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Making Connections with Writing Centers

Amandine Williams-Abraham

What kind of involvement and support can writing centers provide basic writing students?

Many basic writing students use Writing Center facilities to improve upon their writing throughout the semester. Some of this utilization is voluntary or prompted by the students’ instructor. Different writing center formats aid basic writers in different ways and their designs are often dependent upon the goals of both the basic writing program as well as the goals of each individual institution. Some questions to consider when thinking about your own institution’s writing center in relationship to your basic writing students are: What aspects of basic writing classes correlate with writing center pedagogy? How can I use the writing center at my institution to support my basic writing students? What are the benefits of each writing center format in basic writing classrooms?

Literature Review

Thinking about how to involve writing center practices into basic writing courses made me think about my own classroom goals and how these goals could be reflected or supported by writing center services. As a tutor I have seen students papers with the looming, ‘Go to the writing center!’ remarks at the bottom of the page and seen no connection in these comments to the assignment, to the students specific issues with writing and how all of these aspects were working in context for the ultimate goal of making a student a ‘better’ writer.

Though every institution will have different goals that are reflected in the different writing center formats, the common standards of a basic writing classroom ultimately correlate with writing center pedagogy in one key way: to help the students writing and writing process so they can be successful across the curriculum. Mary Soliday points this differentiation in institutional goals in her book, The Politics of Remediation, “To study remediation’s historical evolution is to study the politics of institutions and to contest the commonsense assumptions that standards for writing are universal and that, as a consequence, remediation exists only because students need to be remediated” (Soliday 22).

Though there are varied definitions of what basic writing is and how basic writing should be taught there are common threads presented in Bartholomae’s Writing on the Margins: The Concept of Literacy in Higher Education wherein he discusses aspects of basic writing pedagogy. “As a profession, we have defined basic writing (as a form or style of writing) by looking at the writing that emerges in basic writing courses” Bartholomae 112). The connection between writing centers and basic writing classroom goals is theoretically introduced in Bartholomae’s Teaching Basic Writing: An Alternative to Basic Skills, when he discusses the pedagogy of his classroom goals;

We set out to construct a pedagogy to develop that analytical reflex that would enable students to see their writing as not only, ‘what they said,’ but as real and symbolic action: real, as deliberate, strategic, and systematic behavior, not random or outside the realm of choice and decision; and symbolic, as dramatically represented through such terms as ‘voice’ or ‘writer’, ‘audience’, ‘approach’, and ‘world view.’ (Bartholomae 158)

Bartholomae’s goals in developing a basic writing program are similar to those found in other programs. Where variation often occurs is in how different institutions define the terms ‘writer’, ‘voice’ and how to perceive and discuss ‘audience’ and its relationship to ‘world view’. A review by Melissa Ianetta of the book The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice is quick to point out the correlation between writing center goals and the goals of a particular program. Ianetta writes, The Everyday Writing Center could easily be named The Everyday Writing Program, for its insights apply equally well to first-year writing or writing-across-the-curriculum programs.”

In theory these individualized correlating goals between writing center and basic writing program would mean writing center pedagogy has historically associated itself with the movements and changes of basic writing pedagogy. As discussed by Irene Clark in the article Perspectives on the Directive/Non-Directive Continuum in the Writing Center, The past twenty five years of writing center scholarship has embraced a non-directive pedagogy, characterizing the ideal interaction between a writing center tutor and a student client as one in which the tutor intervenes as little as possible. This approach may be traced to the social ethics orientation of the process movement in its early days, which was aimed at addressing the literacy needs of thousands of under-prepared open-admissions through a rejection in authority in all of its manifestations—in terms of writing pedagogy as well as in concepts of text ownership. (Clark 32)

The challenge with correlating new ideas about basic writing is in deciding which writing center format works best with not only the goals of a program but with the specific goals of each basic writing classroom within that program. As discussed by Harvey Kail in Writing Center Work: An Ongoing Challenge, “The challenge isn’t so much responding to the changing educational demands: the challenge is to continue to meet the ongoing demands for competent writing in the academy” (Kail).

Peer tutoring has been the predominant means of writing center formats and designs across the country. However, within the broad term of ‘peer review’ or ‘peer tutoring’ there are many underlying definitions as to just what type of peer tutoring is being used. In Theorizing the Writing Center: An Uneasy Task, author Peter Carino writes, “Since the mid-1980s, social constructionism has served as the basis for writing center theory. Predominantly a response to the romantic notion of writing as a private activity, social constructionism views writing as being, ‘produced through dialogue, always open to question, and a marker of sociological, ideological, and textual relations” (Carino 126).

The individual identification for each specific institution and instructor interprets this theory in very varied ways. In Defense of Conference Summaries: Widening the Reach of Writing Center Work author June Cogie discusses some of the ways in which these formats are working across the campus via, “satellite writing centers in dorms or specific academic departments, on-line writing centers, and administrative portfolios reflecting the complex combination of teaching, research, and administration entailed in the work of writing center directors” (Cogie 47).

