Paper 3: Objects of Study

What is the object of study in writing center studies? The obvious answer: writing centers. As discussed in my examination of the history of writing center studies, “writing center,” can refer to a place or a method, and often both simultaneously. This notion of place, however, helps to limit what is acceptable to study in writing center scholarship, namely the people, interactions, and texts within writing centers. Despite this seeming simplicity, the history and major questions of writing center studies have a major influence on the accepted objects of study within the field, and these objects still maintain a broad range of diversity.

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In “Writing center research: testing our assumptions,” North (1984), lays out the three most common kinds of writing scholarship at that time: reflections on experience, speculation about writing center use of a theory or idea from another field (usually composition), and surveys, which count things like how many tutored and satisfaction with tutoring. North doesn’t deny that there is a place for this work, especially as practitioners strive to create new writing centers, but he suggests that this type of scholarship is not formal or systematic. This is problematic for a field striving for legitimacy. In a personal interview with ODU Writing Center Director Beth Vincellette (2014), she notes that this is an ongoing struggle within the field, suggesting that some question whether writing centers are a place for legitimate research. Writing centers tend to be marginalized within composition, a field already generally marginalized within English studies. Vincellette used the metaphor of nesting dolls, wondering what happens to smallest, most nested doll? Because of this marginalization and the skepticism of writing center studies from those within composition and/or English studies more broadly, North and writing center scholars after him argue that writing center research must center on testing the assumptions of the field.

North offers two potential avenues for future study. The first is the tutorial relationship. North suggests an experiment with videotaped simulated tutorials that examine how tutors react to different scenarios. North claims that research like this would allow practitioners to have a better definition of what constitutes a “good” tutor. Another avenue he suggests is research on the composition process and the effect of writing center invention within it. He suggests an experiment with case studies of a selected group, the example he gives is pre-law students working on their law school applications. Half of the group would use drop-in tutorials through the writing center and the other half would be trained in another intervention method, in this case composing aloud. A researcher would then examine what each grouped produced. With these examples, North is advocating the importance of research that helps us demonstrate why (or whether) our assumptions are true and provides evidence for the effectiveness of our practices. These hypothetical research projects suggest two different possible objects of study for the field: tutor practices and interactions, and the effects of writing center intervention–or what we might refer to as assessment today.

These objects of study are still prominent today, with tutors and the tutorial as the most popular by far. From the last 5 issues of the Writing Center Journal, a little over 60% of the articles focused on tutors or tutor practices, with titles such as “Questioning in Writing Center Conferences,” “The Role of Disciplinary Expertise in Shaping Writing Tutorials,” “What a Writer Wants: Assessing Fulfillment of Student Goals in Writing Center Tutoring Sessions,” and “Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center.” This focus on the tutorial is not surprising considering McKinney’s (2013) suggestion in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers that one-on-one writing tutoring and instruction is one the key concepts in the writing center studies narrative and is often presented as the answer to the question: what is a writing center?

Even within this focus, there are more specific types of objects of study, including people, interactions, and texts. In Davis et. al (1988) the conversations between tutors and tutees is the object of study. The researchers audio-taped four writing center conferences and then each conversation was analyzed and coded by a pair of listeners. The researchers used a classroom analysis instrument devised by Fanselow (1977) that identifies four types of conversational modes in TESOL education: to structure the nature of the conversation, to solicit specific responses, to respond to solicitations, to react to responses, solicitations, or other reactions. In examining the tutorial conversation with this coding system, the researchers were examining whether real conversations were taking place or whether tutors were primarily engaged in “teacher talk” (p. 29). The researchers found that tutors were neither “functioning exclusively either as peers or as teachers, but as a combination of the two” (p. 32). They also complicated Reigstad’s distinct notions of teacher conferences because while tutors in all four conversations examined were in control of the session, analysis of the conversations showed that the direction of the conversation was often arrived at through collaborative negotiation. Thompson and Mackiewicz (2014) build off this research, coding the types of question in writing center conversations. Yet, while conversation is certainly a key feature of a writing center tutorial, it hasn’t received a much attention as an object of study as you might imagine. In Pemberton’s (2010) introduction to a reprint of Davis et al. in a special issue of the Writing Center Journal celebrating the 30th anniversary of the journal, he suggests the rarity of this object of study:

