Paper 6: Being a Scholar of Writing Center Studies

To start this reflection, I want to first think about my own development with regards to writing centers. As an undergraduate student, I suffered from the misconceptions that plague many writing centers. I saw the writing center as a place for “bad writers” to get help and assumed that this wasn’t the place for me. I didn’t even venture into the writing center at my college until my senior year, and this was only an act of sheer desperation as I had no idea how to tackle a personal statement for a graduate school application. I was pleasantly surprised how much I got out of meeting with a writing tutor, though. We had a real conversation about what the purpose of the writing was and what I wanted to express within it. Just the act of talking through my ideas with someone and getting immediate thoughtful feedback made me more confident to approach this unfamiliar writing task. I got my first taste of how impactful the writing center can be for all writers.

As a Master’s student at the University of Delaware, I had the opportunity to experience the other side of the tutor-tutee relationship. I found great satisfaction in working with a variety of students one-on-one. Whether I met with a student just once, but felt that I had helped them make some progress with their assignment and their writing process, or met with a student frequently and watched them grow as a writer, I found this work incredibly fulfilling. Though of course there were frustrating appointments, on the whole, this experience sparked my love of writing centers and interest in pursuing a career within them.

Now I am lucky enough to have found myself as the Coordinator of the Writing Center at Virginia Wesleyan College. In this role, I have begun to learn about the administrative challenges of a writing center. I take pride in the decisions and steps I have taken to run a successful center. Yet, I do not just want to gain experience as an individual administrator of my own center. I wish to also fulfil one final role, that of a writing center scholar. As a writing center scholar, I will look beyond just the local context of my center, and join in discussions about the field as a whole. I will contribute to the field with what I explore and learn within my own center, and my own center will benefit from what I learn from the scholarship of others. I see becoming a scholar within the field of writing center studies as the logical next step in my development within the field.

In reflecting on what it will mean for me to be a scholar of writing center studies, I find it helpful to think about what I have explored this semester into two broad categories: what I have to know and what I want to know as a writing center scholar. The first, what I have to know, reflects information and ideas that are crucial to being an engaged scholar in this field. The second, what I want to know, reflect areas of interest I have within writing center studies that I hope to explore as areas where I could contribute to the field.

One of the first things I have to know to be an engaged scholar is the history of the field. In “‘Our little secret’: A history of writing centers, pre- to post-open admissions,” Beth Boquet (1999) traces the history of writing centers with the central question, is a writing center a place or a method? Her history shows that the notion of the writing center oscillated between these notions; early writing labs in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were not external to the classroom, but instead conducted through monitored in-class writing, which shows “writing lab” were understood as method during this period. Midcentury through the 1970s, however,  writing centers began to be perceived as autonomous spaces, tasked with the remediation of writing (though workbooks, audiotapes, etc) in the face of open admissions policies. Eventually, writing centers became intrinsically both place and method as writing centers had their own physical location but were also defined by their methods of one-on-one collaborative writing instruction. This development is important to reflect on as a writing center scholar because it helps me contextualize writing centers and examine them as physical locations with real human bodies interacting, but also think about the theoretical foundation underpinning the work that is done within them.

Amidst the developments of writing centers becoming both place and method, a common trend was for writing centers and those who worked within them to be marginalized both physically and institutionally. Physical marginalization is a common trope in writing center studies: North (1984) in “The Idea of a Writing Center” describes “the castoff, windowless classroom (or in some cases literally, closet), the battered desks, the old textbooks, a phone (maybe), no budget, and, almost inevitably, a director with limited status-an untenured or non-tenure track faculty member, a teaching assistant, an undergraduate, a ‘paraprofessional,’ etc” (p. 437). Similarly, Lunsford and Ede (2011) later claim, “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” (p. 14). Writing centers were often small enterprises with a large goal: help writers meets the expected standards of college writing. This often led to overworked staff who had little status at their institutions. Additionally, the legacy of the grammar fix-it-shop plagued many writing centers as faculty members viewed the writing center as a place to send students to work on mechanics so they could focus on content, which they viewed as more important. North (1984) explains:

