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Review of Marginal Words, Marginal Works? Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers.

Review of Marginal Words, Marginal Works? Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers. Ed. William J. Macauley Jr. and Nicholas Mauriello. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2007, 288 pp. Paperback, $27.50; Cloth: $65.

William J. Macauley Jr. and Nicholas Mauriello's excellent collection, Marginal Words, Marginal Work? Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers, serves as a road map and a how-to manual for writing center directors who are ready to shed marginalization as an identity, and is especially helpful for new directors who may rush into collaborations without considering the details of what can go wrong, or how to manage success. The issues tackled in this collection are ones that concern writing center directors everywhere--whether veterans or newcomers--as we move from the margins of our institutions toward the center. Each chapter documents a specific context in which a writing center has successfully met our common challenge of engaging the academy's assumptions about what a writing center is and does. This sort of discourse, on mentoring our colleagues, on working with them and not in opposition to them, and negotiating the pitfalls of these relationships is just the kind of coaching a new director needs as she begins to try to grow her center. My first steps as new director were to try to build cooperative relationships. However, when a writing center forms alliances with other parts of the university, when it collaborates on the projects of others, it risks a little of its identity. We may see only the potential benefits of these collaborations at first, and not be able to anticipate the pitfalls.

The closely-connected themes of communicating identity and mission, of negotiating risky collaborations, and of managing post-marginalization success stand out as most useful to me. When I came into the director's role at my institution, I had come to writing center work as a longtime adjunct instructor, and so the margins of academia were familiar territory. I wanted to build a writing center that was at the "center" of the university. As the editors of this collection note, marginality has allowed writing centers to create an identity somewhat separate from the academy. We know that our focus on collaboration, on peer mentoring, on the centrality of writing for learning, and on the situatedness of writing instruction are valuable, but we must communicate our values to administrators, students, and faculty across the disciplines, and must tell our own stories in ways that our audience(s), those who fund us and those who send their students to us--will understand.


One of the book's most useful features is that it demonstrates how a writing center can create its image and communicate about its work by exporting its methods and by attracting new populations, allowing the campus community to experience what a writing center does. In Chapter 5, "Writing Ourselves into Instruction: Beyond Sound Bytes, Tours, Reports, Orientations and Brochures," Muriel Harris outlines a workshop method she uses to help faculty outside of rhetoric and composition to appreciate not only the complexities of the writing process, but also the value the writing center's individualized approach . By encouraging faculty to see the similarities between their own writing processes and those of their students in her workshops on teaching writing, Harris helps them to appreciate the value of the writing center in ways no promotional campaign could accomplish. Jill Gladstein in Chapter 13," Quietly Creating an Identity for a Writing Center," says, "a writing center educating others on its potential value must first assess its present value within the context of the college community and culture and then create opportunities to educate the community on what it learns from this assessment" (228). She presents a case study of how her center "evolved from an underutilized resource to one of the central influences on the writing culture of the college" (212) by assessing the program she had inherited, creating a rigorous tutor-training course, and using the trained tutors themselves as her "sales force" for a writing culture on campus (235). Her campus adopted writing across the curriculum, and Gladstein offered workshops to disciplinary faculty on teaching writing in the writing center, which fostered and strengthened the culture of writing on campus (237). She says, "We have quietly reestablished ourselves from a single room where students go for assistance on their papers to a program that has a symbiotic relationship with the overall writing program and the culture of the college" (242). Derek Owens shows in Chapter 9, "Two Centers, Not One," how he changed the remedial "literacy servants " (155) image of his writing center by responding to the intellectual needs of creative writers and staging a coffeehouse-like atmosphere, a "cultural center" (156). His writing center became a hub of creativity and discussion by hosting arts and cultural events to attract the wider campus community. He says, "I'm not suggesting that we simply adopt autonomous zones, heterotopias, or third spaces as comparable metaphors for our writing centers ... But each of us can examine the architectural, geographical, social, curricular, and administrative realities of our own writing centers and expand, if possible, our mission beyond the culture of service--to be sure a tremendously important and undeniable component of who and what we are, but not the entirety of what a writing center might aspire to be" (161).


