Paper 2: Major Questions

Scholarship in writing center studies seems to revolve around the four big questions: what, where, why, and how. In this paper, I will tackle the two seemingly simple questions of what and where to show how these are complex and interconnected major questions with the field of writing center studies.

The question what? encompasses questions like what is a writing center? and what work is done in the writing center? The following parody of a writing center promotional commercial demonstrates the confusion over what what a writing center is and does, thereby making these important questions within the field:

The confusion displayed in this parody as to what a writing center is for has made this a major question to answer in the field. In my look at the history of writing centers and writing center studies, I discussed North’s (1984) seminal piece in which he declared the writing center a place separate from the classroom and concerned with producing better writers, not just better assignments. He also tackled the question of what work is done in writing centers by clearly indicating what writing centers AREN’T, namely an editing service or place of remediation only for errors or surface concerns in writing. Yet, what North does not dig into within this article is what the kind of help for writing he is advocating actually looks like. He mentions tutors several times throughout, but this concept isn’t really reflected on in too much depth. However, many scholars began to think about what this tutoring should look like or consist of. In the same year that North’s article appeared, Bruffee (1984) advocated a peer tutoring model for writing centers, establishing what would become the dominant model for many writing centers.

Peer Tutoring
For many, peer tutoring represents an alternative to hierarchical learning that promotes learning for both the tutee and tutor.

Bruffee argued for peer tutoring on three major grounds. The first was that students struggling within the classroom model and the traditional power structure that it entails may be more open to working with their peers. The second was that the peer model promoted collaborative learning, thereby helping not only the tutee, but the tutor. Bruffee claims, “It did not seem to change what people learned but, rather, the social context in which they learned it. Peer tutoring made learning a two-way street, since students’ work tended to improve when they got help from peer tutors and tutors learned from the students they helped from the activity of tutoring itself” (p. 4). His third reason in support of peer tutoring is that this tutoring model promoted dialogue and conversations within a discourse community, notions prized within the humanities. Bruffee also contends with objections to this model with fears that it promotes the “blind leading the blind” by stressing the mediation of faculty through the creation of assignments, as well as the  importance of sufficient training for tutors.

The use of peer tutoring has also been used to support the notion of writing center work as iconoclastic, work that goes beyond helping individual students be stronger writers, but that empowers all students and works against institutional practices of exclusion. Lunsford and Ede (2011) celebrate that “centers serve as sites of collaboration that challenge hierarchies and traditional ways of producing knowledge, bringing student writers and peer tutors into conversations that can, and often do, change both them and their writing. (We are not so naïve as to believe that all centers enact this kind of collaboration, but this statement does represent an ideal that many writing centers strive to achieve)” (p. 12). Writing center scholarship then not only asks the question what work is done in the writing center? but also what work is possible in the writing center?

Though peer tutoring has generally become the dominant model answering the question of what work is done in the writing center, this answer is not uncontested and the question of what work is done in the writing center is still grappled with by practitioners and scholars within the field. For instance, Steven Strang (2006) questions the universal appropriateness of peer tutoring at all institutions by examining his own center at MIT. He reminds readers that “what type of staff you choose for your center grows from your local circumstances–for example, the type of school, you vision of the center, the local restrictions (e.g., the size of your budget, the local talent pool, the needs of other departments), and the center’s relation to the institution’s mission” (p. 291). He offers five reasons that hiring professional tutors works better for M.I.T. including a lack of undergraduate English majors interested in teaching and undergraduate tutors’ tendency to become consumed with being successful in their own classes, so that becomes a priority before tutoring. He also suggests that since the clientele that use the writing center include graduate students and faculty, undergraduate tutors often can’t support their needs. Finally, he praises the teaching and publishing experience professional tutors bring to their position and explains that people with these credentials are abundant in the Cambridge and Boston area. Strang also argues that using professional tutors supports his center’s claim that they “are a teaching institution, and having expert staff has made that claim much more believable much more quickly for faculty members in all departments” (p. 293). Strang is essentially arguing that a professional tutoring model fits best within his institution. The question of what work is done in the writing center? is a major question in writing center studies, then,  because of the tension between scholars’ desire to come to definitive answer to define the field and institutional specificity and local concerns that shape individual writing centers and the work they do.