Misunderstanding is something one expects-and almost gets used to-in the writing center business. The new faculty member in our writing-across-the-curriculum program, for example, who sends his students to get their papers “cleaned up” in the Writing Center before they hand them in; the occasional student who tosses her paper on our reception desk, announcing that she’ll “pick it up in an hour”; even the well-intentioned administrators who are so happy that we deal with “skills” or “fundamentals” or, to use the word that seems to subsume all others, “grammar” (or usually “GRAMMAR”)- these are fairly predictable. (p. 433)

It’s these misunderstanding that led to the emergence of writing center studies as a sub-discipline in it’s own right within composition studies. North’s “Idea of a Writing Center” became a sort of battle cry for writing center professionals, arguing for the importance and legitimacy of the work they do. The historical development of writing centers and the history of marginalization with the field are important to know because they hugely impact the shape of the major debates within the field today.

As a writing center scholar, I will need to know the major debates in order to enter them. Within writing center studies, the major debates can be categorized by three fundamental questions: where, what, and who.

Debates connected to the question of where might deal with physical location, and the history of marginalization noted above. Yet, perhaps more importantly, institutional affiliation, and where the writing center is situated within the college or university structure is becoming an increasing discussed question in the field. 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 (2011) 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)

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. These are questions that I am certainly interested in because my center was recently moved from being officially affiliated with the English department, to becoming part of the greater Learning Center under Academic Affairs. Questions of where, whether discussing physical location or institutional affiliation are important because they directly impact a writing center’s project of supporting student writing across a campus. Thus, the question of where directly impacts the question of what, as in what can and should a writing center accomplish?

In “Idea of a Writing Center,” North (1984) lays down the gauntlet about what he believes is the mission of writing centers:

Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing. Any given project-a class assignment, a law school application letter, an encyclopedia entry, a dissertation proposal-is for the writer the prime, often the exclusive concern. That particular text, its success or failure, is what brings them to talk to us in the first place. In the center, though, we look beyond or through that particular project, that particular text, and see it as an occasion for addressing our primary concern, the process by which it is produced. (p. 438)

This notion of helping writers instead of improving individual assignments certainly answers the question of what writing centers should be doing. However, this tension between the writing center’s goals and the tutee’s goals can be problematic. In every tutor-tutee conversation a negotiation between these goals must take place. For instance, North complains about writing centers being viewed as fix-it shops for skills and Grammar (which a capital G), arguing instead that writing center tutors can and should help students with higher order concerns. I don’t want my writing center to be understood as a fix-it shop either, but I recognize the importance of supporting grammar and sentence level concerns because students without those skills will be penalized in courses, job searches, etc. Sometimes grammar issues are what a student needs the most help with. I recently overheard a successful session focused on comma splices. The tutor was animatedly talking about the “weak comma” versus the “mighty semicolon,” a characterization to help explain why two independent clauses could not be separated with a comma alone. The session was actually with one of my own composition students, and while her comma usage was not magically fixed by working with this writing tutor, I did see a marked difference in her writing. This explanation generally “clicked” with her, and it was a concept that she needed the most help understanding. If the tutor had refused to focus on grammar, the student wouldn’t have gotten the help she really needed. Further more, this grammatical concept extends beyond a single assignment. Since the tutor focused on explaining and teaching how to recognize and avoid comma splices, this student can use this knowledge on future assignments, thereby becoming a “better writer” to use North’s term. This negotiation process between helping with an assignment versus the writing process and focusing on larger order concerns versus lower order ones is certainly one of the challenges of writing center work, but is also, I think, what makes it so exciting. This negotiation happens because writing centers prize student agency. Tutees get to have a say in how the session will unfold.

