By Stephanie Dreyfürst
Stephanie Dreyfürst, founder and director of the Writing Center at Frankfurt’s Goethe-University, holds a PhD in Early Modern German Literature. She is interested in everything that has to do with (academic) writing, reading, and thinking. Her favorite areas of research include WAC/WID programs, genre, rhetorics, and the acquisition of academic writing competency. She’s an avid lover of opera and a proud member of the board of the German Skeptics.
Recently, I was on a six-week long research trip which led me to different Writing Centers in the US. My main focus was on researching the effects the local Writing Fellow programs have on faculty, students, and the writing fellows themselves. But aside from that task, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities and differences between different Writing Center “cultures” in the States and in Germany. When I came to my first stop (the über-impressive Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), I was welcomed with incredible warmth and open arms. Three wonderful colleagues from two other German Writing Centers (Viadrina University Frankfurt (Oder) and Leibniz University Hannover) were also staying at UW Madison at the same time. The amount of work that Bradley Hughes and his team had put into the preparation of our visit was immense: We felt like members of the team immediately and were able to talk to many incredibly interesting people and learn a lot.
Why I Traveled to the US
In fall 2013, my colleague Franziska Liebetanz, the director of the Writing Center at the above mentioned Viadrina University, and we at the Writing Center of Frankurt’s Goethe University introduced the Writing Fellow program to Germany, after learning the ropes from Brad Hughes who had come to both our institutions to teach us about the guidelines and effects of the program. We had invited him and the former assistant director of the WAC program at UW-Madison, Stephanie White, to Germany, because we wanted to make use of their experts’ knowledge in situ.
How did we come up with the idea of inviting experts from abroad in the first place? A year before the actual import, the founder of Viadrina’s Writing Center, Katrin Girgensohn, had been a visiting scholar at UW Madison and there she came in contact with the writing fellow program. Because she spent an entire year at various Writing Centers in the US (with a “home base” in Madison), Katrin was able to delve deeply into the writing pedagogy scene in the US. (Here you’ll find a wonderful interview with her).
When Katrin came back to Germany, she brought with her a huge amount of inspiration and new ideas about what a Writing Center can be and do. The Writing Center community in Germany is still in its infancy (compared to the US), but it is growing fast and its members are extremely well connected. Katrin is one of the most important figures in the expanding field of Angewandte Schreibwissenschaft (Applied Writing Studies), and she is always willing to share her knowledge with others.
When we talked about her time in the US, my colleague Nadja Sennewald, co-director of the Writing Center, and I immediately thought that introducing such a program could have tremendous benefits–not only by supporting student in practicing their writing skills, but also for faculty members who can then act as multipliers of the Writing Center’s methods directly in their discipline.
So right from the beginning, there was this constant flux of people moving back and forth between different Writing Centers, taking and bringing with them new knowledge, ideas, impressions, concepts, visions and so on. And although we live in what we now call a “digital era,” knowledge often travels like in the Early Modern Period–via people. Not unlike the Humanist circles of scholars, we are all members of our own res publica litteraria. We share ideas through texts, but we also like to gather in person, so we can talk and listen to each other and compare our experiences. Nowadays, international meetings mostly happen in English and not in Latin anymore, and the topics might have changed a bit, too–but the base line is still the same: There seems to be a common understanding that knowledge thrives best when shared and new ideas should ideally be discussed with other people, to make them stronger and better.
The German Writing Center scene is heavily influenced by the US, especially by what I would call our attitude towards the sharing of knowledge which differs a lot from our own academic traditions. Let me explain: When I entered the field of Writing Pedagogy and research in Germany in 2006, I was a somewhat typical German scholar whose main interests had so far been in researching literature, genre, and rhetorics. After deciding that Writing Center work was far more exciting than everything I had ever encountered, I happily embraced the unwritten rules of my new “peer group”: Writing Center people in Germany love collaborative learning (and writing), we cherish our peer tutors and find sharing our knowledge exciting, especially when we meet in person. And we do that on a very regular basis. Even our youngest members do. Since 2009 German peer tutors have their own annual conference where the “bosses” are basically being kept in an extra room, a bit like those places in shopping malls where tired family members are being entertained until it is time to go home.