Scholars like McKinney (2013) have even come to question the exclusivity of tutoring in discussions of the work of writing centers. McKinney talks about an experience presenting on her center’s use of instant messaging to answer quick questions about writing in her center. She claims that in a conversation about her presentation topic, many seemed uncomfortable with this work, advocating the primacy of one-on-one tutoring in their centers. McKinney notes that this focus on tutoring is supported throughout writing center scholarship, but may ignore the everyday practice of individual centers who do far more than just offer tutoring. This concept that writing centers do more than tutor is not new, and is clearly articulated in North’s “Idea”:

some centers have established resource libraries for writing teachers. They sponsor readings or reading series by poets and fiction writers, and annual festivals to celebrate writing of all kinds. They serve as clearinghouses for information on where to publish, on writing programs, competitions, scholarships, and so on; and they sponsor such competitions themselves, even putting out their own publications. They design and conduct workshops for groups with special needs-essay exam takers, for example, or job application writers. They are involved with, or have even taken over entirely, the task of training new teaching assistants. They have played central roles in the creation of writing-across-the-curriculum programs. And centers have extended themselves beyond their own institutions, sending tutors to other schools (often high schools), or helping other institutions set up their own facilities (p. 445)

McKinney, suggests though that the narrative of writing center studies has focused so exclusively on tutoring, however, that scholarship may not account for other answers to the questions of what work is done in the writing center. Thus, scholars continue to grapple with how to talk about what a writing center is and what is done there.

Almost as important as the question what? within writing center scholarship is the question where?, or discussions of how location affects the work of writing centers. Location can refer to campus location, departmental housing or affiliation, or the real vs. virtual world. Lunsford and Ede claim, “where we [writing centers] are housed carries both material and symbolic importance”(p. 13)

Basement Classroom
Writing Centers often characterize their physical location as marginalized

Returning for a moment to North, it is important to note that his description of the marginalization of writing centers based on their physical location has become a common trope in writing center discourse: “the castoff, windowless classroom (or in some cases literally, closet), the battered desks, the old textbooks, a phone (maybe), no budget” (p. 437). Lunsford & Ede echo this characterization, stating,  “it is also often the case that centers are on the margins, or in the eddies of the stream—in temporary housing, in basements, even in large closets in out of the way buildings. It’s amazing what our colleagues have been able to do from such marginalized locations: as a result, we often think of writing center advocates as the ultimate tricksters or bricoleurs, able to effect change on campus against formidable odds” (p. 14). Interestingly, Lunsford and Ede  link writing centers’ often marginalized location to their ability to be change agents on a campus. Thus, we can see how writing center scholarship often strives to find links between the questions what and where.

Recently locational questions have focused on departmental affiliations, or who directors and coordinators report to. Writing Centers can be part of English departments, Communications departments, the library, independent under academic affairs, independent under student affairs, or merged with other resource centers, etc.. Often these affiliations aren’t static even within a single center. Lunsford and Ede discuss this movement of centers:

We are thinking, for instance, of a freestanding writing center that was located within the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences—until it was merged with three other “support” units—one for engineers, one for athletes, and one for students with disabilities. Now think for a moment of the competing needs here, not to mention the potentially competing philosophies. In this scene, the writing center director may need not only to be able to negotiate rough currents but to practically walk on water: it could take years of patient and very wise work to unpack conflicting assumptions and to find compromises that will allow such a merged unit to work effectively for the good of all students. (p. 14)

Food Court
What is gained and what is lost in the “food court model” of student services for writing centers?

Lunsford and Ede’s concern about merged centers echoes a recent thread on WCenter listserv, concerned about what David Ball termed in his response the “food court model of student services” being advocated by many institutions. These one-stop-shops include all support services for easy access for students; however, many writing center professionals worry that these mergers prevent writing center work as it has been conceived and defined by years of scholarship. Will writing be privileged over the assignment as advocated by North? Will collaborative conversation as advocated by Bruffee be the primary method of these centers? Will this merged model allow for the ability to challenge and change that Lunsford and Ede praise as an ideal goal of writing centers? Again, questions of location are intimately connected to questions of practice.

In my historical overview of writing center studies I had contended the challenge of sketching a history because writing centers can be conceived as both a method and a place. It is because of this dual condition and because writing center studies is a relatively young field that questions of what and where become major questions for the field to contend with.


Ball, D.E. (2014, Sept. 6). Re: Forced Resignation [Electronic mailing list message]. Retrieved from

Bruffee, K. (1984). Peer Tutoring and “the conversation of mankind.”  In G. A Olsen (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp.3-15). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English

Lunsford, A. A. & Ede, L. (2011). Reflections on currents in writing center work. The Writing Center Journal, 31(1), 11-24.

McKinney, J. G. (2013) Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.  

Strang, S. (2006). Staffing a writing center with professional tutors. In C. Murphy & B.L. Stay (Eds.), The writing center director’s resource book. (pp. 291-299). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

5 Replies to “Paper 2: Major Questions”

  1. This is an area of recent interest to me, as we are looking at how writing is/isn’t being addressed at our university–thinking of what changes may need to be made in the future. As we currently have the peer-tutor model, but are finding that staffing is increasingly becoming more difficult and the writing concerns of students more challenging, I’ve asked about how professionalizing the model might look. We certainly have many adjunct instructors in the area with at least a M.A. in English that could in theory provide assistance.

