Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The quest for making the fuzzy work of writing centres worthy of recognition

It took me a good few minutes to think of the title for this blog post. And I have been thinking about writing it for a while. It has been an incredibly busy semester for our small writing centre, and more than 900 students saw us either in person at the Centre or in workshops requested by their lecturers. And it is this number that got me thinking about writing this post. I have been thinking, for a while now, what is in a number? How can we justify the funding we receive and the number of peer tutors we employ and our continued existence in the university at a time when writing centres in other parts of the world, like the UK, are closing down and their roles being diluted, challenged and changed into other kinds of work, like staff development and learning and skills development for students?

This is, I think, a big and pressing question for writing centres, and perhaps even for academic writing development work more broadly. And I think it is hard to answer, because of the nature of the work we do. It is fuzzy, often, and it is hard to show, in pass rates, or throughput numbers, or even in student assignment scripts, exactly what role our intervention has played in students’ ability to succeed (or not). Our work is fuzzy at a time when higher education wants clarity. The managerial or business model that is so pervasive in higher education globally that drives us towards learning outcomes, and targets and a focus on universities as service providers and students as consumers does not leave much room for fuzziness, for not knowing, for exploration and for getting things wrong before we get them right. We are, as a sector, required to train students to work in the ‘knowledge economy’ and this has moved higher education further along the path of quality assurance, and quantification of impact and learning. Many universities globally have graduate attributes and academics have to benchmark their curricula against these to show how they are producing graduates with a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Being clear about what you are teaching students and for what purpose, and also being able to show students what they are intended to learn and how they will be assessed, and why, is good teaching practice. University education is often opaque and obscure to students, and even to a lot of academics. Any moves that make transparency and clarity a part of teaching practice are good ones, to my mind. I am not taking issues with outcomes-based education here, or even taking the managerial model for HE to task. What I am concerned about it what all these trends and requirements mean for the kind of work that writing centres and academic developers do, whether working with staff or students.

The concern comes back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post: how do we (writing centres) show what impact we are having on student success when so much of what we do with students is ‘fuzzy’ and difficult to quantify in a pass mark or a certain kind of essay response? I am not yet sure. One response might be to make our work seem less fuzzy; to try and plan research projects that show that students are improving directly because they have come to the writing centre for help. But, as Archer (2010) points out, students do a lot of writing and reading and talking about writing in and outside of class and tutorials and the writing centre It is possible to show that students are improving in their written work, and make a correlation between that and visits to the writing centre, but we can only ever claim to be part of the improvement, rather than the cause of the whole improvement, so we cannot put a number on it, like 8% or something like that. Another response might be to try harder to get the work that we do out of the ‘margins’ and into the mainstream, but creating co-teaching partnerships with lecturers, or by inviting whole classes of students to come to the writing centre and have their attendance recorded, so that a correlation can be made between attendance and success. This is not a bad idea, and many writing centres have had success working in classrooms with lecturers and tutors. I do this, and I enjoy the variation it lends to the work I do, and the opportunities it gives me to be creative and to highlight the importance of thinking carefully about writing. But I am also persuaded by Terrance Riley’s argument that writing centres should avoid mainstreaming their work and their identity too much. In essence, he argues that writing centres, and this could extend to any work done from a space outside of what is considered mainstream, can speak with a different kind of authority, and with a different kind of voice, from the less mainstreamed space. By keeping ourselves and our work outside of the mainstream, we can carve out a different kind of space in which to work, and perhaps can better resist the pushes and pulls that I am sure some of us working in writing centres must feel to justify our work in ways that move us towards discourses of quality assurance and quantification of impact. Perhaps we can continue to make our work worthy of recognition, and the other good things, like funding and praise, if we continue to construct our identities as different from those of academic departments, for example. Not just because we are quite obviously not an academic department, but also because we have a very different and just as valuable role to play in creating access to higher education that will hopefully lead many students towards success as well.

I will close this brief musing with a return to my original prompt. How does a writing centre justify its need to work in fuzzy spaces in a time of increasing desire for clarity and definite-ness? I am disinclined to use the numbers of students we see as a source of evidence for the university’s continued investment in us. But having said this, I do it (as part of a bigger picture of evidence, like student and lecturer feedback and tutor development). Why? Because, I believe, like Shannon Carter, that sometimes it is profitable to speak in the languages that are understood and spoken by the people one is speaking to, rather than only in one’s own language. I do not, in my academic work, speak the language of numbers, and I don’t really think there are many writing centres that do. But universities do. So, when I am asked what we have done all year, and what my budget for the following year is, I am required to form a hybrid language to report in, where I speak a more qualitative language of worth as defined by what the peer tutors and students have gained from their many conversations and debates about writing, and by what my colleagues have gained from partnering with us to run writing workshops for their students. The other part of this hybrid language is numbers, and speaking of our continued value in terms of how many students we have worked with, and how many departments and lecturers have sought our help, and what percentage of students thought we were great as opposed to unhelpful. But I continue to wonder if there are different ways in which to talk about being ‘worthy’ that I have not yet thought of. Thus, the musing continues…

Archer, A. 2008. Investigating the effect of Writing Centre interventions on student writing. SAJHE 22(2): 248–264.

Riley, T. 1994. The unpromising future of writing centers. The Writing Center Journal, 15(1): 20-34