Results of a Research Expedition: A Study of Writing Center Leadership

Collaborative Learning, Writing Center Research / Monday, March 24th, 2014

By Katrin Girgensohn, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt, Oder, Germany

Two weeks ago, a newspaper notice has caught my interest: The National Library in Berlin has received the original logbooks of Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to South America. All his notes, drawings, thoughts – every word he had scribbled down every evening during his journeys, are now in Berlin. I was thrilled. I often seek a quiet place in this library to write. And now I will share the roof with the original papers of Alexander from Humboldt!

Thinking further, I have wondered why this notice has made me feel so excited. Why do notes about a research journey to America that happened more than 100 years ago please me so much? Probably because this notice made me think about my own research journey to (North) America that happened two years ago. My research journey has been an expedition I started as a writing center director from Germany, where writing centers are currently starting at many universities, but still are a new phenomenon. My goal was to find out more about the successful leadership of writing centers, so that the implementation of writing centers in Europe might be promoted better.

Let me share some insights into my own expedition. One important instrument for every expedition is a compass that will help you to find the direction in a general way. I consider my research questions my compass. Mine have been the following: What contributes to the success of writing centers? What is needed to implement them sustainably at a university? How can directors handle the typical challenges writing centers face? With these questions giving me a general direction, I have spent a year in the USA. My home base for my writing center research was the wonderful writing center of the UW Madison, but I also travelled around and visited other universities. All in all, I visited 16 writing centers, interviewed their directors, talked to staff and tutors and observed and participated in the centers’ activities.

Also important for every expedition is it to have the right gear that will help you to accomplish your goals. My most important gear consisted of my research methods. I followed the qualitative method of expert interviews that Meuser and Nagel (2009) suggest. I combined this research design with the grounded theory methodology (Strauss and Corbin 1990) that helped me to analyze the data in a systematic but still open-minded way, using the software MAX QDA to handle the large amount of data that I generated through constant comparative analysis, memo writing and transcribing. My MAX QDA file, I guess, is somehow what his diaries were for Alexander von Humboldt – I use it to scribble and to practice writing as a thinking tool, but also to analyze systematically what I see.

As it is often the case with expeditions, mine has taken much more time than I originally planned. I managed to finish my data collection within the year that I was able to spend in the USA, sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG). However, data analysis went not as straight forward as I had hoped. All my results left me with the impression that I did not find anything new. Other than Alexander von Humboldt, I did not discover any unknown plants or mysterious landscapes. In the end, however, I realized that of course it had never been the purpose of my expedition to find unknown species. Instead, what I have discovered is empirical evidence for some things we already know about successful writing center work from theory as well as from lore. I hope that finding evidence-based confirmation for principles we rely on might be as useful as finding an unknown butterfly.

I am now going to share some pictures from this research journey. They are snapshots, of course, because I can’t go into details in this post. Every picture represents a category in my findings.

Collaboration in the writing center (c) Anja Voigt
Collaboration in the writing center
(c) Anja Voigt

Picture 1: Collaborative learning

What turned out to be the „core category“ of my analysis, hence, the “the central phenomenon around which all other categories are related” (Strauss & Corbin 1990, 116), is collaborative learning. As we all know, collaborative learning is one of the most influential theories for writing center pedagogies. Based on Bruffee’s texts (e.g. 1999), collaborative learning is commonly the framework for one-to-one or group peer tutoring in writing centers. Successful writing center leaders seem to have internalized this pedagogy as a general stance that influences all of their action and interactional strategies. They are “collaborative learning practitioners” in the way Parnitz (1996, n.p.) defines it when he says that “Collaborative learning (CL) is a personal philosophy, not just a classroom technique.” Successful writing center directors “apply this philosophy in the classroom, at committee meetings, with community groups, within their families and generally as a way of living with and dealing with other people.” (ibid.).

And here are some of the actions and interactions that writing center directors undertake to maintain their writing centers as collaborative learning practitioners:

Ausbildung Schreibberater
Peer tutor education

Picture 2: Peer tutor education

Writing center directors care deeply for peer tutor education. Although there are very different models of peer tutor education, formal and informal ones, there seems to be a consent that tutor education doesn’t end with formal training in the beginning, but goes on all the time during the peer tutors’ work in the writing center. Peer tutors, writing center directors and staff share the responsibility for this ongoing education.

writing center staff European University Viadrina
Writing center staff at European University Viadrina Winter 2013

Picture 3: Finding and keeping excellent staff

Not surprisingly, collaboration within the writing center team (including staff as well as peer tutors) is another important category. Finding and keeping excellent staff is very important and collaborative learning is a way to sustain a good team.

Picture 4: Working with faculty

Another key group of people is faculty. Working with faculty is a significant strategy to make the writing center succeed within the institution. There are numerous ways to do this, from WAC-programs to “dinner with your Prof”-events, and of course they all are undertaken within a stance of collaborative learning.

Always challenging: Funding

Picture 5: Funding

A common problem of writing center directors is funding. To deal with this, they collaborate with different groups of people, from stakeholders within the institution to external sponsors and alumni.

