Review essay: divergent ways of creating knowledge in writing center studies.
Rebecca Day Babcock, Kellye Manning, Travis Rogers, Courtney Goff, & Amanda McCain
Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter
Ellen Schendel & William]. Macauley, Jr.
Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers
Jackie Grutsch McKinney
Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice
Rebecca Day Babcock & Terese Thonus
It is encouraging to see four book-length studies devoted to scholarship in writing centers published within two years of each other, indicating that writing center professionals are beginning to answer the many calls to conduct research. As I approached these four books, I was curious as to what kinds of research would be represented. In "Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research: A Taxonomy of Methodologies," Kerri Jordan, Steve Price, and I (2011) charted the terrain of methodologies in writing center studies. In a land of Methodological Pluralism, we located three main hubs of Inquiry: Conceptual, Empirical, and Practitioner. Since its publication, the taxonomy has been applied in other writing center research. For example, Lauren Fitzgerald (2014) used it in her work, "Undergraduate Writing Tutors as Researchers: Redrawing Boundaries" and found it helped classify most of the articles in Young Scholars in Writing, except for the more rhetorically based textual analyses. So after reading the four research-centered texts reviewed here, I checked our map to see how well it accommodates the kinds of inquiry these researchers have undertaken or if we need to add a signpost or two. Before explaining my findings, I'll review the books.
A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring, 1983-2006
It took a dedicated team to create this synthesis. Applying grounded theory methodology to 62 studies (1) that comprise the data set for this project, professors Rebecca Day Babcock and Kellye Manning served as "expert readers," writing tutors Travis Rogers and Amanda McCain served as a semi-expert readers, and undergraduate Courtney Goff served as a naive reader. (2) The varied writing center experiences of these co-researchers/co-authors allowed for diverse perspectives when coding the journal articles, book chapters, conference paper, and dissertations that provided data for the study. To be included in the research, the literature had to meet clear criteria: report a qualitative study in the context of a post-secondary writing center, focus on tutoring, and generate primary data with clear articulation of methods and data analyses. The team trained for their task by reading extensively about grounded theory and qualitative synthesis, and they met weekly to compare coding of categorical terms. They sought to determine whether there is a theory that explains the framework of writing center tutorials, and if so, what it is.
Because this work work is the first book-length application of grounded theory to qualitative studies of writing center tutoring, the authors use the introduction and conclusion in part to educate readers about grounded theory methodology--its procedures, challenges, limitations, and value. In particular, this methodology employs writing to understand writing tutorials. Team members produced, shared, and discussed three kinds of memos--analytic, theoretical, and operational. They wrote analytic memos to code concepts of what they saw happening within tutorials and later to identify categories of what they were seeing across the various studies regarding tutoring; they used theoretical memos to begin theorizing their observations; and they constructed procedural memos to govern team operations (p. 10). (3)
Emerging after years of work, the overall findings may strike the reader as somewhat anticlimactic. That grounded theory methodology produces theory that seems commonplace maybe shouldn't surprise us since it builds on studies with which we are likely to be familiar. Its value comes more from confirming through close reading of the research what we may have already intuited. Thus, what Babcock and co-researchers claim to be the process that underlies any tutorial is apt to ring true for readers:
Tutor and tutee encounter each other and bring background, expectations, and personal characteristics into a context composed of outside influences. Through the use of roles and communication they interact, creating the session focus, the energy of which is generated through a continuum of collaboration and conflict. The temperament and emotions of the tutor and tutee interplay with the other factors in the session. The confluence of these factors results in the outcome of the session (affective, cognitive, and material), (pp. 11-12)
The words and phrases I've bolded are addressed in separate chapters as the categories that emerged from the grounded theory methodology. They are defined and linked to the various studies in the data set that generated them. Within each of the seven categories are subsets of characteristics or activities that help define it.
