Where We Hope the WASC Path Will Lead the Writing Center and Our Campus

The Writing Across the Sycamore Community task force is drawing near to the conclusion of the audit process.  We now have a stronger sense of how students, faculty, and employers perceive the writing completed on our campus and are ready to make a series of recommendations to our administration that we hope will improve the experiences of all our stakeholders in myriad ways.  Our overall suggestion will be for each department on campus to create and implement its own WID (Writing in the Disciplines) program.  This gives faculty more freedom and flexibility than creating a plan for the entire university and imposing it upon everyone.  However, we realize some departments will want more guidance than others. To that end, we are recommending that certain members of the task force, faculty members who are experts in writing and grading writing, and the director of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence be available to act as consultants for departments that need help developing a WID plan.  Though we are largely leaving it to individual departments to create their own plans, we do have a series of recommendations that will hopefully offer guidance. 

For this post, I asked Heather Roberts, Faculty Fellow from the English department, Ellie Pounds, Math & Writing Center Coordinator, and Levi Elmore, writing tutor leader, to write about their hopes for WASC and how it will affect the trajectory of both the Writing Center and our students.  All three touched on the same themes, which will be important guiding principles for our departments as they re-imagine what writing can look like within their curricula. 

Changing the Culture

Though select pockets of faculty, staff, and students are already thinking about writing, their efforts are often disconnected from the rest of the campus.  There is a significant lack of communication amongst campus constituents regarding writing, and this surely leads to some of the confusion students express when talking about their experience in class.  Even within the same major, the amount of writing a student completes and the kind of feedback they get can vary wildly based on which professors they have for their classes.  They often do not see a connection between the writing that they are completing in school and what they will do in their careers, as many expressed in focus groups.  This lack of a common experience with writing can in part be addressed with a culture change.  However, shifting the view of the entire campus to one that values writing and sees its importance in helping students develop critical thinking and practical works skills will take a significant amount of time. 

As Heather states, “I think implementing WASC will be a long road, one that will have many bumps and challenges, but will really enrich our students’ educations and lives in the long-term if it is properly supported. I want to see WASC transform our campus and make ISU an institution known for its focus celebrating and supporting writing as a key factor in producing well-educated and productive graduates.”  Ellie agrees with this ambitious goal for our new program. “It is my hope that the WASC initiative creates a campus-wide awareness of the importance of writing in the personal, academic, and professional success of students.  By creating a writing culture within the ISU community, we will demonstrate our commitment to the current and future success of our students through engaging curriculum that will prepare them for entry to the next stage of their careers.” As students expressed, they often see writing as a hurdle they have to jump through in some of their classes. Similarly, some faculty do not assign writing because they see grading it as a time consuming hoop to jump through despite there being no clear pay-off in the end, as students often ignore their feedback.  As a campus, we need to erase both of these views by helping both populations view writing and the grading of writing as integral to the development of students’ thinking skills, as well as their success in careers.

Linking Writing to Careers

Though students in some majors saw a clear connection between the writing they do for class and the writing they will do on the job (such as our Education majors), others did not.  Our employers also expressed that the bulk of the writing alums do in their jobs is professional emails and reports, which are generally not practiced in classes. In general, we all feel that students need to see the relevance of writing in their careers.  Levi would like to see the Math & Writing Center work with more job-related materials.  This would be an obvious place for better collaboration with our Career Center.  “Changing the types of assignments given to provide better examples of the writing found in the professional field would allow the students to better determine the types of writing they will encounter.  These….should also include cover letters and professional correspondence.” Like the writing tutors, Heather sees students of all majors come through her English Composition classes, and she hopes they all realize the value of learning to write.  “I want my future nurses, police officers, social workers, and teachers to all understands as undergraduates that the ability to communicate clearly and professionally in their writing is not only a valuable skill but also a necessity in their careers.” 

Ellie envisions the role faculty play in introducing students to writing in their professions somewhat differently. Instead of the instructor just talking to students about writing on the job and assigning writing tasks that reflect what they will see after graduation, she wants faculty to arrange guest speakers who are currently in the field.  “I would like to see the WASC initiative support faculty in developing course curriculum that demonstrates a direct connection to students’ future careers.  Hosting guest speakers from local industries, alumni that have secured employment, and industry-specific HR specialists can help students overcome fear of the unknown while building rapport and comfort with the next step.  These real-world interactions allow students to be involved in the education process – to understand the outcomes and be an active participant in charting the path to success.”  Levi agrees:  “Another nice touch to the program would be professional conferences or speakers who can come to classes to discuss writing with students. Hearing what types of writing go into the job from someone in the field who isn’t the student’s professor would give them more of an idea about the practical applications for writing.”

In fact, one of the things that students stated we could do better as an institution is to prepare them for what lies ahead in terms of writing. Many of them move along their educational path without knowing what types of writing they will be expected to produce from class to class, or in their eventual job.  The departments should be able to help students develop a better sense of where their writing will take them by talking about writing in the career in the first classes students take in the major, by assigning writing that reflects the work they will do in their jobs as well as more traditional writing, and by arranging for students to talk to people actively in the field about the writing they do every day.

Faculty Development

Just as all four of us agree that departments must give students a clear idea of what it will look like to write in their professions, Heather, Ellie, Levi and I also agree that there should be more faculty development available to help professors, instructors, and TAs assign and evaluate writing effectively.  There is currently a Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence (FCTE) that faculty can seek out for workshops and guest speakers, but it is often under-utilized by instructors and TAs.  It would be great to see WASC create more consistent, widespread opportunities for faculty to learn to work with writing.  Given that she so frequently sees students confused by inconsistent assignments and grading, Ellie hopes “the WASC initiative will provide a standard for assigning, grading, and providing feedback on student writing.”  Given that students often do not take feedback seriously, or even read it, it may also be beneficial to offer instruction on how to go over feedback in class to ensure students know how they can improve their papers.  This can easily be done by summarizing the most frequent mistakes during a class period. 

Heather sees a particular need for faculty development with those who teach large classes and thus cannot provide a lot of individualized feedback for students. “We need to provide training and support to faculty who teach large classes in incorporating writing in both creating appropriate assignments and helping them provide timely and constructive feedback that will help the students grow as writers.  I hope to see faculty working with the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence to learn new ways to create writing assignments that will really match their core course content and strategies to grade that materials because I know that will be a concern for many faculty members of our campus.” 

This solution is in part a compromise for Heather, who here represents the views of many faculty who believe class sizes should be kept small so that more writing and feedback can take place.  She also realizes that because of tight budgets, the university is not likely to shrink classes any time soon.  Still, she hopes that one day she will see “our university lower class sizes so that instructors and professors could provide more on-on-one attention not only to students who struggle with writing, but also the stronger writers who often get less attention because their skill set is higher to begin with.  Lowering class sizes would allow for more timely feedback, individual conferences, and multiple drafts – things students and faculty all want but do not always have the time or means to provide at this point.”

Levi represents a very specific take on faculty development in thinking about how faculty effect the writing center.  He wishes faculty were given more insight into the best ways to use the tutoring service.  He would like to see faculty give up the practice of simply requiring all students, or any student who struggles, to visit the writing center regardless of their motivation to do so voluntarily.  “Continuing to encourage the students to seek assistance with their writing as opposed to requiring them to go to the tutoring center just to get a proof of attendance slip would help. It would both stem from and contribute to continuing efforts to engage the students in their writing so that it becomes less of a simple task, assignment or chore to them.” From a practical standpoint, discouraging faculty from requiring entire classes of 75 students to visit the center would reduce the number of no-shows and increase tutor morale, as many get frustrated by students who come in just to say they have visited. 

Given that each department will be asked to develop their own WID plan, there would be many options for faculty development.  Departments could bring in guest consultants to work with instructors, or they could choose to send faculty to the FCTE.  They might also choose models like teaching triangles or book discussions to get faculty talking about best practices.  However they chose to incorporate faculty development on writing, the goal of getting everyone to talk about writing and how it relates to classes and careers would be realized.  In addition, faculty development opens up a great opportunity for collaboration between departments.

Stronger Collaborations

One result of the WASC effort that seems inevitable, and which all of us are optimistic about, are the stronger relationships already being built between departments and centers. As noted in a previous post, a number of joint efforts have sprung up between the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, Extended Learning, the library, and the Math and Writing Center. In addition, alliances have been formed between the MWC and Student Conduct and Integrity as we work together on plagiarism intervention.  We are also currently forging new links with the Graduate Student Association and Interlink, which prepares non-native English speakers to enroll at ISU.  On a broader scale, members of the task force representing many departments on campus now have a greater understanding of the many types of writing going on across campus, as well as a greater understanding of how the Math & Writing Center functions.

Levi would like to see a strong tie between Math & Writing Center tutors and faculty members continue.  “More involvement…by the Math & Writing Center would be another aspect of the program I would like to see evolve as the initiative continues.  The tutors have many great ideas for what they believe would assist their tutees in becoming better writers, as was shown by the focus group sessions.  Their continued involvement and feedback would be a fantastic asset to the WASC program because they see firsthand the kinds of struggles the students have with their writing….I would also like to see more frequent involvement and collaboration between faculty from each of the departments.  The faculty focus group along with the tutor focus group would be something that could help the program grow if repeated a few times throughout the academic year.  This would allow faculty members, the tutors, and other faculty and staff members working on the WASC program to check in with each other for feedback and suggestions.  Just as the name Writing Across the Sycamore Community would imply, creating a community of educators dedicated to improving their own curricula in an effort to assist their students’ progress would allow growth.”

A stronger faculty development plan, aided by a better connection with the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence and possibly the English department, would allow faculty to learn writing evaluation techniques that focus on content and organizational issues instead of grammar.  As a campus, we need to come to the agreement that while grammar and mechanics are important, clarity and things like supporting evidence are the foundations of good writing.  If this was understood, the writing tutors would have an easier time helping students improve without either party getting too caught up in the details.  Ellie sees this clearly.  “It is my hope that the WASC initiative will eliminate or reduce some of the challenges faced by tutors in these interactions and allow sessions to focus on important issues.  One of the most common issues faced by tutors is a focus on grammar.  Many students come to the center seeking help with grammar and refuse to focus on larger issues like thesis development, organization, and in many cases, meeting the prompt.  Due to inconsistent grading policies, student misconceptions, and the absence of rubrics, many students feel that grammar is the most important element of their writing and therefore focus their attention entirely on this detail.”


The overall goal of all four of us, and for those on the WASC task force, is for our students to see the value of writing, and to become stronger writers before they enter the workforce.  All of the departments on our campus might have different ideas for how to accomplish this, but our hope is that all of them will remain focused on writing in the career, building collaborations, helping faculty assign and evaluate writing, and creating an overall culture that values the student’s ability to express themselves in a variety of written formats.  After all, writing is a clear expression of and exercise in critical thinking, and those skills, developed not only in class, but in the writing center, in student organizations, at internships and in extra-curricular activities, are what will ensure our students’ success throughout the rest of their lives.

It is my hope that the Writing Center will continue to play a critical role in student writing by providing programs and services tailored to the needs of our ever-changing population.  Especially on a campus with such a high number of students who need remedial assistance, and where class sizes are growing, the center serves as a space for serious learning.  Though some faculty perceive it as merely a fix-it or editing shop, those students who visit every week are actually learning new material that they may have missed during K-12 for a variety of reasons. They are also learning important time management techniques and study skills.  International students also use the center to learn about culture. Thus it is important that faculty understand the educational purpose of the center and incorporate it into their departments’ Writing in the Disciplines plan.  This will likely take the form of writing tutors actually placed in the classroom, functioning as supplemental instructors. This provides in-classroom support, as well as writing sessions outside of class. The SI functions in similar ways to a professor; they may not grade, but they can provide a level of individual feedback that the instructor may not have time for.  The use of a writing SI supports the educational function of the writing center and would help faculty gain a clear understanding of how writing tutoring works while providing students with extra support. It is hard to say exactly what writing will look like on the ISU campus in five or ten years, but whatever the future holds, I am glad that the Writing Center has played a part in moving us forward.




Faculty and Student Obsession with Grammar and its Effect on the Writing Center

Nicole Bailey, PhD

with Heather Roberts (Faculty Fellow) and Marvin “Levi” Elmore (Writing Tutor)

Our Hang-Ups with Grammar

If I were to go back and listen to recordings of every single Writing Across the Sycamore Community meeting, focus group, and phone conversation with the goal of counting which single word came up the most, it probably wouldn’t be ‘writing’ – it would be ‘grammar’.  As it turns out, nothing raises more anxiety amongst both faculty and students than the thought of misplacing a comma or using an incorrect pronoun.  Faculty have anxiety about grading mechanics, and students stress themselves out over their sentence construction. Both parties spend so much time worrying about this one small aspect of writing that they sometimes overlook the most important feature of student texts – content. Both also unfortunately view the Writing Center as a service that ‘fixes’ grammar. Faculty assume students already know the basics of writing – how to construct a full sentence, how to write a thesis, how to organization a paper that flows smoothly, and how to thinking critically and offer supporting details. The students also think they are good writers; our campus Mapworks data reveals that of our freshmen and sophomores, 56% rate themselves as average writers, while 40% rate themselves excellent.  This conflicts with reality, given that English 101 is one of the most frequently failed classes on campus, and given that the average SAT Writing scores of freshmen in the 2016 ISU cohort were between 360 and 460, with SAT Verbals falling most heavily between 410 and 490. Thus both parties think that students should only need to visit in order to clean up their grammar.