Many of us have tried to build connections by allowing our tutors to become part of our colleagues' classes in various ways. What happens to our autonomy when we work in a classroom setting? What happens to our credibility when we venture outside the composition program? Have we cast ourselves even further into the "service" model? Are the risks of these collaborations worth the benefits? In Chapter 2, "Exporting Writing Center Pedagogy: Writing Fellows Programs as Ambassadors for the Writing Center;" Carol Severino and Megan Knight describe how undergraduates in the Honors Program take a pedagogy course and are assigned in small teams to classes across the disciplines. They function as "ambassadors" for the writing center for both students and faculty and help to dispel myths that seeking feedback is "remedial" (27). The authors show how the Writing Fellows Program has a "ripple effect" that "helps spread the Writing Center's practices and processes across campus" (29). The visionary hope is to have a university culture that is very much like a writing center, in that faculty and students would use the sorts of writing and responding strategies a writing center would suggest (31). In Chapter 7, "Risks in Collaboration: Accountability as We Move Beyond the Centers Walls," Jane Cogie, Dawn Janke, Teresa Joy Kramer, and Chad Simpson illustrate how tricky classroom collaborations can be, how much preparation is involved, how much cooperation must be solicited prior to class visits, and how important ongoing assessment is to the effort. Linda S. Bergman and Tammy Conrad-Salvo reaffirm the value of ongoing dialogue in collaborations in Chapter 11 "Dialogue and Collaboration: Writing Lab Applied Tutoring Techniques to Relations with Other Writing Programs." The authors detail their collaborations with the First-Year Composition Program and the Professional Writing Program and conclude, "Writing centers have the potential to shape writing instruction at their respective institutions but can best realize this potential if they work in conjunction with other writing programs instead of in opposition to them" (195). In Chapter 8, "Inside Looking Out: Trading Immediate Autonomy for Long-Term Centrality," Crystal Bickford notes that it is not easy to provoke and maintain faculty interest in and support of the writing center without sacrificing some independence (136). She describes how tutors integrated themselves into classroom instruction in cooperation with faculty by visiting classes, conducting workshops and seminars based on faculty requests, and offering review and study sessions. These tutor-led activities encourage faculty-tutor contact and faculty interest in the writing center (140-42). Bickford notes that tutors and faculty even make conference presentations together in the faculty member's subject area, and the faculty members come to writing center conferences to learn about writing center methods (147). The bonds we form by allowing our tutors to work alongside faculty seem well worth risking some immediate autonomy.


When a writing center makes itself an integral part of university life and culture, unexpected outcomes follow. Demand may exceed our ability to provide help, and our very success may be interpreted as a problem. In Chapter 14, "Encouraging or Alarming?" Jill Fey shows that even when we are able to keep up with increased demand, we may be misunderstood by those who fund us. When Fey sent her semester report to her administration, her President responded with a note labeling the increase in writing center usage "alarming," and asking her to explain it (247). The President saw the upward trend in writing center usage as alarming because he understood the writing center as a place only for underprepared first-year writers who needed "remediation." Changing her reporting style, Fey listed some of the "encouraging" reasons students would come to the writing center in greater numbers: more writers voluntarily learning more about their writing, at all levels; faculty assigning more writing, and applying more rigorous standards; students drafting and revising more (249). She says, "increasing student usage by itself may not be enough to show a writing center's contribution to academic life" (249). She demonstrates that we need to align our objectives with what our administration values, and then make sure we communicate how we meet those objectives, in formats that they will understand. "What was our writing center doing that our administration valued, that was part of the college's mission, and how could we emphasize our services in that area?" (250). She explained how participating in writing center work would allow students to answer questions on the National Survey of Student Engagement much more favorably (249), something any college administrator would be happy to see. For me, this is the most valuable lesson in the book. It is not enough to do the work; we must help people at the center of campus life and in the community outside campus to see value in what we do. Assessment will be, perhaps, the most important new conversation we will have as a field. A new director learns the lessons of post-marginalization by trial and error, trial and success. This collection is like having a strategy huddle with experienced directors. That they may be at completely different sorts of institutions with completely different cultures does not matter, because writing center goals are remarkably similar. We have a unique identity forged on the margins of the academy--rather like adjunct instructors. The chapters encourage us not only to "dream big," but also to proceed with awareness and caution, and to attend carefully to our many audiences in the academy. When you realize that you have value and you want others to recognize it too, then you must engage with the forces at the center. In an ethical collaboration, everybody "wins." This book is the hopeful story of how everyone can win.

Reviewed by Jeanne Smith (Kent State University, Kent, OH)
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Author:Smith, Jeanne
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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