An extended example will illustrate how the co-authors present their study. Chapter 5, "Roles," reveals that, despite writing center lore, tutors do not restrict themselves to nondirective interactions with tutees. Rather, ten roles emerge from the data: (non-)direct, (non-) confrontational, taking charge, active/passive, (non-)authoritarian, "gendered" approach, power, resistance, teacher/peer, and (in)sincerity. What the study generates is thick description of the complexities of tutoring, leaving the reader to question the often repeated platitudes found in tutor training sessions and writing center conversations such as ask more than tell, let the student lead the conference, or never hold the pencil. Chapter 5 ends, as each categorical chapter does, with a bulleted summary of the main points gleaned from the critical reading and coding. But as part of their role as educating readers new to grounded theory methodology, the authors should probably have bolded and inserted the cautionary endnote to Chapter 2 before every chapter summary: "These summaries are based on the results of our synthesis and are accurate according to our grounded theory analysis. We make no claim to their being generalizable to all contexts, but these are the findings as they emerged from our study. We offer them as a courtesy to the reader" (p. 26). I have added the italics to emphasize what I predict some readers, in a singular quest for tutoring advice, will ignore: Findings that emerge from this application of grounded theory methodology provide a descriptive framework of what happened during the writing center tutorials reported in the qualitative studies being analyzed; the findings are not a set of prescriptive guidelines for tutors. Theory does not dictate practice.
Once the research team determined categories and articulated theory about how tutors and tutees interact, they turn in the final chapter to other, more recent studies and popular theories (such as Marysia Johnson's  theory of co-construction and applications of Lev Vygotsky's  Zone of Proximal Development) to see if and how well their theory of writing center tutorials fits these popular theories related to second language acquisition and learning theory, respectively. In nearly every case, they find supporting evidence (although, of course, they have no obligation to report literature that did not endorse their theory since no attempt was made to be inclusive).
In the end, A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring provides writing center scholars with a resource for identifying future inquiries. For example, the studies forming the data set for this research are roughly 10-30 years old. What have qualitative studies on tutorials conducted in the last decade contributed to writing center knowledge that might revise the theory presented here? Or, considering that most studies of online tutorials conducted between 1983-2006 examined asynchronous tutorials, greatly altering the face-to-face tutorial processes, how does the ease of online synchronous tutoring today change the dynamics of the tutorial? Or, why, when we read the list of emotions that characterize tutorials (frustration, fear, guilt, confusion, and comfort), is only one of them positive? Where is the joy in tutoring or learning?
At times, readers may find the book tedious as the authors summarize study after study that contribute to category formation; other times readers may wish for a fuller abstract of the studies included in the synthesis to gain more contextual information, such as how many tutors and tutees took part in a study. Overall, A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring, 1983-2006 makes a better reference book for tutorial topics of interest than a cover-to-cover read.
Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers
Whereas the authors of A Synthesis use grounded theory methodology inductively--coding a data set of scholarly literature, identifying concepts and then categories, and finally arriving at a theory of writing center tutoring--Jackie Grutsch McKinney (2013) in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers works with narrative theory to take a deductive approach. And like the authors of A Synthesis, Grutsch McKinney seeks to educate her readers about her choice of research methodology. She applies narrative theory to deconstruct what she calls the grand narrative of writing centers: Writing centers are comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing (p. 3). It is the story that she believes most writing center administrators and tutors would tell when asked about the spot on campus where they work. (4) Yet, according to Grutsch McKinney, such a simple story belies the complexities that characterize writing center activity. "The effect of the writing center grand narrative can be a sort of collective tunnel vision," she explains. "The story has focused our attention so narrowly that we already no longer see the range and variety of activities that make up writing center work or the potential ways in which writing center work could evolve" (pp. 5, 6). The remaining book chapters then tease out the threads of the grand narrative, examine them in light of writing center scholarship, and enable the reader to understand how the narrative represents and misrepresents writing centers and work done there.