In many cases, our professors are uncomfortable evaluating writing because they do not see themselves as writing experts. Faculty fellow and English department member Heather Roberts notes faculty members’ complex relationship to writing.  “I often hear faculty outside of my department state that “teaching writing isn’t my job.” These faculty members are also frequently those who complain the loudest that their students’ writing abilities are not up to their exacting standards. Writing is everyone’s job, as it is a complex process that changes based on rhetorical situation and audience, and ultimately, our students benefit when they see writing being taught from different perspectives with different communication goals in mind.”   It seems as if our faculty are genuinely concerned with students being able to write well, and they want to set a high bar for writing, but they also do not want to be the ones to evaluate the writing. This is why, on many campuses, faculty view writing instruction as the sole responsibility of the English department. Though the members of the WASC task force are more comfortable with writing than many others, even they showed hesitation when asked to evaluate writing.

When I asked the WASC task force members to review student writing samples and evaluate their quality, many of them immediately expressed concern about their ability to identify incorrect grammar. Despite my reassurances that we were more interested in whether students were answering the prompt, supporting their arguments, organizing thoughts, and using appropriate research, they asked for a rubric to use because they were concerned that they would get so caught up in mechanics that they might miss other issues. 

The Use of a Rubric in Evaluating Writing

I was reluctant to supply a rubric because of the many reasons some composition scholars hate them (they condone conformity, they do not evaluate student improvement, they miss the complexity of writing, and the list goes on) (Broad, 2003; Popham, 1997).  However, I was attracted to the idea that, if all task force members were using the same rubric to evaluate the writing samples, their scores would provide consistent hard data to be used in our eventual report (Bean, Carrithers & Earenfight, 2005). In the end I feel it was beneficial for my particular task force even though, as scholar Ali Rezaei finds, faculty members may still evaluate writing overly harshly when mechanical errors are present even if they are using a rubric that asks them to respond primarily to the content of a paper (Rezaei, 2010). As I have found throughout our meetings, many of our faculty members who teach outside of the English department think of grading writing as grading grammar – a sentiment that I have had to combat throughout my work with WASC. I was not aware that faculty were so concerned about the mechanics of writing until I started this work, but now I see that, if we want students to write better, we need to move faculty away from failing their papers after the 5th, 10th, or even 20th grammar error. The faculty obsession with mechanics surely explains, at least in part, why we see so many students asking writing tutors to “just look at the grammar”, even if the paper has major content or structural issues. 

The thought that grammar trumps all is re-enforced by some faculty grading policies.  For example, during a focus group with writing tutors, one tutor noted that some faculty “are starting to default to [the MWC].  I’ve had several teachers read the first paragraph, stop reading the paper, and send [the student] here before they will grade it” (MWC anonymous tutor, personal communication, April 14, 2016).  This trend is true outside of ISU’s walls as well.  As one scholar found upon studying faculty comments on students papers outside of English classes, most marks were on technical issues, while big problems like organization were often ignored (Stern & Solomon, 2006). The tutors see this as having a negative effect on their work because this practice condones the already prevalent idea of the writing center as a “fix-it shop” (Bibb, 2012; Sanford, 2012), and because, in the tutor’s words, “it puts a lot of pressure on us” (MWC anonymous tutor, personal communication, April 14, 2016).  Requiring students to visit the center can also hurt the culture of the writing lab by filling it with students who might not really want to be there.

Tutor leader Levi sums up what the tutors feel.  “We have often felt that motivation is a huge factor that can make or break an appointment. We see a lot of appointments involving tutees who have been tasked by their professor to make a writing appointment as a requirement. While this usually means a professor has seen areas in which the students can improve, or wishes them to come in for an appointment to bolster their skills before the final copy of an assignment is due, it typically comes off to the tutees as a chore, just another task on the rubric that was included with their paper after researching sources and meeting a required page length. Those who come in on their own generally have more ideas in regards to what areas of their writing they’d like to improve.”  Clearly the tutors feel more at ease working with students who have come to the center of their own volition.  In addition, some faculty have added to tutor anxiety by complaining that a student came in for grammar help and turned in the paper again with a few errors still present.  The tutors generally explain that they spent the session working on other issues like plagiarism or organization and could not get to all the grammar, but faculty of course cannot see this process as they are not present at the session. Faculty who are not as familiar with writing tutoring often do not realize just how much remedial work tutors do with students.  Often we spend our time teaching a student the basic parts of a sentence, which can easily take the full session, meaning there is not enough time to get to sophisticated grammar concepts.  The end result is that the faculty member does not see the type of scholarly writing they are used to reading, but the student has really learned a lot in the consultation.

The tutors rightly worry that if they spend the session working on content, structure, or support, and the student hands the paper in with just one or two grammar errors, the student will fail and the tutor will be judged for not fixing everything.  This has in fact occurred, with faculty occasionally complaining that a student came to the center but the paper still had errors. Ellie Pounds (MWC Coordinator) and I thus spend a lot of time explaining to faculty that grammar is the last item on a long list of things the tutor talks with a tutee about, and that if a paper has massive issues like not answering the prompt, the tutor might in fact never get to the details of mechanics given limited time. Students, like tutors, expressed concerns about the prevalence of grading for grammar, with a Nursing major stating “I feel like sometimes professors are marking off grammar and not even reading the content. And since most of them aren’t English professors, they don’t really explain what we’re doing wrong, and I kind of wonder if they’re right I the things they mark off” (Anonymous student, personal communication, October 13, 2016).

Some members of the WASC task force require certain students to visit the writing center when they have a lot of grammar errors, and I will be curious to see if they change this practice at all after our discussions.  If nothing else, they now have a better sense of what the writing tutors go through with a student who comes in with a paper, as the rubric made clear that writing is in fact multi-faceted.  Composition scholars have also noted this positive side effect of rubrics – for all the complaints about them, a rubric can help faculty see that there are many components to students writing, and that they are all important to a comprehensible, cohesive text (Andrade, 2006; Livingston, 2012).

How to Address the Campus-Wide Obsession with Grammar

 There is evidence that points to a need to minimize our fixation on grammar, not only for social just reasons, but because those employers who hire our alumni are less concerned with grammar than they are with issues like the ability to use proper email etiquette, professional wording, and conciseness. Of the 62 employers who responded to our survey on alumni writing, more wrote in that they see email etiquette as a problem than any other issue.  This may be because they noted that employees spend 5-10 hours writing emails per week, with twice as much time spent on emails as any other writing task. When asked what writing course they would send all their employees to if they could, 46% of employers chose “Writing in the Profession”, 30% selected Business Writing, and only 7% chose Grammar (with another 7% for Basic Composition, 5% for Technical Writing, and a mere 3% for Creative Writing).  So while writing is important to employers, the alum’s ability to adhere to the conventions of their chosen field is more significant.

We have many students at Indiana State who speak a non-standard dialect at home.  Some are rural students, while others are from Chicago and Indianapolis.  These students do not learn to transition from African-American Vernacular or another dialect to Standard English in class, but they are marked off significantly in their papers for ‘writing like they talk’.  Some writing center staff have noted that the writing center can serve as a safe place for students learn to code-switch either between dialects or languages (Bailey, 2015; Bir & Carmen, 2003; Canagarajah, 2011; Rafoth, 2015).  It is the ISU Math & Writing Center’s goal to develop students’ skills in Standard English grammar, but also to educate faculty on the importance of grading writing holistically. This should help reduce student anxiety, but also ensure that students for whom Standard English is not the home language have a fair chance of succeeding. 

The question is, how do we prevent faculty from simply using the writing center as a place to send students whose grammar is problematic? We have some ideas that we will be attempting to implement over the course of the next year.

Possible Solutions for Moving Faculty Away from Over-emphasizing Grammar

Firstly, we wish to adapt tutor training to emphasize that other issues are more important than grammar.  We have noticed that as faculty start grading grammar more harshly and sending more students to the MWC specifically for grammar help, the tutors have begun asking that their trainings focus on grammar instead of pedagogy or other content matters.  While we do realize that tutors need to spend some trainings focusing on grammar, we do not want to create the impression that grammar is of the utmost importance by having more training on that topic than on others. We are thus planning to hold content tutor trainings on what we call (being half math center) our ‘order of operations’. In these trainings we can re-affirm that students should start by looking at whether the text answers the prompt, whether it has a thesis, whether it’s organized and uses proper support, and whether sources are properly cited, with grammar issues last.  It is important for our tutors to realize that it is ok if they do not get to talk much about grammar if the session was spent talking about bigger issues. Of course, the challenge is getting faculty to recognize that, even if their student attends tutoring, they may not emerge with perfect grammar because they and the tutor worked out other problems.

We suspect that we may be able to remedy the problem of faculty misunderstanding how the center works by inviting them to visit the center and shadow the tutors, or have the tutors in to their classes to talk about what happens in a session.  There are already of course some faculty on campus who do invite tutors to present, or who are already aware of how the center operates because either they have tutored themselves, or they had tutors in their classes. For new faculty, we want to make sure that either coordinator Ellie Pounds or are have a chance to present at New Faculty Orientation so they understand right away what the center does and that the tutors are in fact not editors or proofreaders. We also hope to partner with our Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence to hold workshops on evaluating writing. During these sessions we could both demonstrate how tutoring works (since both centers are in the same library, this would be easy enough) and help faculty develop strategies and rubrics that will encourage them to look at writing holistically.

Another idea that I have been brainstorming, but which makes me quite uncomfortable, is using grammar software in the writing center.  As writing center directors, many of us spend a lot of time fighting back against outside writing tutoring services, but it is possible that, if our tutors could work on bigger issues, then refer students to software to help with their grammar, we could save time in our sessions while still ensuring that students get help with both large issues and specific technical matters.  After all, it is easy to lose a whole session to helping students with pronoun agreement when we could be focusing on how to develop conciseness or clarity. However, we are concerned that, if we were to purchase software to supplement tutoring, others within administration might get the idea that grammar software could simply replace all writing tutoring.

In addition to the threat of tutoring being replaced by software, we have other concerns with supplementing what we do with these outside tools. For one, if students simply hop online to practice their grammar, the tutors lose track of what students are being taught as the formal grammar rules. These rules of course change over time, and it is important for tutors to know whether, for example, students are being allowed to use the singular ‘they’.  Our English department does not allow for this yet, and if software was teaching students to use it, that would contradict what they get in class. Software programs like Grammarly are entirely disconnected from our school’s classes and curriculum, so it is a strange kind of stock instruction that many of us are not comfortable with.

Here at ISU, we have the added problem that our students tend to not be as intrinsically motivated to do work outside of their classes. This is because many of them need to work full or almost full time just to pay their tuition and books or to support their families, while others have children.  Getting our students to do supplemental work that is not directly tied to a grade would be difficult.  Writing tutoring on our campus is so heavily used because there is someone sitting there with the student, walking them through what to do.  If the tutors instead work through the big writing issues, then tell the student to go home and work on grammar on their computer, they will most likely not do that extra work. These are just some of the reasons implementing grammar software could be dangerous to student success, but at the same time, it is also possible that supplementing sessions with software could save the tutors frustration and demonstrate to faculty that there is a lot more going on in consultations than grammar, especially if faculty were allowed to visit the center and see a session that focuses on higher order concerns where the tutor then refers the student to software at the end. It is also possible that just having a conversations with administrators and faculty about software, whether we ended up purchasing it or not, would allow Ellie and I to talk more extensively about what we actually do in the Math & Writing Center.

So our questions for you are:

-Does your campus use grammar software? If so, what kind, and how is it used? What problems or successes have you had using both software and traditional tutoring?

-Have you had issues with faculty using the writing center to disproportionately promote grammar as the most important feature of writing? If so, how did you deal with it?

-Do your faculty require students to use the lab, and have you placed any restrictions on these requirements?


Andrade, H.  (2006). The Trouble with a narrow view of rubrics.  English Journal, 95(6), 9.

Bailey, N. (2016). The Languages of other people:  The Experiences of tutors, administrators, and students in a South African multilingual writing center.  Retrived from Proquest Digital Dissertations.  (10106118)

Bean, J. C. (2011).  Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bean, J. C., Carrithers, D. & Earenfight, T. (2005). Transforming WAC through a discourse-based approach to university outcomes assessment.  The WAC Journal, 16, 5-21.

Bibb, B. (2012).  Bringing balance to the table: Comprehensive writing instruction in the tutoring session. The Writing Center Journal, 32(1), 92-104.

Bir, B. & Carmen, C. (2013). Training writing tutors to recognize dialectical difference. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 27(9), 4-7.

Broad, B.  (2003). What we really value: Beyond rubrics in teaching and assessing writing.  Logan, UT:  Utah State University Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2011). Writing to learn and learning to write by shuttling between languages. In R. M. Manchon (Ed.), Learning-to-Write and Writing-to-Learn in an Additional Language (111-132). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Benjamins.

Livingston, M.  (2012). The Infamy of grading rubrics.  The English Journal, 102(2), 108-113. 

Popham, J. W. (1997). What’s wrong – and what’s right – with rubrics.  Educational Leadership, 55, 72-75.

Rafoth, B. (2015). Multilingual writers and writing centers. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. Ebook.

Rezaei, A. R. (2010).  Reliability and validity of rubrics for assessment through writing.  Assessing Writing, 15(1), 18-39.

Sanford, D. (2012). The Peer-interactive writing center at the university of New Mexico. Composition Forum, 25,

Stern, L. A. & Solomon, A. (2006). Effective faculty feedback: The Road less traveled. Assessing Writing, 11(1), 22-41.









Answering the Call for In-House Graduate Writing Assistance

Nicole Bailey, PhD – Student Success

with Heather Roberts – Faculty Fellow, English Instructor &

Marvin “Levi” Elmore - Writing Tutor Leader

This series of blog posts will examine how a campus-wide Writing Across the Curriculum initiative affects the programming and usage of the campus Writing Center (or in the case of Indiana State University, Math & Writing Center.) The posts are being written as the initiative moves forward as opposed to after the process is completed, which means readers are more than welcome to comment and offer suggestions that could help shape the course of this project.

