The Writing Center Dilemma

In What’s Wrong with Writing Centers, Rose Jacobs reports on Lori Salem’s “quantitative analysis of Temple University’s writing center, which she has directed since 1999. The assistant vice provost wanted to understand its role by investigating who doesn’t visit as well as who does.” Salem discovered:

[T]hat practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers — such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors — cater to individuals who already have a strong grounding in grammar and composition, the sort of students who never turn up. That leaves the most frequent visitors underserved: female students, minority students, and those who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

Salem admits her study is just a beginning since it focuses on one center at one university, but as someone who has been teaching writing for almost four decades, both as a high school English teacher and a college professor of first-year and upper-level writing courses, I can confirm that many of the dilemmas uncovered by Salem ring disturbingly true.

Those two distinctly different teaching experiences have shaped me within a broader unifying way: I have mostly taught myself how to teach writing, having only one real formal experience with learning how to teach writing through the National Writing Project’s summer institute. I don’t have any degree in composition, and didn’t formally study composition in any undergraduate or graduate courses.

As a high school teacher for almost twenty years, I learned mostly by trial-and-error, and then was saved by my regional NWP affiliate, the Spartanburg Writing Project, where I also was a co-lead instructor for a few summers before heading to higher education full time.

But the last decade has been an incredibly fertile and difficult journey with how writing is taught in higher education. I have been teaching first-year writing, along with an upper-level writing course, and I briefly held a small administrative role in guiding our first-year seminars.

Over that time, my university has (finally) formalized a writing program by naming a Director of Writing Programs and seeking ways to make the writing and media lab and program more cohesive (adding the upper-level writing/research requirement to the curriculum, for example). The teaching of writing is also being more directly addressed by creating Faculty Writing Fellows, faculty who participate in a year-long seminar addressing writing instruction.

As I have participated in and witnessed these recent growing pains at my university, I can offer some anecdotal, but I think credible, observations that match well with Salem’s research:

  • Writing instruction at the course/class/individual faculty level suffers from a lack of purpose and cohesion without a school/college unifying mission and set of shared goals. In other words, how does any class/course contribute to some set of outcomes related to writing all students should have experiences in as integral to graduating?
  • Class-level writing instruction and writing centers/labs must guard against two corrosive but alluring perspectives: (1) viewing writing instruction as remediation, and (2) seeing any course or session on “how to write” as some sort of one-shot inoculation against “errors” (a deficit view).
  • Both learning to writing and teaching writing are journeys, and must remain grounded in clearly defined contexts. Disciplinary writing in high school and college is much different than becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. For example, composition faculty and K-12 English teachers define “writing workshop” differently than creative writing faculty (think MFA).
  • Teaching writing always involves tension among concerns about craft, content, and correctness. A writing program, and writing center practices, must address how these elements will be taught as well as how each is weighted (not if, but when, how, and why). Many who come to teaching writing from disciplines outside English or composition are over-concerned with correctness (teaching writing is correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage) and significantly focused on disciplinary content and the logic of student claims, evidence, and elaboration in writing.
  • Teaching writing is enhanced by those teachers being writers themselves, but this expectation must be navigated carefully since few faculty are writers and some may write mostly out of necessity, not out of a drive to be writers.
  • The inequity unmasked by Salem’s study often presents itself in the teaching of writing through which students receive what instruction. So-called reluctant or remedial students (disproportionately black, brown, and/or poor) receive instruction on correctness (grammar, mechanics, usage) often in isolation (worksheets on skills) and are allowed or required to compose very little or not at all. The so-called advanced or gifted students (disproportionately white and affluent) compose more often and are allowed to venture into “creative” writing, experimentation, and choice. These instructional choices perpetuate inequity.

Writing centers and programs, then, are necessarily integral parts of equity and academic goals in any school, college, or university. Students must be better served at the class/course level as well as over the entire school/college experience through a cohesive writing program that rejects seeing the teaching of writing as remediation or an inoculation, but embraces authentic purposeful instruction.

Just as Salem’s data show that students view writing centers as ineffectual, thus unimportant, faculty often marginalize the status of teaching writing—something to be done by someone else or not relevant to their discipline.

Writing, however, is an essential tool of not only students and academics, but also being fully human.

Learning to write and teaching writing are both being mis-served in formal education, with the shortcomings of writing centers as one example, and as a consequence, so are our students and those charged to teach them.

For Further Consideration

Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?, Lori Salem

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen

Differences in College Access and Choice among Racial/Ethnic Groups: Identifying Continuing Barriers, Sylvia Hurtado, Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Charlotte Briggs and Byung-Shik Rhee

Minimal Marking, Richard H. Haswell

Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students, Randall Smith