One of the things that strikes me about this piece by Davis, Hayward, Hunter, and Wallace, then, is how different it looks in comparison to other writing center research being published at the time, even in the same issue of The Writing Center Journal. It tends to follow the standard format of conventional scientific research articles (Method, Participants, Data Collection, Discussion), which is somewhat unusual in itself, but more significantly, its methodology—analyzing verbal conversations in terms of a theoretically-grounded coding scheme—is closely tied to a cognitive paradigm that had pretty much fallen out of favor in the rest of the field by 1988. In the years since this study was published, a few other writing center researchers (Blau, et al.; Black; Gilewicz and Thonus; Murphy) have analyzed transcripts of tutor-student conversations to study such things as self-presentation styles, gender conflicts, power relationships, and affective response, but the number and frequency of such studies are too few and too far between, I believe.

Conversation within the tutorial is certainly a respected and necessary object of study within writing center studies, but perhaps hasn’t been favored within the field at large because the methodology  necessary to study it, which aligns best with linguistics and discourse analysis, is so different from the textual analysis that dominates most of English studies. Scholars may not feel like they have the training to examine this object of study.

Other objects that are studied within writing centers to examine the tutorial are the documents of the session including tutor reports and response surveys. Some articles like Malenczyk’s  (2013) article, “I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You”: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative,” examine the function of the tutor report and what we can learn from them about tutor authority within the writing. Other articles like Bromley, Northway, and Schonberg’s (2013)“How Important Is the Local, Really? A Cross-Institutional Quantitative Assessment of Frequently Asked Questions in Writing Center Exit Surveys” uses the response survey to draw connections between writing centers as different institutions. These objects rely on the more traditional method of textual analysis. With both conversation and texts of tutorials, the central questions being investigated are what is happening in the tutorial, and how can we improve what occurs to better align with the writing center mission?

Another popular object of study is the technology used within and by writing centers. In the recorded interview with former Writing Center Journal Melissa Ianetta included in paper #1, she discusses the popularity of this subject: “We get a lot of manuscripts at Writing Center Journal about new media. And that’s how I can tell that, you know, I would be fairly confident saying in less than 10 years we’re all going to be tutoring in new media.” With the explosion of digital technologies and the expansion of distance learning, writing center scholars have had to come to grips with how technology can and should be used to support learning and to align, again, with the writing center mission.

A final common object of study turns the critical gaze on ourselves as practitioners and scholars within the field. Kjesrud and Wislocki (2011) and Geller and Denny (2013) examine the role of the writing center professional and his or her relationship to others at the institution. In my interview with Beth Vincellette she stated, “I’m asked to do everything under the sun to support writing at ODU because it says writing center [director].” Her situation is not unique, leading to scholarship theorizing the role and responsibility of this position. And, in an even more meta turn, writing center research itself can be the object of study. Ligget, Jordan, and Price (2011) examine methodologies used in writing center scholarship, and Driscoll and Perdue (2012) perform a quantitative analysis of  the amount of RAD research published in the Writing Center Journal between 1980-2009. As a still emerging field, some writing center scholars are turning their attention to the field and practitioners themselves to better define it.

For myself, as a newly appointed writing center coordinator, I find I am most interested in the tutorial itself, though as some interested generally in promoting 21st century literacy skills, I am also certainly interested in writing center technology use. In terms of the tutorial, though it is daunting because of my lack of training in discourse analysis, I am inspired by Davis et al. (1981) and Thompson and Mackiewicz (2014) to record and examine tutor-tutee conversations, particularly as a way to examine the differences between professional tutors and peer tutors.



