building a Partnership with a Campus Communication Center.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, vol. 19, no. 1, 2018. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1128/jmbe.v19i1.1495.  Accessed 27 June 2019.

Harris, Muriel. “SLATE (Support for the Learning and Teaching of English) Statement: The Concept of a Writing Center.” International Writing Centers Association, 2006, 
https://writingcenters.org/writing-center-concept-by-muriel-harris.  Accessed 27 June 2019.

“Directory of Centers.”  National Association of Communication Centers, 2014, http://commcenters.org/resources/directory-of-centers.  Accessed 27 June 2019.

Pittock, Sarah Peterson and Erica Cirillo-McCarthy.  “Let’s Meet in the Lounge: Toward a Cohesive Tutoring Pedagogy in a Writing and Speaking Center.” How We Teach Writing Tutors: A WLN Digital Edited Collection, edited by Karen G. Johnson and Ted Roggenbuck, 2019, https://wlnjournal.org/digitaleditedcollection1/PittockCirillo-McCarthy.html.

Author Bio

Jacob Herrmann is the Assistant Director of the Center for Academic and Professional Communication (CAPC) at Rice University.  He holds an M.A. in English literature from South Dakota State University, and he is currently working on completing his PhD at The University of Kansas.  Jacob has been working in writing centers since 2012, serving as a Graduate Consultant, Administrative Intern, and Workshop Coordinator.  His research interests include writing center theory and practice, spatial theory, and LGBTQ+ identity politics, as well as maintaining an interest in medieval and early modern literature.  Jacob’s publications include “Brave/r Spaces vs. Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ in the Writing Center: Theory and Practice at the University of Kansas” in The Peer Review: Journal for Writing Center Practitioners (2017).