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What's your frequency?: preliminary results of a survey on faculty and staff perspectives on writing center work.

What difference, if any, does the human resources category (staff, tenure-track or non tenure-track faculty) make to an individual's work practices? Our project attempts to answer that question. This work began in Spring 2010 during one of our weekly administrative meetings, while Michelle was Interim Director of the Writing Center at Drew University and Melissa was Coordinator of the WAC Program. Over soup and salad, our conversation turned toward the observation that, at times, we felt as if we were communicating on a different frequency than members of our staff were tuned in to; conversely, we sometimes felt that when our staff were speaking to us, we had a difficult time tuning into their thoughts and questions about our work.

We wondered if the different frequencies we were on--Michelle and Melissa on the faculty-administrator channel, our assistant director on the staff channel, and our peer tutors on the student-worker channel--were causing the static. In what ways, for example, might a staff member and a faculty member think differently of their writing center work? As scholars with professional interests in writing center work, we (Michelle and Melissa) acknowledged how much our work identities have been bound up with the writing centers we work in and the larger field of writing center research and scholarship. But, did it make sense--was it even really fair--to expect that everyone who worked with and for us felt the same way? After all, no matter how committed to the writing center's success the staff and tutors were, none of them expressed a desire to make a career in the field the way we did. For most of the people in our writing center, the work was a job: a way to pay bills, gain experience, help fellow students. These reasons for working in the writing center were legitimate and reasonable; we had a great staff. But as faculty who conducted academic research on writing centers, we realized we may see our writing center from a very different standpoint than our staff. What relationship might there be between a job classification and the amount of time a director spent in the center or on campus each week? Would we see differences in where staff or faculty completed most of their work? How might misperceptions about the nature of our work correlate with misperceptions of an individual's educational background, position in the university, or duties? In short, how might HR designations act to organize the work of writing centers?


In Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People, sociologist Dorothy Smith suggests that individuals' positions in organizations cause them to participate in the institution in particular ways. For Smith, this standpoint arises out of the interplay between the material conditions of an individual's work (for instance, where she conducts the majority of her work--in a classroom, office, or center) and that individual's social alliances (how she or the institution might define her professionally) and how these notions may or may not connect that individual to different networks within that institution (whom does she have access to, when, and why?). Smith argues that we must examine our "everyday experiences" within institutions to understand what most influences our daily practices, motivations, and attitudes (37-40). Institutions are social organizations that are rule-driven. Professions, one form of institutional organization, and their practices are particularly rich sites to interpret in terms of standpoint because professions bind individuals to particular practices through the force of cultural norms, institutional standards, and beliefs about the value of particular types of work. Concepts like standpoint explain how people who work in a writing center could share the same work--and even portions of the same work day, location, and mission--and yet have entirely different perspectives upon the nature, scope, and purpose of the work they do. Standpoint, in other words, helps explain the multiple channels and frequencies that are simultaneously operating in the writing center. Our first goal for this project, then, was to begin to tease out some of the different standpoints that operate in the writing center network. (1)


Attempting to account for various standpoints in the writing center community is no simple task; as soon as we started to think about all the variations in job descriptions and related work practices in just our writing center, we were struck by the size of our task. For example, at our small liberal arts college we had undergraduate tutors, graduate tutors, an administrative assistant (staff), an acting director (visiting faculty), and an unofficial faculty advisor (permanent faculty). Therefore, to begin our investigation, we went to the WCenter listserv where we were certain to reach a large number of writing center workers. During the summer of 2010 and then again in October of 2010, we sent a request asking for participation in a survey about faculty and staff perspectives on writing center work. In hindsight, we realize this choice reveals something about our own standpoint: as faculty-administrators in the writing center community, we both subscribe to and regularly read WCenter. Our pool of respondents suggests that we are not alone; the vast majority were active leaders in the writing centers on their campuses--directors, coordinators, administrators, and scholars whose career work is shaped in some way by their affiliation to and with writing centers. Indeed, because the bulk of responses were from writing center leaders, not from tutors or other staff, we decided to analyze (for this preliminary report) only the responses of those faculty and staff who identified as having a primary leadership or administrative role in their centers. (2) While we recognize that the titles of these individuals vary from institution to institution, for the ease of identification in this article, we will refer to these respondents as "WC administrators."

