Won’t You Be (More Than) My Neighbor? Writing Center/Library Partnerships

Writing Center Workshops, Writing Centers / Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

By Heather James and Rebecca S. Nowacek

Rebecca (left) and Heather (right) inside the Ott Memorial Writing Center
Rebecca (left) and Heather (right) inside the Ott Memorial Writing Center

Heather is a Research & Instruction Librarian at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries. She works to develop and promote information literacy instruction for courses and is the liaison for the departments of Biology, Biomedical Science, Chemistry, and English. She also holds an MFA in Poetry from San Diego State University.

Rebecca is the Director of Marquette University’s Ott Memorial Writing Center and an associate professor in the Department of English.   She’s also a former grad tutor and Assistant Director of the L&S Program in Writing Across the Curriculum at UW-Madison.

When a writing center is located inside of a library, it can be easy to feel like a renter: an interloper in someone else’s space rather than a partner in building and inhabiting that space.  And it can be a challenge to develop professional relationships that shift this feeling.  Here at Marquette, we feel lucky.  That “we” is both of us—Rebecca (the writing center director) and Heather (a research and instruction librarian).  Our jobs are busy ones—intellectually demanding and constantly in motion—but over the years we have developed a relationship that allows us to rely on each other, share the load, make each other laugh, and be our best professional selves.  People often speak colloquially of their “work spouses” and we’re happy to report that our “marriage” is three years strong.

The focus of our post is the ongoing and deeply rewarding collaboration that has emerged between the writing center and the library at Marquette University: it began as a somewhat impromptu bit of cooperation based on an idiosyncratic personal connection, but has grown into a collaboration that informs in very deep and often ambitious ways our ideas about how both of our programs can continue to grow within our university community.  We recognize, of course, that there’s a fair amount of scholarship on the relationships between writing centers and libraries—both published (O’Kelly, Garrison, Meyer, & Torreano; Elmborg and Hook) and unpublished (we’ve attended panels at the International Writing Centers Association, Conference on College Composition and Communication, Association of Research Libraries, and LOEX); the common motive in these publications and presentations is to share the structures of and conditions for successful collaborations.  We’re hardly the first to experience such a positive collaboration and while we won’t make the claim that what we’ve experienced is unique, we aim to share in this post the circumstances that have fostered our collaboration, the forms this collaboration has taken, and the ways in which this collaboration influences how we think about the future of both our programs.

Our Context

The hallway to the Ott, nestled in a corner of the Ott
The hallway to the Ott, nestled in a corner of the Ott

Marquette’s Ott Memorial Writing Center hasn’t always been located within the university library.  For many years, the writing center was located in a building on a far corner of campus, shared with the speech pathology clinic. When the university opened the new Raynor Library in the center of campus in 2003, the writing center was granted a prime piece of real estate on the second floor, near the student computer labs and study areas.  Administratively, the writing center doesn’t report to the library (but instead through the College of Arts and Sciences), but geographically the writing center is very happily nestled into the same corner as the offices for Raynor’s research and instruction librarians.

More personally, Rebecca began at Marquette in 2001 as a faculty member in the English Department; when I became director of the writing center in 2011, I packed up my things and moved into a lovely office located inside the writing center—and thus inside the library.  Although I’d been at the university for a decade, moving into the library meant building new relationships and friendships: every morning, I now walk through the turnstiles and wave to the folks staffing the circulation desk; when I need to use space for a workshop, I rely on the library’s facilities and tech support; when I need to make copies, I shuttle up to the third floor to use the machine in the Dean of Libraries’ office.  During my first year as director, I was happily settling into the new social space of the library.  But it wasn’t until Fall 2012 that I started to recognize the ways in which the librarians could be my partners as well as my neighbors.

Heather took the circuitous route to becoming a librarian and had previously worked in writing centers and as an adjunct composition instructor. So as a librarian, I’ve always thought there were great opportunities for librarians to collaborate with writing centers and writing programs, bringing information literacy to the table. As a subject liaison librarian for Biology, Biomedical Science, Chemistry, I aim to be the “one-stop” contact for the departments’ faculty and students in any of their information seeking and access needs. In line with my previous work, though, I’m most excited and interested in working closely with courses to incorporate information literacy into the curriculum. When I came to Marquette in 2012, I had a personal recommendation from a former colleague to seek out Rebecca, and it was the beginning of a beautiful thing.