Two full reviews of this text have recently appeared in writing center literature: one by Jeremy Smyczek (2013) in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal and another by Daniel Sanford (2014) in WCJ. Smyczek appreciates the book's "clear initial focus," but finds that the "ensuing chapters accomplish mixed success, often struggling to present compelling evidence for the case or forcing examples in the author's preconceived theoretical notions" (p. 1). Sanford's review is more positive, although he questions why Grutsch McKinney favors narrative theories from a literary tradition while ignoring possible applications of the cognitive concepts of schemas and scripts from cognitive theory. He also challenges the usefulness of a listserv survey to get at "people's unconscious assumptions" (p. 127). Rather than summarizing Peripheral Visions a third time--both reviewers give thorough overviews--I want to focus on where Grutsch McKinney leaves us at the end of her book.
In the last paragraph of her conclusion, Grutsch McKinney summarizes the problematic nature of the grand narrative: "It has obfuscated material realities, it has perpetuated subpar conditions for writing centers and writing center professionals, and it has restricted the subject of writing center theory and research too narrowly." For these reasons, she believes "the writing center grand narrative has outlived its usefulness. Now is the time for peripheral visions" (p. 91). Grutsch McKinney encourages readers to change the grand narrative by writing. Write our individual stories; tell how they deviate from the grand narrative; write the part that has been left out; draw peripheral pieces into focus. "If we don't dislodge the writing center grand narrative," warns Grutsch McKinney, "what we now conceive of as writing center studies is going to fracture" and "practices and theories ... will find another organizing structure to append to" (p. 90).
So, following her advice, I will provide a very short narrative of my writing center's story. In the 1980's, the LSU Writing Center (officially called a "Proficiency Lab") mainly served under-prepared writers in an open-admissions university. Budget cuts came along; the writing center closed. Admission standards were enacted; times got better; students still needed additional help with academic and professional writing. The writing center reopened to serve "all students." In 2010, LSU again suffered deep budget cuts; the writing center again closed. Demands for higher retention and graduation rates, however, required support services to ensure student success. And an award-winning Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) program needed a place for students to get help with discipline-specific communication projects. This time the writing center emerged as a space within the CxC Studio where students can get help with various projects related to written, spoken, visual, and technological communication, and where faculty can consult with studio coordinators about high-impact teaching practices that support communication-intensive courses. In other words, my writing center is now a vital part of a multiliteracy studio which is part of a program for communication excellence where students and faculty have access to workshops on writing and teaching writing. All is well for the time being. In short, my story is what Grutsch McKinney predicts may be the demise of writing centers.
What I see as enticing in my peripheral vision, however, Grutsch McKinney sees as looming shadows that may well "dominate and slowly subsume the writing center community" (p. 91). Why can't a new grand narrative include multiliteracy centers or centers for writing excellence, the two movements Grutsch McKinney singles out as eminent threats? But narrative theory cannot answer that question. Again, theory does not dictate practice. It is unfair of readers to expect practical advice from a study grounded in narrative theory, and it is inappropriate for Grutsch McKinney to suggest solutions. Some methodologies can only leave us with important questions to ponder; not all studies can provide answers. She can invite readers to share their alternative narratives, but then we'll need another study of those emerging stories to theorize a different representation of writing centers, perhaps one that can accommodate other kinds of centers concerned with improving writing.
Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice
Comparable to the previous two books reviewed, Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice introduces the writing center community to a relatively new orientation to research. Co-authors Rebecca Day Babcock & Terese Thonus, mine (their term) for "evidence" nearly 500 articles, books, and dissertations (5) in an attempt to use research to link writing center theory and practice. To justify their case for evidence-based practice (EBP), the co-authors review its roughly thirty-year history in such disparate disciplines as medicine, psychology and psychotherapy, speech and communication disorders, social work, education, and human resource management, before announcing, "Evidence-based practice is one cross-disciplinary research tradition we believe is highly applicable to studying what goes on in writing centers, because its outcome is informed practitioner decision-making" (p. 31). It is not entirely clear that their conclusion (at least not the adverb highly) is justified given that EBP has strong critics across disciplines. The controversies tend to center around these questions: "What types of evidence should be developed and how should they be weighted?" and "Who gets to decide what counts as evidence?" (p. 32).