We had a total of 154 responses from WCenter members identifying themselves as writing center administrators (directors and assistant directors) in staff or full-time faculty positions. While WC administrators occupy just one of the many standpoints in the center, the responses from this group reveal some interesting information. For instance, the tables below tell us that there is a relationship between the HR ranking of an individual and the number of hours an individual may work on a weekly basis. They also tell us that HR classification correlates with how much time individuals actually spend in a center itself. Consider, for example, responses to the questions: "On average, how many hours a week do you work?" (Table 1) and "How many hours of your work week do you spend in the actual writing center?" (Table 2).

In terms of average hours per week, members of both faculty groups reported working more than 40 hours per week on average while the majority of the staff group reported working an average of 31-40 hours per week. This finding alone seems significant, not as an indictment of anyone's work ethic, but rather in terms of relationships to work-related tasks. If faculty see their work week as open-ended (nights, weekends, holidays all fair game) and staff see their work week as finite (work begins and ends at a certain time, with clearly delineated break periods), there are bound to be times when people speaking the same language and agreeing on the same goals can enact that language and those goals in very different ways.

According to our data, the faculty director will probably spend most of her time outside the writing center, popping in and out in between the myriad other things she does while on campus. And, she may even try not to come to campus, or at least the writing center, in order to do some research, catch up on e-mail, write grant applications, and the like. Those with faculty positions most likely will order their work around tasks related to tenure, promotion, and/or contributing to a broader campus culture. The staff assistant director, on the other hand, most likely spends her entire work week in the writing center, dealing with the everyday business of running the center. Because of this limited movement within and across the various locations for instruction, administration, and research-development, it may be difficult for someone in this position to see or feel a part of the bigger picture. When both of these people think about what is best for the writing center, the way they relate to the writing center as a work space--their standpoint--inevitably filters their responses. They might misunderstand the degree of freedom and responsibility the other has, simply due to the ways these standpoints do and do not allow them to view the center and the center's activities. Another notable finding is that the overwhelming majority of people with tenure and tenure-track positions hold doctorates. By a smaller margin, the same is true for those with non-tenure track faculty positions; however, the majority of people in staff positions hold at most Master's degrees (Table 3).

These data suggest a tiered or stratified system within the writing center community. We are struck by the relationship of this finding to common arguments in writing center studies that directors should hold faculty appointments (Simpson). In light of our realizations about how our own standpoints have influenced the ways we approached this study, we cannot help but wonder how influential the standpoints of advocates for tenure-track appointments may also be on the prevalence of this discourse in the field. After all, those with faculty positions and the pressure to publish are usually the ones creating such arguments. Some of our findings, particularly those we examine below, do seem to echo the arguments that have been made for tenure-track faculty positions. However, because our data also represent responses from a significant number of people who run writing centers and hold Master's degrees and staff positions, we believe that further study is needed to more explicitly understand how these job classifications may make actual differences in the daily practices of writing centers. Without more information about the day-today realities resulting from different HR classifications, it is likely that the arguments for faculty writing center directors will only remain clear on one of the many channels playing in the writing center community. This idea of multiple standpoints and their connections to HR designations led us to consider the ways different frequencies might also lead to any number of misconceptions about the work life, influences, motivations, and attitudes of others within the writing center community. Keenly interested in what we might discover here, we asked:

Staff: What misconceptions, if any, do you think faculty and administrators have about your position?

Faculty: What misconceptions, if any, do you think staff and administrators have about your position? Both staff and faculty WC administrators responded quite candidly, if not in altogether unsurprising ways. The trends we've identified in their responses demonstrate the degree to which we may or may not understand one another's daily existences.

Of our 42 staff respondents, eight stated that perceptions of them and their work were products of the prevailing notions that writing centers are "fix-it shops." This in itself was less ground-breaking than confirming of our own experiences in multiple institutions; writing centers and their professionals still do often struggle to shake off the image that those who work in them, regardless of professional background and institutional designation, live to make sure that no comma goes misplaced. Related to this finding, the most marked trend in staff responses to this question was a sense that as staff they are not recognized as educators by others in their institutions. Examples of staff responses:

* I suspect that many administrators and non-English faculty believe that I am an administrator rather than part-administrator, part-teacher. I have as much or more student contact as any instructor, but my title is "supervisor" and I have "staff' status.

* They don't understand what the tutors or I do, my professional (rhet/comp) qualifications, or my time commitment in my complicated job.

* Because I am half-time staff, I do not believe faculty consider me a professional.

* Administrators don't realize how much teaching and student-interaction I have on a daily basis.