This tension between the center’s goals and student’s goals also leads to the debate about directive versus non-directive tutoring. In “Collaboration, Control and the Idea of a Writing Center” Lunsford (1991) lays out two models of writing centers that she has seen: Storehouse Centers and Garret Centers. Storehouse centers are modeled on the notion of tutors having knowledge and wisdom to pass on to tutees. Garret Centers view tutors as sounding boards, helping students demonstrate their own knowledge and wisdom. Both models vest power squarely in either the tutor (storehouse center) or the tutee (garret center). Lunsford advocates a compromise that truly promotes collaboration between tutor and tutee. Lunsford casts the writing center as a feminist space for its possibilities of disrupting traditional hierarchies. The negotiation of power and what collaboration should look like in the writing center is a continual debate within the field and something that individual writing center directors and tutors have to negotiate on a daily basis.

A final question within the larger question what, is what should we be tutoring? Just alphabetic texts? Oral communication? Multimedia projects? Naming becomes a big part of this question. You can have a Writing Center, Writing & Communication Center, Writing & Speaking Center, or a Multiliteracy Center, just to name a few. As technology increases, the field of writing center studies, and individual writing centers have to contend with it and determine how to best help students develop the communication and 21st century literacy skills they will need to be successful in their educational career and beyond. I am particularly interested in 21st century literacies and multimodal composition, so I am following scholarship on writing centers and technology with great interest.

A final major debate category within writing center studies centers on the question who. Recently there has been a lot of interest in the qualifications and institutional position of writing center directors. Geller and Denny’s (2013) article “Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job,” used interviews to examine the stories of writing center professionals, honing in on the connection between attitudes and their institutional positionings. Amidst worries about where a writing center is affiliated, it is not surprising the question of who is leading writing centers would be important as well. As a full time staff member as opposed to a faculty member who leads my writing center, this is another debate I have a vested interest in.

Another question of who, examines who should be serving as tutors. Within the scholarship, there certainly seems to be advocation of peer versus professional tutors.

Young woman and young man working together side by side in a peer tutor conference
Peer tutors are generally presented as the best way to foster collaboration

For example, Bruffee (1984) in “Peer Tutoring and ‘the Conversation of Mankind’” advocates the use of peer tutors because it promotes collaboration, and it benefits both the tutor and tutee. 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). Lunsford and Ede (2011) similarly state, “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” (p. 12, emphasis mine). However, not everyone argues peer tutoring is the best model. 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).

Older woman works with undergrad student as a professional tutor in a writing center conference
Institutions may decide professional tutors better suite their local context/needs

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 prioritize their own classes over tutoring. He also suggests that since the clientele that use the writing center at M.I.T. 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.

I have worked in a writing center that use peer tutors and one that uses professional tutors, so I have seen benefits and challenges to both models; however, within the field there is little empirical evidence to support one or the other model. While the field offers theoretical foundations (Bruffee, Lunsford and Ede, etc) and practical reasons (Strang) for the use of peer or professional tutors, to my knowledge, no one has specifically compared the sessions of peer and professional tutors. I’m interested in examining the sessions of peer and professional tutors themselves to begin to get at some answers to this debate. Evidence of the differences between peer and professional tutors, whether positive or negative, would be important not only for the field, but for me and other directors on a practical level who are considering how to structure and organize a center. This is an area that I want to know to more about, and see it as a place to contribute to the field.

In determining how to compare peer and professional tutors, I am inspired by two pieces of scholarship. In Davis, Hayward, Hunter, and Wallace’s (1988) “The Function of Talk in the Writing Conference: A Study of Tutorial Conversation,” the researchers used a classroom analysis instrument devised by Fanselow that identifies four types of conversational modes: 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). The tutors examines were graduate students, but I think it would be interesting to use this coding system to compare the conversational modes of peer tutors and professional tutors. This would give me a better sense of the actual difference in collaboration between these two groups which can help me think about the level of student agency displayed with each type of tutor.

Thompson and Mackiewicz’s (2013) “Questioning in Writing Center Conferences” similarly uses discourse analysis of tutor tutee conversations, this time examining the types of questions being asked by both the tutor and tutee. This examination looked at the level of collaboration and power like Davis et al., however, Thompson and Mackiewicz also examine the use of questions in promoting student learning. In examining the difference between peer and professional tutors I am interested in both levels of collaboration and students agency, as well as evidence of student learning. Davis et al and Thompson and Mackiewicz offer me a framework to analyze the conversations of peer and professional tutors both in terms of the authority of the tutor, level of collaboration, and level of understanding and thinking demonstrated by student.