Evidence-Based Practice seems best suited to disciplines that routinely conduct experimental, logical-positivist research (studies which can be subjected to meta-analyses) and in conditions where risk can be assessed and minimized. Thus, its applicability to writing center epistemology could be limited since very little experimental research is conducted in writing centers, and we are often more interested in having writers take risks than in minimizing them. Babcock & Thonus resolve this dilemma by accepting "arguments in favor of qualitative data as valid empirical evidence" (p. 27). They generate their evidence-based practice on data defined broadly as "either quantitative (numerical) or qualitative (descriptive)" and "collected to answer a specific research question" (p. 32).
The bulk of the book, chapters 3-6, follow roughly the same format: Major writing center issues (logistics of writing center space, staffing, and administration; interactions with "different" student populations; and tutoring practices) are further subdivided into related topics for which relevant research is summarized, creating a kind of extended annotated bibliography until finally "Recommendations for Practice" pop up. In this way, the reader is supposed to tie theory to research to practice. But the connections are seldom strong, sometimes broken, and in the end, fail to create a network of either rich research or clearly informed practice. An example from one chapter will illustrate the limited usefulness of EBP for writing center work.
Although the topic of Chapter 5, "Tutoring Activities," is key to effective writing center practice, it is only 10 pages compared to 20-35 for the other topic chapters. I was surprised that there would be much less research to report here on six subtopics--"Speaking," "Listening," "Reading," "Writing," and "Revision Talk and Meta Discourse"--than, for example, the single subtopic "Second Language Writers," in Chapter 4 on "Tutoring 'Different' Populations." With Chapter 5, as with the others, it is neither clear how the co-authors derived their topics and subtopics by which to categorize research nor is it evident what theoretical frameworks support the research. Any discussion of theory is cursory. Yet if EBP is to take us from theory to research to practice, readers need to know the theory that underlies the studies. The summaries do not include this kind of information or details such as number of subjects involved, type(s) of center, and other important contextual information.
Chapter 5 also references studies that generate the "Recommendations for Practice" so the link between research and practice is more obvious, but unlike with EBP in fields that build on numerous replicable research studies, some recommendations are supported by as few as one unpublished dissertation or a single article. For instance, one recommended practice is to "Encourage tutees to make revisions after the session rather than during it" (p. 120). However, this conclusion is based on a single study, a study in which professional tutors, not peer tutors, were the ones requiring tutees to make revisions later, in a study limited to one genre, one type of writing class. Should this evidence alter how tutors work? Babcock & Thonus embrace EBP "because its outcome is informed practitioner decision-making" (p. 31), but informed may well mean weighing the evidence of scant research against, and here I hesitate to say it, lore ("common sense, common knowledge, and common practice, based on experience and observations of others") and anecdotes ("personal experiences"), two kinds of non-empirically derived evidence that writing center scholars have discounted over the years in favor of data-based research from quantitative and qualitative studies (p. 32). My common sense and years of tutoring experience tell me that tutees often benefit from making some revisions during a session and taking notes about what else they want to do on their projects once they leave the session. Therefore, I won't advise the tutors I train to instruct tutees to wait to make revisions after the tutorial.
It seems to me that EBP depends on the quality and quantity of the evidence and informed practice, yet the authors say very little about how to weigh the evidence within the context of local practice. Instead, they offer plenty of "should" statements often based on scant evidence and sometimes call attention to the mundane backed up by multiple studies: "It cannot be stressed enough that tutors must listen carefully to tutees (Cardenas, 2000; Brown, 2008; Fallon, 2010)" (p. 120). Routinely, textbooks on research methodology warn that qualitative studies are seldom generalizable to different populations and settings. The co-authors seem remiss not to instruct practitioners to avoid adopting the recommendations for practice outright without first carefully reading for themselves the research that supports the practice and then just as carefully weighing the contexts of their local writing centers and the characteristics of their tutors and tutees before deciding whether to implement the practice in question.