Analyzing Writing Across the Community Data

During our first meeting of the Fall semester, the Writing Across the Sycamore Community (WASC) Task Force analyzed the qualitative data collected during the spring and summer.  This data included student writing samples from across campus, as well as their corresponding faculty writing prompts. Each member of the task force had been assigned a particular group of writing samples, which they evaluated based on a rubric they had requested.  Given that we had solicited samples from faculty on a volunteer basis, we were pleasantly surprised by how many professors and instructors were willing to share their students’ anonymous work and their own writing assignments.

Faculty fellow Heather Roberts, from the English department, and I were pleased to find that departments we had not suspected of doing lots of writing were in fact assigning numerous essays or in-class responses on sometimes a weekly basis.  For example, our Criminology department gave us samples of hand-written police reports that students complete almost every class period. We were thus able to analyze hundreds of these.  Our Political Science and Nursing departments also emerged as leaders in the sheer amount of writing expected of students.  As a member of the English department, Heather was “delighted” to find out how much writing was being assigned.  

“I think that students get a false impression that writing is only done in an English class, which leaves them under-prepared for success in other courses and eventually, in a competitive job market.  Having writing in subjects, like criminology, shows students that writing doesn’t only belong in an essay, but in police reports and memos that will be used in those future careers. The professors across campus integrating writing, even short or in-class compositions, send a clear message to our students that writing is a necessary skill to succeed across campus and in the workforce.” –Heather

Problems with Graduate Writing

Not only did we receive a variety of undergraduate writing, we also received samples from graduate programs.  However, the faculty members who reviewed both undergraduate and writing samples were not able to tell the difference between the two.  The problems found in the graduate samples were the same as those found in the undergraduate papers: incorrect citations, poor paraphrasing (with accidental plagiarism in some cases), incorrect grammar, unprofessional wording, and sloppy organization. This is in line with what others scholars have found regarding similar problems in graduate and undergraduate writing (Huang, 2010).  Our students are seemingly not progressing over the course of their education; the writing they produce even at the graduate level is the same as when they finished their English Composition series.  Students and faculty agreed in their focus groups that many graduate students find themselves using different citations styles than they did as undergrads, if they used a particular style as an undergraduate at all.  On our campus, it is quite common for professors to have their own style, or to let students choose how they cite.  The writing tutors were also able to confirm this in a focus group where they talked about the issues students face.  

“Our two most common specific areas of focus in tutoring sessions are grammar and citations. A lot of tutees are very concerned with getting a good grade and making their paper sound professional and academic. Most the citation and formatting questions stem from tutees’ lack of experience with certain formats and styles, specifically APA. The lack of experience means that these concepts are new, and they are pretty frightening to the tutees as they attempt to make sense out of these writing prompts. As such, we see a lot of panic as tutors. “ – Writing tutor Marvin (Levi) Elmore.

Writing Center Response – Graduate Writing Circles

It seems likely that the Writing Across the Sycamore Community task force, in its report for the university president, will recommend that each graduate program build instruction on how to use their preferred citation style into their initial coursework. However, any curricular change will take at least a year to implement. In the meantime, the Math & Writing Center Director Ellie and I suspected that there was some supplemental programming we could provide to help students who are working on their graduate programs now.  

With this in mind, Ellie and I met with the Dean of the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, who was enthusiastic about bolstering writing assistance for grads, and who helped us brainstorm topics on which they could use help.  I had recently partnered with our library on a faculty writing circle, and I presented the idea of a graduate writing circle with brief workshops and a lot of free writing time where students could either work with one another or consult with a writing specialist.  The Dean liked the idea and offered monetary and personnel support. The library Dean was also enthusiastic about the writing group and offered to pay for dinners for the graduate students, since the circle will meet in the evening, when most students write. We decided on the University Club, a space on the top floor of our commons that students have compared to the board game Clue on account of its fireplaces, wood paneling, and wingback chairs with leather ottomans.  The space, broken into semi-private rooms, offers space for brief presentations, a buffet, and for students to spread out and write quietly if they chose.

Of course the idea of a graduate writing circle is nothing new; many universities use similar models based on scholarship that found they held many benefits for students (Cuthbert & Spark, 2008; Mullen, 2006). However, we quickly realized that there was a lot we could do with the circle to make it cater to the needs of Indiana State students. For example, many of our graduate students are distance learners, meaning they may be all the way on the west coast. In order to make sure that they can access writing assistance,  I met with one of our instructional designers, who has a writing and ESL background, to design an online Blackboard space that will supplement the in-person sessions.  I or the guest presenter will record the workshop to be delivered in the first half hour of the writing circle and post it on the Blackboard site. The student will also be able to tune in for the live event and can even sit with their laptop tuned in to Collaborate while they write so they can virtually ‘raise their hand’ if they encounter a writing issue, allowing a writing specialist to jump on their laptop and answer any questions.  Both distance and face-to-face students will be able to upload their work to the Blackboard site and receive feedback from other writers. Since the writing circle will only have face-to-face meetings every 3 weeks (events called Write Nights), the online component will allow the conversation to carry on between meetings.

The workshops offered in the first part of Write Nights will also be tailored to our students.  Many ISU students are first-generation, meaning they do not know some of the basics of dissertation and thesis writing, such as self-care.  One of our first sessions will be on wellness, while another will discuss time management given that most of our graduate students are also full time workers, many with families.  Because we know from the WASC audit that citations are such a problem for graduate students, there will be a presentation on APA and a librarian will present information on finding sources. In the Spring, we hope to offer a session where spouses, friends, children, and those who support graduate writers can learn techniques for how to be deal with a loved one’s writing process. We also educate a large number of international graduate students, so some sessions will be presented by ISU staff with a background in multilingualism and writing in a non-native language.

As I discovered when I first began auditing writing on campus, some problems (like reading issues and plagiarism) could be addressed with minimal resources right away.  When we discovered as a task force that our graduate student writing is not significantly better than the writing of our undergraduates, Ellie Pounds (Coordinator of the Math & Writing Center) and I met with the Dean of our College of Graduate and Professional Studies right away to bring the issue to her attention and to offer assistance.  We brainstormed ideas for how to help improve grad student writing, and Ellie and I assembled a small task force comprised of graduate tutors to help implement several of our ideas.

Firstly, we decided to develop graduate writing circles, which are present on many campuses, but which are not widely used at Indiana State University.  These circles will begin meeting this month and will convene for four hours at a time every few weeks. In the first half hour they will have a workshop focused on a writing topic like evaluating sources or professional word choice for APA.  The rest of the time will be writing time where students can work alone, collaborate, or get input from one of the graduate writing tutors who will be circulating the space. We were also lucky enough to get financial support from both the library and College of Graduate and Professional Studies to allow us to provide dinners.  I am working with an instructional designer to create an online version of the writing circle that will allow both distance and face-to-face students to share and receive feedback on their writing.  The workshops at the beginning of the writing circle will also be recorded so that they are accessible to our distance learners.

The second idea that the graduate student task force came up with is a dissertation boot camp, which we hope to offer in the spring. This would be set up like a half day conference, where students would be able to choose from workshops on topics like staying well during the dissertation, organizing research, managing writing time, and advanced APA.  The graduate students of the writing center are responsible for locating physical space, choosing times, selecting workshop topics, and inviting speakers to deliver the presentations. They will also be responsible for marketing the event.  The graduate tutors may also offer their own workshops.  

Writing Center Response – Dissertation Boot Camp

In addition to the graduate writing circle, the Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies, Coordinator Ellie and I brainstormed the idea of a dissertation boot camp, though we are hoping to find a title that lacks the military implications and sounds a bit less intimidating.  Because this would be akin to a conference with multiple workshops and guest speakers for students to choose from, we decided to assemble a task force of Math & Writing Center graduate students to select topics, arrange presenters, book rooms, and select the best time for our students.  They are pursuing the idea of also including some sessions on statistics.  The speech lab, which will be a new addition to the Math & Writing Center space this spring, will also be available for students to learn about delivering a proposal defense.  (The space will be available to graduate students regularly for them to practice such presentations, so this is an opportune time to introduce them to the space.) Since the tutors working on this project are also graduate students, they will not only plan but also attend the boot camp, thus furthering their own writing skills.

How These Programs Address Concerns Raised Previously in the WCJ Blog

In July, Shannon Madden and Jerry Stinnett (2016) wrote in a series of posts about the dangers of outsourcing writing assistance to consultants. It is my hope that the programs being designed and implemented by the Indiana State Math & Writing Center address some of the concerns raised by them and other scholars in the field.  Many of us recognize that it is most beneficial to keep writing assistance in-house because those helping with writing should be familiar with the way instruction works on a particular campus, as well as the specific needs of its student population.  Keeping writing help on campus also ensures that the university is employing students, graduate and undergraduate in our case, in meaningful work that further develops their own writing skills.  This is especially important on the ISU campus, where the strategic plan includes an entire goal dedicated to employing as many student workers as possible (There’s More to Blue, 2016).

In addition to employing students in the field of writing, the graduate writing circle and dissertation boot camp will both encourage the writing process.  Currently, many ISU students spend thousands of dollars having their dissertations edited by outside parties, and they learn nothing about writing in the process.  During the graduate writing circle, they will have the opportunity to receive editing assistance from a tutor who is already indirectly funded through their tuition money with no out-of-pocket expense for the student.  Because the writing specialist will be able to explain the concepts they are trying to convey, the student will learn from the process. They will then be able to help other students in the writing circle, thus solidifying their skills. The fact that the writing circle will meet every three week, with the opportunity to submit work online in between, means that students will naturally be working in stages.  They will also have constant opportunity for peer-to-peer feedback, which Madden and Stinnett (2016) have noted is important to student growth. Hopefully, students who get to know each other through the group will go on to work collaboratively on articles or conference presentations, as some writers find that they evolve in their own writing process through working with others (Ens, Boyd, Matczuk & Nickerson, 2011). The peers in this group will also be from different backgrounds and fields of study, allowing all students involved to write about learning in different disciplines.  Not only will there will students from different disciplines, but also faculty members.  The guest presenters at both the writing circle and the dissertation boot camp will represent various areas of campus and specialties and will thus all offer different ways of explaining writing concepts.

In addition to helping graduate students, the graduate writing circle and dissertation boot camp concepts support the work of the writing center. Math & Writing Center staff will be present throughout these events, thus publicizing the center and encouraging students to visit outside of these events.  Because faculty guest presenters will be involved in both events, they will also have a good opportunity to learn about the work of the writing tutors and how we assist students.  The use of the speech lab to allow students to practice defenses and conference presentations also promotes the Math & Writing Center, as they must enter that space in order to use the lab.  

Most importantly, this format will hopefully address one of Madden and Stinnett’s primary concerns – that writing support benefit students from underserved backgrounds, as well as a variety of learning styles.  The Graduate Writing Circle allows students to choose the format in which they learn. They can watch or listen to presentations, then immediately practice what they learn during their writing time. They may form small groups within the circle or choose to get feedback online without having a face-to-face conversation. They can also practice helping other students, which is how many students learn best (Maher et al., 2008).  In addition, there will be presentations tailored specifically to our ESL graduate students, though many of the mechanical issues with which they need help are also necessary for our native-English students. International students will be able to receive feedback from other ESL students as well as native speakers and will have the opportunity to practice their writing and speaking in a group, which they may not be able to do otherwise (Lin & Scherz, 2014). The group setting will also cut down on the sense of isolation many international students feel as they move through graduate programs (Erichsen & Bolliger, 2010). The individual feedback possible during the graduate writing circle will allow the graduate student to work with a writing specialist who understands the difficulties of switching languages and writing in academic language when it is not one’s first language (Zawacki & Cox, 2014). At ISU, online students are one of our most under-served populations, and it is widely acknowledged that these students need deliberate, interactive programming to develop their skills as well (Hurst et al., 2013). The graduate writing circles aim to offer this, and it is our intention to have all dissertation boot camp workshops available interactively at a distance as well. So far, we can foresee no problem with neglecting any particular student population during the writing circle, though we will be keeping an eye towards adapting the program to include whichever populations we find have the lowest attendance.

We Need Your Ideas

-Though we are excited about the beginning of Graduate Writing Circles on campus, ISU tends to have a difficult time motivating our students to attend, as many work full time and have families.  The university has considered offering a writing certificate of some sort to encourage students to attend. We have also entertained the idea of giving books or book scholarships to those who stick with a writing program.  Does your institution offer any special incentives for students to work on their writing? If so, how does it work, and has it been successful?

-We are serious about assessing all of our programs, but we like to go beyond simply counting the number of students who attend an event.  What could we do to collect meaningful qualitative and quantitative data that would show whether students benefit from the graduate writing circle and/or dissertation boot camp?

Where Next?

During our next task force meeting, we will analyze quantitative data about student writing, including information pulled from Mapworks, which tracks information about our first and second year students, and responses to the NESSE, which has quite a few questions about student writing habits and what they expect will be of required of them in terms of writing when they get to college. We will also examine DFW rates for writing-intensive classes.


Cuthbert, D. & Spark, C. (2008). Getting a GRiP: Examining the outcomes of a pilot program to support graduate research students in writing for publication. Studies in Higher Education, 33(1), 77-88.

Ens, A. H., Boyd, K., Matczuk, L. A. & Nickerson, W. T. (2011). Graduate students’ evolving perceptions of writing collaboratively. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 41(2), 62-81.

Erichsen, E. A. & Bolliger, D. U. (2010). Towards understanding international graduate student isolation in traditional and online environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59(3), 309-326.

Huang, L. S. (2010). Seeing eye to eye? The Academic writing needs of graduate and undergraduate students from students’ and instructors’ perspectives. Language Teaching Research, 14(4), 517-539.

Hurst, D., Cleveland-Innes, M., Hawranik, P. & Gauvreau, S. (2013).  Online graduate student identity and professional skills development. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 43(3), 36-55.

Indiana State University. (2016).  There’s more to blue.  Retrieved from http://irt2.indstate.edu/cms/sp16/

Lin, S. Y. & Scherz, S. D. (2014).  Challenges facing Asian international graduate students in the US: Pedagogical considerations in higher education. Journal of International Students, 4(1), 16-33.

