Writing Center Philosophy

Writing centers are confronting significant challenges in the current moment. As we seek to adapt to the needs of a rapidly diversifying student body and institutional agendas that do not always allow us to operate as we might wish, directors are faced with big choices about which core aspects of writing center identity and philosophy must be preserved and which ones need to be redefined. In my four years of running a writing center, first as Associate Director and then as the sole Director, I have defended core writing center principles in the face of student and administrative skepticism, including:

  • The voluntary nature of student engagement in the writing center – student use of services should be promoted through persuasion and encouragement rather than coercion
  • The egalitarian and collaborative nature of the student-tutor relationship – a careful balance must be maintained between the role of the writing center consultant as expert and her role as a peer writer; a distinction should be maintained between the role of the teacher in the classroom and the role of the consultant in the writing center
  • The centrality of Socratic questioning and non-authoritarian forms of instruction – consultants should be responsive to student priorities and encourage self-correction and individual goal-setting, rather than arriving to the consultation with a pre-set agenda and set of tasks for the student to complete
  • And, finally, the privileging of global vs. local/lexical concerns in student writing – while grammatical and lexical issues are always going to be important in our conversations with students about their work, they should not take precedent over issues of substance

These are the principles at the core of my tutor training program and efforts to educate faculty about what we do. However, I see particular areas in which writing centers must adapt. At my own institution, I have sought to confront these by:

Addressing the needs of a multi-lingual student body:

When I received my training in the Undergraduate Writing Center at the University of Texas, tutor training in specific techniques for working with English language learners was fairly minimal, and it was understood that the language needs of these students were being handled by an International Office of which we consultants had very little knowledge. Running a bi-lingual writing center at an institution in which no student considers English to be her first language, I have had to address the needs of language learners in a multi-lingual environment much more directly. At the broadest level, this has meant embracing our role as the Writing and Communication Center and prioritizing the needs of student seeking to communicate in multiple languages both orally and in text. Tutor training in our center also involves educating trainees about research on how languages are learned and what techniques work best for language learners.

Writing centers in the United States would, I believe, do well to embrace – to whatever degree seems appropriate given their student population – a vision of the center as a site of language learning and multi-lingual exchange. Tutor recruitment and hiring should also be conducted with the aim of creating a diverse atmosphere. The ideal writing center consultant should have some experience studying another language even if she is offering consultations in her first. Writing center directors must also make themselves and their colleagues aware of the problems with “native-speakerism.”

Making the writing center a site of intervention with struggling student:

Students who use the writing center the most are often not the ones who need it the most. Habitual visitors to our writing center are usually strong writers who have come to embrace the solicitation of feedback as a central part of their process. Meanwhile, students who struggle with writing may be reluctant to seek such feedback or simply have not developed the work habits that would enable them to take advantage of writing center services.

In order to address this issue at my own institution, I have begun conducting research in order to understand the specific needs of our students. According to our data, one in three students at the New Economic School visited the Writing and Communication Center in AY2015-2016, a number that has remained fairly consistent for the past three years. Using surveys of the student body, I have been looking for the reasons that prevent those other two out of three from making use of our services with the goal of boosting our usage rate to 40% in AY2016-2017. One issue – inconvenient location and scheduling – was addressed by offering the option of Skype consultations and recruiting a consultant who could offer these later in the evening for students who have jobs that prevent them from using the center during regular business hours. We are also conducting more nuanced research into help-seeking culture at our school in order to find out if psychological or cultural barriers play a role in keeping certain students away from the writing center.

Finally, I have expanded the writing center’s presence on social media, using Facebook and VKontakte, the most popular social network in Russia, to educate students and the broader public about what we do. The consultants in our center create sharable content for these platforms as well as initiating games and contests designed to elicit student engagement.

Emphasizing the importance of advanced literacy in the modern economy: 

Most students are unaware of the writing that will be required of them once they graduate and go out into the world, but advanced literacy and strong communicative skills are increasingly necessary for the workplace as well as in life. According to the data we have gathered in our writing center, almost half of all consultations concern forms of communication directly related to the student’s future after graduation, including job applications, interview practice, and graduate school applications. Students at the New Economic School face particular challenges, as they are, for the most part, seeking admission to graduate programs in the United States and jobs at international firms.

We have addressed this issue by holding workshop events that specifically address these forms of communication and consistently updating the resources on our website. I have also collaborated with the Career and Leadership Development Center at our school to host events with recruiters for international companies and with our Development Office to establish partnerships with local employers.

Final Thoughts:

It has been more than thirty years since the publication of Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center,” and many of the core principles espoused in that essay remain important. The writing center is to be a space for the sharing of ideas, not just the correction of grammar. It is to be a space where everyone – not just those in need of remedial help – can come to get intelligent advice. But writing centers today are serving a generation that is increasingly diverse, increasingly mobile, and increasingly anxious about the future. The modern writing center must adapt to fully address these needs through tutor hiring and training and by conducting research in order to best understand the specific needs of its student writers.