Staffing an EFL Writing Center: Issues and Perspectives

Havva Zorluel Ozer
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Introduction

The history of writing centers dates back to as early as 1930s when the first writing labs were established in the United States (Terese Thonus, 2003; Jessica Williams & Carol Severino, 2004). From that day on, the number of writing centers has grown increasingly in the U.S. and, in the words of Thonus (2002), “developed over the decades into a sophisticated service supporting students in first-year writing programs and beyond across the full range of disciplines” (p. 111). Offering access to support in college level writing, writing centers have become major resources “to produce better writers” (Stephen M. North, 1984, p. 438) in American higher education institutions. Indeed, empirical research shows that there is a positive relationship between students’ writing center participation and their writing skills development (Agnieszka Bielinska-Kwapisz, 2015), as well as retention and persistence (Diana Calhoun Bell & Alanna Frost, 2016). Considering the role that writing centers play in helping students become better writers, it is not surprising that many American universities have established writing centers to contribute to their students’ success in writing.

Nearly a decade ago, Lindsay Sabatino and Ben Rafoth (2012) estimated that there were more than 3000 writing centers in schools and universities around the world and the U.S. houses the majority of these centers. However, writing centers have been continuously thriving outside of the U.S. and developing in a wide-variety of contexts across the globe, including but not limited to Belgium (Liesbeth Opdenacker & Luuk Van Waes, 2007), Hungary (John Harbord, 2003), India (Nandini K Kunde, Vernul Preston Sequeira, & Monica Patil, 2015), Ireland (Ide O’Sullivan & Lawrence Cleary, 2012; Jonathan Worley, 2012), Japan (Nicholas Delgrego, 2016; George Hays, 2010; Scott Johnston, Steve Cornwell, & Hiroko Yoshida, 2008; Lindsay Mack, 2014; Sachiko Yasuda, 2006), Korea (Adam Turner, 2006), Netherlands (Ingrid Stassen & Carel Jansen, 2012), New Zealand (Lisa Emerson, 2012), Poland (Melinda Reichelt, Lukasz Salski, Jan Andres, Ed Lowczowski, Ola Majchrzak, Marek Molenda, Anna Parr-Modrzejewska, Elisabeth Reddington, & Ewa Wisniewska-Steicuk, 2013), Serbia (Brooke Ricker Schreiber & Snezana Duric, 2017), Taiwan (Tzu-Shan Chang, 2013), Turkey (Dilek Tokay, 2012), United Arab Emirates (Ronesi, 2009), and United Kingdom (Rowena Yeats, Peter Reddy, Anne Wheeler, Carl Senior, & John Murray, 2010) among others. The literature demonstrates that writing centers have entered the college/university systems outside the U.S., reaching a global audience.

There could be many reasons why the idea of a writing center has gained acceptance and recognition in the context of international education. According to Sabatino and Rafoth (2012), one reason for the spread of writing centers worldwide is an increasing concern for teaching first and second language writing to secondary and college level students, while another reason is the recognition of writing center tutors as “knowledgeable peers” (Kenneth A. Bruffee, 1984, p. 640) who lead individual sessions with students to support their writing skills. Peer tutoring, in fact, the act of “working one-with-one with writers, of dealing with individual writing and writer-based challenges” (Dana Lynn Driscoll and Sherry Wynn Perdue, 2014, p. 122) is conceived to be the nucleus of writing center practices because it facilitates opportunities to democratize learning. However, a peer model of interaction is not always embraced with open arms in writing centers outside the U.S. (Kunde et al., 2015; Turner, 2006) because these centers often modify the American writing center model in order to fit their local needs and cultures (Chang, 2013; Emerson, 2012; Johnston et al., 2008; O’Sullivan & Cleary, 2012; Bee Hoon Tan, 2011). This paper starts with a brief review of the literature on writing centers operating in English as a Foreign Language (EFL)[1] contexts, followed by an examination of the tutoring model being utilized in such a center. The paper provides new insight into how EFL writing centers take on pedagogies and practices that fit their students and their contexts.

