Writing is a subjective act. It is more art than science, more craft than system. So not surprisingly, the need for a writing center is not necessarily apparent in the raw data. Since 1999, Doane University has administered the ACT CAAP Writing Essay during the first week of classes each fall to students enrolled in ENG 101 (Writing Seminar), DLC 116 (Writing Skills), and DSS (Thinking Skills for Writing). This essay is used to measure the writing "ability" of Doane's first-year students against a national sample. In 1999, 2006 and 2008, Doane students scored just above the national mean. In 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2007, Doane students scored just below the national mean. In 2002 and 2003, Doane students scored as well as the national mean. On the surface, these results are encouraging. They suggest that Doane students are not especially unique, that their writing ability is consistent with other students across the country.
But this consistency is not necessarily a good thing, as student writing across the country is not especially strong. Such is the subject of an essay entitled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," published in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic. Written by an anonymous adjunct instructor (Professor X) at an unidentified private college, the piece describes the experience of teaching "Introduction to College Writing" and "Introduction to College Literature." The dominant notes of the piece are despair and resignation:
Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence. In each of my courses, we discuss thesis statements and topic sentences, the need for precision in vocabulary, why economy of language is desirable, what constitutes a compelling subject. I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I'm sure my students do. I envision the lot of us driving home, solitary scholars in our cars, growing sadder by the mile. (70)
Such lamentations, while hyperbolic, are understandable and surely familiar to anyone who has taught writing at the college level, particularly required first-year composition. But an abundance of anecdotal evidence suggests the difficulty for both students and teachers continues far above and beyond the introductory level.
Ultimately, however, such gloomy sentiments, if allowed to fester, are a waste of precious pedagogical energy, akin to going on a cruise and complaining about all the water. Of course student writing is poor. Of course their comfort with language is suspect.
To be sure, some student struggles with writing are linked to a lack of effort. Bret Anthony Johnston, author and director of the creative writing program at Harvard University, observes, "As a writer and teacher of writing, the articles of my faith are perseverance and rigor and commitment and craft and what my brilliant teacher Frank Conroy so aptly referred to as ‘ass-in-chair time'" (101). Be it by choice or out of necessity, many students simply do not employ these "articles of faith." In these cases, a single teacher, course, or program, no matter how well-intended, can do only so much to affect real growth.
For instance, it's safe to say that many students do not read at all in the traditional sense - literature, periodicals, etc. - and many others do so only quickly and only when vigorously compelled by an impending exam or paper. It's even safer to say that much of the text that students are exposed to on a daily basis - blogs, e-mail, text messages, etc. - is hardly formal, polished, or well-considered, either in form or in content. The implication is alarmingly clear if Annie Dillard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is correct when she writes, "The more you read, the more you will write. The better the stuff you read, the better the stuff you will write" (XVI). In other words, in some cases, the problem is not a lack or failure of external influences and supports but an inability or unwillingness on the part of the student to get the most out of them. It's similar to an avid runner or weightlifter who doesn't see results because of poor diet.
With that said, there is reason to resist indifference to student writing struggles, reason that is rooted in the very nature of writing. R.F. McEwen, a professor at Chadron State College and poet whose work was recently accepted by the Irish literary journal the Yellow Nib, compares his work to trimming trees:
It's a meticulous, highly structured way of putting disorder in its place. It was nature and now it's not nature, you've changed it. You want it to conform to the landscape, you want to give it the effect that when the wind blows, it is floating up there, and that's what the greatest writer who ever lived, William Shakespeare, does. He takes a mess and then makes it into another universe. (Kuiper 9E)
While McEwen is describing his labors with poetry, prose writers and teachers of prose will surely appreciate the analogy. Writing is not a skill that someone either has or doesn't have, not something that someone either can or can't do. It is, as Brenda Miller describes, a process: "You must have the patience to watch the piece evolve, and you need an awareness of your own stages: You must know when you can go pell-mell with the heat of creation and when you must settle down, take a wider view, and make some choices that will determine the essay's final shape" (183). Similarly, writers and writing ability evolve, slowly, unevenly, awkwardly. Author and Indiana University professor Scott Russell Sanders puts it this way: "There is no short cut to good writing, no list of ten easy steps. I am biased, of course, but I believe that writing is the most difficult art that most of us ever try to learn, which is why relatively few of us ever learn it very well" (116). Writing has never been and will never be easy, even for those with great experience and commitment.
