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Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Murphy, Christina, and Byron L. Stay, eds. The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. 472pp.

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Andrea Muldoon

As the co-director of a brand new university Writing Center, I eagerly approached Christina Murphy and Byron Stay’s extensive edited collection, The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book, a rich and thoughtful assortment of essays that collectively illustrate the complexity and diversity of modern Writing Centers and the challenges and rewards faced by those who administer them. In the introduction to the text, Murphy and Stay characterize their collection as a guide to Writing Center professionals, noting that those who direct centers enact “multiple complex roles in being teachers, administrators, scholars, budget officers, technology coordinators, tutor trainers, and academic colleagues” (xiii). The result is a wide range of essays that are challenging to organize logically or coherently, something that Murphy and Stay openly acknowledge. The editors, therefore, employ a rather loose organizational scheme, dividing the 39 essays into two major sections: Writing Centers and Institutional Change, and Writing Centers and Praxis. The essays in the first section are meant to address more of the philosophical, managerial, and institutional challenges faced by Writing Center directors, and the essays in the second section are meant to address more “practical” administrative issues, including hiring, training, and drafting a budget. I found these two main categories to be somewhat arbitrary, however, as the essays in both sections seemed to speak to similar issues, both theoretical and practical.

The introductory essays are well placed as they offer an historical perspective and context for Writing Center administration. Neil Lerner’s essay is especially noteworthy in that he traces the historical marginalization and low status of Writing Center directors; he points out that as early as 1950, the CCCC was fighting to ensure that Writing Center administration was not considered a “penalty or second class activity” (8). Lerner believes that the historical struggles of Writing Center directors to “overcome the limits of staffing, funding, and attitude” is likely a “familiar story” to contemporary Writing Center administrators and is a connection with the past “that provides both a measure of comfort and an indication of the challenges that remain” (10). These challenges are most vividly demonstrated, perhaps, in the three case study essays by Pamela Childers, Michael Pemberton, and Kimberly Town Abels, that close the collection. All three essays address the daunting realities of taking over or starting a brand new Writing Center, a topic that I’m glad this collaboration explicitly addresses since for many of us, myself included, are employed at universities where, until recently, the “idea of a Writing Center” was, indeed, just that—an idea.

Although many essays in the collection offer honest and open accounts of the struggles and challenges of Writing Center administration, this is an optimistic collection that does not dwell on problems but solutions. While all of the essays in one way or another speak to Writing Center management, a handful of essays address the topic explicitly, in both philosophical and concrete ways. In their respective pieces, Pamela Childers and Kelly Lowe note the importance of strategic planning. Childers advocates devising a three-year strategic plan made up of long and short term goals based on the needs of the different stakeholders involved in a center’s success. To this end, she appends helpful planning documents to her essay designed to guide directors in drafting and revising their mission, budget, and professional objectives. Lowe argues that for effective strategic planning to occur, Writing Center directors “need to resist the temptation, often presented in Writing Center scholarship, that academic administration is somehow part of an evil empire that is ‘out to get’ Writing Centers and their directors” (72). This sentiment is forcefully echoed in later essays by Jeanne Simpson and Bruce Speck, both of whom draw upon their current positions as academic deans and their former roles as Writing Center directors to offer helpful strategies for directors when working and negotiating with upper administration. Speck points out that many new Writing Center directors are unprepared for such negotiation because their training as graduate WPA’s might have shielded them from “the politics and realities of higher administration” and that much Writing Center scholarship used in graduate courses promotes an “‘us vs. them’ mentality that pits faculty and students against administrators” (216). Simpson suggests that this “us vs. them” mentality often influences new directors to establish defensive, unproductive relationships with higher administrators. She notes that because many new directors assume that administrators see Writing Centers as mere “fix-it shops,” directors tend to “deluge them with theory and practice, while watching the listener’s eyes glaze over. Administrators don’t need to be experts on Writing Centers,” she argues, “They just need to know the basics” (201).

No doubt, one of the “basic” issues with that most upper administrators are concerned and an issue that often fuels animosity and suspicion between administrators and Writing Center directors is program assessment – an issue expertly addressed by Joan Hawthorne in her contribution to the collection. Instead of viewing assessment as some unfortunate mandate imposed on Writing Center directors by the powers that be, Hawthorne smartly urges directors to embrace program assessment, because in addition to pleasing upper administrators, it “allows us [as directors] to be intellectually honest in our own activities and to hold our work to the same standards as we would hold that of any other professional” (238). Hawthorne goes on to advocate and outline a clear model of outcome-based assessment, a form of assessment that allows directors more control and autonomy as it is derived from a center’s own situated goals and outcomes, not some hypothetical, mythical benchmark.

In addition to program assessment, directors must also make important decisions regarding the populations they will serve, the staff they will hire and train, and the range of services they want their centers to offer in light of their university’s structure, mission, and ethos. In fact, the majority of the 39 essays in the collection could be grouped within one of these three umbrella categories of “populations,” “staffing,” and “sites/services,” highlights from each of these categories to be discussed in the remainder of my review.