While chapters 3-6 form the main focus of the book, much of the other material should have been eliminated or relegated to an appendix. After a brief overview of the text (except for no mention of Chapter 8), Chapter 1 is an eclectic discussion of various topics: assessment versus research, a definition of "writing center scholars," a summary of writing center scholarship since 1984, and the familiar call for more empirical research in writing center studies. Chapter 2 offers a long history of evidence-based practice, along with a discussion of "Research Ethics," including a reprint of the Nuremberg Code, a twenty-page overview of "Research Approaches and Data Gathering Techniques" and "Analytic Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative," the purpose of which is not clear. While some information seems relevant to the kinds of studies showcased in the coming chapters, the treatment is uneven. Two pages are devoted to case studies (highly relevant to writing center studies), while four pages are devoted to Speech Act theory, including a list of Paul Grice's "Maxims," a framework which the authors admit to having "reservations about using ... for writing center research" (p. 52). If the intent is to offer a brief handbook of research methodology for beginning readers of writing center scholarship, then putting the information in an appendix would better serve the purpose, leaving the reader with a text focused more clearly on EBP.
Likewise, Chapter 7, in which the authors model how to investigate a sample research question--"What is a Successful Tutorial?"--loses focus on EBP. After reviewing literature on what constitutes success, they report finding only two possible characteristics of a successful conference that have yet to be studied--"Identifying writing skills that are transferable to future projects" and "Creating incentives for instructors to refer more students to the writing center" (p. 68). Lest readers think that everything writing center practitioners need to know has already been researched, the concluding chapter proposes research questions that emerge from the previous chapters and suggests approaches and methodologies for answering them. A graduate student or writing center scholar seeking a research topic may find this list useful.
Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter
Why is a book on assessment included in a critical review of research-oriented texts? Because Ellen Schendel & William J. Macauley, Jr.'s (2012) resource, Writing Center Assessments that Matter, shows how conducting assessment as "a scholarly, knowledge-making activity" (p. xxi) not only can inform work in individual writing centers and their larger institutions but also can contribute to the field of writing center scholarship. They point out the gap "between research that studies writing centers and research that assesses them. These latter types of scholarship are appearing slowly and will continue to develop. By conducting assessment within our writing centers, we can both build on and build toward that developing scholarship" (p. 26).
The book's primary contribution is as a reference guide to thoughtful, meaningful programmatic assessment. The co-authors introduce themselves as assessment "consultants to our readers" and share their experiences--Macauley in writing centers with an interest in empowerment of student writers and Schendel in writing assessment in the broad contexts of social action, research, reflection, and rhetoric (p. xiv). Macauley tends to focus on moving assessment from the local writing center outward to the institution while Schendel moves from global connections with accrediting agencies and professional organizations back to local writing centers. They author chapters individually according to their particular strengths, with assessment experts Neal Lerner adding an interchapter and Brian Huot and Nicole Caswell contributing an afterword. Throughout the text, the authors stress that an assessment plan must be tailored to the locally contextualized writing center. All together the book is a confidence-builder, helping writing center directors (WCDs) see how "the best of tutoring aligns very nicely with the best of assessment" (p. xix). For less than $25 for the e-version, this book may be the best-spent consulting fee ever!
Chapter 1 on "The Development of Scholarship about Writing Center Assessment" and the twenty pages of "Annotated Bibliography for Writing Center Assessment" are must-reads for any Writing Center Director (6) seeking a crash course on assessment. Macauley shares advice on how to find assessment resources, including on-line assessment plans and even full reports to use as models. He categorizes three kinds of writing center assessment resources: (1) "context" pieces that "provide some sort of larger idea related to composition studies (loosely defined) that can support and inform writing center assessment"; (2) "connections" pieces that are literature "on what other fields and disciplines have to offer writing center assessment"; and (3) "methods" pieces, the most prevalent kind, "that demonstrate methods that would be useful for collecting information as part of a writing center assessment" (p. 7). By completing this "required reading"--or at least Macauley's literature review and abstracts--a WCD new to assessment will see that while he may feel isolated on the campus, there is a network of professionals who have much to offer from theories to procedures, which could help the novice assessor feel less like a powerless victim of upper administration's dictates and more like a reflective, strategic planner seeking to improve the writing center's operation.