A Variety of Partnerships

Our work together over the past several years has been, if we’re honest, largely a matter of kairos, responding to a number of (often unexpected) opportunities.  At the beginning Rebecca asked Heather to collaborate on a single 75-minute workshop in response to student demand; we were then paired to work on a project by the university administration—who saw an overlap between our areas of expertise.  Since then, we’ve become more proactive, working together to conduct teaching outreaches in classrooms across campus—a step that has helped the writing center’s writing across the curriculum work grow by leaps and bounds.

Getting started: Collaborating on workshops

Rebecca and Heather leading a consideration of research and writing lit reviews

Our collaboration started modestly enough.  During the Fall 2012 semester, Rebecca was rolling out a series of workshops for writers—one of which was “Writing Effective Lit Reviews.”  She began the workshop by asking writers if they had any particular questions; five of the six students came hoping to learn more about research strategies: how to get started, how to know if they had found the best research, how to know when they had enough.  Her heart sank as she realized how ill prepared she was to answer those questions.  Her first thought after leaving that workshop was that she needed to tap the wisdom of her neighbor librarians, so she emailed her new acquaintance Heather to ask if she might be willing to help revise and maybe even co-lead the next iteration of the workshop.  Heather was game.

We revised the workshop, advertised it as being co-led by the writing center director and a research librarian, and had nearly 40 people packed into the room.  The feedback we received was full of praise and this workshop continues to draw large registrations every single semester.  Clearly, we’d found a niche of writers who already felt how intertwined their writing, researching, and reading processes were.  Nudged into collaboration by the grad student writers of lit reviews and encouraged by our success, we continued in this modest vein until our next big collaborative project: an academic integrity tutorial.

Gaining momentum: Co-authoring the academic integrity tutorial

In Spring 2014, we were asked to co-author the online tutorial on academic integrity that would be required of all undergraduate students.  We were tasked with covering issues of plagiarism, paraphrase, cheating, misrepresentation of credentials, falsifying data, and general ethical conduct in a catchy 60-minute format.

During the process we learned that both the writing center and the library have similar challenges in the university.  Too often, our colleagues and administrators see writing instruction and information literacy as contentless and contextless, as a skill to be acquired at one point in time and then simply applied subsequently.  In contrast, we found camaraderie as we discussed our work as a process of helping students develop richer understandings of information literacy and of writing—to help students see themselves as acquiring knowledge and strategies that may be used, but must often be adjusted and repurposed, as they enter into new contexts.

Two themes, key to both our areas, emerged as we worked.  First, the processes of finding, using, and attributing information (broadly defined) are subtle and complex.  It was easy to address the most basic expectations of academic writing and say that violating them can bring trouble—but these expectations are variable and can’t easily be codified into a short list of do’s and don’ts for an hour-long tutorial.   For instance, we drafted a nuanced discussion of paraphrase that included many examples as well as a distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement.  Second, we agreed that students’ choices around issues of academic integrity are wildly contextual and impacted by many variables including the course design, the writer’s legacy of schooling and cultural expectations, and their levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.  For this reason, we were united in advocating an approach that worked to understand and address the reasons student choose, for example, to cheat on exams, rather than taking a “just say no” approach.

In the end, this project threw into relief for us how very much in synch those of us working in the writing center and in the library are when it comes to engaging writers in the complicated processes of researching, writing, and revising. The process was foundational for us.

Reaching out, together: Co-teaching in classrooms

As we began this most recent academic year (the third year of our collaboration) we began to see opportunities for partnership everywhere–particularly in the synergy between Heather’s work as a liaison librarian and Rebecca’s desire to reach more writers beyond FYE.  Marquette University does not have a formal writing across the curriculum program, but our partnership has helped the Ott build an emergent WAC program in three specific ways.

First, we have taken our partnership into classrooms.  At the request of a colleague in psychology, we have undertaken a model of instruction that is new on our campus.  Namely, we transformed our 75-minute, one-shot lit review workshop into ongoing, scaffolded instruction within a classroom throughout the semester.  This approach—which involved us visiting the classroom individually and together at least five times during the semester—consciously drew on and integrated our separate areas of expertise.  The feedback from the instructor and the students showed positive impacts of our joint inclusion in the course.

