To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate? That Is the Question . . .

Uncategorized / Monday, May 5th, 2014

By Bryan Trabold, Suffolk University

Bryan Trabold is an associate professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, former director of Suffolk’s Writing Center, and currently serves as a faculty mentor to writing tutors at Suffolk’s newly created Center for Learning and Academic Success (CLAS). He is in the final stages of completing his book on South African anti-apartheid journalists entitled To Write it Down: The Story of the Weekly Mail and New Nation in Apartheid South Africa.

When Brad Hughes, the director of the Writing Center and the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asked if I would be willing to write an entry for this wonderful blog, I of course accepted. I have said this to countless people so I may as well share it in this post: Working as a tutor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center from 1995-2000 (except for the year I lived in South Africa) taught me more about writing – and how to teach writing – than any other experience I have had in my life. I think most people who have tutored at a writing center can probably say this. I know anyone who has had the privilege of working as a tutor with Brad Hughes at Wisconsin almost certainly will.

Writing Centers vs. Learning Centers: The Debate

The author
The author

The focus of this post concerns the recent consolidation of Suffolk University’s writing center with a larger learning center called CLAS (Center for Learning and Academic Success). I know from Adam Koehler’s insightful post that this was considered at his institution, Manhattan College. Adam had helped to build a thriving, independent writing center, and a provost suggested that it could be incorporated into a Center for Academic Success. Adam posted a question to the writing center list about the prospects of such a merger and received several, and I quote, “terrifying” e-mails, including one that “was several paragraphs long and told a tragic tale that many of you have probably heard already: a faculty member who was also hired to serve as the Director of the Writing Center went through the same thing I was about to go through. There was a power grab for the Writing Center. It was folded into a Learning Commons. All independence that the Writing Center once had melted away. And it resulted in her having to leave her institution.” In addition to Adam’s post, I know from my correspondence with Brad that this trend of consolidation, while not necessarily strong, is an emerging one across the country, and it raises a number of legitimate concerns from writing center directors.

When telling the story of what recently took place at Suffolk, I do so not as a “convert” for consolidation, nor am I suggesting that our approach should be duplicated in all contexts. On the contrary, in places where there is a strong, well-established, and robust writing center, I think consolidating it with other services could actually be a mistake. Why, for example, would anyone in their right mind want to “consolidate” the awesome writing center at UW-Madison with anything else? For large, well-established programs that have a sizable administrative team and that actively provide leadership opportunities to graduate students who are preparing to direct writing centers, it simply would not make any sense to consolidate.

But there were – and are – a number of unique factors here at Suffolk where consolidation does make sense. While I share some of the concerns expressed by those opposed to consolidation, which I’ll elaborate upon later in this response, overall, I genuinely believe that what we have done here at Suffolk will enhance the training of our writing tutors and, most importantly, better serve the needs of students seeking writing assistance. Before addressing these issues, some background about the history of the writing center here at Suffolk is in order.

History and Evolution of Suffolk University’s Writing Center

When I first came to Suffolk, I was hired as an assistant professor of English, and was not expected to direct the writing center. In my third year, however, the former director of our writing center, a full-time professor in English, Peter Caputo, who had created the writing center in the 1980’s, decided to step down after years of admirable service. Tragically, Peter passed away from cancer this past year.

Professor Rich Miller, director of first-year writing at Suffolk University
Professor Rich Miller, director of first-year writing at Suffolk University

When Peter stepped down, I was asked to co-direct the writing center with my fellow rhet-comp colleague and dear friend, Rich Miller, for one year until we could hire a full-time director. Unfortunately, this was all playing out during the economic crisis, and while Suffolk was not devastated, we certainly experienced some belt-tightening at the time. Eventually the word came down: The full-time writing center position would not be funded. Rich Miller, who had helped me to direct the writing center, was not able to do so the following year. He is the director of the first-year writing program, he has many other responsibilities, and trying to co-direct the writing center was simply one too many hats for Rich to wear.