Literature Review

To resonate the context of the present study, in this section, I review the literature on EFL writing center practices and pedagogies, which is conducive to understanding the framework of writing centers operating in countries where English is not used as the primary language of communication. A review of the literature demonstrates that EFL writing centers approach the practice of tutoring differently from writing centers in the U.S. due to socio-cultural and linguistic differences (Chang, 2013; Delgrego, 2016; Emerson, 2012; Harbord, 2003; Johnston et al., 2008; Mack, 2014; Tan, 2011; Turner 2006). What follows is a review of how these differences shape EFL writing center services and pedagogies as well as staffing decisions.

EFL Writing Center Services & Pedagogies

Each writing center has its own unique structure within the context of its operation. However, it is possible to draw generalizations about the form and design of writing centers that are structured and managed in similar contexts. For instance, through a comprehensive investigation of writing centers in EFL contexts, Tan (2011) observed the following differences between the U.S. and non-U.S. writing center services: 1. the American writing centers offer services in English only, whereas EFL writing center services are “either monolingual (in English or the native language), bilingual, or multilingual” (p. 404); and, 2. EFL writing centers provide resources through establishing links to the U.S. writing center resources. In Tan’s view (2011), this stems from the fact that EFL writing centers “have been developed recently, from the late 1990s or early 2000s, and they need time to develop local content” (p. 405). In addition, Tan (2011) discovered some commonalities: neither the U.S. nor EFL writing centers offered a proofreading service, furthermore, both types of centers offered one-on-one tutoring, writing workshops, support materials and resources, and help with a variety of genres besides academic writing (i.e. such as conference papers, grant proposals, curriculum vitae, etc.). Building on Tan’s (2011) observations, the current study confirms that these principles also apply to the EFL writing center under examination which operates under no-proofreading policy and provides clients with multiple support resources.

Writing centers take on instructional frameworks, pedagogies, and practices that fit their students’ needs. The pedagogical approach of most writing centers in the U.S. is informed by a non-directive tutoring method where the student takes responsibility for their writing, while the tutor asks questions to stimulate their thinking (Mack, 2014). Grounded in social-constructivist theory and collaborative learning model, a non-directive tutoring approach is considered ineffective in the context of EFL writing centers where students not only get assistance with their writing but also receive language support. Therefore, the literature suggests that EFL writing centers favor a directive tutoring approach because it functions to the purpose of meeting the explicit feedback needs of English academic writing learners (Harbord, 2003; Mack, 2014; Turner, 2006; Yasuda, 2006). Furthermore, research shows that EFL writing center students expect tutors to educate them, assigning a teacher/instructor role to tutors (Hays, 2010; Schreiber & Duric, 2017; Yasuda, 2006). Consequently, Harbord (2003) stated, a tutoring model that is re-conceptualized within the theoretical framework of genre theory is more relevant to the pedagogical context of the EFL writing centers rather than a tutoring model derived from the process theory. As the reasoning goes, a genre tutoring model provides the means by which tutoring can be both directive and facilitative, which is more appropriate for the specialized writing needs of EFL writing center clientele.

Staffing the EFL Writing Centers

A review of the literature suggests that methods of staffing the EFL writing centers have typically fallen into one of three general categories: 1. faculty tutors, 2. a combination of faculty and graduate peer tutors, 3. graduate peer tutors. In her examination of similarities and differences across American and non-American writing centers operating in EFL contexts, Tan (2011) observed that “most American WCs use peer tutors, but the Asian and European WCs seemed to use more academics or faculty members than peer tutors” (p. 405). In fact, a review of the literature suggests that EFL writing centers often employ faculty members and/or teachers to tutor student writers (Chang, 2013; Harbord, 2003; Johnston, et al., 2008; Kunde et al., 2015; Turner, 2006). In Turner’s view (2006), it is difficult to implement a peer-tutoring model in Asian cultures because they are “strongly influenced by Confucianism, age differences of even a year must be respected”. When it comes to European writing centers, it seems that a peer model of conferencing is not appropriate because the role of tutor in European writing centers is that of an instructor-facilitator who not only guides but also teaches the student how to write English academic texts (Harbord, 2003).