Bromley, P., Northway, K., & Schonberg, E. (2013). How Important Is the Local, Really? A Cross-Institutional Quantitative Assessment of Frequently Asked Questions in Writing Center Exit Surveys.Writing Center Journal, 33(1), 13-37.

Davis, K. M., Hayward, N., Hunter, K.R. & Wallace, D.L. (1988). The function of talk in the writing conference: A study of tutorial conversation. Writing Center Journal, 9(1), 45-51. (Reprinted in Writing Center Journal, 30(1), 27-35.)

Dinitz, S., & Harrington, S. (2013). The Role of Disciplinary Expertise in Shaping Writing Tutorials. Writing Center Journal, 33(2), 73-98.

Driscoll, D., & Perdue, S. (2012). Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-20091. Writing Center Journal, 32(2), 11-39.

Geller, A., & Denny, H. (2013). Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job: Writing Center Professionals Navigating Their Careers. Writing Center Journal, 33(1), 96-129.

Kjesrud, R. D., & Wislocki, M. A. (2011). Learning and Leading through Conflicted Collaborations. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 89-116.

Liggett, S., Jordan, K., & Price, S. (2011). Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research: A Taxonomy of Methodologies. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 50-88.

Malenczyk, R. (2013). “I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You”: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative.Writing Center Journal, 33(1), 74-95.

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

North, S.M. (1984). Writing center research: Testing Our Assumptions. In G.A. Olson (Ed.), Writing centers theory and administration. (pp. 24-35). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

PaulaMMiller. (2012, June 11). Melissa Ianetta [Video file]. Retrieved from:

Pemberton, M. A. (2010). Introduction to “The Function of Talk in the Writing Conference: A Study of Tutorial Conversation”. Writing Center Journal, 30(1), 23-26.

Raymond, L., & Quinn, Z. (2012). What a Writer Wants: Assessing Fulfillment of Student Goals in Writing Center Tutoring Sessions. Writing Center Journal, 32(1), 64-77.

Suhr-Sytsma, M., & Brown, S. (2011). Theory In/To Practice: Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 13-49

Thompson, I., & Mackiewicz, J. (2013). Questioning in Writing Center Conferences. Writing Center Journal,33(2), 37-70.

Vincellette, E. (2014, Sept. 16).  Personal interview.

4 Replies to “Paper 3: Objects of Study”

  1. I am very curious about concerns for student privacy as related to OoS and Writing Centers. At our community college, student privacy comes to govern most interactions between students and services, and how we can communicate between departments. For example, while tutors always notify instructors of appointments, we cannot record or acknowledge appointments in a way that might be considered “public.” Also significant – only tutors and those who are in active sessions are allowed in the Writing Center at one time, as “waiting rooms” have been identified as a breach of privacy. When studying the OoS of writing centers, is student privacy a concern? Even though the students may be treated anonymously in publication, are there limits to the objects that can be considered? To what any individual researcher may research?

    • Aubrey, I think privacy is definitely a concern and one of the things that has to happen when examining interactions that involve people is that the research has to go through an IRB first. Having all my training thus far in literary analysis, I can’t actually speak to that process, but I believe that privacy and consent are both huge factors when taking on writing center research.

  2. I wonder how the dynamic may shift in writing centers that use more faculty as staff rather than peer tutors. What sort of work might they do? Do they spend more time being “teacherly” since they are, in fact, teachers, or do they adopt a more peer-oriented mentality as they tutor. Is this something that comes of any one-on-one interaction, say meeting teachers in their offices? Interesting questions!!

    • Lucas, that’s exactly something I am interested in examining further. The ideas of collaboration and non-directive tutoring are so ingrained in writing center theory, but I wonder how possible it is for a teacher to interact that way with a student, even if it isn’t his or her student. I think the question about office interactions is a good one to think about too. How are the expectations of visiting an instructor during office hours different that seeing a professional writing tutor? Does a faculty member who is familiar with writing center theory and non-directive tutoring interact differently than a faculty member who isn’t familiar with it? Questions I need to continue to ponder and investigate.

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