Madden, S. & Stinnett, J.  (2016, July 12).  Part III:  Empowering graduate student writers and rejecting outsourced mentoring. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.writingcenterjournal.org/new-blog//beyondselfhelp

Maher, D., Seaton, L., McMullen, C., Fitzgerald, T., Otsuji, E. & Lee, A. (2008). ‘Becoming and being writers’: The Experiences of doctoral students in writing groups. Studies in Continuing Education, 30(3), 263-275.

Mullen, C. A. (2006). Best writing practices for graduate students: Reducing the discomfort of the blank screen. Kappa Delta Pi record, 43(1), 30-35.

Zawacki, T. M. & Cox, M.  (Eds.). (2014).  WAC and second language writers: Research towards linguistically and culturally inclusive programs and practices. Fort Collins, CO: Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse.


Oops!: The Unexpected Effects of a WAC program on the Writing Center

By Nicole Bailey, PhD

This series of blog posts will examine how a campus-wide Writing Across the Curriculum initiative affects the programming and usage of the campus Writing Center (or in the case of Indiana State University, Math & Writing Center.) The posts are being written as the initiative moves forward as opposed to after the process is completed, which means readers are more than welcome to comment and offer suggestions that could help shape the course of this project.

 Writing Across the Curriculum at Indiana State – A Background

One of the first rules a new Writing Center Director learns on the job is that things almost never go as planned.  A workshop with days of effort behind it might attract two people, while a casual open house might see hundreds of visitors.  Faculty might latch on to a particular workshop topic and ask you to present it in all of their classes.  Students might bring in assignments that catch you completely off guard, and faculty might choose to complain about the most typical writing center rules.  If you’re lucky, you might get money or resources from unexpected places.  Having been a center director for 5 years, I should not have been surprised when my campus’s University College Dean asked me to attend the annual Writing Across the Curriculum conference, then paid in full for me and an instructor in the English department named Heather to attend. And yet I was surprised! After all, most campuses have had WAC in place since the 80s or 90s.  How was my university so behind the times?

The rise of WAC programs as most of us know them took place in the early 1980s, partly in response to the pivotal 1975 article “Why Can’t Johnny Write?”, which caused Newsweek readers to question the literacy skills of students graduating from college (NWP & Nagin, 2006).  Of course, controversy about how writing should be taught and its importance in a college education was nothing new; when, where, and how to include writing in coursework has been the subject of scholarly debate both in the US and abroad for centuries (Bazerman et al, 2005). In fact, academics in the United Kingdom had already been advocating for better inclusion of writing in universities for years before Newsweek’s article (Durst, 2015).  However, this topic being thrust into the hands and minds of the general population via such a widely read magazine merited a thorough response from university faculty and administrators, who began producing a plethora of scholarship on the issue and implementing new plans to help students develop the writing skills they apparently lacked (McLeod & Sovern, 2006). Among the first colleges and universities to create WAC programs were Beaver and Carleton College (Russell, 1990).  Yet here was Indiana State University, just now thinking about beginning a WAC program in 2015.

Of course, it turned out that this was not the first time my university had attempted such a program.  In fact, the campus tried to begin WAC when most others were starting such efforts, but unfortunately the responsibility at that time lay solely with the English department, which was not given adequate resources to fund and staff the operation.  Despite valiant attempts and some successful efforts (like the creation of a Writing Center), formal WAC petered out. Our students’ need for good writing instruction remained.  And it turned out that Indiana State was not alone in being seemingly a bit behind the curve; Writing Across the Curriculum programs have been experiencing a bit of a renaissance at both the K-12 and college levels in the past decade, but universities are now getting more creative with their formats, some of them exploring WID (Writing in the Disciplines) and other formats to offer faculty and administrators more freedom in designing programs for students.  (Carter, 2007; Deane & O’Neill, 2011; Gewertz, 2012; Lardner, 2008). It was within this context of bringing new ideas to the solid WAC framework that I set about developing Writing Across the Sycamore Community for Indiana State University – a school that proudly accepts a large number of first generation, low-income students who have a diverse variety of educational backgrounds.

I was approached to spearhead the WASC project (in collaboration with the Dean of University College and a representative of the English Department) because of the work I was doing with the university’s Writing Center (WC). I had taken the position of Coordinator at the WC in 2011, when it was a small 15 tutor operation in a small space on the library’s first floor. In fact, the WC and I were considered part of the Reference department. I set about revitalizing the operation, changing the hiring process, getting more qualified tutors from across campus, and marketing relentlessly. Within a couple years, the WC staff had doubled and we were seeing thousands of additional appointments every year. Because of the growth, we were moved under Student Success and were relocated to a larger space, thankfully still in the library. At that time, I was also asked to take over the university’s Math Center, which is now housed in the same space as the WC, making it the MWC.  Because of all these changes, writing was very much on the faculty’s radar when I was asked to start WASC. This made it much easier to get faculty buy-in, as professors were already sending students for writing help in droves, and many were asking to consult with me about assignment design, plagiarism, and ‘why these students just can’t write’ (a question I hope will be asked less in the near future).  When I put out the call for WASC task force members, I was immediately met with responses from 14 faculty members who were eager to serve, some because they believe writing instruction is incredibly important, and some because they feel that students are weak writers and wanted to know why. It is of course possible that one or two of them were in it for the small $500 stipend as well.

 Planning an Audit

In preparation for developing a plan, we decided to not only investigate writing on our campus via a formal audit, but to extend our audit to the high schools from which many of our students graduate, and also the employers who hire our alumni.  Our thinking was that this would allow us a clearer picture of what we needed to do as a university to help students to both transition into college, then to successfully transition out to the work world.  We quickly realized that talking to all the stakeholders whose opinions we needed would require more than two people. To that end, I hired Heather as my faculty fellow, and we formed a task force made up of a dozen faculty and staff from across campus.  We wanted a wide sampling of offices and departments, so we have members from History, Foundational Studies, Technology, the office of assessment, the library, the writing center, and Communications.  The members of the task force are responsible for helping to read student writing samples, as well as faculty writing assignments.  They also help develop recommendations for how we can strengthen writing on campus. 

The first task of the committee was to decide what data we would like to collect.  We decided on the following:

-Samples of student writing from every college on campus

-Faculty writing assignments from across campus

-Resumes and cover letters from the career center

-Samples of student work from our local high schools

-Focus group feedback from groups of faculty and students

-Surveys about ISU alum writing from employers

-Data from Mapworks and the NESSE

-DFW rates for classes across campus

Having our campus assessment coordinator on the task force was especially helpful in determining what we would examine.  Selecting a mix of tenured faculty members and part-time instructors also proved useful because the instructors were able to lead focus groups with adjuncts, who felt more comfortable speaking to people of similar rank.  The Writing Center coordinator’s presence was also prudent because she was able to facilitate a focus group with writing tutors, who have access to all types of student writing, and who ended up having great ideas that will be discussed in a future blog post. 

Unexpected Faculty Concerns

Instead of soliciting samples of student writing and faculty assignments through email, I decided to attend department meetings in order to speak face-to-face with faculty and allow them the chance to ask questions about the Writing Across the Sycamore Community initiative.  I was able to meet with the majority of the departments on campus, and almost all expressed concerns about the quality of student writing. However, they also voiced some surprising concerns that caused the writing center to take immediate action. 

The first concern voiced by faculty was that plagiarism is a wide-spread problem on campus, but that almost no one is comfortable reporting it. Though dozens of faculty members claimed they see multiple cases of plagiarism in every class, during the semester in which I spoke with them, only 67 cases of plagiarism were reported to Student Conduct and Integrity.  When I asked about the process most faculty use when dealing with catching plagiarism, many revealed that even though they know a paper has been plagiarized, they do not feel comfortable accusing a student and turning them in because, often, our students are purchasing papers that are custom written instead of merely copying and pasting them from the internet.  This makes it harder to prove that indeed plagiarism occurred. (Though the campus does own Turnitin software, many faculty members do not use it.)

The second problem voiced by faculty was that many ISU students cannot critically read.  This was confirmed by tutors in the writing center, who see students come in with textbooks where almost every line of text is highlighted.  They are clearly having trouble differentiating between main points and supporting details.  In addition, many students who can easily read a textbook or a novel critically have a difficult time dissecting a scholarly article (Scholes, 2002). This common finding has led some widely read scholars to address how faculty can teaching reading in courses of any disciple (Bean, 1996). Finally, students show particular difficulty reading online texts, which has been confirmed by scholars at other universities (Sandberg, 2011). 

Writing Center Solutions

Although WASC was meant to be implemented over a 5-year period, the plagiarism and reading concerns raised by the faculty seemed like problems that could be addressed immediately with minimal resources. The first step Math & Writing Center coordinator Ellie Pounds and I took was to meet with Student Conduct and Integrity to help develop a solution to the plagiarism issue.  Ms. Pounds and I had brainstormed and created a plagiarism intervention program whereby a student who had plagiarized could set up a series of three appointments with a writing tutor, who would spend time with them explaining what plagiarism is, how to avoid it with paraphrasing and citing, and then how to correct the paper they had plagiarized.  Our hope was that faculty who felt uncomfortable turning a student in to Student Conduct, which often happens if they cannot tell if the plagiarism was unintentional, would refer the student to us to allow them to correct the problem.  In this way we could make an educational opportunity out of what had been merely a punitive measure. 

Student Conduct and Integrity was enthusiastic about this solution, as that office recognized what some scholars also see: writing centers (as well as libraries, in which ours happens to be housed) are safe places for students to learn about plagiarism without feeling threatened (Buranen, 2009).  Together, the Student Conduct director, writing center coordinator and I created a solution whereby faculty could either refer a student to plagiarism intervention in lieu of turning them in right away, or the faculty member could turn them in to Student Conduct, and that office would contact the writing center so that the student could go through intervention.  Student Conduct shared my concern that plagiarism was not being turned in, so this is viewed as a win-win where the faculty do not have to turn the student in immediately for them to get assistance.  Having students who are turned in still go through intervention supports the university’s mission to educate instead of simply punish.  This solution did not cost the Math & Writing Center money. One of the center’s writing GAs designed a flexible curriculum for plagiarism intervention that start with the tutor first determining whether the plagiarism was intentional or not.  The way we go about exploring and talking about students’ reasons for plagiarism is steeped in the literature on this topic, which reveals the complexity of the issue and student motivations behind it (Comas-Forgas & Sureda-Negre, 2010; Klein, 2011, Simkin & McLeod, 2010). The GA who created this program then taught the other writing tutors how to run those sessions. No one new needed to be hired; plagiarism intervention was simply added to the repertoire of services.

Faculty response to plagiarism intervention has been overwhelmingly positive so far, with several specific faculty members sending large numbers of students to take part in this activity before they are ever turned in for plagiarism. In general, faculty are using it as a last ditch effort to try and avoid failing the student.  Most of the students who go through the whole intervention are never turned in to Student Conduct and Integrity.  As this service gains momentum, Ellie and I are hoping to assess the impact of the intervention on the students who use it. Currently we can track the number of students who plagiarize again after being turned in and going through the program (a satisfying 6%), but we do not know how the students themselves felt about what they learned.  We are open to suggestions on the types of qualitative and quantitative measures we might employ to get a clear picture of how students respond to our plagiarism intervention model, and how it affects the integrity of their work over the course of their education.

Reading assistance similarly required few new resources.  Ellie Pounds and I met with the writing tutors to discuss the problem facing our students and found that the student workers were in fact very enthusiastic about helping. Many are education majors, and they jumped at the opportunity to learn how to tutor reading. We thus hired a reading specialist from our local school district to conduct a series of trainings with the writing tutors, which will be repeated for new tutors each year. This cost only a few hundred dollars, but the tutors benefitted greatly from her work with them, which was very interactive and involved quite a bit of role-playing.  Students are now able to make an appointment with a writing tutor for either reading or writing.  We were thankful this semester that we had implemented reading tutoring; as often happens, it was after we put a program in place that we realized the extent of the problem.  After learning about reading tutoring, faculty members began contacting the Math & Writing Center seeking assistance for students with severe literacy issues.  We now have the opportunity to work with these students for several hours every week on reading strategies.

So far, the writing tutors have not seen a large number of students seeking reading tutoring specifically, but we have found that the training the tutors received in reading helps them in the majority of their writing appointments.  Later in this series of post, I will bring in the reading/writing tutors to talk about how their reading backgrounds influence the way they tutor writing, so readers with questions about how this works are more than welcome to post them here so we can be sure to address the things you are most curious aboutI will also invite Ms. Heather Roberts, English instructor, to share her feelings about the availability of reading assistance for students on campus.

There was also an unintended consequence to implementing these new programs and talking about them with faculty after we opened up a dialog about Writing Across the Community; the number of students attending writing tutoring rose dramatically, and faculty members began contacting both me and the center’s coordinator with requests for presentations and workshops on plagiarism and reading. 

Moving WASC Forward

Over the summer, the Writing Across the Sycamore Community task force met to read the student writing and faculty assignments we received from across campus.  At a meeting held just a couple weeks ago, we were able to discuss these samples, as well as the results of our focus groups with faculty, students, and writing tutors.  Surprising themes that emerged from both the writing collected and the focus groups will be discussed in the next post, which will feature guest reading/writing tutors, as well as Math & Writing Center Coordinator Ellie Pounds and writing faculty fellow Heather Roberts.

Talk To Us!

Because WASC is a work in progress, I am open to feedback, questions, and suggestions about the path we are on here at Indiana State. This week, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following topics:

-How can we assess the impact our plagiarism intervention is having on the student experience other than just counting the number of students who continue to plagiarize?

-How can we get more faculty to use the plagiarism intervention, or to just turn in plagiarism cases? Though faculty will talk my ear off about all the plagiarism they’ve caught, we only had 67 reported cases for the entire campus last year.