Another common staffing method is employing faculty members and peers together (Hays, 2010; Johnston et al., 2008; Reichelt, et al., 2013; Schreiber & Duric, 2017; Tokay, 2012). For instance, the English Writing Improvement Center (ERIC), a writing center that opened in fall 2011 in Poland, staff Polish, American, and British students recruited from master and doctoral programs on a volunteer basis, as well as instructors and the founder/director of ERIC (Reichelt et al. 2013). In the Nis Writing Center operating in Serbia, tutors are recruited from a general community including high school and university students, as well as people outside the university (Schreiber & Duric, 2017). Further, Tokay (2012) reported that the Sabanci University Writing Center, which is located in Turkey, staff five faculty members from different disciplines, as well as assistant peer tutors who are recruited through a two-level process that includes “submission of CV and two essays, followed by two interviews to measure teaching and communication skills” (p. 420). These studies suggest that the specific staffing approach based on the employment of both faculty and peer tutors contributes to writing center sustainability and accommodation of student needs.

The literature unveils that only a handful of EFL writing centers adopt the approach of peer tutoring. Drawing on four university writing centers in Japan, Johnston et al. (2008) found that only two of these centers hired graduate students as peer tutors. Similarly, Stassen and Jansen (2012) reported on the first university writing center in Netherlands to recruit graduated students and doctoral candidates for tutoring. Consequently, reviewing the international writing center literature not only demonstrates a shortage of EFL writing centers that staff peer tutors, but also reveals that the few writing centers that adopt the peer tutoring approach reserve the peer tutor positions for graduate students. The question then arises as to what factors influence staffing decisions in EFL writing centers. Although previous research yields a window into how EFL writing centers function, empirical inquiry into the factors inviting the tutoring approach is limited. In effort to contribute knowledge to the current literature on EFL writing centers, the present study stems from a single but demanding question: what are director perspectives on the motives for implementing a faculty-member tutoring model in an EFL writing center?

Methods

The present study seeks answers to the stated question through employment of a descriptive research design based on qualitative data collection and analytical procedures.

Participants

At the time when this study was conducted, there were seven writing centers operating in Turkey. By using these seven writing centers’ websites, I contacted the writing center directors via e-mail, and invited them to participate in an e-mail interview about tutoring services provided at their writing centers. Of these seven, one turned out to be transformed into a ‘support center’ that provides services for language learners to develop their skills in speaking, listening, and reading in addition to writing, while another was stated to be in process of systematization as it has been recently established. Among the remaining five writing centers, one writing center with two directors agreed to participate in the study, while four others did not respond to my invitation. To avoid any revelation of the participants’ identities, the two directors are coded as Director A and Director B throughout this study.

Director A is currently acting as the advisor to the writing center, where she had been a coordinator and had carried out tutoring for seven years before her current position. As the advisor to the writing center, she represents the center at higher levels of administration (e.g. Directory of the School of Foreign Languages, or at the Rector’s Office), and establishes communication between the center and the Directory of the School of Foreign Languages about financial and administrative issues. Director B has been acting as the coordinator of the writing center since 2016. She is responsible for coordinating sessions, holding sessions where necessary, preparing writing center handouts and materials, updating the writing center website, and establishing academic correspondence between the writing center and the other departments of the university. Director B clarified that correspondence refers to organizing activities, such as seminars and workshops, and addressing the needs of masters’ and doctorate students in addition to counseling the academic staff.

Research Context

The writing center in this study functions under the supervision of the School of Foreign Languages and provides service to faculty and graduate students of the university community. The center also supports undergraduate students occasionally. It offers one-on-one academic support for various types of writing in all disciplines and provides 45-minute tutorials in a stress-free and relaxed environment, where tutors have conversations with writers about their writing and help them become more effective and autonomous writers. Based on a non-directive approach as the tutoring philosophy, the tutorials take place with discussions, questions, and suggestions in relation to any aspect of the writing including fluency, organization, language, consistency, and wording. Tutors ask questions and offer suggestions, whereas writers take responsibility for the content. Consequently, the writing center in this study uses the tutoring approaches and philosophies of American writing centers, while the two differ with respect to staffing the writing center. The writing centers in the U.S. most often use peer tutoring which is considered a powerful pedagogy for teaching writing, and the center in Turkey recruits tutors from English language instructors teaching at the School of Foreign Languages.

