Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year. How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty. I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors. Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

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