The question remains of how these different formats can be used to support basic writers and this topic is addressed by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford in the article Some Millennial Thoughts about the Future of Writing Centers. In this article, the need for centers in higher education is brought up. These ‘centers’ are interdisciplinary but in the context of basic writing, provide a kind of community for basic writers to receive varied forms of help in becoming what Kail described as reaching the goal of becoming ‘competent writers’. These formats range from peer-review formats and their many variations where students can receive one-on-one tutoring assistance to writing center workshops where main threads of basic writing classrooms are extended into a completely new type of learning environment ‘classroom’. Many institutions such as Purdue University have implemented an online writing center in which students can find answers to many different questions about writing and the writing process. Ede and Lunsford discuss the ability for an institutions writing center to, “respond quickly when the demands of a swiftly changing society outstrip the university’s ability to respond creatively and efficiently” (Ede, Lunsford 34).

What aspects of basic writing classes correlate with writing center pedagogy?

The specific goals of basic writing classrooms vary drastically depending on the institution. The discussion of what occurs within a basic writing classroom is incredibly varied and is ultimately defined by the instructor, institution, and basic writing students. Mary Soliday discusses this differentiation in institutional goals in her book, The Politics of Remediation,

“To study remediation’s historical evolution is to study the politics of institutions and to contest the commonsense assumptions that standards for writing are universal and that, as a consequence, remediation exists only because students need to be remediated. Remediation uses shifts over time because it is often used to navigate broader institutional changes in mission, enrollment, curriculum, standards, and admissions, all of which affect the status of English studies and composition” (Soliday 22–23).

The connection between writing centers and basic writing classroom goals is theoretically introduced in Bartholomae’s Teaching Basic Writing: An Alternative to Basic Skills, when he discusses the pedagogy of his classroom goals; ‘’ “We set out to construct a pedagogy to develop that analytical reflex that would enable students to see their writing as not only, ‘what they said,’ but as real and symbolic action: real, as deliberate, strategic, and systematic behavior, not random or outside the realm of choice and decision; and symbolic, as dramatically represented through such terms as ‘voice’ or ‘writer’, ‘audience’, ‘approach’, and ‘world view.’” (158)’‘

Bartholomae’s goals in developing a basic writing program present similar threads to those found in other programs. Where variation often occurs is in how different institutions define the terms ‘writer’, ‘voice’ and how to perceive and discuss ‘audience’ and its relationship to ‘world view’.

These common terms writer, voice, and audience can be found in different writing center formats. Purdue University’s OWL discusses some of the sub-focuses that fall under these common terms when discussing peer-review writing center formats and types of feedback offered specifically: thesis statements, topic sentences, organization, introduction, conclusion, grammar, punctuation, and spelling as well as syntax.

The context of the more specific elements of thesis statements, topic sentences, etc. as well as the more broader concepts of what it means to be a writer, have a written voice, and recognize audience are exercised differently in individualized assignment contexts. The variations of how these goals are introduced are individually interpreted by the instructor and his/her views on basic writing. However, the ultimate goals of basic writing programs overlap in that they are all aimed at preparing basic writers to be competent and thrive in other disciplines and to be able to enter into a professional context and feel comfortable and prepared.

How can I use the writing center at my institution to support my basic writing students?

Dependent upon the writing center format, different writing center designs can aid basic writing students in different ways. Below are some of the different writing center formats and their basic descriptions:

Peer Review Based Writing Centers

Peer review writing centers involve examining a student’s text from the tutors point of view and explaining to the student how an outside source views their work. (see peer review + MLA on Purdue). These types of one-on-one tutoring sessions are given by fellow students, and instructors. The focus of the peer review based writing center is to provide objective feedback to the student in the context of the assignment.

Workshop Based Writing Centers

These types of writing centers often create workshops designed to aid in the ultimate goals of a basic writing program as well as other disciplines across the institution spectrum. This format will often meet with instructors from outside departments to collaboratively design workshops specific to the needs of that department. Several workshops are taught in this format that involve multiple students in a traditional classroom. However, many institutions that have workshop based writing centers still have one-on-one tutoring formats available through the writing center or other satellite based drop-in centers.

Satellite Writing Centers

These are typically drop-in centers where students can bring their work for assistance. The term satellite refers to this ‘writing center’ being located in an area outside of the traditional writing center. For example, many satellite writing centers are located in university libraries. Departments may also have their own writing center specific to their needs located in their designated buildings. For example, a sociology writing center located in a universities specific sociology building.

Online Writing Centers

This format provides writing center information and resources to students through a university supported website. This format will also typically cover issues and teachings for both students and tutor or instructor for classroom use when teaching overlapping issues in the classroom that are often associated with writing center goals. A common example of the online writing center format can be seen at Purdue University’s The Owl Website: owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

What are the benefits of each writing center format in basic writing classrooms?

The ways in which each of these formats can help basic writing students is dependent upon what kind of assistance they need specifically.