To engage with this type of work, however, I need more experience in discourse analysis, coding, and statistics. In “Theory, Lore, and More: An Analysis of RAD Research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-2009,” Driscoll and Perdue (2012) discuss the relative lack of RAD (replicable, aggregable, data-supported) research in writing center scholarship, suggesting that  “Historically, many writing center program administrators (WPAs) and writing faculty (particularly in higher education) have been trained in humanistic inquiry” (p. 29), which could account for a lack of empirical methodologies within the field. I am an administrator just like they describe; my background is primarily in literature and textual analysis. However, I know to perform the work that I want to do and the answer the questions I want to answer, I will need to become more familiar with empirical research methods, and I’m looking forward to filling this gap in knowledge during my studies at ODU.

Writing center services need to be accessible and helpful for all different types of students

Another area within the field that I want to know more about is the intersection between writing centers and disability studies. I have recently been involved with cases with students with disabilities involving questions of how they use the writing center, how they can be successful in their writing courses, and best practices for supporting them, both in the center and in their courses. Honestly, this is an area that I feel like I don’t have adequate preparation for, but I also know that I need knowledge and theoretical background to be successful in my current position as writing center coordinator.  Dan Goodley (2011) suggests, “disabled people are treated as objects rather than as authors of their own lives; ‘person fixing’ rather than ‘context changing’ interventions are circulated” (p. 8). I want to support “context changing” interventions for students. Disability studies seems a natural extension of my interest in student agency, and it will give me an important theoretical foundation to support students I see in my center everyday. This interest can also intersect with my exploration of the differences between peer and professional tutors, as I can examine best practices of supporting students with disabilities in the writing center and see how these practice are employed within peer and professional tutoring sessions. Exploring effective ways to support students with disabilities might also help complicate my comparison of peer and professional students, potentially showing that this population may have different needs within the tutorial in regards to methods of conversational modes and questions asked.

I am grateful for the chance I have had this semester to further investigate writing center studies. I have learned information that I need to know in order to be a scholar, including the history of the field and the major debates. Additionally, my explorations have offered a potential direction for me to contribute to the field. I feel that the empirical comparison of peer and professional tutors will be important for me locally in offering evidence for a model to use at my own center, but will also be helpful for the field at large. This process has also helpfully revealed knowledge that I lack that I will need to be able to to investigate the questions I am hoping to answer. Gaining training and experience in empirical research methods, particularly discourse analysis, as well as gaining more knowledge about the intersection of disability studies and composition, will give me the foundation I need to successfully contribute to the field of writing center studies.


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

Boquet, E. H. (1999). “Our little secret”: A history of writing centers, pre- to post-open admissions. College Composition and Communication, 50 (3), 463-483.

Bruffee, Kenneth. (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

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.)

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.

Goodley, D. (2011). Disability studies. London: SAGE Publication Ltd.

Lunsford, A. (1991). Collaboration, control, and the idea of a writing center. In C. Murphy and S. Sherwood (Eds.), The St. Martin’s sourcebook for writing tutors. (2011). (pp. 70-77). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English,46(5), 433-446

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.

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

One Reply to “Paper 6: Being a Scholar of Writing Center Studies”

  1. Reblogged this on Scribing English and commented:
    This is a great post. I personally felt the same way about Writing Centers before I started working there. So many people lump the Writing Center with the Math Center – it’s just a place for tutoring. But we’re not tutors, we’re Readers, we look at the writing of our peers from an outside perspective. It’s not about fixing grammar, spelling and punctuation (unless it skewers the message), but about the content. It’s about encouraging students to think outside of the box, to not get hung up on structure, and to develop ideas on paper.
    Thank you, “It’s Pronounced Fay-Lee” for this post. I think it will be very beneficial for writers, students, peers, and writing-center staff.

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