Cultivating Writing Assessment Ecologies in Writing Centers

Eric C. Camarillo

Introduction

This article began as an attempt to understand the impact the writing center at the University of Houston—Victoria (UHV) had on students who came to visit us and the types of relationships that are formed within the center. Without necessarily speaking for the writing consultants, I’ve noticed a shift in the way I spoke about writing and writing consultations. Specifically, it became more difficult to use nuanced language when discussing student writing. I shy away from terms like “errors” or “issues,” but I found myself using these types of words more frequently the more I matured in my role as writing center manager. Indeed, I began to work more and more with students who are sometimes gently labeled as “underprepared.” This is something of an understatement at UHV.

UHV is a small institution in southeast Texas with a total student enrollment of a little over 4,000. We’re a Hispanic Serving Institution and roughly 51% of our FTIC enrolled students in fall 2016 were Hispanic. We use the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) to determine student placement once they are admitted to the university, and about 28% of our students are considered TSI-incomplete in reading or writing. This means they’re technically underprepared for college-level composition work.

These students are then shuffled into developmental classes, and I work closely with the English faculty to try and serve these students to the best of the writing center’s ability. However, the work can be challenging. I and the consultants often encounter students who, for whatever reason, have trouble crafting even a single sentence with a single noun, verb, and object. This isn’t an isolated case, though, as writers like Jane Stanley in The Rhetoric of Remediation might remind us. While this paper is not about remediation specifically, it is these students who tend to need the most assistance when they come into the writing center. It’s also these students I worry about the most.

As we continued to work with underprepared students in the writing center, it became apparent that we, the consultants and me, began to take on a clinical function. The consultants would find “issues” in a paper and offer “prescriptions” to ameliorate the paper. For a writing center, this is obviously problematic. I searched for theories and strategies that might allow me and my staff to more easily adhere to common writing center praxis: to focus more on process, to give students more agency and control, to cultivate more clearly the collaborative nature of our work.

On a more lofty level, I wanted to transform the writing center from a site of evaluation and assessment to a site of equity and fairness, or, as Nancy Grimm (1996b) describes it, a writing center that creates “a more equitable distribution of power” (p. 8). A goal like this seems necessary if writing centers are to avoid an inevitable collapse (Grutsch McKinney, 2013, p. 90) or avoid becoming minions of the status quo (Grimm, 1996b, p. 11). Asao Inoue’s work, Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future, seems especially well positioned to answer Grimm’s (1996b) twenty-year-old call for “a writing center pedagogy that creatively engages with the cultural conflicts which are now hidden” (p. 15). Inoue’s focus is on classrooms, but his emphasis on labor and agency and his de-emphasis of the dominant discourse and prescriptivism make his theory valuable to a writing center.

Additionally, Inoue’s notion of “ecologies” is particularly vital for identifying and discussing the relationships that exist within a writing center. He argues that “writing assessment [is] an ecology with explicit features, namely a quality of more than, interconnectedness among everything and everyone in the ecology” (p. 9). His attention to cultural forces that shape people and institutions, his emphasis on the local and adapting to local students, means creating writing centers that do more than react to institutional or student needs. His work allowed me to see how positive relationships might be actively cultivated in a writing center. Most importantly, Inoue posits that every layer in an ecology inter-is the other, which links to Shawn Wilson’s (2008) notion that “we are the relationships that we hold and are part of” (p. 80). The relationships between people become the environment in which other relationships are cultivated and developed.

While Inoue provides a heuristic in his work, it’s most applicable to writing classrooms, not writing centers. Using his work as a jumping off point, I collected stories from the UHV Writing Center and ran them through this ecological view of things, modifying questions as needed in order to create a discussion around what could, or should, have taken place in these individual writing consultations.

Narrating and Re-narrating the Writing Center at the University of Houston—Victoria

In this section, I’ll share some stories from the UHV Writing Center, stories that highlight challenges—but also the potential benefits—of cultivating a writing center as a site of equity. These stories come from UHV writing consultants. The stories have been edited for brevity and all names of students have been changed.

Story One (S1)

I remember this one particular client who was a nursing student looking to get her research paper reviewed. She specifically wanted that paper to be formatted in APA style and repeatedly got marks off from her previous papers…so the student came to me hoping that I was some APA formatting expert. This student, however, decided it was a good idea to make an appointment an hour before she had to do something important, and tried to rush through her myriad problems; I had to look over her paper for general writing improvement, check her citation, and also qualify her writing and sources…She vented her frustrations about the professor’s expectations, and, despite those expectations being clear…the student felt that she was in the right for what she was doing. She kept asking me to validate her stance and I gave evasive answers since it isn’t part of our responsibilities to know what instructors expect out of students. There was a point when as I was trying to review her paper, she said, “Well, you staring blankly at the page isn’t going to get us anywhere!” and I had to contain my frustration.