-Does your campus offer reading tutoring? If so, what does it look like, how are the tutors trained, and are there special programs associated with it?

-What questions do you have for the writing/reading tutors about their work with students? They love to chat about what they do, so ask away and they’ll respond to you in a future post.

-Any other questions? I am happy to provide more information on any aspect of what you have read here. I will either answer you in the comments, or if it’s something that merits a more thorough response, I will incorporate the answer into another post. Have a question about how Ellie or the faculty of the WASC task feel about what we’re doing? Let me know and I’ll pull them in to the discussion!

Author Biography: 

Nicole Bailey, PhD, is Executive Director of Student Success Innovation at Indiana State University. She coordinated, then directed the ISU Writing Center (now the Math & Writing Center) for five years after discovering her passion for writing center work during her time as Interim Associate Director of the Writing Center at Shippensburg University.  She recently earned her PhD in Educational Leadership after completing an ethnographic study of the multilingual writing center at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.  She loves writing so much that she does it all day at work, then goes home and does it in her spare time.


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Buranen, L. (2009). A safe place: the role of librarians and writing centers in addressing citation practices and plagiarism. Knowledge Quest, 3, 24.

Carter, M.  (2007). Ways of knowing, doing, and writing in the disciplines.  College Composition and Communication, 58(3), 385-418.

Comas-Forgas, R., & Sureda-Negre, J. (2010). Academic plagiarism: Explanatory factors from students' perspective. Journal Of Academic Ethics, 8(3), 217-232. Retrieved from doi:10.1007/s10805-010-9121-0

Deane, M. & O’Neill, P. (Eds.) Writing in the disciplines. Basingstoke, UK:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Durst, R. K. (2015).  British invasion:  James Britton, Composition Studies, and Anti-Disciplinarity. College Composition and Communication, 66(3), 384-401. 

Gewertz, C.  (2012).  Writing undergoes renaissance in curricula.  Rethinking literacy:  Reading in the common-core era.  Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/11/14/12cc-writing.h32.html

Klein, D. D. (2011). Why learners choose plagiarism: A review of literature. Interdisciplinary Journal Of E-Learning & Learning Objects, 797-110.

Lardner, E.  (2008, March). Strengthening writing across the curriculum: A Practice brief based on BEAMS project outcomes.  Brief.  Retrieved from http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/beams_strengthening_writing.pdf

Mcleod, S. H. & Sovern, I. S. (2006).  Composing a Community:  A History of writing across the curriculum, 32(12).  Anderson, S. C.:  Parlor Press.

Russell, D. R. (1990).  Writing across the curriculum in historical perspective: Toward a social interpretation. College English, 52(1), 52-73.

Sandberg, K.  (2011). College student academic online reading: A Review of the current literature.  Journal of College Reading & Learning, 42(1), 89-98.

Scholes, R.  (2002). The Transition to college reading.  Pedagogy, 2(2), 165-172.

Simkin, M., & McLeod, A. (2010). Why do college students cheat?. Journal Of Business Ethics, 94(3), 441-453. doi:10.1007/s10551-009-0275-x

The National Writing Project & Nagin, C. (2006). Why writing matters. In Because writing matters: Improving student writing in our schools.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.



Recommendations for research and practice of service-learning in writing centers

By Tereza Joy Kramer & Jaquelyn Davis

As we bring to a close our month-long blogging journey, we extend our deep appreciation to The Writing Center Journal team, particularly WCJ Community Blog Associate Editor Anna Sicari, for opening up this space to a discussion of service-learning within our field, and for inviting us to host. We are so appreciative of the support we have received, for ourselves and for this issue.

Throughout the month, we’ve discussed the history and current scholarship on service-learning in writing centers. We’ve offered an ecological framework for envisioning service-learning projects, and described one such project, as one model. Now, in our fourth and final post, we face forward. This is not so much a conclusion as a musing about future research on the place and function of service-learning in the writing center. We’ll propose some recommendations, and we’ll pose questions about where the field could consider going. Keeping in mind a central goal -- service-learning work that reflects and heightens the reciprocity and equity at the core of what writing centers do -- here are recommendations:

  • Service-learning should be grounded in assessment, before, during, and after projects.

  • Service-learning should be integral to the everyday training and vernacular of writing centers.

  • Everyone should be compensated appropriately for contributions.

  • Relationships with community partners should be envisioned ecologically, positioning service providers and community partners side-by-side. 

Collaborative Assessment--Before, During, and After:

We should be conducting assessments before service that build the foundation for service projects. Collaboratively conducting needs assessments can emphasize the mutual relationships among potential service providers and community partners. We cannot assume to know what our partners want and need, just as we would never assume that we know what each writer at the advising table wants or needs before sitting down with them. Deciding together draws on combined knowledges and experiences; collaboration is both productive and equitable. What’s more, early assessments help us critically examine our own assumptions and biases, including our belief in our own beneficence, no matter how implicit. Such assessments work toward what Linda Flower (1997) calls a “logic of compassion,” which “tends to restructure the relationship of service around the Latin roots of the word – around ‘feeling with.’ It turns service from an act of charity or authority into an act of empathy that grasps an essential identity between the one who serves and the one in need” (p. 99). Needs assessments can be a useful way for service-learning practitioners to maintain ethical stances toward community partners, and toward service work in general. This is a critical part of the process of effecting meaningful social change.

Indeed, the entire process should be grounded in assessment–before, during, and after service projects. Since Frankie Condon’s (2004) call for outcomes-based assessment in service-learning work in writing centers, important research in this area has taken off (see Zimmerelli, 2015, for example). This promising research is working to quantify the benefits of service-learning education for writing advisers and for community partners--benefits that are too important for us to allow them to rest on only anecdotal evidence. We need to always be considering the impact on both the community and ourselves, and to be carrying out replicable assessments of those impacts.

Everyday Community Engagement: 

Reflective service-learning should be woven into the training and everyday language of writing centers. “Service-learning” is another means of describing what we always do in our centers, and why we do it. Indeed, the theoretical foundations of the two fields -- writing centers and service-learning -- bear remarkable similarities, and understanding them as complementary helps us more clearly define what is fundamental to our center work: collaboration and mutuality. As one of the oft-cited definitions of service-learning tells us, “service-learning should include a balance between service to the community and academic learning . . . . [T]he hyphen in the phrase symbolizes the central role of reflection in the process of learning through community experience” (Eyler & Giles, 1999, p. 4). It is not necessary for writing advisers to be working with writers off-site, such as at a high school or a community center, in order for our work to be “service-learning.” During the daily work on our campuses, the community we serve is all writers on our campus. If we consider this definition of civic engagement -- “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes” (Ehrlich, 2000, p. vi) -- then we’d be hard-pressed to not find writing centers within that model. For every moment in a center is rich with opportunity to develop skills and values that make a difference in our community, and viewing what we do through the lenses of “civic engagement” and “service-learning” helps us keep that richness in the forefront.

To be lax in our reflection is unwise. It doesn’t take much time for new, tentative writing advisers to gain confidence as happy student after happy student walks away from the center. We do such a good job helping others, and it feels so much like we’re doing such good. And we are. The danger is that this experience of satisfaction makes it too easy to reify the server-served dichotomy. We always need to resist seeing ourselves too rigidly: in the role of only helper, the bestower of wisdom. We should use our courses or staff meetings not only to sharpen our skills for responding to writers but also to reflect on how we are simultaneously served. At the table with other writers, we learn about diverse topics and disciplines, for example. By being granted the privilege of witnessing other writers’ thinking, we begin to understand the writing processes, indeed the worlds, of others. We learn about collaboration. We learn about our own interactions with the world.

The integration of service-learning into the daily work of the center answers Christina Murphy’s (2000) call for a “redefinition of the writing center through an examination of its function within society and culture” (p. 276). We view the writing center as a service-learning site with transformative potential to nourish community in our culture, on and beyond campus.

Appropriate Compensation:

While service-learning lies at the core of writing center work, this does not mean that we should always say “Yes” to opportunities to be of service. Without appropriate compensation for the contributions of faculty, staff, and students involved in such projects, service-learning work cannot be considered ethical.

Writing centers can become targets for administrators trying to trim budgets. This stems from many causes, but the one we’re discussing in this context is the uninformed view that our work could be accomplished through volunteerism. We know this is an unfair characterization of our work. Many people are paid for service: take the health professions, for instance. Writing professions should be no different. As Fels et al (2016) point out, the students who work in writing centers have training and experience that merit fair pay, if not more pay than other students. We wouldn’t invite just any student to walk in the door and advise a peer writer. Advisers demonstrate undeniable expertise in our daily work, and we invest immeasurable intellectual and emotional effort in service to peer students. To deny us fair pay is to negate our labor and our authority. Yes, student writing advisers are in training. However, learning is part of every job. Professors are expected to continue learning, to stay current in our field. Surgeons are expected to know the latest advances in particular specialties. Difficulties surrounding fair pay apply to service-learning projects in particular. Sometimes seen as an add-on to existing courses or institutional fixtures such as writing centers, community engagement projects rarely enjoy healthy budget lines--rather, funding typically comes through grant offices, external philanthropic organizations, and the like. In our case, our students were only temporarily funded through the campus office of undergraduate research. We feel lucky to have had this level of financial support, to be sure. However, a lack of consistent funding is for the time being limiting the scope of our service work, and the same can surely be said for service projects at other institutions.

We simply should not do work that is not appropriately compensated--it isn’t fair to anyone involved, no matter how “good” the work may promise to be. If funding isn’t available, then we need to say “No,” or at least “Maybe later,” to service projects.

Ecological Partnerships:

As Nancy Grimm (1999) writes, “writing centers are places where students struggle to connect their public and private lives, and where they learn that success in the academy depends on uncovering, and understanding tacit differences in value systems and expectations” (p. 5). Viewing our work from an ecological perspective can help foster this negotiation of public and private life, in addition to affirming that service-learning is indeed far more than mere volunteerism. Approaching service work as a means to uncover relationships can  ensure that the project will involve a side-by-side effort with our community partners, at every step of the way. As ecocomposition research illustrates, viewing students as participants in a “marvelous web of interaction” (Devet, 2011) rather than as lone individuals can help composition teachers and writing center advisers better serve their needs. What’s more, ecological principles can powerfully frame the way we engage with our environments. As Sidney Dobrin (2001) explains, “ecocomposition, with roots reaching deeply to service learning and critical pedagogy, affords the opportunity for teachers and students to participate in, react with, and relate to their surrounding environments . . . . Ecocomposition is a participatory discipline; it requires hands on living” (p. 18). If we apply ecological thinking to our civic engagement work in the center, we can view both ourselves and our community partners as members of a dynamic, interrelated network and thus “replace power relations with greater mutuality” (Flower, 1997, p. 100).

Ecological principles can help ground service-learning projects in both effective engagement work and critical reflection. First, of course, is the service work. Christian Weisser and Sidney Dobrin (2001) note that “ecocomposition must include a component of activism and participation that moves beyond the classroom space” (p. 7). Because engagement with one’s ecosystem is central to understanding the ecological nature of writing, students and teachers must move beyond theory in order to practice that engagement. Second, reflection on that service work is essential to move practitioners from action toward critical understanding about their relationships to their environments and others in it. Just as service-learning scholars emphasize the integral role of reflection in effective, ethical service work, Rhonda Davis (2013) compellingly explains the necessity of this critical reflection about the environments we daily engage with:

As citizens, students, teachers, and writers, we are embedded within particular environments that affect us, engage us, and challenge us. It is a reciprocal relationship that involves other people, nonhuman others, the natural environment, and constructed environments. In order to effect socially responsible change, which many composition scholars believe to be an integral goal of teaching, it is critical to embrace this ecological concept in teaching composition and rhetoric, as well as to engage in public discourse. (p. 81)

Ongoing, guided reflections about service-learning experiences, including issues of social justice and ethical service, can develop our understandings of the many “reciprocal relationships” at work and can foster equity in the service experience.

To be continued...

We think it’s important for these areas to be further explored in writing center and service-learning scholarship. And we grant that our questions and recommendations are far from the only focal points for examining the intersections of service-learning, ecological pedagogy, and writing centers. We bring this month-long discussion to a close with many, many questions unanswered and yet to be posed, and we invite comments that shake up our views or point to new paradigms.


Condon, F. (2004). The pen pal project. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 2(1). Retrieved from www.praxisuwc.com/

Davis, R. (2013.) A place for ecopedagogy in community literacy. Community Literacy Journal, 7(2), 77-91.

Devet, B. (2011.) Redefining the writing center through ecocomposition. Composition Forum, 23.

Dobrin, S. (2001.) Writing takes place. In C. Weisser & S. Dobrin (Eds.), Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Albany, NY: State of New York Press, 11-25.

Ehrlich, T. (2000.) Preface. In T. Ehrlich (Ed.), Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Westport, CT: American Council on Education Series on Higher Education and Oryx Press, vi.

Eyler, J., & Giles Jr., D. E. (1999.) Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fels, D., Gardner, C., Naydan, L., & Herb, M. (2016, February 16.) Why we need to talk to tutors. Retrieved from www.writingcenterjournal.org/new-blog//why-we-need-to-talk-to-tutors

Flower, L. (1997.) Partners in inquiry: A logic for community outreach. In  Writing the Community: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition. Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters, eds. NCTE: Urbana, IL, 95-117.

Grimm, N. M. (1999.) Good intentions: Writing center work for postmodern times.Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Murphy, C. (2006.) On not ‘bowling alone’ in the writing center, or why peer consulting is an essential community for writers and for higher education. In C. Murphy & B. Stay (Eds.), The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 271-279.

Weisser, C. & Dobrin, S. (2001.) Breaking new ground in ecocomposition: An introduction. In C. Weisser & S. Dobrin (Eds.), Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches. Albany, NY: State of New York Press, 1-9.

Zimmerelli, L. (2015.) A place to begin: Service-learning tutor education and writing center social justice. Writing Center Journal, 35(1),  57-84.