Chapters 2 through 4 guide a WCD through assessment planning, beginning with identifying one's core writing center values that lead to assessable outcomes, then exploring how those values and outcomes mesh (or don't) with themes in the institutional mission, vision statements, and strategic planning documents. Once this local-to-global move is made, the WCD then learns how to reverse the process, moving from assessable outcomes endorsed by professional organizations (in the standards of accrediting bodies, for example, or in the Outcomes Statement for First-Year Writing published by the Council of Writing Program Administrators) to join "larger conversations about writing and higher education" (Schendel, 2012, p. 83). Foundational documents, such as the American Association of Colleges and University's publications on high-impact practices, are well grounded in research and help WCDs gain credibility as they link their center's goals for writing instruction to national ones.
Throughout these three chapters, the authors provide extended, specific examples of how assessment has worked in their own (very different) writing centers, sharing both mistakes and successes. Their intent is always to help other WCDs do the most good for their particular writing centers by working smarter, not harder. For example, the wisdom in consulting institutional documents to learn what broad goals have priority can help the WCD align her own focus and organization for assessment. Likewise, adopting the language of institutional documents for campus-wide concerns such as student learning outcomes can help set the tone and make writing center documents resonate with readers outside the center. Macauley likens this process to considering higher-order concerns before lower-order ones (p. 61).
Before readers consider methods for measurement, Lerner enters the conversations as a highly regarded guest. His brief interchapter, "Of Numbers and Stories: Quantitative and Qualitative Assessment Research in the Writing Center," offers WCDs familiar rhetorical advice: Consider external audiences, those readers of assessment reports beyond the writing center, when choosing what kind of data to collect for assessment purposes. The decision to use quantitative and/or qualitative data, he reminds us, is not one of "numbers versus stories, but instead [points to] a conflict in the fundamentals of knowledge making" (p. 109). Quantitative methodologies are more akin to scientific research with hypotheses stated upfront, variables controlled by randomization, and results interpreted through statistical analyses; qualitative methodologies, which are more common in composition studies, employ thick description and narrative interpretations, viewing data from multiple perspectives. WCDs may wish to use different approaches for different assessment purposes and audiences. A quantitative study might show that writing center tutorials significantly affect student performance, but a qualitative study would be needed to uncover how (p. 112). Upper administration might continue funding a center based on convincing quantitative data, but the WCD may need qualitative data to decide what approaches to continue using in the writing center to ensure success.
In Chapter 5, Schendel offers "Not Your Typical Methods Chapter" by focusing on "Integrating Assessment into Your Center's Other Work," continuing to help WDCs find "strategies for getting the work done efficiently" (p. 115) by collecting and analyzing data in methodologically sound ways that complement rather than interfere with the day-to-day work of a WCD and the center itself. She elaborates on the advantages of following four general strategies: "Start with the info/ data collection strategies and policies/procedures you already have"; "don't assess everything all of the time"; make assessment "fit with the many other goals you have in your writing center," such as "staff education, research projects, strategic planning, and tutor mentoring"; and, "ask for assistance from folks who have more expertise than you do" (pp. 117-124). Schendel then briefly describes data that might be gathered routinely and that which might be gathered periodically or only once. In general, the chapter offers more solid advice than step-by-step procedures for different methodologies. After all, how-to books aplenty exist on every data-gathering methodology she mentions, so the WCD can consult the literature and people on campus who have conducted such studies.