Although I was not initially hired to direct the writing center and never anticipated that this would become part of my job, I assumed this position for two reasons. First, I had developed a deep and genuine belief in the power of writing centers, and how absolutely crucial they are for students in an academic community, as a result of working at the writing center at Wisconsin. Second, I became the director because, well, there was no one else! Rich, my fellow rhet-comp colleague was already overextended, and the other faculty members in the department did not believe they had the necessary writing center experience to assume this role. I thus became the director of the writing center and held this position until 2012-2013.

As luck would have it, a beautiful space in the library opened up the summer before my first year as director, and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Ken Greenburg, provided it to the writing center. Not only was this more centrally located than the previous writing center space, but it was also several times larger, and it allowed the writing center literally to double the number of students we could tutor at one time. Also during that same summer, I hired a new administrative assistant, Brian Smith, and together we implemented many changes. First, we offered evening tutoring hours, which proved to be a tremendous success, particularly given our new location in the library. Second, we successfully lobbied for a larger tutoring staff and gradually increased the staff size from 10 to 16 tutors. Third, whereas the writing center had previously hired only English majors as tutors, we opened the application process to include students from all disciplines, thus attracting some extremely talented students with a broad range of scholarly backgrounds. Fourth, we took steps to streamline the process for students who wanted to make an appointment with tutors.

As a result of our new space and these changes, the number of students the writing center served increased dramatically (the undergraduate enrollment at Suffolk is about 5000 students). In the year I had co-run the writing center with Rich Miller, writing tutors met with 289 students over the academic year (we don’t know how many tutoring sessions this translated into because the writing center was not at that point using software to track sessions). By 2012-2013, the final year of the writing center before it was consolidated into CLAS, writing tutors had met with 710 students for a total of 2,020 writing appointments. Not only did we manage to increase the number of students served, but based on the surveys that Brian had developed and distributed in the fall and spring semesters, we learned that student satisfaction was extremely high.

While I was quite pleased with these results, there were nevertheless some nagging concerns. First, the training I provided the tutors was good – but not great. It basically consisted of an intense two-day orientation at the end of summer, monthly staff meetings, individual meetings I held with each tutor during the fall semester, and of course, I was always available to discuss specific concerns and questions tutors had. But I had not developed and was not offering, for example, a course for writing tutors, primarily because of my other responsibilities: teaching, scholarship, and service (there were only so many hours in a day…). Second, I was very pleased about how many students the writing center was serving but I had to ask myself an important question: How much longer could I sustain this role? Did I have the necessary time and energy, given my other responsibilities, to start enacting the next round of needed changes, such as on-line tutoring?

Consolidating the Writing Center with the Learning Center: Process

Sebastian Royo, Vice Provost for Student Success at Suffolk University
Sebastian Royo, Vice Provost for Student Success at Suffolk University

At the time I was asking myself these questions, Suffolk obtained a new president, and he initiated several changes, including within the upper administration. Three new vice provost positions were created, including one for Student Success. Fortunately for Suffolk, Sebastian Royo, a previous assistant dean within the college, was hired for this position, and it was under his leadership that the consolidation of student services took place. Prior to this consolidation, Suffolk student services consisted of a Writing Center, a Math support center, Second Language Services, and the Ballotti Learning Center (geared towards helping students struggling with the content of their courses). The directors of these services had very good, cordial relations and we would meet a few times each semester to discuss ways of better coordinating our efforts. But this was difficult. One example: our services were scattered across campus in totally different locations, which was not conducive for referring students from one service to another (e.g. the second language student who worked with a writing tutor but who also really needed to work with a tutor at Second Language Services).

The plan for consolidating these services was inclusive and took one full year to create. The various directors and some select staff members from the different student services met every week for a full semester to discuss how best to carry out this consolidation. We then proposed a plan to Sebastian Royo, which in turn generated an additional round of meetings. A plan was finally approved by the end of the year, a frantic move took place over the summer into a new space, and CLAS experienced its first year in 2013-2014.