Based on that experience, we were inspired to launch a second innovation: a new Course-Embedded Tutors (CET) program.  In many ways our program is modeled on the Writing Fellows program at UW-Madison (which Rebecca observed and occasionally helped with as a grad tutor)—but it also crucially builds on the Embedded Librarian (EL) program that Heather has been forwarding since 2012.  This EL program, like many others across the country, moves away from the one-shot “field trip” or guest speaker approach and towards more extended co-teaching.   Spring 2015 has been the pilot semester of the CET program; because this cohort of CETs is the first at our university, Heather is their go-to resource for what it’s like to be embedded in a class.  We’re developing a system that coordinates the work of the embedded librarian and embedded tutors—sequencing feedback, being in communication about what students are struggling with, trying when possible to use common vocabulary and to prompt writers to make connections to previous conversations and drafts.   Not only has our Embedded Tutor / Embedded Librarian collaboration been a tremendous advantage to the CETs who benefit from Heather’s experience, we find it also helps our writers experience more clearly the ongoing interrelations between research and writing.

Finally, we’ve brought our collaboration back into the writing center by offering co-consultations with writing tutors and a librarian during a single “writing center” conference.  Specifically, through Heather’s liaison relationship with the Department of Biology, the instructor of a grad level epigenetics course has committed his students to a semester-long research and writing project.  Working in groups of 4-6, these grad students have met repeatedly, as a group, with both Heather and a writing center tutor.  Piloting these joint consultations with small groups of highly motivated, advanced students has given us an ideal environment to test-drive the types of collaborative and integrative pedagogies that we hope will become increasingly central to the work of both our programs.

Looking Forward: Scaling Up to Make the Personal Systemic (and Sustainable)

As our descriptions no doubt make clear, Marquette’s writing center benefits enormously from Heather’s seemingly boundless energy.  And to some degree the depth and the scope of our collaboration is made possible by our personal connections: we like each other, we work well together, our offices are just across the hall from each other which makes all sorts of impromptu conversations and spot-checking possible.

But we’re mindful that we need to build a program that runs deeper than one person’s energy or one friendship.  At this moment, we’re looking forward and working to build deeper connections not just between the two of us, but between our programs.  We’re just getting started on this stage of our collaboration, but we’ll conclude by sharing some of our ideas on how to distribute our points of connection more broadly.  Perhaps some readers will find these helpful as they consider how to build and sustain collaborations on their own campuses; perhaps some readers will have suggestions to offer us based on their own experiences.  We welcome all of your feedback in the comments.

  • Making the connections between the writing center and the library visible to others in modest ways.  We’ve already begun to act on some of these: to put links on each other’s websites, to have on hand each other’s informational and promotional materials, to have available a handout that lists each department’s liaison librarian (so that tutors can more readily point writers to “their” librarian).
  • Making the connections between the writing center and the library visible to members of our own staff.  Increasingly we’ve come to believe that these steps–which are less about PR and more about investing our time and money to develop deeper understandings of what each other does–will be the most important step towards a collaboration that’s institutional rather than just the result of a personal friendship.  Here are some of the things we’ve done so far.
    • Every tutor has at least one individualized 30-minute research consultation.  Not only does this ensure that every tutor knows about this service that our research librarians provide (which they can recommend to other writers), it also gives tutors a chance to get to know a particular librarian.
    • Conducting at least one joint staff meeting a year.  We held our first one this January, and the post-session survey suggests it was an unqualified success.  To a large degree this first joint meeting was informational, but we also used the time to have groups of librarians and tutors working together; they generated potential solutions for shared problems and, importantly, got to know each other.  Personal connections, as we know, are crucial.
    • Incorporating disciplinary liaison librarians into ongoing writing center professional development.  Our writing center holds a weekly staff meeting; each semester we focus on a particular topic.  During the Spring 2015 semester, we’ve focused on writing in the STEM disciplines; Heather has regularly participated in writing center staff meetings, sharing her experiences and advice—but her presence also serves as a regular reminder to the staff of how valuable the expertise of librarians is.  We hope to expand this model next semester, with a focus on responding to multimodal projects and inviting the regular presence and expertise of the librarian who leads the library’s Digital Media Studio.  Choosing topics that tap into the expertise of various members of the library staff will help the writing center staff get to know in extended ways more than one librarian.
    • Conducting research together. As part of our work in the CET program, we’re collecting data on writers’ citation and revision practices.  This summer we plan to involve some tutors as coders of student writing, inviting them to participate as co-inquirers into research on the effectiveness of our collaborations.
  • Making the connections between the writing center and the library visible to others in ambitious ways.  When we think forward to our long term ideal, we imagine a shared space akin to the model that’s been created by other academic libraries and writing centers (UCLA, Grand Valley State University, University of Washington) where services for writing and research consultations are not only co-located but can be accessed simultaneously. We envision a space on the main floor of the library, in the Learning Commons — furnished with moveable, re-organizable tables and chairs — where appointments and walk-in questions can be fielded by one or both of our staffs and where a question that starts with one consultant (writing tutor or librarian) can fluidly expand to incorporate the other as the need arises, without any additional hurdles for the writer. This ideal arrangement is not around the corner for us; it will require buy-in from multiple campus administrators and funding for space renovation. Most importantly, at the current moment such a drastic shift would likely be a major shock to both the librarians and the writing center tutors. So we hold it as a long-term goal and plan for the steps to move toward it while also staying open new and alternative ideas.
A peek inside Marquette's Ott Memorial Writing Center
A peek inside Marquette’s Ott Memorial Writing Center