Schendel also authors the last chapter on how to write assessment reports that are meaningful and useful, suggesting that even a WCD can benefit from writing instruction. When it comes to audience analysis, she identifies three concerns that upper-level administrators are likely to have when reading: How does the report link to strategic planning, show a "commitment to continuous improvement," and indicate support of university-wide student learning outcomes? (p. 141). These concerns should be addressed in an engaging narrative of the center's work, although she admits that such a structure can be difficult if a WCD is compelled to use online report systems such as WEAVE or TaskStream, which can suck the life out of prose. (Sorry, those are my sentiments based on recent frustration with an online reporting system. Now, having read Schendel, I will return to my online entry to see if I can better use the background section to construct my narrative more persuasively.) Schendel demonstrates the practicality of her advice by reflecting on a recent assessment document she wrote, explaining how she might have written it more effectively. She concludes by reminding WCDs that assessment reports should in turn reflect strategic planning and perpetuate the cycle.
In the Afterword, "Translating Assessment," Huot & Caswell call the book a work of "assessment-translation discourse for writing center professionals" (p. 162). Schendel & Macauley have succeeded in helping WCDs to "understand assessment-related ideas, terms, and concepts" and to embrace a writing center culture that includes assessment (pp. 162, 163, 165). They have also helped readers see how assessment translates to research. Huot & Caswell explain:
Seeing assessment as research emphasizes that writing center professionals who formulate research/assessment questions are in charge of the assessment/research process. Writing center professionals are not just tutors or mentors, they are also researchers. Additionally, using assessment as an opportunity for research positions writing center professionals to be knowledge-givers and professionals who not only take part in professional conversations, but assume the role of setting research agendas and furthering the knowledge base for writing centers and other programs devoted to improving the teaching and learning of writing, (pp. 168-169)
Here Huot & Caswell echo Schendel's personal reasons for seeing assessment as a form of research when she explains "in my own life as a WCD and a faculty member responsible for research in composition studies, assessment becomes a primary means of unifying my scholarly and administrative lives--an important survival strategy" (p. 123).
Schendel & Macauley end the book with a co-authored "Coda" in which they again encourage WCDs to meet the challenges of assessment head on: "In short, assessment is work that takes time and expertise. Giving it plenty of the former allows for the latter. Take your time, ask for help when you need it, and don't let mistakes discourage you. And most importantly, learn to roll with the punches. The rewards are well worth it" (p. 173). The same could be said for research in general, as evidenced by all four texts reviewed here.
As I said earlier, I read these texts curious to know if the methodologies the authors use map onto the chart Jordan, Price, and I proposed in "Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research" (p. 81). In part because of the work of Joyce Magnotto Neff, we had included grounded theory on our map and predicted applications of the methodology, especially for studying social interactions. It is encouraging to see a book-length study that uses grounded theory because the logistics of this highly recursive, labor-intensive, collaborative methodology are so challenging. We also acknowledged the growing popularity of narrative inquiry with several book-length collections and journal articles appearing in the last decade. Evidence-based practice wasn't on our radar. If it had been, it would certainly have enlivened our discussion about what we finally called "Pragmatic Inquiry," a form of Practitioner Inquiry. We concluded that "For Pragmatic Inquirers, valid knowledge is useful knowledge: what is 'true' is what works best, what best solves the problem or best resolves the dissonance in a situation" (p. 61). The advantage with EBP is that the dialectic between research and practice is inherent with research shaping practice. What is not clear is how or if experience/practice can challenge, even negate, the research findings of qualitative studies. The question as to how and if lore can contribute to knowledge making deserves to be explored more fully. Finally, although we acknowledged that assessment is a kind of inquiry that uses multiple methodologies, we discussed it mainly as a justification for continuing to include "Experimental Inquiry" in our taxonomy despite the "dearth of Experimental Inquiry in writing center work in recent years" (p. 72). Having been persuaded by Schendel & Macauley about the importance of seeing assessment as research that uses whatever methodology best suits the need, I think my co-authors and I would handle the issue of assessment differently. As I see it now, assessment is one reason a WCD would consult the map in the first place, to learn what options are available for answering an assessment question with a strong research component.