Consolidating the Writing Center with the Learning Center: Effects

What does this consolidation mean for me as the former writing center director? I now no longer have any administrative duties, but as a “faculty mentor” to CLAS, I continue to train and work with the tutors, and I am currently helping to recruit, interview, and hire the next group of tutors for the following academic year.

What was gained and what was lost by the merger in terms of the writing center? Let’s start with what was gained. Given that I now no longer have administrative duties, this freed me up to develop two one-credit tutoring courses that I will be offering in the fall and spring semesters beginning next year. (I must at this point acknowledge Matthew Capdevielle, fellow Badger and current director of the University of Notre Dame’s writing center, who graciously provided me with copies of his brilliant syllabus.) These tutoring classes will allow me to meet with tutors once a week – every week – for the entire academic year. This will dramatically improve the training tutors receive as they will now have the chance to read articles about tutoring, engage in weekly discussions, and write short reflection papers. And there are some issues where tutors simply need more and better training, particularly in terms of working with second language students, who currently constitute as much as 50% of the students that tutors work with in any given year. Moreover, I have been working closely with Hillary Ornberg at CLAS, and by strategically supplementing some training activities for tutors throughout the year, my two tutoring classes will allow tutors to earn their first two levels of CRLA certification.

Maria Perfetti, writing tutor at Suffolk University's CLAS, working with a student-writer.
Maria Perfetti, writing tutor at Suffolk University’s CLAS, working with a student-writer

In previous correspondence I have had with Brad, he listed several concerns often expressed by directors of writing centers about consolidation: 1.) tutor education will be neglected, 2.) the professionalism (in practices, in theory, in research in writing center studies) will get lost or diluted, and 3.) faculty will not be actively involved. But in our consolidation, tutor education will not be neglected but rather will be enhanced. This, in turn, will enhance tutor professionalism. And I have had conversations with the director of CLAS, Linda Vinay, about using my experiences as a faculty mentor to consider ways of recruiting even more faculty mentors from across campus to provide training for other tutors at CLAS.

So what was lost? At this point, I must address two concerns cited by Brad that, to be perfectly honest, are something I have grappled with in the wake of the consolidation: 1.) the writing center will lose its specific identity and 2.) the wonderful culture of a community of writing tutors will suffer. The first concern is certainly true, and it actually took some time for it to sink in that the “writing center” at Suffolk no longer “exists.” I particularly noticed this when I encouraged students from my classes this past year to work with writing tutors. I could no longer say, “Have you considered taking your paper to the writing center?” and instead had to say, “Have you considered taking your paper to CLAS to work with a writing tutor?” A small and potentially silly issue for some, but for someone like me with writing center roots dating back to 1995, it took some getting used to. In fact, there is a small part of me that is concerned about an inadvertent signal that might be sent to students that the university no longer has a “writing center.” Perhaps students would never really consider the difference between going to a “writing center” or going to a “learning center” to work with a “writing tutor,” but again, this is something that I notice and am still adjusting to.

Sara Hilinski, Jill Eisenberg, and Hillary Ornberg, supervisors of the CLAS tutoring staff
Sara Hilinski, Jill Eisenberg, and Hillary Ornberg, supervisors of the CLAS tutoring staff

In terms of the “writing center culture,” again, I’ll be honest: I miss that, too. During our last year as a writing center, the tutors were particularly, shall I say “festive,” and decorated our space with movie posters (long story) that then evolved into people putting up pictures of the books upon which these movies were based. The tutors also decorated the space for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the holidays (I’ll never forget walking into the writing center one morning shortly before winter break, and seeing a picture of Will Ferrell in an elf hat, with those wide-eyes-of-wonder and goofy smile, hanging next to the pictures of the other tutors. Our honorary tutor for the holidays was, of course, identified for visiting students: “Buddy the Elf”).