One example of ecological-based research: a needs assessment in and with the community

By Jaquelyn Davis, Tereza Joy Kramer, & Liane Cismowski

The Beginning: 

It’s hard to say exactly where any idea really begins--thanks to a reading someone suggests, a conversation we no longer remember, or a wise comment by a colleague?--but practically speaking, our collaboration with Mount Diablo High School can be traced to Jaquelyn’s internship there in the fall of 2014: she was paired with a Mount Diablo English teacher as part of her teacher preparation program at Saint Mary’s College of California. That same fall, Jaquelyn also presented at her first International Writing Centers Association conference, where she took advantage of learning from the panels and workshops on partnerships between writing centers and high schools. Hearing about the exciting work going on in the field prompted her to think of some way to integrate her two simultaneous service-learning experiences: at Mount Diablo and as a Lead Adviser in the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum (CWAC). Both sites are designated Community Engagement sites through Saint Mary’s Core Curriculum. So Jaquelyn and Tereza began discussing and dreaming, thinking about ways to bring CWAC and Mount Diablo together through a collaborative project.  

We thought it might be a good idea to help Mount Diablo develop a writing center similar to ours. We knew the benefits of CWAC for our own university community. And we’d heard the success stories of other high schools that had started writing centers. If felt like something good that we just had to do. However, we also knew that we should begin with a needs assessment. And we knew we should reflect on our belief in the goodness of our potential help: why did we consider ourselves the right party to provide what Mount Diablo needs, and why did we think we knew what that need was?

During planning conversations last fall, Liane, the principal of Mount Diablo, expressed enthusiasm to collaborate on this project. While she was eager for university students to work with her students, she doubted that her high schoolers could be trained to advise each other, as most score far below grade level in reading and writing assessments. This made all of us even more interested in researching the needs.  The idea of creating a writing center that would be accessible to all students was an exciting dream for Liane. We held one of our planning meetings on the Saint Mary’s campus; on that day, Liane also observed CWAC in action, plus a class session of the Writing Adviser Training Workshop, to get a sense of how students are trained to work with their peer writers.

Meanwhile, Tereza and Jaquelyn were working with Saint Mary’s administrators, grant writers, and the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action to consider the scope of this project and what funding might be available. We envisioned a multi-tiered and long-term endeavor, beginning with research into needs and potential solutions and then moving into an ongoing, sustainable program. It turned out that no immediate funding other than our normal CWAC student payroll was available, so we began working on applications for external grants. We refused to consider moving ahead without first securing funding for those who might be working on this project, now and in the future. We do not believe that “service” means unpaid “volunteerism”; rather, we hold that service providers should be compensated for their work and that such compensation does not diminish the quality of service or learning. Furthermore, unpaid work is a particularly dangerous precedent to set in the context of writing centers, as campus administrators could latch onto a zero-budget service as an argument for reducing pay in a larger or longer-term way. The danger and actual reality of exploitation was explored in productive and provocative depth in the WCJ Community Blog posts this past February by Dawn Fels, Clint Gardner, Lila Naydan, and Maggie Herb. Fels noted that they studied the plight of contingent directors, staff, and tutors, “to give voice to the most vulnerable in the writing center field: the contingent workers … . To deny that contingency is a problem is to deny the lived experiences of the contingent” (para. 3).

Without full and secure funding, we realized that for now, we at least could move forward with the initial research, and that doing so could provide fodder for grant applications. We developed a partial-credit community engagement course to carry out a needs assessment, created the research parameters, and received approval through our campus Institutional Review Board. We offered the course in the Spring 2016 semester only to veteran writing advisers in CWAC, for two reasons: they could be paid for research time above and beyond the normal expectations of a course; and we wanted students with a strong foundation in both service-learning and writing pedagogy.

We designed the course to facilitate the engagement and dialogue inherent in service-learning and ecological pedagogy. For class each week, students Ruth Sylvester, Matthew Gahagan, James Seo, and Maria-Elena Diaz wrote reflections of their time at Mount Diablo, the data they were collecting, and their evolving understandings of themselves and of social justice and service. We discussed their reflections during our course meetings, and the students revised and integrated these reflections into cumulative pieces at the end of the semester. The discussion and revision of their reflections facilitated a deepening and collective understanding of reciprocity in the context of service-learning and of the dynamic relationships between their work in this and other courses, the work of their peers and student writers at Mount Diablo, and their own and others’ backgrounds.

Research Methodology:

Jaq and Tereza relied upon our meeting notes from the fall discussions of Jaq, Liane, and Tereza  to distill our curiosities into these research questions: What kinds of writing support are available now for students? What resources are available now for teachers to support their students? What kinds of writing resources are still needed? The overarching goal was to collaboratively determine needs before proposing specific solutions.

The survey and then the interview questions were drafted by Ruth, Matthew, James, and Maria-Elena as part of the early spring coursework. We shared these with Liane for feedback. The Saint Mary’s students conducted the surveys, and then the interviews, in addition to studying Mount Diablo’s history and local context as well as secondary education in general. Based on their data collection, they developed a report, including questions for further research and points for discussion with Liane and her staff of teachers.


Liane arranged for the Saint Mary’s researchers to work with English classrooms at Mount Diablo over the course of the entire school day, so that students from across all the grades and all the specialized academies could be included in the study. In all, the research team visited 14 classrooms: two to three researchers visited each classroom and briefed students on the study, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and take slips for their parent/guardian to sign if they chose not to participate. Ruth, Matthew, James, and Maria-Elena returned to the 14 classrooms and passed out paper surveys for students who had chosen to participate. Students completed the surveys independently. The surveys were anonymous unless a student elected to be interviewed by writing their name at the bottom of the survey.

Surveys of teachers were conducted via Google Forms, for ease of reaching more participants and to ensure anonymity, unless the teacher wanted to be interviewed. To recruit teachers for this study, Liane sent a staff-wide email and made an announcement via her weekly bulletin. Additionally, Jaquelyn sent a follow-up email, with the teacher survey link, directly to teachers whose classrooms the research team had visited.

The participants included 6 teachers and 256 students aged 14-19: 45 (17.8 %) were ninth graders, 95 (37.5%) were 10th graders, 62 (24.5 %) were 11th graders, and 51 (20.2 %) were twelfth graders. Three students did not report their grade level.  Mount Diablo High School is a Title One school in which 80% or more of the students receive a free or reduced lunch.  Its demographic composition is approximately 63% Hispanic or Latino, 12% African American, 10% Asian/Filipino, 12% Caucasian, and 3% other.

There were no requirements, such as language proficiency, for participating, nor was there any compensation offered to participants. However, here we must acknowledge that some of the students at Mount Diablo were not yet proficient enough in English to be able to participate in our surveying or interviewing. We realize that our inability to reach this population of students may have impacted our findings, which we discuss in our conclusions.

The research team then chose interview candidates based on the answers given on surveys. 24 students were selected for interviews, but not all were able to be interviewed, due to logistical challenges. Ultimately, Ruth, Matthew, James, and Maria-Elena pulled 16 students from class, each for 10-15 minutes, to talk with them, using the following questions: “1.) On the survey, you answered ____ on the “Do you consider yourself a writer?” question. What makes someone a “writer”? 2.) Do people come to you for help? How do you help them? 3.) Tell me about the most memorable (good or bad) lessons or assignments you’ve had about writing. 4.) What kind of help do you get now and why’s it useful to you? If you could have any kind of writing help, what would you want?” Researchers elaborated on those questions as time allowed. Only one teacher volunteered to be interviewed, and researchers interviewed this teacher during their prep period. Principal Cismowski was also interviewed.

Data Analysis:

Only sums and averages of survey responses were measured because surveys only included closed questions. To measure interview data, the process was more complicated. Because researchers were working with notes from interviews, not transcripts, researchers first normed two sets of interview notes to generate a list of elements to score each interview for, with four umbrella categories and three to five elements within each category. The first category was “Function of Writing,” with the elements hobby, job, personal/creative expression, communication, and use in disciplines. The second was “Indirect Influences on ability to write,” which included the elements time, first language, environment, and other likes/ preferences. The third category, “Direct influences on ability to write,” included the elements help received on lower order concerns, help received with higher order concerns, how instructions are explained, and specific assignments. Finally, the fourth category was “Reflection on self as writer and ability” and comprised the elements fluency, engagement, wants and needs, change over time, and help (able to offer).

Elements were scored first on whether or not they appeared, not number of times, because the data scored were notes, not transcripts, and therefore did not always reflect the repetition of ideas throughout an interview. Then each appearance was ranked on two scales: value and depth. For value, the tone or attitude toward the element was assessed as either neutral, negative, or positive. For depth, the level at which the element was discussed was evaluated as either a mention, a detailed discussion, or a mention that reflected on other experiences or made connections to other categories. For example, if a student said something about not being able to focus well on writing because the classroom is always so noisy, the element “environment” would be checked. For value, the element would be ranked as negative because the student is commenting negatively about the space in which they write. For depth, the element would be categorized as detailed because the student goes beyond just saying “the classroom” and makes a comment about what it’s like. The teacher and principal interviews were not coded, as they were the only ones, and served as anecdotal evidence only.

Initially, we had also planned on coding student essays alongside Mount Diablo teachers to gather more data. However, time and logistical constraints prevented this from happening. In a future assessment, data from Mount Diablo student essays would be a useful complement to the survey and interview research.


Surveys of students produced a body of compelling and diverse data. When asked about the degree to which they enjoyed writing, 69% of students reported enjoying writing at least some of the time. Furthermore, 75% of students reported doing some form of writing outside of school at least occasionally. Still, 69% of students stated that they do not consider themselves writers. When asked about their comfortability with the writing process, students marked several desired areas of improvements in their writing processes: 43% wanted to improve their grammar, 42% wanted to improve their ability to outline, 40% wanted to improve their theses, and 40% wanted to work on drafting. Students also reported excelling and struggling in a variety of areas. 64% of the students said that feedback from teachers was the most helpful kind of support they receive currently, and 86% of students agreed that they would go to a teacher for help, but 51% of students reported that they sought help for less than half of their assignments. These results should be considered, however, with the knowledge that none of the questions on the student survey had a 100% answer rate, which suggests that our questions may have been unclear to some students. Still, we are encouraged and interested by the data.

Data from interviews of students complemented, and complicated, what was gathered in surveys. 73% of the students talked about writing in connection with the idea of personal and creative expression, and most of these discussions were positive--the students commented positively on writing related to creativity and expression.  47% of students were able to articulate their likes and preferences with regard to writing, and furthermore, 67% of students were able to express their needs and wants in a detailed way, reflecting on and connecting those needs and wants to other experiences and environments. 80% of students were able to give an example of a specific assignment that was memorable for them. 75% of the students interviewed talked about their ability to help their peers with writing, and only 1 out of the 16 mentions of helping peers was negative while the other 15 mentions were either positive or neutral. While many students spoke positively about writing and identified different types of writing they do outside of school, they still didn’t consider themselves writers. Fluency concerns, like grammar and syntax, were rarely brought up in the interviews, and there was only one mention of first language as it relates to writing.

Six teachers, from Social Science, Special Education, Math, Career Tech, Arts, ELD (English Language Development), and English, also completed a survey. 50% of teachers reported that they included writing in homework and coursework, and 83.3% require their students to do peer review before turning in assignments. All reported requiring some kind of assignment that emphasizes process, like freewriting, outlining, or drafting. 60% of teachers reported that their students excel most in organization (topic sentences, structure, transitions, logical progression of ideas), but none said that they students excelled in mechanics (grammar, punctuation, and syntax). When asked about how often their students come to them for help, 50% of teachers reported that their students come to them “Very little.” With regard to future faculty development opportunities, 100% of teachers reported that they would be interested in workshops on teaching writing. We do acknowledge, however, the small sample size as a limitation to these findings.

Conclusions and Planning:

This study revealed a significant discrepancy between the frequency at which students write or claim to enjoy writing and how many of them consider themselves writers. 69% of students do not consider themselves writers, but 69% of students enjoy writing at least some of the time and 75% of the students do some form of writing outside of school at least occasionally. This tells us that while students recognize that they write outside of school and/or enjoy writing, they don’t identify as writers. This could reflect that they have a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset when it comes to writing--they think that they either have the skills or they don’t, and thus they don’t think they can improve (Dweck 2006). Still, students were quite articulate about their likes and preferences and their wants and needs. In fact, they spoke more often about their wants and needs than just their likes and preferences. The students provided detailed, dynamic feedback about not just what they like or don’t like about writing but also how these preferences connect to what they need or want to learn about and get help with.

There were also some interesting discrepancies between the student and teacher data. 86% of students said they would go to a teacher for help, but 50% of teachers reported that their students come to them very little. Teachers also stressed that their primary concern for student writing was fluency, while students did not mention fluency at all. Students expressed a plethora of concerns involving their wants and needs, their environments, and their opportunities for personal and creative expression. This disconnect is interesting to note because if teachers are focusing on supporting students in fluency, but students want or need support in other areas as well, the students might not feel fully understood. However, as we acknowledge in our discussion above about selecting participants, it is also possible that our data did not reflect student concerns about fluency because we did not communicate with the students for whom these are greater concerns.

We used this data to guide further discussion at the end of the semester. The research team met with Liane, in her office, and together we discussed these overarching questions that arose out of the data:

  • Mount Diablo students write in a variety of genres, for school and as a hobby, yet few consider themselves writers. How does this affect the way students understand writing and its functions, or themselves as writers? How can we encourage students to develop a growth mindset about being a writer? Does this align or conflict with the goals of English education? How are those goals communicated to students?

  • Students understand the value of getting help from their teachers, and so do teachers. However, both students and teachers admit that students come to their teachers for help very little. When are students and teachers available? Is this the same? Do students or teachers even have time for outside help?

  • We don’t know how well-utilized other forms of help, like tutoring, are. How could they be better utilized? 