When some of our most prominent figures like Katrin Girgensohn and Gerd Bräuer imported the concept of collaborative learning and peer tutoring from the US and applied it to our still minuscule Writing Center scene in Germany, we basically changed centuries-old practices at our universities, where the (white, male) professor was always right and younger members of the scientific community had to be asked before they were allowed to speak at meetings. It was a genuine paradigm shift to listen to our tutors (and now Writing Fellows). This has given us a new way of thinking and working together. So when I traveled to the Mutterland of Bruffee’s concept of collaboration and the sharing of knowledge, I was somewhat expecting to find the same kind of constant exchange of ideas between Writing Centers and all of their members. Well–I didn’t. Or not everywhere I went, at least.
Higher Education in Germany
To understand why I found the situation in some places somewhat puzzling, I have to delve a little further into the German Higher Education system: For some reason, we seem to be unable to get our priorities straight. In Germany, we have no natural resources, no oil wells, nor can we rely on anything but our minds when it comes to doing something productive with our lives. Education is supposed to be at the base of all our merits and we are (still, I hope) known for doing quite good research and for coming up with some great technology (when we don’t manipulate the data, as was the case in the recent scandal involving Volkswagen). Universities or Higher Education in general should be our country’s number one priority, one should think. But alas, this is not the case.
German students do not have to pay large amounts of fees which sets us aside from almost every country on this planet. Here, a student pays around 250 dollars per semester; plus, there is cheap health insurance and when you’re enrolled as a student, you have free access to the brilliant public transport in and around the place where you study. Sounds like some kind of academic paradise to you? It is not, if you consider that the money for our universities, their staff, tutors and so on has to come from somewhere and in our case this is a) the federal or state government and/or b) private foundations. As a member of faculty in Germany, one is constantly writing yet another grant proposal in order to find the means to continue your daily work. That is, if the law doesn’t keep you from teaching at a university all together which happens automatically six years after you have completed your PhD. Don’t ask, it doesn’t make any sense to us either. Germany has the absolute worst relation between short-term contracts and permanent positions: nine out of ten members of faculty are not hired on a permanent basis and of these 90% percent every other contract lasts for less than a year.
While this sounds far from being ideal conditions, it has forced us to cooperate on a level that has no precedents in our academic history. Writing Center directors, staff, and tutors all cling together and try to support each other–even across institutional borders. When a university thinks about closing down the doors of a Writing Center, we start writing flaming letters and try to intervene on the behalf of our colleagues. Every year, there are many different occasions when we meet each other. We also try to have some “couch surfing” routine going, so we all can travel on a budget. We know that we can’t survive without each other. Sharing our experiences, strategies, and successes as well as our failures has become standard practice. Since there are no entrenched habits, we have to rely on each other. There might come a time when we are all so well established that we won’t have to do that anymore, but this time hasn’t come yet.
The Solitary or Bubble Effect
In the States, I was amazed by the professional and friendly atmosphere in all the Writing Centers I visited. I saw wonderfully equipped workshop rooms, excellent reception and meeting areas, impressive calendars of events, and most of all, wonderful people who obviously loved and excelled at what they were doing. The internal network of the programs’ directors, assistant directors and tutors was firmly installed and worked like a well-oiled machine. There seems to be some kind of family spirit in all of the Centers that made me feel at home immediately. And I could see that the tutors loved working at their Writing Center, too.
But what surprised me was the fact that there was virtually no or very little exchange going on between the directors of Writing Fellow programs at other places, and especially not on a tutor/Writing Fellow level. Why was that? Was it that I just couldn’t see what was going on? Did all the sharing of knowledge happen via papers, phone calls, emails, at conferences? Was I so late to the metaphorical party that the main event had already happened? I couldn’t be sure. So I went ahead and asked some of the people I interviewed why there didn’t seem to be a lot of knowledge exchange going on between places. One person said that they thought the others thought of themselves as “something better” and didn’t think it necessary to talk to “less prestigious” institutions. Another told me that coming up with the funding to take students to bigger national conferences was really difficult and therefore did not happen at their place.
It seems that there are some factors which do not work in favor of the personal exchange of knowledge:
- Geography: this might sound like a commonplace, but compared to Germany, it is really time-consuming to travel in the States. My entire country fits into Texas, but we have 82 million people living there; you can’t help interacting and meeting with other people.