But the writing center culture is giving way to a new CLAS culture. Writing tutors are now part of a much larger group of tutors, and the supervisors of the CLAS tutors – Sara Hilinski, Hillary Ornberg, and Jill Eisenberg – took many steps to create their own special culture at the center. Staff and tutors decorated the center for various holidays; students visiting the center could post small sheets of paper on the wall identifying their favorite book and explain why; and members of CLAS dressed in purple one day in solidarity with the anti-bullying campaign that took place at Suffolk. In short, while the tutors at the writing center did establish a wonderful and vibrant culture, I know that Sara, Hillary, Jill, and the CLAS tutors will also develop a culture at the new center that will be both fun and meaningful for the tutors.

Final Question…

And that brings me to my final thought, perhaps more of a question, which I would genuinely appreciate feedback on from readers of this blog. Here’s my claim: Ending the writing center here at Suffolk will allow us to provide better, more robust training for tutors, which in turn will lead to better writing tutoring for Suffolk students, particularly our large second language student population. Here’s the question: Is this simply an elaborate rationalization to justify the “loss” of our writing center? Or is it, like any good paradox, something that seems counter-intuitive at first – ending a writing center to enhance writing tutoring – that ultimately makes sense in the end?

7 Replies to “To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate? That Is the Question . . .”

  1. Bryan, thank you for your insightful blog which deals with some of the concerns and challenges associated with the consolidation of our services. I do think Suffolk’s Writing Center had created such a vibrant identity—and had such close ties with the English Department—that folding it in to CLAS has engendered some confusion and, perhaps, some (not unjustified!) worry. But as you highlight so well, the benefits for our tutoring services are many. We’ve weathered a huge transition and we are already starting to see the gains for the students we serve and for our tutors. No longer are students sent to one office for “content” tutoring and another for “help with essay structure”. (Having worked at the Ballotti Learning Center previously, I encountered this frustrating scenario more than once.) Now, a student who has trouble with that key concept in, say, his ethics paper can potentially consult with a philosophy tutor and then head to the next tutoring table to work with a writing tutor on thesis and paragraph organization. In some cases, a tutor might be an accomplished writer and a star science major who can assist students both with understanding chemical reactions and with sentence structure. We’ve seen writing tutors and business tutors working together to help a student learn to craft a stellar memo. I like to think we are fostering a spirit of collaboration while at the same time giving our tutors the opportunity to develop their individual passions and expertise. We have recently launched our own blog showcasing our tutors’ voices, and not surprisingly a number of writing tutors have taken the lead in composing fresh posts on topics ranging from writing tips to restaurant reviews. The blog highlights yet another benefit of the consolidation: we have art and design student staff who have been instrumental in designing the blog and taking photos. This is just one of many projects our tutors are engaged in to create the new culture of CLAS. When it comes right down to it, though, the foundation of our center is a talented tutoring staff, well trained to assist students in their areas of expertise. We are thrilled that as part of their training you will offer the writing tutor course for the first time next academic year. Thanks again for your post—and I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts!

  2. Thanks, Bryan, for an encouraging and optimistic post. You make a good case for the benefits of consolidation. And I can see how the move frees you up to provide more and better preparation for tutors, how it reduces the distance, physical and conceptual, between the different tutoring centers, how it may make the new center more visible to the administration, and how it might offer the tutors a new and more expansive identity. All good.

    But I am not fully persuaded of the benefits of consolidation. While you and your colleagues made it work, this may have had more to do with your boundless goodwill [full disclosure to readers of this blog: Bryan is my dear friend, whom I love like a brother] and the personalities of your colleagues than with the actual benefits of the move. I worry, as you do in your essay, that the disappearance of a writing center sends a counterproductive message about writing in a university, that the professionalism of the tutors will be in some ways diluted, and that the unique and vibrant culture a writing center seems always to engender will be lost. Maybe as a former writing center director I am just being sentimental, but that culture sends a powerful and even joyful message to faculty and students about the commitment to writing made by the institution. I worry, too, about the move throughout many universities to centralize, to consolidate, to systematize—all of which seems to lead to more rigid hierarchies and top-down administrative practices. As universities become increasingly corporate in their management practices, diminishing the role of faculty and elevating more and more middle managers, I want there to be a place for programs that develop independent identities that express their own visions of education and academic life. But perhaps I am now responding to an entirely different set of issues that the one you addressed in your thoughtful essay. I’ll keep thinking about it.