  • Teachers all agreed that fluency (with regard to grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary) was a central concern about student writing. The students we reached in our surveys and interviews expressed a variety of concerns, including wanting to improve in drafting, grammar, and prewriting. They also brought up assignments they liked, described why, and discussed what kinds of writing assignments or lessons they’d like more in the future. How could student and teacher perspectives be brought into productive conversation?

Only a couple of days before this end-of-semester meeting, we received the bad news that our federal grant application had been denied. As we all sat around Liane’s table, our conversation turned from enthusiastic interest in the research results to disappointment over our inability to make firm plans for immediate programmatic action. However, willingness remains high, and we are hopeful to be able to follow through with active collaboration. Both Mount Diablo and Saint Mary’s are looking into creative funding avenues, including other sources of grants.

There are barriers in addition to funding. We discussed, for instance, where services could take place, and when, given the pressures on students’ time during and after school.

But there was general agreement that, once funding and other logistics could be resolved, we all would like to experiment with three options that arose out of our discussion of the research results:

1) Saint Mary’s Writing Advisers mentoring Mount Diablo students to tutor each other, focusing on fluency, aspects of the writing process, and understanding prompts

2) faculty development workshops for the teachers, possibly focusing on assignment design and scaffolding writing projects to encourage development and practice at various stages of the process.

3) creative ways to encourage Mount Diablo students to consider themselves “writers,” such as contests or readings.

Some or all of these options likely would be dependent upon the type of funding we -- hopefully -- are able to secure.

Furthermore, we are committed to including funding for assessment of outcomes in any program we are able to attempt. Ideally, such assessment would consider the impact of this work on the college students, the high school students, the teachers, and both campus communities in a larger sense.

Ecological Service Work:

For the Saint Mary’s undergraduate researchers, the coupling of service-learning and ecology served as a productive means to advance their understandings of themselves, their writing, and their roles and responsibilities in the ecosystems in which they live. What’s more, this practical and reflective course allowed all involved to dwell deeply in the present, giving all of us the space to ask questions about needs, relationships, and potential steps forward. The process gave us the chance to examine and challenge our assumptions about we think is best and why we assume those things. We argue that this process of designing and conducting a service-learning based needs assessment is an essential first step in understanding just what kind of ecosystem we inhabit together and how we might collaborate to better serve each other.

This content of the assessment complemented the overall course design, similarly highlighting principles of ecology to reinforce ethical service-learning: the topics our undergraduate students explored in the research spoke to the ecological nature of writing practices and educational systems. In working at the local high school to conduct research, the undergraduate students created data collection methods that required high school participants to consider their own “webs” of influence on their writing, like the language they speak at home, the lessons and teachers they’ve had throughout their education, their other likes and interests, and so on. In analyzing student responses, comparing them with commentary from teachers, and considering the demographics and local context of the school, the undergraduate researchers were able to more fully understand the complex, diverse web, which grew and evolved as they studied it. Significantly, the students were able to see how they too were situated in the web, acting on it and reacting to it through the semester. This study of relationships pushed the undergraduates away from the idea that their service worked in only one-direction. Instead, as they investigated the needs of high school students and teachers, they increased their awareness of how they too are situated in a complex, diverse ecosystem, and they began to be able to “acquire a sense of context with which to gauge their relationship to their surroundings, their backgrounds, their education, and hence their future” (Hothem 2009). The mutuality and multi-directionality of their service was underscored every step of the way.

The students presented their preliminary findings with Jaquelyn at the spring 2016 conference of the Northern California Writing Centers Association, which gave them the chance to consider the perspectives of others in the field and their own roles as contributors to the field. Actively engaging in reflecting and sharing, the students were constantly reminded of the dynamic, ecological nature of their service-learning. Additionally, Jaquelyn, Maria-Elena, and Ruth are preparing to present on the ways this project enacted principles of ecology to reinforce ethical service-learning at the International Writing Centers Association Conference in Denver next month.



While we are encouraged by our initial research and the opportunities it presents, we agree wholeheartedly with Nathan Shepley (2014) that “as accounts of place multiply in composition theory and research, we find not ‘the’ correct conception for our pedagogies, but, upon careful review of conceptual overlaps and distinctions, ways that different conceptions complement one another and help student writers integrate their ideas more fully into the constructed, multifaceted environments around them.” In this spirit, we see our work as not the model but only a model. As frameworks, neither service-learning nor ecological pedagogy call for a one size fits all approach--both rely too heavily on awareness of context and local perspectives for standardization. Still, our research has led us to believe that there are pedagogical best practices. Next week, in our final post, we will share our recommendations for service-learning in writing-center work, guided by principles of ecology and reciprocity, and we pose questions for further research explorations.

Author bios:

Jaquelyn Davis is a Master’s student at the University of Nevada, Reno studying Writing and teaching first-year composition. Before graduate school, Jaquelyn worked for three years at the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum at Saint Mary’s College of California, where she developed interests in service-learning and writing program administration. At UNR, she continues to explore these interests through research focused on WPA work, collaboration, student empowerment, and the intersections of these topics with ecological pedagogy.  After earning her Masters, Jaquelyn will go on to pursue a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition and a career in teaching writing at the community college and high school levels in her native Sierra Nevada foothills.

Tereza Joy Kramer directs the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum at Saint Mary’s College of California, near San Francisco. Her areas of scholarship include service-learning, collaboration, writing centers, and writing across the curriculum. She’s also a poet, having earned an MFA in creative writing and then a PhD in rhetoric and composition at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her poetry chapbook is forthcoming this fall from Finishing Line Press. She’s published academic research in Writing on the Edge and WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship and co-authored a chapter in Marginal Words, Marginal Work? Tutorin the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers, edited by William J. Macauley and Nicholas Mauriello and published by Hampton Press.

Liane Cismowski is principal of Mount Diablo High School, in Concord, in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, Random House.

Gardner, C., Fels, D., Naydan, L., & Herb, M. (2016, February 1.) An investigation into the working conditions of non-tenure line, contingent writing center workers. Retrieved from www.writingcenterjournal.org/new-blog/2016/1/31/firstpost

Hothem, T. (2009.) Suburban studies and college writing. Pedagogy 9 (1), 35-59.

Shepley, N. (2014.) Environmental flux and locally focused college writing. Composition Forum 29


Where service-learning can go: Why assessment helps ward against imposition and helps create the space for true reciprocity

By Tereza Joy Kramer & Jaquelyn Davis

Inquiry Before Action:

As we outlined in our first post, the negotiation of multiple perspectives before addressing perceived needs is simply not mentioned in the vast majority of scholarship on service-learning work in writing centers. Surely, such negotiations must be happening in most, if not all, projects in some form, but the fact that the essential process of working together before action is not discussed in the published scholarship is troubling. We fear that this illustrates a limit to what our field values in service-learning: outcomes, results, progress. Not critical engagement. Not thoughtful discussion. Not the essential questions that Zimmerelli and Brown (2016) themselves pose near the start of their article: “What is the need? How do we know it is the need? Are we making biased presumptions about the community and its literacy practices? Might we do harm?” (p. 2) While these essential questions are posed, they are immediately cast as secondary to action, even dismissed as “psychic barriers” that can prevent those capable of providing service from doing so. The authors further write of choosing to privilege “the equally ethical imperative to act, to do something, even small, for the good of our community” (p. 2). The assumption seems to be that the action a writing center has to offer is inherently good. It is highly likely that Zimmerelli and Brown’s project involved deep, thoughtful inquiry from the outset, as suggested by the fact that the writing center director and the community partner are co-authors, but the absence of that discussion in the article itself speaks to a problem in the field much broader than any one project. We all need to keep our focus on reciprocity. We all need to ward against the blinders that can accompany good intentions,  leading to and simultaneously obscuring unintended consequences -- ones that reinforce the very inequalities such projects seek to break down.

Peter Levine argues in his chapter “Service-Learning Research: Returning to the Moral Questions,” “a scholar’s underlying moral reasons to favor service-learning may actually be more important, more interesting, and just as valid as any empirical link between service-learning and an outcome such as test scores or graduation rates” (p. 354). As we touched on in the last segment, it’s worth questioning the “good” in writing center service-learning efforts because though the outcomes are almost universally hailed as positive, there’s little evidence of discussions of starting points, of why exactly this service-learning endeavor is such a good idea in the first place.

We think it’s useful to use writing center metaphors to foreground our discussion of our argument. If the adviser never asked what the writer’s concerns were before getting started, could the work at the advising table truly be called equitable? Collaboration is at the heart of the one-to-one session--adviser and writer, peer to peer, hashing out ideas. It has been noted, however, that this pedagogical platform is often left at the advising table. Michele Eodice comments on this abandonment of collaboration as it relates to the administrative activities of writing programs: “Although we seem to recognize these activities when they fall within our own brick and mortar or electronic environments, we often fail to carry them beyond—to our offices, committees, programs, and faculty who could learn from us” (116). This trend runs through writing center scholarship; the identification as a marginalized party, as a program pushed to the fringe by English departments, other faculty, administrations, is indicative of the lack of conversation between writing centers and organizations beyond it (see Macauley and Mauriello, 2007). And it’s this same inability to transfer collaborative dialogue that seems to be at the root of the way service-learning operates in writing centers. If writing advising isn’t equitable without conversation, reflection, or assessment of needs before the work begins, is service-learning?

Server-Served Dichotomy:

It takes no great leap to understand how service, even with the best of intentions, can replicate rather than challenge the divisions between those who serve and those who are served. Linda Flower (2006) warns of this danger, the server-served dichotomy: “this paradigm maintains a strong sense of otherness and distance, of giver and receiver. It makes no demand for mutuality in analyzing or responding to problems; it maintains the social status quo” (p. 97). Emphasizing critical reflection as a core ingredient--a balancing agent--in service-learning addresses “the danger that well-meaning volunteerism can unwittingly replicate the social structures that are part of the problem, defining some people as the knowledgeable server while casting others as the clients, patients, or the educationally deficient--the served” (Flower, 2006, p. 96). In this light, the service provider begins to seem eerily like a colonialist on the edge of frontier, tasked with enlightening the less fortunate. John L. McKnight (1984), also warns that no service can be inherently “good” on its own:

It is clear, therefore, that to assess the purported benefits of service technologies they must be weighed against the sum of the socially distorting monetary costs to the commonwealth, the inverse effects of the interventions, the loss of knowledge regarding the natural tools and skills of community, and the anti-democratic consciousness created by a nation of clients. If we weigh these factors, we can begin to recognize how often the techniques of professionalized service make social deserts where communities once bloomed. (para. 39)

Without reflection, or to use McKnight’s word, “assessment,” on the relationship between the service and the learning, the server and served, service-learning is no more than beneficent givers bestowing gifts on those under-privileged souls they deem worthy.

At one important site of dynamic education that predates and is deemed a precursor for today’s service-learning pedagogy, Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago became an experimental process of exchange among Addams, the neighborhood residents, and the social and educational leaders who visited or lived there. All were teachers. All were students. Based upon this experience, Addams “generalized that education ought to be perceived as a mutual relationship between teacher and pupil under the conditions of life itself and not the transmission of knowledge, intact and untested by experience” (Shafer Lundblad, 1995, p. 663). Bruce Herzberg (1994) points to this ideal example of Addams’ embracing community members and highly educated visitors as an antidote to the server-served dichotomy, one that students today could benefit from, for many of them lack “social imagination,” causing them to think in terms of how much they are helping the less-fortunate, not in terms of how much they are learning by being placed in situations of mutual benefit. Herzberg goes on to argue that “Immersed in a culture of individualism, convinced of their merit in a meritocracy, students ... need to see that there is a social basis for most of the conditions they take to be matters of individual choice or individual ability” (p. 317). Such concerns are reminiscent of those raised by Ivan Illich, a philosopher who denounced most educational institutions as oppressive. In an infamous speech to a group of new foreign volunteers at his school in Mexico, Illich (1994) decries as “profoundly damaging” the tendency to consider one’s self as doing good, sacrificing, or helping; he argues, rather, for a stance of curiosity, of exploring and learning. “I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do” (p. 8).

As Tereza argues in her 2014 article “Uncertain Wanderings: Allowing Students to Lead, Fail, and Grow Within Service-Learning,” writing instructors should allow service-learning projects to be messy, even to include failure, in order for service-learning projects to reach their full potential and not simply replicate other product-driven assignments. Service-learning instructors must allow space for the students to collaborate truly and directly with community partners. In this blog, as we discuss writing centers specifically, we see the same dynamic at play: writing center administrators should not over-manage service-learning projects but rather allow the complex, sometimes messy collaboration that arises through mutual assessment and decision-making by university students and community partners. Such a tone of mutuality should be set at the beginning of the project and diligently maintained throughout. This hearkens back to the vision of Robert L. Sigmon (1994), who was among the 1960s pioneers of the modern movement in experiential education. For him, the gift of service-learning is that “all parties to the arrangement are seen as learners and teachers as well as servers and served. In these programs, we are challenged to respect local situations for what they can teach” (p. 4). If we believe that we are always both server and served, we must assess not just outcomes but first needs in service-learning work to prevent the reinforcement of the server-served dichotomy and the creation of “deserts where community once bloomed.” The collaborative assessment of needs has the power to replicate the ethos of equity at the core of writing center work.

An Ecological Perspective:

We propose a perspective on service-learning that is rooted in ecology. Viewed through an ecological lens, we’ve found, service-learning’s function in writing center work can be more clearly illuminated, and projects can be more productively and ethically reframed. Beginning with Marilyn Cooper’s work (1986), ecology and writing have been linked in productive ways. Cooper writes: “What I would like to propose is an ecological model of writing, whose fundamental tenet is what writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” (p. 367). This model revealed the co-constitutive connections between the writer and the world--writers and their ideas do not exist in a vacuum; rather, they are continually influenced by and influencing the world around them. Alice Gillam (1995) discusses how writing centers enact this model in the one-to-one session, making students aware of the ways that their writing is in dialogue with readers, the institution, and the community beyond. At their core, Gillam explains, writing centers are “dialogizing agents,” privileging neither the tutor’s nor the student’s voice; instead, they bring the voices into productive conversation (p. 129). These conversations are neither normalizing nor liberating for student writers; instead, those tensions are brought into conversation through the tutoring session, revealing the connections among the voices rather than elevating one over another. In this way, writing centers create the “fertile ground” needed for dialogue--they uncover ecosystems, whole networks of connection between each person at the table, the writing, and the world.