Data Collection Procedures

After receiving the IRB approval for this study, I applied the following procedures in the collection of data: 1. I sent an informed consent form to the writing center directors who provided permission to be interviewed, 2. I sent an interview protocol including open-ended questions to the participants via e-mail, and asked them to answer the questions at a convenient time for them, preferably within a week, 3. the participants sent the consent form, and the interview protocol back to me, and 4. participants were asked to respond to a set of open-ended questions addressing their perspectives on faculty-member tutoring model that they applied at their writing center (see Appendix). Following the collection of data, I saved the documents in a password-safe file on my computer and deleted them from my e-mail box for confidentiality purposes. The rationale for using an e-mail interview in this study was relevant to its usefulness because the participants and I were geographically dispersed. This type of qualitative data collection had its own limitations that I discussed at the end of this study. All data were collected from participants in accordance with and under the supervision of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s IRB Board (Log #18-098).

Data Analysis

To identify and report themes within the interview data, I carried out an exploratory thematic analysis on all the responses provided by the participants of this study. I coded data using a top-down approach as I specifically looked for examples of reasons for implementing a faculty-member tutoring model at the writing center under examination. Braun and Clarke (2006) call this particular form of analysis theoretical or analyst-driven because the analysis is directed by the researcher’s theoretical or analytic interest (p. 83). In line with the research question that I asked in this study, I read over the data set to get familiarized with the data, generated initial codes, and developed themes from the codes that I had categorized as related segments. After the first cycle of coding, categorizing and theming, I reanalyzed data to revise codes and categories until no new themes emerged from the data.

Findings

Thematic analysis of e-mail interviews revealed four themes based on pedagogical and practical considerations for hiring faculty members as tutors: 1. faculty members’ experience and expertise in tutoring and teaching writing, 2. ineffectiveness of peer tutoring as a writing center pedagogy in the context of the writing center, 3. student preferences for faculty members as tutors, and 4. practical concerns such as sustainable staffing and the difficulty of selecting peer tutors. The following section summarizes these themes with excerpts from e-mail interviews.

Experience and Expertise

From a pedagogical standpoint, the first theme illustrates that faculty members’ experience and expertise in tutoring or teaching writing is an important reason for employing them as tutors. Director A reported that “training of the tutors, and tutors’ getting experienced is important”. She also added that “getting experienced instructors to tutor is guaranteed to produce more effective results”. The director argued that peers who would tutor for a few years might not gain adequate experience to provide effective tutoring services in the writing center. In relation to the professionalism aspect of the faculty-member tutoring model, Director B reported that “the reason is that all our tutees are master’s or PhD students which means that they are already writing their theses or other academic texts in the supervision of their advisors. In other words, they can get aid either from their colleagues or supervisors in their departments when they want to. The reason why they especially choose to visit the center is that they need help in English or the organization of their texts. Since most of the tutors employed here are either teachers of English, or academic writing, tutees visit the center in order to get professional help”. These excerpts demonstrate that one of the reasons why faculty tutors are hired at the given EFL writing center is that student writers not only seek assistance with their writing, but also need help with language, for which peer tutors are considered to be unqualified as they are also language learners.

Ineffectiveness of Peer Tutoring

The second theme is related to the ineffectiveness of peer tutoring model at the given writing center context. According to Director B, peer tutoring in the context of the writing center under investigation would be inefficient because of the fact that “reading a text in the company of a peer with similar background information on a specific topic would be useful for a tutee to realize some content-based fallacies, but this way of tutoring might not lead to the correction of mistakes regarding the general rules of academic writing or grammar”. Consequently, the director said, peer tutoring “would be possible as an activity to foster collaboration among the writing center users for a certain period of time, but it is unsuitable to be chosen as the primary way of functioning in the writing center”. Here arises the question as to whether faculty-member tutoring functions efficiently in meeting the needs of students.