This point is worth emphasizing. Too often, writing assistance - wherever it may be provided -is considered remedial work. This label is erroneous at best and counter-productive at worst. Among other things, it limits the pool of student writers served, based on the assumption that a majority of today's college students SHOULD know how to write clearly and effectively. There is no more reason to expect immediate proficiency with writing than there would be with other fields of study, particularly those requiring so much practice and feedback. Indeed, writing may be especially difficult for most students because eventual success requires so much of what has been de-emphasized in their lifetimes: reading, reflection, silence, failure, time.
Moreover, the issue is not always or entirely a lack of language competency. Often, the problem is partly a lack of topic knowledge, and this struggle, this inexperienced, muddled sense of things exacerbates language deficiencies. It would be like trying to paint the exterior of a house with one can of paint. No matter how polished the technique, the end result will be poor, thin and spotty. In this case, the challenge lies not so much in helping the student learn how to move a brush but rather how to collect more quality paint, an equally if not more difficult task.
So student struggles with writing - at least those not stemming purely from laziness and neglect - shouldn't necessarily surprise or antagonize faculty and administrators. Instead, they should be understood and embraced as normal to some degree and, in some ways, they have been. Composition theory and pedagogy have evolved to advocate collaborative learning and conferencing between teacher and student, to emphasize process, invention, feedback, revision, and reflection. And isn't this the fundamental purpose of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) initiatives, core requirements, introductory seminars, capstone courses, and the like: to allow students to struggle and, at times, fail throughout their college careers, which is to say evolve as "organizers of disorder," to borrow McEwen's language. Indeed, if students were polished writers after one course or semester, there would be no need for such curricular efforts.
The question worth asking then is not why is there such a seemingly large pool of students who cannot write well? Nor should colleges and universities wonder if their curriculum is inadequate simply because student writing is poor. Rather, they should ask how they might facilitate the evolution of more engaged student writers - in addition to those identified by test scores or past performance as needing assistance; how they might expedite the process of improvement through more one-on-one interaction with more students; how they might provide a collaborative partner for student writers of all ability levels at all stages of the writing process - a resource "in line with the way composition scholars understand literacy and the writing process" (Ferruci and DeRosa 29).
Thousands of schools (including seven of Doane's ten peer and aspirant schools) have been asking these questions, some for decades, and the answer they've come to is the student-staffed writing center. The roots of this writing center movement have been traced to the late nineteenth century, when "writers and teachers began to decry the ‘mass instruction' that had dominated American schooling at all levels" and the laboratory method of writing instruction gained popularity (Lerner 4). But the modern writing center began to emerge in the early 1970s in response to the "influx of open admission students" and the increased need to work with students "not proficient in academic discourse" (Wallace and Wallace 46). Since then, as Paula Gillespie and Harvey Kail write, "Peer tutoring in writing instruction has earned a well-respected place in higher education over the last 30 years. The systematic and now widespread employment of students to help each other become better writers has achieved the status of conventional practice in many writing programs" (321). The numbers support this claim. The Writing Centers Research Project (WCRP) at the University of Louisville maintains a mailing list of more than 1,000 centers (1). These centers range in size from a few student "consultants" to more than a hundred, depending on the size, type (i.e. public or private), and needs of the institution, the resources available, and the age of the center (WCRP 25). Indeed, variety and flexibility appear to be hallmarks of the writing center field, as local concerns and factors shape how a center operates (WCRP 3).
Still, a general philosophy appears to be common throughout the field, at least at this stage of composition and writing center theory. Chris LeCluyse, director of the writing center at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, described his center as similar to most in that it works to empower student writers, to be a place of interaction and critical inquiry with students, not for them. "We want to make sure students and faculty see it not as a place to go to fix something that's wrong but rather as a resource to help them develop or improve from wherever they might be as writers," he said. "Our (consultants) will work with students on issues of grammar and punctuation and will help students learn to proofread and edit. But they will not simply edit or proofread a student's work. We want this to be a collaborative, non-evaluative, non-directive environment." In other words, the writing center, as it has developed over the course of three decades, seeks to be an interactive, knowledge-seeking community of student writers helping each other improve over time - not an answer-supplying place designed only to raise grades.