The author trying to raise visibilty for her writing center

Picture 6: Visibility

Another important category that somehow is intertwined with all categories is the visibility of the writing center. Strategies to enhance the center’s visibility include the usage of classic marketing instruments, such as fliers or homepages as well as social media, direct communication with stakeholder within the university and public relations outside the institution. Collaborative learning helps e.g. to create new channels for visibility and to use the appropriate rhetoric for each context.

Picture 7: Placing the writing center as academic unit

Placing the writing center as academic unit also is very important – through explicitly referring to the knowledge of our discipline in the writing center’s offers and communication as well as through proposing research related activities in the writing center.  Profound knowledge of writing center literature is, of course, crucial for this.

writing center research
Writing center research

Picture 8: Writing center research

Most promising for this strategy seems to be writing center research itself. Writing center research within the center happens in different ways, often with the support of peer tutors, sometimes with additional funding and always in a collaborative way.

Picture 9: Professional networks

Closely related to the latter category are professional networks, like the IWCA, regional organizations and many more. They help in various ways to deal with every day issues, to conduct research, to enhance the visibility and much more.

Picture 10: Changes

Alexander von Humboldt’s diary: Topographie des Llano de Bogota
(c) Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz

“Changes” is the title of another category. It subsumes the general openness of writing center directors for ongoing changes in the writing center; strategies of writing center leaders to initiate changes within the university and also an ongoing awareness for changes that happen in institutions over the time and that might lead to crucial modifications of the institution’s mission, funding, allies and so forth.

As I have said before: the success of all those strategies, actions and interactions is strongly dependent on the writing center director’s stance of collaborative learning. The more he or she is willing to share authority and responsibility and to appreciate others as experts, the more sustainable this work will be. Obviously, this attitude will not always be an easy way to deal with leadership tasks. Collaboration can be challenging and is always demanding.

Again: given the importance of collaborative learning for writing center pedagogies, my results might come as no surprise. Moreover, most of the other categories I have found sound familiar from writing center literature. But at least I can now say that these findings are evidence-based. For me, those results were unforeseeable in the beginning of my explorations. Heading towards the end of this research expedition I see that research is always an expedition: exciting, adventurous, sometimes exhausting, other times rewarding, and always with an open and uncertain ending.

Coming back to Alexander von Humboldt finally, I do not want to close without appreciating two aspects of his work that I am sure writing center people value: His understanding of science is one that we today would call interdisciplinary. He always sought for relations of his findings to others disciplines. And: Alexander von Humboldt is known for his efforts to produce academic writing that is easy to follow and to be understood by everyone.


6 Replies to “Results of a Research Expedition: A Study of Writing Center Leadership”

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Katrin. I love the idea of research questions as a compass—they’re not the rigid directions you need to follow, but are guiding points to work toward. And I always enjoy hearing about your fascinating findings that show us what we’re already doing and help us remember why.

  2. Katrin, thank you so much for these snapshots of your research findings. It will be wonderful to have these categories backed up by hard data. I look forward to learning the ways that US-American writing centers’ goals intersect with the goals of your center and of other centers around Europe and beyond.

  3. Katrin,

    It’s great to hear this report about your research. While you may have largely confirmed what the field “knows” about best practices in starting and maintaining writing centers, it’s so valuable to have that knowledge confirmed empirically and contribute to the growing interest in evidence-based practices in writing center studies. (Babcock and Thonus would be proud!)

    I’m curious to hear more about your findings and, especially, how these general principles may change as they are applied in international contexts and institutions. And how other aspects of writing center work may change, too (e.g., research, staffing, writing centers as academic units).

    Thanks for keeping us posted on your great work!

  4. Hi Dave, thank you for your comment. I have the impression that these genereal findings do not change very much when you apply them in international contexts. The difference might be not a general one but a gradual one. For example, problems with funding and strategies to solve them might be the same, but of course there is a gradual difference between US writing centers who suffer budget cuts and e.g. a Ukrainian writing center that is run by volunteers.
    With regards to writing center research I see in Germany the problem that we lack a larger discipline, because we do not have composition or writing studies. So if we conduct writing center research we do not know where to embed it.
    All in all, the differences are not that big in general. However, one result is important, too: every strategy must always be seen in the local context and fit it.

  5. Katrin,

    Thanks for sharing this preliminary account of your voyage of discovery to 15 writing centers in the USA. I hope that what you have gathered will be of use not only to your German and European colleagues but to those of us here in the U.S. I particularly enjoyed the way you framed your observations against the back drop of Alexander von Humboldt’s scribbling on his journey. It seems important observations and discoveries were made on both trips!

  6. It’s exciting to see your findings coming together, Katrin! I really enjoyed hearing bits and pieces of your journey during your year at UW, and I can’t wait to see more of this work. Your data seems remarkably rich and its layered pieces of evidence undoubtedly have much to tell us about writing centers and writing center leadership — certainly exposing much about our current practices and values and future journeys. Please keep us posted!

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