Regardless of what form our collaborations take, physically or conceptually, we think that the partnership between library and writing center should continue to grow. That our programming and service, based on best practices in our respective areas, will naturally have significant points of intersection and commonality. So we aim to continue making our partnership clearer for the campus community and more intrinsic to our models of service. We aim for a model that ensures everyone knows that the writing center is not a border in the library but a housemate, not a renter of a room, but part of a family.

Works Cited

Elmborg, James K. and Sheril Hook, eds.  Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration.  Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2005.  Print.

O’Kelly, Mary, Julie Garrison, Bryan Meyer, and Jennifer Torreano. “Building a Peer-Learning Service for Students in an Academic Library.”  portal: Libraries and the Academy 15.1 (2015): 163-182. Web.


13 Replies to “Won’t You Be (More Than) My Neighbor? Writing Center/Library Partnerships”

  1. Heather and Rebecca,

    I so appreciate your work in representing library and writing center partnerships and in highlighting how collaboration can strengthen the work we do. It’s great to see you both here and to learn a little more about the work you’re doing on a day-by-day basis! So happy to work with and alongside you both!


  2. Congratulations to you both on embarking on this ambitious project. As one who started on this path almost 20 years ago and is only now completing the first 10 years of the “honeymoon” stage, I have the greatest respect for the challenges this poses. Among the biggest and most important are the ways in which we, as librarians, have been pushed to find ways to assess what we’re doing. Instead of logging meaningless numbers of interactions constructed around traditional “reference” questions, we now find ourselves in a new conversational mode, directed by student exploration and focused on their work and expectations. In the writing center, we are working directly with students at ALL stages of their work and can address issues like the appropriate use of sources, the shift of voice from sources to one’s own ideas, and how the whole panoply of information sources can be used to enrich almost any discourse. We are minimizing the number of “disembodied” research queries and are moving to position ourselves closer to curricula and to the capacity to more accurately measure our impact on student learning. I look forward to hearing more from this “marriage.”

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful and in-depth post. I am a librarian at the University of Washington’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library and — following our renovation in 2013 — we have joint research-writing help services through our Odegaard Writing & Research Center. Many librarians provide research help in the center, but also serve as writing tutors. This positively informs our work as librarians. It’s also been fascinating to learn from graduate and undergraduate tutors and the ways in which they support their peers. Our website has a link to a video recorded last year that describes the partnership: http://www.lib.washington.edu/ougl/writing-and-research.

  4. Oh man, a post by two of my favorite colleagues about two of my favorite things. \o/

    Here’s the bit that really resonated with me:

    Too often, our colleagues and administrators see writing instruction and information literacy as contentless and contextless, as a skill to be acquired at one point in time and then simply applied subsequently. In contrast, we found camaraderie as we discussed our work as a process of helping students develop richer understandings of information literacy and of writing—to help students see themselves as acquiring knowledge and strategies that may be used, but must often be adjusted and repurposed, as they enter into new contexts.

    YES. I’ve been thinking about this so much lately as I start thinking about a redesign of my FYC course and especially the information literacy components of that course — and also as the UMM WC starts preparing for a Writing Fellows-esque partnership with the Biology department.

    Mostly, though, this post just made me miss you both. Hmm…. maybe I need to come to Milwaukee for a visit while I’m on sabbatical next year. 😀

  5. I’m getting all kinds of good ideas for collaboration from your post, Rebecca and Heather! It is so true that writing instruction and information literacy are misunderstood in similar ways; we have much to gain by working together. For that reason, we have have strong collaborations on our campus between the writing center and the library, but there are ways that the relationship could be stronger. I love the idea of a joint staff meeting and ongoing work with librarians in writing center professional development. Why have we not done that?