Similarly, the Doane University Writing Center will provide a collaborative partner for student writers of all ability levels at all stages of the writing process, expediting the often difficult process of improvement through more one-on-one interaction and constructive feedback. It will work to help students diagnose and improve their own writing, to promote the agency of each student writer, which has value far beyond any specific assignment or course and beyond the Doane University campus:
In the writing center, students develop as students. They learn the importance of time management, organization of ideas, and staying on task. These are development skills that transfer to other classes and to their careers. The writing center quickly becomes more than a fix-it shop. Students prepare in an atmosphere of professionalism. They are responsible for their own choices, but they have the help they need to make these choices wisely. The writing center plants "developmental seeds" and provides a fertile ground to watch these seeds grow professionally. (Wallace and Wallace 49)
Indeed, the Writing Center will serve the very best of what Doane University hopes to accomplish with its students. And it will do so by involving other students, the writing consultants, as mentors and role models. This approach will create an additional and likely more diverse network of students that did not exist before, which can only aid retention, the result of "student connectedness, intellectual stimulation, mastery of academic discourse, research interests, and professional development" (Schreiber 419). But there is more. As Gillespie and Kail write, the entire campus community will be affected in a positive way:
Students who come to the writing center for assistance with their writing will find themselves in an academic community in which their fellow students are valued for their writing, reading, and teaching capabilities. Faculty whose students use the writing center or whose students become peer-tutors, themselves, will find in a peer tutoring program a valuable new ally in their work to improve student writing and thinking. And the peer-tutors themselves will surely cross a threshold in their own development. Research on the learning of peer-tutors shows clearly that they develop skills, values, and qualities that they carry with them into their job interviews and work situations, into their lives for years to come. They become skilled listeners, making them better on the job, as partners, and as parents. They develop their skills of writing and of analyzing texts, helping them succeed in countless areas of professional and personal life. They become confident communicators, able to engage in one-to-one conversations with interviewers, colleagues, clients - anyone who walks in the door. They meet, get to know, and come to appreciate writers from many other cultures, races, classes, and genders. But most important, perhaps, is that they invest themselves in the successes of others, taking pride when their fellow students show that they have moved to new levels of understanding of topics and new levels of writing ability. (330)
Put another way, the writing center will epitomize the liberal arts experience. It will recognize desire and reward curiosity. It will champion service and foster respect. It will embrace and support those students who want to improve, nurturing that part of them that dares to span the gulf between what they know and what they've yet to learn, between where they are and where they might go.
Dillard, Annie. "Introduction: Notes for Young Writers." In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Lee Gutkind. New York: Norton, 2005. XI-XVII.
Ferruci, Stephen and Susan DeRosa. "Writing a Sustainable History: Mapping Writing Center Ethos." The Writing Center Director's Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahway, NewJersey: Erlbaum. 21-32.
Gillespie, Paula and Harvey Kail. "Crossing Thresholds: Starting a Peer Tutoring Program." The Writing Center Director's Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahway, New Jersey: Erlbaum. 321-30.
Griffin, Jo Ann, Daniel Keller, Iswari Pandey, Anne-Marie Pedersen, and Carolyn Skinner. "Local Practices, Institutional Positions: Results from the 2003-2004 WCRP National Survey of Writing Centers." The Writing Centers Research Project. 29 Sept. 2008. http://coldfusion.louisville.edu/webs/a-s/wcrp/reports/analysis/WCRPSurvey03-04.doc.
Johnston, Bret Anthony. "Narrative Calisthenics." Poets & Writers. Nov.-Dec. 2008: 101-4.
Kuiper, Jason. "Nebraskan's poems make Irish journal." Omaha World-Herald. 11 Jan. 2009: 9E.
LeCluyse, Chris. Personal Interview. 8 Sept. 2008.
Lerner, Neal. "Time Warp: Historical Representations of Writing Center Directors." The Writing Center Director's Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahway, New Jersey: Erlbaum. 3-12.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Professor X. "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." The Atlantic. June 2008: 68-73.
Sanders, Scott Russell. "Who Speaks on the Page?" The Force of Spirit. Boston: Beacon, 2000. 109-17.
Schreiber, Evelyn. "Funding a Writing Center through a University Line." The Writing Center Director's Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahway, New Jersey: Erlbaum. 417-23.
Wallace, Ray and Susan Lewis Wallace. "Growing Our Own: Writing Centers as Historically Fertile Fields for Professional Development." The Writing Center Director's Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahway, New Jersey: Erlbaum. 45-51.