    Thanks for stimulating read, and for sharing your good experience at Suffolk!

  3. Thank you, Bryan, for such a thoughtful post. I know I’ve previously personally voiced my concerns to you before as a tutor within the confusing world of consolidation, but I’d like to share some further thoughts here.

    I am glad you have such a positive outlook on the fate of the CLAS, and certainly the new writing tutor course will serve a wonderful purpose. Looking from the inside out, however, I cannot particularly say my outlook is as joyous on the center as a whole. While it seems wonderful to think that students and tutors especially can work collaboratively in this new, streamlined environment (as Sara states), I cannot say that I think that will ever truly be the case. Writing tutors just aren’t going to know the biology tutors 90% of the time. This isn’t because these groups cannot or do not get along, but because it truly is difficult to foster a learning environment where everyone is aware of the resource as a whole or is even aware of the importance of knowing and understanding what resources are at hand. All tutors are students first. Because of this, it is continually difficult to put the needs of another student over that of your personal and possibly immediate needs as a student (and rightfully so! we need to keep our scholarships and stay “smart” to continue being a resource). This isn’t to say that one would neglect their duties as a tutor, but the issue is that it is much easier only to want to know your duty. The consolidation, however, made/makes that one-thing-you-thought-you-knew (your duty) difficult to distinguish and even harder to put in perspective of what other people at the center are there to accomplish themselves.

    Previously working in both the Writing Center and Ballotti Learning Center to working in the CLAS this past year, I think there are inherent (yet glaring) differences in the understanding of how each form of learning should be tackled. Consolidating these learning centers, and in turn attempting (maybe accidentally) to consolidate these tutoring and learning processes, only makes it harder on the writing tutor that’s trying to do things as right as possible. A writing tutoring appointment is much different than a psychology content tutoring appointment (trust me from experience), and the two should not be objectively squeezed into the same box of “this is how you do it,” as seemed to be the case in the CLAS this year. I understand it’s a transition, but there will never be a one-size-fits-all methodology, both because of subject and student differences. That’s not to say we cannot benefit from learning new methods because of the new integration, but it’s hard to take new approaches too seriously because of personal bias on this change.

    I want the CLAS to be a success. I want consolidation of learning centers at other universities to be a success. Most of all, I want my fellow tutors and peers to be a success, because they were able to take part in this type of learning community. I think the new class Bryan’s offering in the fall will give this success to writing tutors in the future; however, I was deeply concerned about both our tutors and our students this year. I didn’t feel like a successful tutor in this confusing environment. I didn’t feel like I was a successful student either, because tutors of other disciplines didn’t always trust my opinion (or even understand that, hey, I’m a tutor, too!). And as much as this could be influenced to my prior ties to the culture of the Writing Center, I was part of Ballotti Learning Center, too, and felt stress from both prior cultures, as I’m sure was the case with Second Language Services and Math Support as well.

    Ultimately, I’ll leave with this question. Without waiting until the old student tutors are out/graduated, how do you make a singular culture that works for everyone in an environment with such different expectations of all the parties involved?

  4. Sara, John, and Kayla, thank you so very much for taking the time to post such thoughtful responses. I really and truly appreciate all of your contributions. Sara, you provided insights about the ways that tutors could work meaningfully with one another that I was not even aware of prior to reading your post.

    My dear friend John notes similar concerns I have about consolidation. As I acknowledge in my post, I certainly do not want to position myself as a “spokesperson” for consolidation in all contexts. I do think there are merits given Suffolk’s situation, and I would like to thank the right honorable Duffy for taking the time to post such a thoughtful response.

