Case Study 3: Ecology of the Writing Center

My first case study examined the writing center broadly using Foucault’s archaeological method. My second case study examined my specific writing center in light of Spinuzzi’s activity theory and Latour’s actor-network theory. These theoretical frameworks allowed me to examine either the discursive writing center (Foucault) or my specific writing center (Spinuzzi and Latour) in interesting ways, particularly because these are theoretical models that  have not had much uptake within the field. My final case study will take up a theoretical framework that has gotten traction in the writing center community: ecology.

In her article “What Margins? The Writing Center at the Small Liberal Arts College” Erika Spohrer suggests that while the term ecology may be relatively recent to writing center scholarship, its concepts are not:

And while pivotal writing center work may not reference ecology obliquely, the very language we’ve used to describe our interactions with students suggests an undeniable interrelatedness: we refer to Burkean parlours abuzz with conversation; we consider the writer (holistically), not simply the writing; we’re engaged in a conversation of mankind. Our centers are dialogic, and knowledge is created through social interaction. Even contact zones, where conflict occurs, rely on interconnections. The writing center as an ecosystem of interrelatedness has become so routine as to become commonplace. (7)

While these ideas may have long been commonplace, ecology as an explicit framework is relatively recent in the field, but it is becoming more widespread. Uptake of ecology in writing center scholarship is evident in articles published in Writing Center Journal, Writing Lab Newsletter, Composition Forum, and Praxis. Ecology has often been taken up in these articles with a focus on the writing center as a mediator to help students enter the ecosystem of a discipline or academic discourse more broadly. For example, in “Using Metagenre and Ecocomposition to Train Writing Center Tutors for Writing in the Discipline” Bonnie Devet suggests, “To encourage clients to see that they are, indeed, entering a ‘place’ or environment, tutors should ask questions to locate clients contextually.” Devet further develops this idea in “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition”:

Centers embody the “webiness” of ecocomposition. To help clients think about their place in the academy, consultants show them as being part of the ecosystem of the writing center done in the university. It then becomes the job of consultants to point out how clients participate within the system, such as the social and linguistic conventions of a college (when to use Standard Edited English), how clients fit into a particular discipline (the difference between a history paper and a biology lab report), and how clients can use the academy’s textual conventions (MLA citation, for instance, as opposed to the footnotes used in the Turabian system). Centers, thus, make the “eco-collegiate” system apparent to students, placing the center squarely in ecocomposition.

This view highlights that in ecology, the writing center is defined certainly as a whole as opposed to broken into pieces. In their definition of ecology, the Cary Institute suggests that this will always be the case regardless of object of study: “The hallmark of ecology is its encompassing and synthetic view of nature, not a fragmented view.” But it is not just that ecology defines objects of studies as wholes–they are always wholes as part of even larger wholes. Frank Spellman in Ecology for Nonecologists reminds readers that “[n]o ecosystem can be studied in isolation. If we were to describe ourselves, our histories, and what makes us the way we are, we could not leave out the world around us out of the description!” (4). Devet’s discussion of ecology and the writing center highlights its interconnection to the larger university.

These discussions also highlight the vast number of nodes within the ecological network. There are the nodes actually within the physical writing center: writing center director, tutor, student. Yet there are also nodes that exist beyond the physical space of the writing center including professors and administrators. Finally, the notion of academy or university as ecosystem that the writing center mediates and is a part of suggests nodes including inanimate things like assignments, genres, disciplines, etc.

While Devet’s scholarship focuses on the writing center as mediator of college academic ecosystem, other scholars have focused on the writing center itself as an ecosystem and these examinations help us think about the relationship of nodes and movement between them. For example, Anne Johnstone claims:

The metaphor of an ecology suggests a dynamic and holistic way of seeing writing tutorials…When we look at these interactions with the idea of an ecology in mind, we see that in the overlapping social systems of writing workshop and tutorial, the forms and purposes of texts and the roles and expectations of writers and readers developed in a dialectic pattern of response: an initial position expressed or implied by writing workshop or writing tutor precipitated resistance that prompted revision of the original position, which then prompted a new response. (51).

Her description of a chain of effects certainly matches traditional biological descriptions of ecology such as Rachel Carson’s description of ecology quoted in Spellman:

We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled step by step through the now familiar elm leaf–earthworm–robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life–or death–that scientists know as ecology. (4)

Each node in the network affects another node and this effect in turn spurs another effect between different nodes. This chain of causality appears at first to be unidirectional, but one of the key features of ecology is it’s “webiness.” Devet claims, “Acknowledging that social constructionism sees writers shaped by forces, ecocomposition also emphasizes that writers, in turn, affect those environments.” Devet suggests that interaction in the writing center and between the writing center and the larger university can be characterized as “mutualism.”

