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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?