Book Review: The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors

Elisabeth H. Buck

Midway through the case study narrative of Katerina, a new writing center director at a European secondary boarding school, authors Nicole I. Caswell, Jackie Grutsch McKinney, and Rebecca Jackson (2016) summarize one of their participant’s key insights: “Writing center work is really hard and writing center work is really rewarding” (p. 113). In my copy of The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors, this line is bracketed, underlined, and—because I was apparently feeling very effusive—additionally underscored with stars and exclamation points. I am a newly hired writing center director and I saw in this moment the culmination of my current experiences. Although I have worked in writing centers for nearly a decade—as an undergraduate tutor and a graduate tutor/administrator—in my current position I realize for perhaps the first time that writing center work is really hard and writing center work is really rewarding.

My overly demonstrative focus on this one line, however, is not meant to reduce or oversimplify the significant and vital contributions of Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson’s (2016) text. Working Lives provides a nuanced and complex portrait of writing center administration. Extending clearly the theoretical aims of Grutsch McKinney’s (2013) Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Working Lives complicates a writing center “grand narrative”—in this case, amplifying not just what it means to labor in the writing center, but expanding perceptions of who directs this labor, as well as where, how, and why they perform this work. As such, what emerges is essential reading not just for individuals with a current or future interest in writing centers, but for all those who might benefit from a “behind the curtain” glimpse at the intricacies of academic labor.

One of the most impressive aspects of Working Lives is its seamless blend of authorial personae that augments the soundness of the authors’ methodology and research practices. The text also admirably combines the two dominant factions of research in writing center/writing program administration by unifying metaphor-heavy narrative lore (in the line of George’s [1999] Kitchen Cooks, Plate Twirlers and Troubadours) with a response to the field’s call for additional RAD research (i.e., that which is replicable, aggregable, and data-driven).

Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) include a thorough methods chapter that explains their recruitment and data collection/analysis process. Each author interviewed three self-identified new writing center directors for a total of nine case study narratives. A longitudinal project, the authors followed participants for a year and interviewed them between two and four times per semester. All but two participants completed a follow-up survey a year after finishing the interviews. Rather than identify which author interviewed which subject, Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) explain that drawing on a collective we identity would allow more focus on each participant’s story. The authors also purposefully disrupt a standard practice of research-oriented labor. They explain, “When it was time to decide first author, we did the only thing we could to subvert the symbolic act of first author, which wasn’t much or very obvious at all: we just listed our names alphabetically” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, p. x). These moves thus underscore the important theme of collaboration that figures throughout Working Lives. Just as the participants must navigate their various collaborations with those whom they supervise as well as their institutional administrators and constituents, so too are readers called to think critically about the ways that writing center practitioners are linked by internal/external perceptions and realities of their work.

In this way, Working Lives both emphasizes and minimizes the significance of context: the authors’ coding scheme that breaks down each individual’s everyday, disciplinary, and emotional labor unifies the participants. Whereas everyday labor encompasses the “day-to-day” tasks of running a writing center and disciplinary labor frequently involves actions like attending a conference or responding to/reading listsev posts, the authors acknowledge the trickiness of defining emotional labor, suggesting that it occurred “when the task involved nurturing, encouraging, and building relationships or resolving conflict” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, pp. 25-27). These categories are not mutually exclusive, but, rather, certain tasks encompass multiple labor classifications. For a participant like Isatta, aspects of her everyday and emotional labor frequently overlap, such as when she must “[ask] faculty to recommend strong students as tutors” or “[discipline] tutors who skip meetings” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, p. 79). So, although the coding schematic frames each participant’s story, Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) purposefully selected writing center directors in diverse settings, who came to their jobs with different levels of preparation. Two participants are in tenure-track positions at public universities, Isatta has tenure at an HBCU, two are high school directors (one at a boarding school in Europe), one is a full-time faculty member at a community college, two are full-time non tenure-track faculty/staff, and one supervises an entirely online writing center at a for-profit university.

Reading Working Lives through my lens as a new writing center director, I found myself often in the contradictory position of simultaneous sympathy, commiseration, and occasionally, envy in regard to the various labors described. In a few instances, the participants’ challenges so closely matched my own that I could feel an attendant quickening of my heartbeat. But even within the stories that are ostensibly far from my own context, I still found myself writing marginalia comments like, “Ugh, I get that” or “Awesome idea!” Jennifer’s story stands as an excellent example. The director of an entirely online writing center for a for-profit university, Jennifer faces the daunting task of developing writing support programs for the campus’s nearly half-million students. Jennifer must negotiate her supervisor’s emphasis on initiatives that promote a return on investment, all while also supervising four project managers. Jennifer realizes that a one-to-one student model of tutoring is not feasible, but also expresses hesitancy at the efficacy of asynchronous models and the university’s static writing center webpages. Jennifer therefore sees potential in expanding an “online community” that “allows students to post questions about writing and get responses to those questions from students and staff alike” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, p. 93). In this community then, which also includes a blog and discussion/polling platform, I see its possibilities in my face-to-face center, especially in its “potential to build community, to pull into the fold students and faculty and staff, novice and experienced writers, anyone ‘with something to offer’” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, p. 92). Moments of such utility fill Working Lives.