Christian R. Weisser and Sidney I. Dobrin (2001), in their seminal work on ecocomposition, have applied the principles of ecology to the composition classroom. Ecocomposition, as they explain, is about relationships, about the fruitful, reciprocal interaction among people, places, and ideas: “Ecocomposition is an area of study which at its core places ecological thinking and composition in dialogue with one another in order to both consider the ecological principles of written discourse and the ways in which ecologies, environments, locations, places, and natures are discursively affected” (p. 2). Several scholars (for example, Hothem, 2009; Shepley, 2014; and Gallegos, 2014) have offered applications of this framework in practice, and strikingly, almost all of them include an element of service that places students in conversation with other university or community groups. As Weisser and Dobrin acknowledge, there is an essential link between ecocomposition and service: “ecocomposition must include a component of activism and participation that moves beyond the classroom space” (7).

Beyond the composition classroom, Bonnie Devet (2011) has explored how ecocomposition can serve as a useful framework for the writing center. She writes: “Because centers embody this sophisticated, dynamic, rigorous approach to composition, they can, then, enact special roles on their campuses.” Devet hints at the far-reaching roles of influence that writing centers, ecological in nature, may have on their campuses and communities, but the function and impact of an ecological writing center on its campus, and particularly on its broader community, are unexplored. We see current service-learning work in the writing center as a useful entry point for this discussion because it is an inherently ecological practice: service-learning brings the writing center into conversation with community members and provides the opportunity for a negotiation of responsibilities and relationships. We argue that if service-learning is viewed in this light, as an illumination of ecologies, there is naturally a greater emphasis on root causes, connections, and mutuality.

In next week’s post, we will share our version of an ecological approach to service-learning: our Center for Writing Across the Curriculum’s (CWAC’s) needs assessment of the students and teachers at neighboring Mount Diablo High School, conducted in collaboration with the school’s principal. The purpose of our assessment was to determine the kind of writing support needed and wanted by students and teachers so that we and the high school could move forward from a thoughtfully laid foundation. To assess that need, we conducted surveys and interviews of students, teachers, and administrators. We sought to answer the following questions: What kinds of writing support are available now for students? What resources are available now for teachers to support their students? What kinds of writing resources are still desired?

We will discuss how we designed the assessment to emphasize the “ecosystem” both we and the community partner dwell within, as well as the elements that worked well for us, those that challenged us, and the questions we are left with as a result of the initial assessment.



Cooper, M. (1986.) The ecology of writing. College English, 48(4), 364–375.

Devet, B. (2011.) "Redefining the writing center through ecocomposition." Composition Forum 23

Eodice, M. (2003.) "Breathing lessons, or collaboration is ..." In M. Pemberton & J. Kinkead (Eds.), The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center ScholarshipLogan, UT: Utah State UP. 114-129.

Flower, L. (1997.) "Partners in inquiry: a logic for community outreach." In L. Adler-Kassner, et al. (Eds.), Writing in the community: Concepts and models for service-learning in composition AAHE’s Series on Service-Learning in the Disciplines. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 95-117.

Gallegos, E. (2013.) "Mapping student literacies: Reimagining college writing instruction within the literacy landscape." Composition Forum, 27.

Gillam, A. (1995.) "Writing center ecology: A bakhtinian perspective." In C. Murphy & J. Law (Eds.), Landmark Essays on Writing CentersDavis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 127-134.

Herzberg, B. (1994.) "Community service and critical teaching." College Composition and Communication, 45(3), 307-319.

Illich, I. (1994.) "To hell with good intentions." In G. Albert (Ed.), Service Learning Reader: Reflections and Perspectives on Service. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Experiential Education, 1-8.

Kramer, T. (2014.) "Uncertain wanderings: Allowing students to lead, fail, and grow within service-learning.” Writing on the Edge, 24(2), 59-74.

Levine, P. (2011.) "Service-learning research: Returning to the moral questions." In T. Stewart and N. Webster (Eds.), Problematizing service-learning: Critical reflections for development and actionCharlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc., 343-350.

Macauley, W. & Mauriello, N. (2007.) An invitation to the ‘ongoing conversation.’ In W. Macauley & N. Mauriello (Eds.) Marginal Words, Marginal Work? Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing CentersCresskill: Hampton Press, xiii-xvi.

Shafer Lundblad, K. (1995.) "Jane Addams and social reform: A role model for the 1990s." Social Work, 40(5), 661-669.

Shepley, N. (2014.) "Environmental flux and locally focused college writing." Composition Forum, 29.

Sigmon, R. (1994.) "Linking service with learning in liberal arts education." Serving to Learn, Learning to ServeThe Council of Independent Colleges, 3-9.

Weisser, C. & Dobrin, S. (2001.) Breaking new ground in ecocomposition: An introduction. In C. Weisser & S. Dobrin (Eds.), Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches.  Albany, NY: State of New York Press, 1-9.

Zimmerelli, L. & Brown, V. (2016). Service-learning tutor education: A model of action. WLN: A Journal for Writing Center Scholarship, 40(7-8), 2-9.


Where we are now: What’s being researched and written about in service-learning work in writing centers?

In recent years, the idea of service-learning in writing centers has begun to be explored and challenged. A number of models for civic engagement have emerged from scholarship in this area, primarily in the form of partnerships between university writing centers and local secondary schools or academic support services. Though these projects vary in focus and scope, they share an emphasis on working reciprocally with the community partner to deliver meaningful, mutually beneficial service. While the outcomes of such collaborative projects have long been championed, and some are empirically assessed, the original reasons for doing service are not. This neglect of the field to examine its motives for believing in and doing service suggests the problematic assumption that the writing center’s knowledge is inherently good and that less fortunate others need it bestowed on them. Though service-learning projects are indeed well-meaning, assumptions of need work to reinforce rather than challenge the problematic roles of “server” and “served,” which some service-learning scholarship warns against.

Part III: Empowering Graduate Student Writers and Rejecting Outsourced Mentorship

This post concludes the series with a call to administrators and writing experts to attend more carefully to structures of support for graduate writers (and student writers more generally). To do so, we should extend existing research on graduate and faculty writers, advocate forcefully for the integration of research-based graduate writing pedagogies across the academic curriculum, and make access and equity the center of our discussions about graduate writing.




Part II: Empowering Graduate Student Writers and Rejecting Outsourced Mentorship

Entrepreneur versus Expert: How Offshored Consulting Prevents Writing from Being Fully Integrated into the Academic Curriculum

By Jerry Stinnett & Shannon Madden

Because private writing consultants operate outside of disciplinary structures for knowledge-making established by the scholarly community, standards for their expertise will be determined by the market rather than by data-driven research. As a result, private writing consultation can invite instruction that aligns with popular misconceptions of writing as remedial and can shift responsibility for teaching communication practices away from specialist faculty in the disciplines. For these reasons, private writing consultation ultimately prevents writing from being fully integrated across the curriculum.


Stories of Language Learning in the HSI Centering Space

During my tenure as writing center director, I realized that a lot of students chose our space as their study space; many settled at our desks not to get help with writing but just to be around a community of learners and helpful tutors.  Beyond discussions of the politics of writing center work, there is the simple reality that writing centers help students become serious, expert learners.  In the HSI context, writing center work assumes the added dimension of helping translingual, transcultural students position themselves comfortably in the broad space of institutional life platformed on L2.

How Student Writing Works: Celebrating Translingual Innovation and Rhetorical Agency

The fulcrum in the study of translingual student writing is the understanding that error illuminates linguistic risk-taking that leads to language growth. In his classic essay, “The Study of Error,” David Bartholomae points out that “errors can only be understood as evidence of intention” (254).  Concomitantly, there are degrees of “error,” and each linguistic venture requires a different type of analysis. From another classic study, Mina Shaughnessy’s observations about basic writing students apply to our college level English Language Learners as well: “they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes” (5). I offer a bit of clarification: our college-level English Language Learners are not beginners in the sense that they are just beginning to learn English; they are, however, frequently beginners in negotiating the expectations for academic discourse.

Centering at an HSI: Possibilities, Realities, and Empowerment in the Writing Center

We like to think that whatever learning space we create is infused with positive energy and recognizes and celebrates every learner’s efforts.  In classrooms, however, despite our best intentions, the learning space sometimes turns into a site of disappointment and/or conflict for both instructor and learner.  Writing about the dichotomy between classrooms and tutoring spaces, Steven J. Corbett refers to “the deeply entrenched power and authority of the classroom instructor” (15).   Despite that power differential, we unavoidably shape relationships with our students.

Backstories of Bilingual, Bicultural Writers: Fostering Confianza in Writing Centers and Other Teaching Spaces

Writing centers at institutions on the U.S.-Mexico border are positioned in a distinct learning space.  Almost all of those institutions are designated Hispanic Serving Institutions, with student bodies that reflect regional demographics and culture. In a recent WCJ article, Sarah Blazer proposes that we consider constructing a transformative ethos for our writing centers to address the important question of “how [to] facilitate tutors’ development of inclusive multi/trans-cultural, -lingual, and –literacy perspectives and practice” (19). Her answer focuses on staff training as the scaffolding for such a transformation. I would like to take her discussion a step further by zooming in on specific student stories that illuminate what Barry Thatcher identifies as “functionings” and capabilities that multilingual, bicultural students bring to institutional spaces at HSI’s on the U.S.-Mexico border where students with rich cultural and linguistic ties to their Mexican heritage are the majority (70-72).  Such demographic realities invite special attention to linguistic identity engendered through the blending of multiple literacies.

Undergraduate Research: IRB and the WC

Today, I want to discuss an omnipresent yet under-discussed audience of writing center research of both the undergraduate and non-undergraduate variety: the Institutional Review Board (IRB). For those of us trained in the humanities, IRB can seem like an alien concept. I, for one, had a bad experience the first time I had to undergo IRB evaluation for a study. After that, I swore that I would only study “documents and dead people;” in other words, things that did not require IRB permission.

What is Undergraduate Research?

I’m back from the CCCC with a song in my heart, massive congestion in my email box -- and undergraduate research on my mind. Today, I thought I’d go back to basics and write a bit about what undergraduate research is, is not, and how it might differ from early tutor writings as well as the creation of secondary resource-based papers, those “research papers” in which our tutors and tutor candidates so often excel prior to their joining our centers and programs. After all, and as many people have said when the question of tutor research has arisen: What’s so new about tutor research? Haven’t our tutors been creating research since the beginning of the field?

Tutors Respond to Tutors: Undergraduate Tutor Researchers Take On Nondirective Tutoring

Greetings, all! April is undergraduate tutor research month here on the WCJ Blogand I am pleased to serve as your blogstress for the eventHowever, as I’m off at CCCC taking about, well, undergraduate tutor research, my frequent co-author, co-editrix and co-conspirator, Lauren Fitzgerald, has agreed to kick things off for us. I’ve asked her to share a version of her 2015 CCCC presentation, in which she argues that tutor-researchers are best situated to solve challenging situations sometimes faced in the writing tutorial. So I’ll be back next week, but until then, take it away Lauren!

– Melissa Ianetta, University of Delaware

Where Do We Go From Here?

And now it’s time, to say good-bye, to all our Writing Center Friends . . 

I must admit that having these posts each week certainly has made the month of March fly by!  As I consider how to close out my time on this blog, I find myself wanting to properly wrap up our conversation while simultaneously encouraging the dialogue to continue.

When Anna Sicari, WCJ Associate Editor, approached me with this opportunity, I was humbled and excited. Humbled because there are so many other voices of scholars from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who could have represented our population so well, and excited because this is a chance for new discourse to begin.

I’ll start this week’s post by recapping the previous four posts from this month...

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Collaborations and Personal Responsibility

“I’ve never been one for inaction. Anything I’ve ever felt strongly about, I’ve done something about”   --- from The Autobiography of Malcolm X

At the beginning of each semester, I have my students read a short excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X that has been placed in many first-year composition textbooks and titled “Coming to an Awareness of Language.”  In this passage, Malcolm X is speaking specifically of the time when he was incarcerated, yet still wanting to make our country better for Black Americans.  Because he was physically imprisoned, he decided to use the power of his words.  But, he soon came to realize his words were limiting his power, for he had but an eighth grade education, yet was attempting to effect change by writing to various politicians, including the President of the United States. Thus, he decided to broaden his vocabulary and ways of communicating by copying the dictionary word for word, page by page, and then reading aloud his own handwriting so as to truly internalize each word. 

My students are always amazed by the fact that Malcolm X literally copied the dictionary.  However, he says that he did this because he always took action whenever he felt passionate about something that needed to be addressed.

I admire Malcolm X for that, and I am a firm believer in taking action.  I’ve never been one who likes to point fingers or play the victim, for I do believe that in many situations, there can be something that ALL of us can do to make things better. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve identified some of the gaps that exist in our field between HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and PWIs (predominantly white institutions), and traced historically some ways in which we’ve gotten to this place.  Today I want to focus on taking action – on both sides.   I always worry when sharing some of the realities of HBCU life that the stories may be viewed as “excuses,” or “woe-is-me” narratives.  Let’s be clear, though.  Many of the stories I tell are not excuses, but lived realities, and they should not be belittled or ignored because those tangible conditions do impact the ways in which we function.  But, I also want to be just as clear that many of us at HBCUs have worked to take action, in the ways in which we are able, to move things forward.