Director A reported that writing center services were regularly assessed in the following way: “After each and every session, we have the tutees fill out an evaluation form. It is not a long form. On the contrary, it is so short that, even if the tutee visits the writing center on regular basis, h/she does not feel fed up by filling the evaluation form. Every time a new tutorial is finished, the tutee just fills in the evaluation form, focusing on that particular session. The form basically inquiries about the overall effectiveness of the session and the tutor (no name is indicated)”. Related to the assessment issue, Director B emphasized that “the writing centre works on a voluntary basis, which means that our services are free of charge for our tutees, and in this case, we are unable to make any extra payments for our tutors. It would be too stressful for our tutors to be subjected to an evaluation process, such as a peer observation, while they are tutoring, and we are, as coordinators, very unwilling to evaluate our tutors out of a task they volunteer for. We ask for written feedback from our tutees time to time, or they express their satisfaction and gratitude unofficially”.

Student Preferences

The next theme pertains to the directors’ assumption regarding that students would prefer to have faculty as tutors. Director A said, “in our university, students collaborate with each other as much as possible anyway. Faculty-member tutoring would probably be favored or requested more”. Like Director A, Director B also emphasized that “peer tutoring is what students can already do in their departments in the company of their colleagues” and concluded that “the tutees would not visit the center if they were to be tutored by their peers”. These excerpts demonstrate that the directors reached an agreement over whether their writing center clients would prefer to have faculty as tutors. For this reason, the writing center staff consists of faculty.

Practical Concerns

Based on practical considerations, another reason for implementing a faculty-member tutoring at the writing center is related to long-term purposes of the writing center. One reason for employing instructors of English as tutors is to provide sustainability in staffing the writing center and keep tutor positions filled for longer times compared to a few years during when students could staff the writing center, and then they are gone because they graduate. With respect to this reason, Director A wrote that “instructor tutoring model is more dependable and sustainable. Once an instructor is committed to tutoring for a term, it is for sure that this service will be provided uninterrupted”. In the director’s view, instructors are able to fill permanent positions addressing one of the most common challenges in staffing the writing center: tutor retention. In addition to sustainability issues, the difficulty of appointing peers influenced tutoring approaches as well. Director A reported that “some senior students are quite proficient in English. Still, peer selection might be a challenging job”. As seen in these excerpts, the logistics of maintaining and sustaining the writing center influences the staffing decisions.

Discussion & Conclusion

Writing centers are usually structured on the premise of supporting student writing and collaborative knowledge-making. The operating principles and practices of writing centers are informed by the contextual needs and instructional framework of the institution. As Harbord (2003) remarked, “the very different requirements of graduate writing in a European context mean that we approach tutoring rather differently from most writing centers in the U. S.” (p. 3). Offering an overview of how European model functions, Harbord (2003) stated, “the education is specialist, not generalist; the demands on the students to be familiar with and refer to the literature are greater; and the genres required are more specifically academic” (p. 3) with papers longer and almost always discipline specific. This reminds us of the traditional debate over generalist vs. specialist tutors in the U.S. writing center scholarship. Although research shows that specialist tutors’ disciplinary knowledge fosters the effectiveness of tutoring sessions (Sue Dinitz & Susanmarie Harrington, 2014), the U.S. writing centers usually adopt a generalist tutoring approach because “trying to regularly match students with tutors in their discipline would bring on a logistical nightmare” (p. 95). Therefore, equipping generalist tutors with skills to accommodate writers from an array of disciplines and abilities gains more acceptance within the context of U.S. writing centers.

From the EFL writing centers perspective, the literature demonstrates that the more specialized academic writing needs of English learners require expertise in academic writing and make it difficult to adopt a peer tutoring approach in EFL writing centers because, unlike most writing centers in North America, the overwhelming majority of EFL writing center visitors are graduate students who need professional assistance with their research writing for publication in English (Harbord, 2003; Kunde et al., 2015; Turner, 2006). In alignment with other EFL writing centers, the findings of this study unveil that the majority of the current writing center clients are graduate writers whose concerns are to publish academic papers in international journals. Under these circumstances, it is conceived that in the words of Kunde et al. (2015), “having peers to tutor students could hamper the quality of tutoring sessions” (p. 15). Therefore, a specialist tutoring approach informs the current writing center’s reliance on faculty members because they hold a greater degree of expertise and knowledge in common genres of academic writing compared to peer tutors. Consequently, a greater focus on graduate level writing in EFL writing centers seems to make a faculty-tutoring approach more desirable.