We also had 80 faculty (tenured/tenure-track and non-tenure-track) respond to the question about misconceptions of their position. Tellingly, seven of these respondents also felt that misconceptions of the writing center as a location for remediation somehow determined their professional identities. But also a number of faculty felt that WC staff and non-WC administrators understood neither how much time and effort it took to run a writing center (especially the administrative elements of the work) nor the value of their work to the campus community outside the center:

* Some don't realize that I am a tenured professor; some don't realize I work many hours at home.

* [They consider it]'luxurious' release time; [little] awareness of workload and heavy clerical/administrative commitment to the Center ... much more than a .25 addition to my job/workload.

* That it is a non-faculty position (perhaps because it is non-teaching). Also, little understanding of what is involved in managing a tutoring program (particularly HR-related tasks and procedures) and the amount of time it takes to adequately develop, implement, and assess the program (including in relation to the institutional Strategic Plan.)

* That it is equivalent to a traditional tenure-track position in the English department (in terms of work load). I often feel like I work 2-3 jobs.

These responses resonate with the demographic data in the table above--those who identify as faculty discuss concerns over workload expectations, time management, and the prestige of their work on campus. Those who identify as staff discuss being perceived in ways that are less visible and are granted less value by the institutions they work for. It is also worth noting here the ways in which tenure-track faculty responses echo the concerns over prestige and value present in staff responses. A number of our faculty respondents also seem to feel that their colleagues do not recognize their expertise, the labor-intensive nature of their work, and the value of their efforts on campus--all elements of prestige within a university setting. Our research suggests further questioning about the ways that HR designation and/or classification correlate with the ways individuals go about their jobs. We note the limits of what we can say about staff versus faculty experience based upon pilot survey data, even as we stress the ways in which the findings we've discussed lead us to think further about shared experiences within the classifications that order our working lives. Our questions about HR designation seem timely, especially in light of increasing financial pressures on our colleges and universities. Decisions about hires--staff versus faculty, tenure track versus non tenure track, the availability of professional development opportunities, our very working conditions--are clearly tied to financial decisions about how and when lines are funded. The ways HR designation makes a difference to the scope and nature of work in and around a center seems an important context to further explore so that we may better understand the day-to-day organization of our field.

Works Cited

Johanek, Cindy. Composing Research: A Contextualist Paradigm for Rhetoric and Composition. Logan: Utah State UP, 2000. Print.

Simpson, Jeanne. "What Lies Ahead for Writing Centers: Position Statement on Professional Concerns." 1985. International Writing Centers Association. Web. 7 June 2011.

Smith, Dorothy. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Lanham: Alta Mira, 2005. Print.

Michelle LaFrance, UMass Dartmouth, North Dartmouth, MA Melissa Nicolas, Drew University, Madison, NJ


(1.) Our project draws not only from Smith's work, but also from researchers such as Cindy Johanek, who have argued that writing researchers have increasingly valued the context surrounding and informing research sites and questions. In Composing Research (2000), Johanek argues that an attention to our everyday contexts allows us to both effectively personalize and vary our approaches according to our research needs and to more deeply understand the very particular situations of our research interests (78). It is exactly this notion of "context" that the everyday nature of our institutional experiences calls up.

(2.) We now realize that to understand the perspectives of the larger writing center community, we cannot rely only on what is comfortable and familiar for us as scholars and administrators. As this project moves forward, we will continue to reach out to multiple populations, connecting with the writing center directors and writing program administrators at peer institutions near our own universities to make local introductions and to extend our reach. We will also call on our colleagues who use the list to help us connect with individuals they may know locally or professionally who do not use the WCenter list or regularly attend national conferences.
Table 1: Hours worked per week

                 Staff   Non-TT Faculty   TT Faculty
Hours per week   N=42         N=25           N=49

11 to 20         7.3%         4.2%            0%
21 to 30         2.4%          0%            2.1%
31 to 40         46.3%        25%           14.6%
40 plus          43.9%       70.8%          83.3%

Table 2: Location of Work

                      Staff   Non-TT Faculty   TT Faculty
Hours in the Center   N=42         N=25           N=49

All Time               45%        16.7%           2.1%
2/3 Time               20%        16.7%          20.8%
1/2 Time               5%         16.7%          18.8%
1/3 Time              12.5%       37.5%          18.8%
Most Outside          17.5%       12.5%          39.6%

Table 3: Highest degree held

Hours in     Staff   Non-TT Faculty   TT Faculty
the Center   N=42         N=25           N=49

Bachelor's    31%          0%             0%
Master's     64.3%       45.8%          16.3%
Doctorate    4.8%        54.2%          83.7%
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Author:LaFrance, Michelle; Nicolas, Melissa
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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