Mandy’s story—like Jennifer’s—is one that we seldom see in standard academic discourses. Mandy is a full-time program associate at a public charter high school in the mid-Atlantic, although she is not actually a school employee. Mandy instead works for an independent nonprofit organization. Mandy has been appointed for a two-year term, but hopes to receive an appointment for an additional year. In reading the paradox that defines her labor, Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) suggest that “Mandy must prove that she is competent and essential to the operation in a bid to stay in her role, but she must also think (and sometimes articulate) how the program can live without her” (p. 139). Mandy struggles with staffing and maintaining traffic for her center, as well as getting the teachers at her school to buy in to a one-on-one tutoring model. Mandy ultimately does not receive a contract extension. In Mandy’s story, we can see a clear parallel to all administrators operating with a contingent status and its concomitant effect on the stability of a program, even though she works in a secondary school setting. Again, Working Lives reveals the contextual nature of writing center work to be both hugely significant (e.g., Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson [2016] argue that “ the directors…did not really learn until they were in their positions how doing the work of writing centers depends so greatly on the other pieces of the ecology” [p. 180]) and not at all (“if we can say something succinct about the work of a writing center director based on these tasks that most directors in our study did, it is this: the tasks the writing center directors are responsible for are labor intensive, ongoing, often unplannable, and…highly relational” [p.173]). The experiences of Mandy and Jennifer remind us, however, of the value in cultivating stories beyond the ivory tower.

Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) note repeatedly that given the small-scale nature of their study, the participants’ experiences should not be viewed as emblematic. They are careful too to avoid any larger declamations about who ought to be doing this work. That said, there are some explicit takeaways. Working Lives reveals that those participants with PhDs in rhetoric and composition, who were hired into their positions as writing center directors, who teach as part of their regular responsibilities and who were on the tenure track mostly stayed in their positions beyond the study year, whereas those who did not fulfill one or more of these criteria or who tutored themselves generally left their positions (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, pp. 188-189). Significant too are the authors’ conclusions about the nature of writing center directorial labor. They argue, “the work is difficult, often untenable, even for those ‘prepared’ for writing center administration,” that “writing center director labor is largely invisible institutionally,” and “directors do labor that brings them satisfaction and visibility” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016, pp. 193-196). Again then, even for those theoretically and heuristically trained to perform such labor, writing center work is really hard and writing center work is really rewarding.

If there is one point that I wish Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) had been more explicit about, it is how Working Lives might be used by current and future directors to advocate for better working conditions. I believe it can be a valuable tool along these lines. It is clear, for example, from the moment that community college director Darya loses her course release—moving her back to a 4/4 load on top of significant other service and professional development obligations—that her situation as director has become, to use the authors’ phrase, “untenable” (Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, & Jackson, 2016). And then, too, there are stories like that of Joe, in a privileged position (institutionally-speaking) as a tenure-track writing across the curriculum and writing center director. His metaphor of choice is director as Tetris player—“the blocks are falling and you’re just trying to sort of keep surviving” (p.111). It is tough though not to read the tacit gravity of his situation with his parallel comment, “I don’t want to slack, but at the same time, I don’t want to work so hard that I work myself into an early grave” (p. 119). This seems at minimum like a cautionary tale against dual writing center/WAC directorships. If there is consequently one audience who most needs Working Lives, it would be those who write directors’ job descriptions and who supervise and evaluate their labor. In any case, I want to see Working Lives, highlighted, bracketed, underlined, and starred on the desks of all writing center directors as they complete their contract negotiations and/or advocate for themselves and the value of their labor in increasingly tenuous institutional settings. This work is that important.

About the Author

Elisabeth H. Buck is an Assistant Professor of English and the Faculty Director of the Writing and Reading Center at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She has published or will soon appear in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal and WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. Her book, Open-Access, Multimodality, and Writing Center Studies, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.


Caswell, N. I., Grutsch McKinney, J., & Jackson, R. (2016). The working lives of new writing center directors. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

George, D. (Ed.). (1999). Kitchen cooks, plate twirlers, and troubadours: Writing program administrators tell their stories. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grutsch McKinney, J. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.