    And Kayla, first, let me say how much I really and truly value a.) the remarkable tutoring you have provided these past two years, and b.) taking the time to post such a thoughtful, honest reflection. I think you address one of THE central issues we will need to grapple with as we move forward: To what extent are we trying to forge a “common” tutoring culture at CLAS and to what extent do we allow for individual tutoring cultures to exist within that larger structure?

    I agree with you: an appointment with a writing tutor is a very different experience than an appointment a student might have, say, to receive help with the content of a course. I do NOT think that an appointment between a student and a writing tutor should change because this meeting is taking place at CLAS. Writing tutors, for example, should still refer to the prompt provided by the professor, ask lots of questions, make sure they are not being too directive and “taking over” students’ papers, etc.

    BUT at the end of that writing session, my hope is that the writing tutor might be able to follow up and ask questions of that student about whether he or she might want to work with a second language tutor on that paper (or in the future) or perhaps work with a content tutor in that particular subject if it is clear that part of the problem the student had with the paper was that he/she was struggling with the course material.

    So the actual writing sessions should, I would hope, remain fundamentally the same — and maybe even be better with enhanced training. But the chances for following up in a meaningful way with students to work with another tutor might be more likely to occur at CLAS than if all four services were located across campus in different locations.

    Again, I think you are addressing a fundamentally important issue, Kayla, and given your experiences as a tutor for both the writing center and Ballotti, I really and genuinely appreciate and value your input. Thank you!

  5. Dear Bryan,
    thank you for this thoughtful post, which I just came across while I am writing a part of my research report on writing center implementation and leadership that deals with funding strategies. One funding strategy seems to be consolidation with other units. I would like to cite one of my wonderful research partners, who talked about the fears writing center directors have concerning merging the writing center and the learning center. She said: “The real question, the real bottom-line question, is what works best for students. You have got to figure out if in your context it’s better for the students.”
    I think this is a very wise thought. In your case I have the impression that the consolidation is better for the students – including your student tutors, even if that means loosing the name “writing center”.
    In my university we first had the writing center and then expanded the idea of peer tutoring to other contents. As a result, we now have peer tutoring for language learning, for general learning skills and learning strategies, for intercultural learning and for content learning. The peer tutor education program is based on the writing center model and all peer tutors go through one part of the peer tutor education program all together. This helps with community building and also with making use of the different offers. For example, peer tutors can collaborate with language learning peer tutors when students write in a foreign language and need additional support with language learning strategies. However, our writing center is still existing by the name “writing center”. As writing center it is now part of a larger unit, but still known as the writing center. I have to admit that I would feel uneasy with losing the name, too.

  6. Thanks, Bryan, for this informative post. It’s got me thinking about the relationship between collaboration and consolidation when working with campus partners. I’m learning that the two are more closely related than I had realized–in terms of both benefits and drawbacks.

    Glad to hear of your successes in this area. Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective.

  7. As for: “ending a writing center to enhance writing tutoring” – I think as long as learning writing is a form of learning, by definition I see no immediate reason a writing center could not be incorporated into a broader concept of learning center. In fact, asking a stupid but pertinent question: could there be a “learning” center bereft of all content? After all, you have to learn SOMEthing because learning always has an object (even meditation is quipped about as “being better than sitting around doing nothing”). So learning writing or learning to TEACH writing are all learning activities. I’m sure, even the dean learns something new everyday or he/she wouldn’t be in research. That being said and the “trend of consolidation” you mentioned one has to be circumspect in what merging any department with another entails. And here is where one cannot give a wholesale answer, ever: if, e.g. the former subject of a learning center was quite specialized, and the writing center was broad, or vice versa, then a merger might have complicated side effects. It is always best, and such I insists upon in consulting, to first have a(true, not embellished) mission statement for a department, then sit together and look at overlaps and differences. Make the overlaps a true merger and the differences, as much as possible, a synergistic win-win. Only if the latter are incompatible can you not merge.

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