- Numbers: there is an incredible amount of Writing Centers and different programs in the States; I am not sure if anybody is actually keeping tabs on the exact numbers, but they must be overwhelming. Back home, I basically know every Writing Center director personally and I often know most of their team as well, including the tutors.
- Travel: Germany has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Our trains might not always be on time nowadays (in our eyes anyway), but you can travel fast and quite cheap, so meeting my colleague in Cologne means taking the train from Frankfurt’s Central Station and arriving there in one hour.
- Finances: Because of the abysmal financial situation I mentioned above, everybody is always trying to find extra funding in Germany. Having a budget to go to conferences is on anybody’s wish list; and we love to take as many of our tutors as possible, sometimes more than half of them go with us. In the States, the system of having students pay (lots of) money creates a constant income for well-established institutions. The Title V initiative made it possible to establish new programs at some Writing Centers. We’re all faced with the challenge of making sure that the funding doesn’t run out, of course.
The impression I got from observing Writing Centers in the States was that everyone was very focused on creating programs that worked well for their institution. This seemed to work out wonderfully, in fact I was deeply impressed by how much the programs were connected to the specific needs of their participants and reflected the character of the institution. What was missing from my outsider’s perspective were the ties to other like-minded institutions with similar challenges. Like I already said: There are probably lots of things going on that I just didn’t or couldn’t see, but from what I could perceive there aren’t a lot of opportunities for tutors and (assistant) program directors for an exchange of knowledge and learning about another institution’s experience. My hopping from Writing Center to Writing Center caused some interesting situations that might illustrate why I decided to write about this in the first place: One person was convinced that their training of the Writing Fellows was especially challenging and thorough, and they were proud of having come up with this system. When I mentioned the fact that the training was done in the exact same way at other institutions, my interview partner seemed to be genuinely surprised. The person had also never heard of the cover sheets that are used at UW Madison to foster the reflection on the writing process and the communication of the writer with the Writing Fellow. The interviewee actually wrote that down on a piece of paper during our talk in order to look it up later. I sometimes felt like some medieval jester, traveling from court to court, bringing with me the latest tidings from other places.
Certain differences were to be expected, of course. There might have been a time (when the program was originally created and first spread across the continent) when there was a common understanding of the program’s guidelines and shared practices. But things didn’t stay this way: The program evolved and after a couple of decades, the relationship between the different versions might resemble the one between distant relatives: One recognized them vaguely at family meetings but didn’t care enough to sit down and find out about their way of living or state of health. Of course, I am totally over-exaggerating: It’s smart and economical to save your strength for your immediate survival and not waste energy on something that might not do much good or is at least seen as an expense with no immediate advantages.
Recently, I have been confronted with my own institution’s view on my activities: One of the leading figures at my university commented on me traveling around Germany and teaching other universities about the Writing Fellow program. She said that helping other institutions and promoting the program on the outside was “all well and nice,” but I should pay attention that the program was “working well on the inside.” I understand why she is saying these things, but I refuse to think about them as being opposites. One can do one thing and do another one as well. It is definitely more exhausting, but I think it is well worth it.
Why was I so impressed by the situation in the States which I perceived as slightly self-centered (pun intended)? I think one can assume that what I saw during my six week stay in the USA might be a possible image of our future in Germany. We are playing catch-up at the moment and I can already see that we are facing many of the challenges y’all (excuse my Southern drawl) were facing in the past and are facing today. What I saw in Madison has impressed me on a level that I am almost incapable to express: I saw so many signs that people can indeed function as centers of knowledge themselves. The Fellows are encouraged to do their own research and present it, even at big national conferences; the experienced members of staff get excellent positions at other institutions across the country. They not only take their personal expertise with them, but also a deeply ingrained habit of sharing knowledge with others. Their connection to the Writing Center of UW-Madison seems to stay strong which was exemplified by “The Map”; it prominently hangs in the Writing Center and shows all the places where former members of the team are now working.
Brad’s activities as an ambassador and counselor for the program and the Writing Center itself set the pace and the tone, of course. I sincerely hope that once the Writing Centers in Germany are established better we still cherish the bonds that have been tied when times were rougher. If we ever achieve a tenth of what Brad and his marvelous team are doing, we’re living the Humanist’s dream of creating a state where the bearers of knowledge form their own society that crosses the borders of institutions and even countries.