So I’ve established movement within a web in an ecological network–but what is it that is actually moving? Traditional ecology examines the movement of energy; for instance what is the “food chain” but a transference of energy from one node to another? Johnstone’s depiction of the ecology of a writing tutorial, though, signals that ideas are what is moving in this network. What this framework so wonderfully allows us to conceptualize, then, is the multidirectionality of ideas between the nodes of the writing center and university network.  Figure 1 shows how ideas move between various nodes within the ecological network of the writing center and Virginia Wesleyan College.

Figure 1. VWC Writing Center "Idea" Chain
Figure 1. VWC Writing Center “Idea” Chain

This multidirectionality matters and it speaks to questions about the emergence of networks through this theory. The interchange of ideas necessitated by an ecological framework of the writing center is in explicit opposition to Freire’s banking model of education would imagine ideas and information being shared unidirectionally down a hierarchical chain. This is a model focused on downward distribution of ideas which could and most likely would result in a process of dilution. However the “webiness” of ecology allows for continual growth and creation of new ideas through interaction and collaboration. Thus, the network evolves and grows with each interaction.

It is unsurprising that ecology has had uptake in the field of writing centers because it is a theory that allows us to think big picture–see how the writing center functions in the university and how we are connected to students in this larger network. This big picture approach though is different than a Foucauldian big picture, however. Foucault’s archeological method allows me to consider the discursive writing center: the ideal writing center and practices as expressed through scholarship in comparison with everyday and localized practices. Ecology offers a big picture approach to a specific writing center, revealing its connections within the university. Ecology is also a model that offers agency to the nodes within it, which is and has been a matter of great interest throughout writing center scholarship. Because ecology is a big picture approach, however, it may not be as useful for trying to analyze specific aspects of interactions–for instance thinking about a particular tutoring method like socratic questioning or analyzing the impact of gender on tutor-tutee interactions. Another challenge with using ecology as a framework, is that it becomes important to identify what definition of ecology you are working from. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies reminds us:

There are three pervasive definitions of ecology. The first definition stems from the Haeckelian form — the study of the relationship between organisms and environment. The second definition, which is perhaps the most commonly repeated, considers ecology to be the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms (Andrewartha and Birch 1954). The third definition focuses ecology on the study of ecosystems (Odum 1971).

Additionally Guattari identifies three ecological registers: “the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity” (19-20). I note these multiple definitions and registers, specifically, because most of the writing center scholarship utilizing an ecological framework I encountered did NOT note this distinction. I think it is important for scholars to parse out what definition of ecology they are working in approaching their object of study.

Engaging in these case studies has allowed me to try on and assess different theories for approaching the writing center. Ultimately, all of the theories have revealed a way they would be useful for writing center studies. For my final synthesis project I will move from the broad question of what do or do not various theories allow me to examine and analyze within my OoS, to an OoS specific question that I will need multiple theories to answer. My research questions are should writing centers be housed or officially affiliated with English departments? What are the benefits and challenges if they are and what are the benefits and challenges if they are not? This is a question of specific significance to me since I coordinate a writing center that is no longer officially affiliated to the English department but is part of a larger Learning Center. To approach these questions I will synthesize Foucault, Spinuzzi, and ecology. Both Foucault and ecology offer big picture perspectives which is helpful because ultimately, this is a big picture question. Foucault’s focus on rules and rupture will provide a helpful framework for thinking about how the history of writing centers impacts this question, while ecology will combine this with a focus on the writing center as part of the university network. The use of Spinuzzi allows me to turn my focus to a specific activity within the writing center, allowing a type of case study analysis to approach answering my question. These three theories align with how I position myself as a scholar because they are all interested in agency. I am interested in the agency of students and personnel within the writing center and I think the question of affiliation of the writing center is one immersed in issues of agency. I am also someone whose interest in writing centers is interdisciplinary since I am interested in writing across the curriculum and issues of transfer and writing. I think these theories allow for an interdisciplinary approach that not only aligns with my scholarly interests and background, but that also is necessary for my research question(s).


“Definition of Ecology.” Cary Institute. The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. n.d. Web 18 April 2016.

Devet, Bonnie D. “Redefining the Writing Center with Ecocomposition.” Composition Forum 23 (2011). Web. 8 April 2016.

—. “Using Metagenre and Ecomposition to Train Writing Center Tutors for Writing in the Disciplines.” Praxis 11.2 (2014). Web. 8 April 2016.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. 1969. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Guattrari, Felix. The Tree Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. London: Continuum, 2008.

Johnstone, Anne. “The Writing Tutorial as Ecology: A Case Study.” The Writing Center Journal 9.2 (1989): 51-56.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Spellman, Frank R. Ecology for Nonecologists. Lanham: Government Institutes, 2007.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Tracing Genres Through Organizations: A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.

Spohrer, Erika. “What Margins? The Writing Center at the Small Liberal Arts College.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 31.4 (2006): 7-11.

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