  6. I’ve discovered as a writing center tutor and a teaching assistant that the research librarian visibility fostered by Heather and Rebecca has been invaluable to the writers I see. I cannot count on both hands, the number of times I have walked a student, during a conference, down to the research librarian’s desk, and helped orchestrate an impromptu research conference. It is another benefit of having the writing center located in the library, and perhaps one that will, in the long run, facilitate greater interaction between writing center clients and research librarians.

  7. As a former undergraduate tutor at Marquette (I started training in fall 2011 under the guidance of Rebecca Nowacek and Beth Godbee), I am excited and proud, but not surprised, to see the center growing so rapidly and creating such mutually beneficial partnerships across campus and between departments. The innovative collaboration between the Course-Embedded Librarian and the Course-Embedded Tutors stands out to me the most.

    These recent developments at Marquette, I think, should indicate to administrators that the writing center is a place not for remedial writing, but instead, a place where students learn how to enter into academic discourses through the acts of research and writing. I’m very proud to be a Marquette alum :). I look forward to seeing how the center’s partnerships continue to grow.

  8. Rebecca, thank you for this provocative post. At Indiana University Bloomington, our WC is also located in the main library–in the undergraduate Learning Commons–and we, too, have seen fruitful collaborations spring up. They are primarily for graduate students, however: monthly “Research/Write” workshops that pare staff from both offices; an annual “Kick Start your Dissertation Summer” conference that provides sessions on getting started with research questions, to setting up a reasonable daily writing plan, to writing strong grant proposals. We’ve learned a lot about writing-management software, too.

    However, I take your advice about making collaborations visible to the entire staff (not just those who are involved in our dissertation-related programs) and making sure WC and library staff (UG and grad) have the opportunity to interact with one another.

    I also applaud your plans to make your WC-UL connections visible in your new space as well; too often only we know how deeply connected our offices and services are. We still struggle to define our presence in our new space, however, and have real concerns about the WC losing its identity (our learning commons design does not afford any signs indicating that the space being used for writing tutoring is, in fact, a formal writing center with a solid pedagogy and ethos): do you anticipate the writing center qua writing center transforming into a different kind of service altogether?

  9. Thank you Rebecca and Heather for this insightful blog post. Collaboration is an integral part of the work we ask student consultants to do with their peers and so I love that this piece models how this work has lead to a partnership for the two of you. As I am embarking upon a relationship that will lead to collaborative work with our newly hired librarian I too want to come visit. Thanks.

  10. I really admire your on-going work, Rebecca and Heather. You have a beautiful physical environment, and now we know, it’s also a great collaborative space!

    We’ve “rented” (as you nicely put it) a library satellite site for 8 yrs. While nowhere near the extent of yours, we enjoy a helpful and amiable relationship with our librarians. We present at each other’s staff meetings (although probably not often enough), often refer writers back & forth, and disseminate the other’s info. but you make a strong case that so much more is possible. One of your suggestions seems immediately ‘do-able’ anywhere: Make our center library connections more visible–to staffs, to students, to campus-at-large–yes!

    I shared your blog with my colleague Molly, our wonderful ‘users experience librarian’. I’m thinking of ways to strengthen current connections and look for ways to forge more. Thanks for the inspiration!

  11. This was a fun post to read, as for several years now our writing center at Grand Valley State University has been collaborating to build a centralized space and services to offer writing, research, and speech/presentation support. The library hired a cohort of peer research consultants; the writing center supplies the writing consultants; and the speech lab provides presentation consultants.

    So far, the collaboration has been to offer services late into the night in this prime, main-floor, open, technology-rich space. I’m hoping some colleagues to whom I’ve forwarded a link to this blog post will also jump in and further connect with you.

    As you point out throughout your post: the linkages between the tutoring of writing and assisting with research are many and meaningful. It just makes sense for writing centers and libraries–both of whom have philosophies and missions related to access and inclusiveness at their core–to work together.

  12. Thanks for the mention! I loved reading about your experiences. As Ellen said, we have enjoyed a three-part collaboration between our library, writing center, and speech lab since 2012. Like you, we include liaison librarians in training our consultants and we make sure to have at least one all-inclusive meeting per year. Like the writing consultants, our research consultants go into classrooms (usually during open lab time) to assist students — but only accompanied by a librarian. And we, too, strongly encourage our consultants to use each other’s services in order to better understand the connections between research, writing, and oral presentations.

    Mary O’Kelly
    Grand Valley State University

  13. What a great approach to creating long-lasting and sustainable relationships between writing centers and libraries. This is crucial to making sure our students are successful. I hope to try to copy some of this at my own school.

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