Readers in the writing center community are bound to read and reference these four books for different purposes and in different orders than I have, but for me the benefit of reading them together has been to rethink the landscape of methodologies of writing center research. It's time to reprogram the GPS.
Babcock, R. D., Manning, K., Rogers, T., Goff, C., & McCain, A. (2012). A synthesis of qualitative studies of writing center tutoring, 1983-2006. New York: Peter Lang.
Babcock, R., & Thonus, T. (2012). Researching the writing center: Towards an evidence-based practice. New York: Peter Lang.
Fitzgerald, L. (2014). Undergraduate writing tutors as researchers: Redrawing boundaries. Writing Center Journal, 33(2), 17-35.
Grutsch McKinney, J. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Johnson, M. (2004). A philosophy of second language acquisition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Neff, J. M. (2002). Capturing complexity: Using grounded theory to study writing centers. In P. Gillespie, A. Gillam, L. F. Brown, & B. Stay (Eds.), Writing center research: Extending the conversation (pp. 133-148). New York: Routledge.
Liggett, S., Jordan, K., & Price, S. (2011). Mapping knowledge-making in writing center research: A taxonomy of methodologies. Writing Center Journal, 31(2), 50-88.
Sanford, D. (2014). Review of Peripheral visions for writing centers by Jackie Grutsch McKinney. Writing Center Journal, 33(2), 123-130.
Schendel, E., & Macauley, W. J., Jr. (2012). Building writing center assessments that matter. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Smyczek, J. (2013). Review of Peripheral visions for writing centers by Jackie Grutsch McKinney. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 11(1). Retrieved from http://praxis.uwc.utexas.edu/index.php/praxis/ article/view/167/html
Vygotsky, L. S. (1981). The genesis of higher mental functions. InJ. V. Wertsch (Ed. & Trans.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 144-168). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
(1) Terese Thonus, who wrote the preface to A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring, 1983-2006, counts 55 resources, the authors report studying 54, and the bibliography identifies 62. It seems odd in such a meticulous study that the sources of the data are not exact.
(2) Three other undergraduate writing tutors participated in at least part of the study, making this an exemplary model for engaging students in meaningful research. Schendel & Macauley also identified places where tutors can be engaged in undergraduate research connected with assessment (2012, p.123).
(3) Traditionally, the three kinds of coding in grounded theory research are called open, axial, and selective. If Babcock's team coded differently than what is usually done in grounded theory research, it would have been helpful to have them explain why and how. Otherwise, it would be better to use the same coding terms so that the writing center community learns the language of the research method.
(4) It is not clear how Grutsch McKinney comes to construct this particular grand narrative. Sometimes she draws support for it from writing center scholarship (secondary sources) and for the last part--writing centers tutor all students--she conducts an informal survey and builds on the responses. Perhaps if there were more wide-spread documentation that writing center directors and tutors agree that this narrative captures what writing centers are and do, her narrative might seem less constructed to fit her arguments.
(5) I was struck by how many unpublished dissertations were referenced in the four books reviewed here, not by the number of studies or variety of topics, but by the fact they remain unpublished. What can writing center professionals do to mentor young scholars to ensure their hard work reaches a wider audience?
(6) Since most likely the writing center director (WCD) is responsible for writing center assessment, I've assumed them to be the primary audience for this text. Certainly, however, other staff members, including tutors and student writers themselves, can have a voice in how a center is assessed.
Sarah Liggett is the Donald & Norma Nash McClure Alumni Professor in the Department of English at Louisiana State University where she directs the Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) program. CxC supports four multimedia communication studios campus wide, one of which houses the Writing Center, the site of her work with peer tutors. She earned her Ph.D. at Purdue University and is grateful to Muriel Harris for first mentoring her as a tutor.
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|Publication:||Writing Center Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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