The findings of this study establish that faculty’s experience in teaching writing to learners of English at the School of Foreign Languages, makes them knowledgeable about pedagogies of writing, and skillful in providing feedback. Therefore, faculty members do not need training for tutoring writing, whereas the writing center needs to train peer tutors. This deters the current writing center from hiring peer tutors because developing a tutor training program requires planning and it might be challenging if institutional and personal resources are not available. Moreover, the findings imply that the clients of the current writing center would prefer to receive help from faculty members rather than their peers, such that they would not visit the writing center if they were tutored by their peers. These findings go against previous research that suggests peer tutoring has value in EFL writing center contexts because tutees wish to be tutored by their peers according to survey results (Hays 2010). However, it should be noted that in the present study, directors’ assumptions about student wishes might be misleading because these are not empirically grounded. To make informed pedagogical choices in the centers, writing center practitioners should base their practices on rigorous, systematic, and empirical foundations (Driscoll & Perdue, 2012). Without evidence-based knowledge, the assumptions about whether students experience the desire to have faculty as tutors remain doubtful.

In conclusion, findings of the current study indicate that pedagogical goals and practical concerns influence the ways in which writing centers are structured, managed, and maintained. Consequently, the findings of this study lend support to the previous research revealing the influence of cultural setting, needs, and context on the writing center practices (Chang, 2013; Delgrego, 2016; Emerson, 2012; Harbord, 2003; Johnston et al., 2008; Kunde et al., 2015; Mack, 2014; O’Sullivan & Cleary, 2012; Reichelt, et al., 2013; Schreiber & Duric, 2017; Tan, 2011; Turner, 2006). As writing centers expand across the world, collaborative efforts between the U.S. and international writing centers are needed to cultivate stronger pedagogies and practices (Chang, 2013; Turner, 2006). As writing centers move toward becoming increasingly global, building interconnections between the U.S. and international writing centers is especially valuable to gain a contextualized understanding of relations between different tutoring pedagogies and practices.

Limitations & Future Research

As is the case with many empirical studies, this study has several limitations. One limitation of the study stems from the data collection tool. The e-mail interview, conducted due to practical inconveniences, could not yield rich data because it went without the advantages that a one-on-one interview could provide. For instance, I couldn’t establish a rapport with the participants to encourage them to provide in-depth and detailed responses. Another limitation of the study is that the data came from only one EFL writing center. Therefore, I do not claim that the motives for implementing a faculty-member tutoring model at the current writing center represent the motives of other EFL writing centers for recruiting tutors from faculty. More research is needed for a nuanced understanding of the factors that influence pedagogical and practical choices made at other EFL writing center settings.

The dearth of research on writing center scholarship in EFL contexts necessitates further inquiry into the nature of interactions that take place in tutorials. In 1984, North called writing center scholarship for inquiry into writing center sessions and interactions, arguing that “there is not a single published study of what happens in the writing center tutorials” (p. 433). What followed was a plethora of research on writing center pedagogy and practice. Today, this call applies to the EFL writing center scholarship because there is little empirical research that provides insight into the types of dialogue that take place in tutoring sessions. To promote success and progress in EFL writing centers, future research might address the following questions:

  • What types of conversations take place in the tutoring sessions of EFL writing centers?
  • How does the faculty-member tutoring approach affect tutoring dynamics, specifically pertaining to the roles of tutor and tutee?

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  1. In this study, the concept of English as a foreign language (EFL) refers to English “not widely used in the learners’ immediate social context which might be used for future travel or other cross-cultural communication situations, or studied as a curricular requirement or elective in school, but with no immediate or necessary practical application” (Muriel Saville-Troike, 2006, p. 4).
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