    I’m interested in Strang’s and McKinney’s articles both for thinking outside of just peer-tutors and where the Writing Center is placed. We have a space in the library for the tutors to meet with students and see this as an expansion possibility with a new addition — so where could the management of such a center occur? You mention the library — and I perked up at that, as it has been mentioned by me as a “why not”, so I wonder if there are other models where the WC is administered from the library, rather than the English or Communication Departments. Ours is currently in Rhet/Comm, but it’s more a poor step-child relationship…

  2. Hi Kim! First, I need to tell you how much I love the name of your blog; every time I read it, I literally burst out laughing. NICE.

    I also really appreciate how you’re focusing on writing centers for our class project (and congratulations on becoming the coordinator for Wesleyan this summer!). Our Writing Center at John Tyler is fairly new (opened in Fall 2012), and we actually just hired our first full-time coordinator (instead of English faculty) for our student-run center this fall. I think you hit the nail on the head with the major questions of the field of writing center work and studies—and neither of those questions is simple or easy, though they appear so initially. I especially appreciated your including Strang’s 2006 work, in which he examines what kind of work is done in the writing center, and makes the case for professional tutors in lieu of peer tutors for the center. Currently, our Writing Center is exploring the possibility of using professional tutors from the surrounding Richmond area (which, like the Boston area, is filled with highly qualified, unemployed writers), and perhaps dropping our student tutors. For some reason, this to me seems antithetical to the work of a writing center. The rationale behind this idea, as laid out by my colleagues, is that tutors at the community college level can often be unreliable, in their quick movement through the Associate’s degree program in two years or even less, and due to real and understandable demographic and socioeconomic issues at my school, a profound lack of transportation. I do understand this rationale, as well as Strang’s, and perhaps I do have to accept the idea that a writing center must use the model that works best for them and is most effective. However, I think I just side more with Bruffee’s 1984 understanding of the kind of work a writing center does or should do. I personally love the idea of a writing center as a critical place to make meaning through, with, and among peers, as a safe place to make mistakes outside of the classroom and traditional roles of authority—which some students absolutely detest, no matter how cool their teacher is. Where do you fall on this Kim? And thank you for this very clear, thoughtful, and interesting analysis of the important questions of the work of a writing center!

    • Meredith, I feel almost exactly like you do. My first experience working in a writing center was a peer center and then later I worked as a professional tutor. I’ve seen both models and I think each has its pros/cons. The center that I coordinate currently only uses professional tutors; however, I’m piloting a peer tutoring course in the spring that will train students in writing center pedagogy and have them working alongside the professional tutors. I’m striving for a bit of “best of both worlds.” I too generally fall into Bruffee’s camp because I feel this collaborative model often best fits with the writing center mission. And the notion that collaborative learning aids the tutor as well as the tutee is an idea that shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed, and is one that might help advocate why community college students should also be allowed to tutor. Also, I agree with Bruffee that some students may be more inclined to use a service that doesn’t so closely resemble classroom hierarchy; however, I also know some of the students that seek help in the writing center may need more specialized help than some peers may be able to provide so professional tutors best serve them. I’m going to have to tread carefully in my mixed method approach though, because I don’t want someone else deciding that since we have decided to incorporate peer tutors, we no longer need professional tutors. I think my project is going to be being able to clearly articulate the value of having both within a single center

  3. This is soooo timely! We have recently developed a writing center at our school, and despite the fact that there was considerable faculty input, I don’t think it is meeting anyone’s expectations of what a writing center should do and what a writing center should be. Much of that stems from the various expectations we have from writing centers we knew at other colleges.

    There’s much I’d like to address in this post, but I’ll focus on what do writing centers do. First, “as an editing service or place of remediation only for errors or surface concerns in writing” and then the peer editing. Many times in my classes I’ll refer someone to the writing center who does not have sentence level skills necessary for a college English composition class. It’s not something we cover in Comp I or Comp II. Although sentence skills are essential to writing, is it something that should be “taught” in the writing center as opposed to helping someone with weaker skills become stronger? I wish North had addressed that in his discussion of what writing centers do. We are currently directed to send those students to the writing center, but that runs into problem with peer tutoring.

    I use peer reviews and peer tutoring in my classroom, but it’s under my supervision and I can step in and correct problems as they occur. The issue I have had with peer tutoring in the writing center is that I will find my students have someone else’s handwriting all over their paper making corrections and edits. If the student takes the assignment to a peer tutor, I have often received final papers that are off topic. So my issue with peer tutoring is what mechanisms are in place for quality control.

    Bruffee brings up an important point with peer tutoring that I had never considered. The classroom can be an intimidating place for someone who knows that they have weak writing skills. A peer tutor can provide a neutral place to ask questions and get help they may otherwise not seek in class or office hours. It would be nice to know how Bruffee would establish a peer tutor program and what qualifications and parameters would apply to peer tutors.

    I really enjoyed this post and look forward to more information about the role of writing centers.

    Thank you.

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