Peer Review Based Writing Centers

To incorporate complicated writing concepts such as ‘audience’ and ‘voice’ students might need assistance for individual repetitive writing behaviors. Peer review based writing centers provide individual attention to basic writing students that is dependent upon the kind of assistance the student needs within the context of a specific assignment. One-on-one tutoring provides an advantage to students who may or may not be aware of writing ‘errors’ they need help with. Bartholomae discusses student awareness of writing patterns when discussing some of his theories on basic writing practice,

“…the recognition that errors in writing fall into patterns, that those patterns have meaning in the context of his own individual struggle with composing, and that they are not, therefore, evidence of confusion or general lack of confidence.” (158)

This format privileges objective feedback and focuses on the student’s ability to realize and become aware of writing errors through multiple positive feedback techniques. For example, some of these techniques might include reverse outlining, having a student read their work out loud and writing out or focusing on the goals of the assignment.

Workshop Based Writing Centers

Workshop based writing centers aid students on a grand scale. These workshops are often developed to meet the needs of an institutions specific writing program and frequently serve as an extension of the classroom. Where workshops are the most beneficial are with working with these larger writing concepts such as ‘audience’ and ‘voice’ by giving students more detailed experience with these terms. Often times in a workshop these larger concepts are related to a student’s specific assignments or current projects thereby giving students a deeper understanding of how terms like ‘audience’ and ‘voice’ relate to their assignments and work. This format also allows a department to evaluate patterns of writing instructors see in their students and to develop a collaborative system to assist in student learning across the campus.

Satellite Writing Centers

Depending on the location of a satellite writing center this format has distinct benefits. Satellite writing centers are often found in multiple places across campus and serve to assist the individual departmental writing goals. For example, if students were struggling with a biology lab report they would be able to go to a satellite writing center specifically for Biology and other sciences. This format gives the student the ability to seek assistance from a tutor that already has experience within the field and can give the student specific advice due to their expertise. Where a one-on-one peer review writing center format assumes tutors to have vast general knowledge about writing, the satellite writing center format would be much more specified.

Satellite Writing Centers can also take on the more traditional one-on-one peer review format and are often located in an institution’s library. This allows for drop-in tutoring and allows for the funds to support the writing center to come from library or other campus resources.

Online Writing Centers

Online writing centers allow the process of attaining information to be autonomous and directed by the student. These formats can also be beneficial to faculty as the institution sponsored website often has handouts on common writing issues and provides a backdrop for more technical issues of the writing process such as APA and MLA documentation.

Key words: Student, remediation, basic writer, writing center, satellite writing center, workshop, composition, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Practice, Writing Center Design, Writing Center Format,

Works Cited

Bell, James. “Research Report: Better Writers: Writing Center Tutoring and the Revision of Rough Drafts.” Journal of Reading and Learning 33.1 (2002): 5–20
Burlaga, Christine and Costino, Kimberly. “Writing Center Theory & Tutoring Pedagogy Disjunction.” Academic Exchange Quarterly 7.4 (2003):215–220
Carino, Peter. “Theorizing the Writing Center: An Uneasy Task.” The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice. (1991):124–138
Carino, Peter. “Open Admissions and the Construction of Writing Center History: A Tale of Three Models.” The Writing Center Journal 17.1 (1996):30–65
Clark, Irene. “Perspectives on the Directive/Non-Directive Continuum in the Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal 22.1 (2001):33–58
Cogie, Jane. “In Defence of Conference Summaries: Widening the Reach of Writing Center Work. The Writing Center Journal 18.2 (1998):47–70
DeShaw, Dana, Mullin, Jane, DeCiccio, Albert. “Twenty Years of Writing Center Journal Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. The Writing Center Journal 20.2 (2000):39–72
Ede, Lisa and Lunsford, Andrea. “Some Millennial Thoughts about the Future of Writing Centers.” The Writing Center Journal 20.2 (2000):33–37
Geller, Ellen Anne, Eodice, Michele, Condon, Frankie, Carroll, Meg, Boquet, and Elizabeth H. The Everyday Writing Center, A Community of Practice. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007.
Kail, Harvey. “Writing Center Work: An Ongoing Challenge.” The Writing Center Journal 20.2 (2000)
Leahy, Richard. “Of Writing Centers, Centeredness, and Centrism.” The Writing Center Journal 13.1 (1992):44–52
Mick, Connie Snyder. ‘’Little Teachers,’ Big Students: Graduate Students as Tutors and the Future of Writing Center Theory.” The Writing Center Journal 20.1 (1999):33–49
Paine, Charles. “Changing the Center of Gravity: Collaborative Writing Program Administration in Large Universities.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13.2 (2004):199–210
Pemberton, Michael A. and Kinkead, Joyce. The Center Will Hold, Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2003
Sherwood, Steve. “Censoring Students, Censoring Ourselves: Constraining Conversations in the Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal 20.1 (1999):36–50
Soliday, Mary. “Shifting Roles in Classroom Tutoring: Cultivating the Art of Boundary Crossing.” The Writing Center Journal 16.1 (1995):59–71
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Page last modified on April 16, 2008, at 08:06 AM