In terms of discussing the various populations Writing Centers serve, the collection offers individual essays on meeting the needs of graduate students, students with disabilities, and remedial/developmental writers. Regarding this last population, Dennis Paoli raises the interesting observation that in our quest to legitimize the status of Writing Centers within our universities and within the profession, we have somewhat backed away from our responsibility to developmental writers. He argues that while it is positive that Writing Centers have worked hard to overcome and outgrow their reputation as just “fix-it” shops, that “to go beyond” should not result in “leav[ing] behind” (170). In her contribution to the collection, Margaret Weaver questions the often unchallenged practice of “tracking” racially diverse populations in our centers. Weaver’s refreshingly candid essay is meant to pose some uncomfortable, difficult questions regarding the motivation behind tracking. For example, while she acknowledges that directors are often quick to use the results of such tracking as part of larger initiatives to secure funding for their centers, she writes: “If we are honest, then very few of us actually use these statistics to improve our services to better meet the needs of minority students” (89).

Given the wide range and scope of the collection, it does not offer an in-depth look at any of the special populations Writing Centers serve, and, in fact, it pays scant attention to two key populations that are increasing in numbers on many campuses—ESL writers and non-traditional, returning students. Nonetheless, the essays presented here remind directors that there is no such thing as a “generic” or even “typical” client – that training and services must be tailored to support the unique needs of diverse learners.

Not only is there no such thing as a “generic” Writing Center client, the collection illustrates that the same holds true for the Writing Center staff and tutors who are hired and trained to work in these spaces. In fact, the issue of who should be hired and trained in the first place is paramount for some authors. Steven Strang emphatically argues that centers should employ “professional tutors” who hold advanced degrees and specialize in one-on-one tutoring. Strang outlines several benefits he sees to hiring professional tutors, including more effective, efficient tutorials, less turnover, and increased prestige for centers on campuses (293). Helen Snively, Traci Freeman, and Cheryl Prentice agree that in centers designed to work with graduate students, professional tutors are most effective, given that such tutors have likely “designed and conducted research and have mastered higher levels of academic literacy in long papers” (155). Strangely, none of these writers acknowledge the practicality of hiring “professional tutors,” especially in terms of cost. Clearly, if these tutors are going to perform up to their full potential and remain employed in a center for years at a time, as Strang suggests they will, then they will need to be salaried, many centers will hardly be able to support or sustain.

While some centers, do, indeed, employ professional tutors and “faculty consultants,” (a position addressed in Michael Pemberton’s chapter), most university centers are staffed by undergraduate peer tutors. In fact, the notion of “peer tutoring” has become so commonplace in Writing Centers that none of the essays in the collection spends much time justifying the practice. Instead, authors tend to focus on the importance of hiring and training tutors and establishing respected and effective peer tutoring programs. For example, Paula Gillespie and Harvey Kail offer practical tips for directors who are asked to start or re-vamp existing peer tutoring programs. They present helpful strategies for combating common assumptions or fears that uninformed faculty might share about peer tutoring (e.g. that it is a form of cheating or that it is merely “the blind leading the blind”) (323).

Muriel Harris argues that a tutor-training course should not rely too heavily on training literature that can be a bit dry and generic. Instead, she urges directors to turn their training sessions into “macrotutorials,” in order to “let in some of the muddy reality of tutoring, the exploratory discussions that may lead down unexpected avenues” (302). In addition to developing strong training courses, Bonnie Devet urges directors to pursue certification for their peer tutor training programs through CRLA (College Reading and Learning Association). While Devet acknowledges the time commitment and challenges involved in adopting the CRLA standards, she ultimately believes that such certification can result in more effective tutoring and can be used “to articulate to faculty and consultants a lab’s professional status” (332).

The last group of essays I’ll address are those that explore the sites and locations where tutoring occurs and how different institutional cultures affect and impact a Writing Center’s services and management. Some authors argue that good Writing Center directors should not think of their centers as isolated sites, but should work hard to build alliances and relationships within the community (Christina Murphy), with freshman composition instructors (Ben Click and Sarah Magruder), and with university committees and offices that too often work behind the scenes drafting policies and penalties—on plagiarism, for example—that affect student writers (Rebecca Moore Howard and Tracy Hammler Carr). Other essays examine how Writing Centers might critically and effectively embrace technology to offer effective online and technology-based tutoring (Lisa Eastmond Bell and David Sheridan). Sheridan, in fact, argues that given the rise and demand for digital literacy, Writing Centers, in order to avoid becoming outdated or even obsolete, need to become “multiliteracy centers” and expand their mission and services to accommodate “other new media forms [that] communicate their message through the integration of words, images, and sounds” (341). Sheridan helpfully concludes his essay by modeling what a “multiliteracy” consulting session might entail.

I was especially glad to see the collection address the rewards and unique challenges posed by administering Writing Centers at various types of institutions, including those with multicampus settings (Amy Ward Martin), small liberal arts colleges (Byron Stay), and community colleges (Clinton Gardner and Tiffany Rousculp). The truth is, many first-time Writing Center directors, myself included, receive graduate WPA training at large, Research-I institutions that are very different than the institutions where they end up working. It seems that too often in Writing Center scholarship the large, highly funded and supported Research-I Writing Center is presented as the norm or the “ideal” to which all centers should aspire.

As I consider Murphy and Stay’s collection as a whole, its strongest feature is that it speaks to such a diverse population of Writing Center directors and professionals. This collection is a “must read” in graduate WPA training seminars and should be on the shelf of any Writing Center director, new or seasoned. Without a doubt, Murphy and Stay fulfill the ultimate goal that they lay out in their introduction of putting together a collection that “serves as a resource and a guide to future directions for the Writing Center, which will, no doubt, be called on to evolve in response to a myriad of new challenges that lie ahead” (xvii).

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