Discussion of S1

S1 represents a common type of session. In S1, the student is desperate for the consultant to take full control of the session and seeks his affirmation for the duration of the consultation. She’s trying to adhere to a formatting style she doesn’t fully understand—that is, she’s trying to adhere to the rules of the dominant discourse, but doesn’t understand how it’s functioning. The harried student comes in with expectations that are mismatched with writing center goals which results in both the student and consultant leaving the consultation frustrated or unsatisfied. The student is unsure of how to meet the instructor’s standards and thinks those standards are, perhaps, unfair.

What’s interesting about the consultant’s response is that he, in two adjacent sentences, claims that it’s not his responsibility to know what the professor wants but that the professor’s expectations are clear—which indicates to me that he does know what the professor wants. It’s clear that he has internalized what Inoue calls the dominant discourse and what Wilson calls the “dominant paradigm” (122). Grimm (1996b) notes, “Researchers have demonstrated that middle class students, particularly ones from urban environments, appear brighter than other students because they more quickly recognize and adopt the performances required of them without experiencing cultural conflict” (p. 13). The consultant, from a middle-class Houston family, fits this general description. As an agent, however unconscious, of the hegemonic, he resists supporting the student’s “vented frustrations.” I wonder, though, if that is exactly what the student needed.

Writing centers are complicit in defining the discourse of academic success, and this definition isn’t neutral. Inoue claims, “Racism in the writing classroom often works in similar ways. We define ‘good’ writing in standard ways that have historically been informed by a white discourse, even though we are working from a premise that attempts fairness” (p. 18). In her discussion of literacy work as a neutral practice, Grimm (1996b) writes, “The neutrality of the claim disguises its racist and classist agenda” (p. 19). Students who come from a particular background or who can quickly adapt to this discourse are least likely to be labeled deficient. The use of TSI scores at UHV, for instance, is particularly problematic since it fulfills a kind of quarantining function. In this light, S1 demonstrates the norming function that writing center serves.

The result in S1 would’ve been improved (that is, resulted in less frustration for both student and consultant—and a more equitable relationship between them), if the consultant had known what kinds of questions to ask both the student and himself. “Why did she come to the writing center? What is she having trouble with? Why is she having trouble with it?” (Appendix). I’ve answered these questions, at least in part, but asking these questions in the session and considering them more thoughtfully may have yielded a more positive relationship.

I also wonder what the consultant might’ve done to get the student more actively involved in the session rather than accept the responsibility of fixing the student’s “myriad problems.” He says he “had” to review her paper for various issues, but did he? What if he had, instead, focused on APA formatting like the student wanted? He could’ve looked at the references page first, discuss how to format that correctly, and used that discussion as a way to establish rapport and trust. Then the student might have been more receptive to his other comments. I don’t know that it would’ve been this simple, especially since the student seemed to be suffering from poor time management, but S1 feels like a power struggle, student and consultant jostling to take control of the consultation.

Story Two (S2)

During one of my sessions I had to work with a student who did not want me to make any suggestions regarding clarity, organization, APA formatting, or any other topics besides commas, to the point where he got very annoyed when I would bring up any part of his paper that did not make sense and would respond in a condescending attitude. I think that that was one of the most frustrating sessions I’ve had. Eventually, I just commented on the comma issues and ignored the rest because it was clear that he wasn’t going to listen.

Discussion of S2

In S2, the student refuses to yield any power or control to the consultant, limiting the scope of the session and the helpfulness of the consultation. While I usually advocate for students to be in complete control of the session, this particular instance highlights why this preference is sometimes problematic. In this case, the student didn’t want a consultation; he wanted an editor. In particular, S2 highlights the challenges of letting students run a consultation. I’ve trained the consultants at UHV to treat the student as the authority on their paper and the paper’s topic. Yet, what are they to do when a student becomes myopic, focusing on a single issue rather than taking a holistic view of the paper? Guiding questions are one strategy, but this student seemed resistant to and irritated by such efforts. The consultant finally caved and gave the student what he wanted, but was this really helpful for the student? I doubt it.

In this case, it looks like the student wanted to give only a certain kind of authority to the consultant, but should students be allowed to control the flow of power in this way? At this point, it might’ve been helpful to ask, “Who controls what is done in the center? Who controls what is done in consultations?” (Appendix). Redirecting the student would be the best option, explaining why focusing on something other than commas would be more beneficial. If that proved fruitless, then perhaps a handout would be the best way to go, but that seems a little punitive. To improve this scenario, I may also have engaged the student in some critical questioning, trying to help him see the other layers in the ecology pressuring him: Why the concern over commas? Did the professor ask you to focus on that? Does your professor take off points when pieces of punctuation are used incorrectly? How far these questions would’ve taken the consultant is debatable, but it would’ve given the consultant, perhaps, a better understanding of the student with whom he was working. Comma issues are also easier to digest and solve than issues of clarity and organization. Could the student have been intimidated by true revision? While I understand the action the consultant took, I also think he could’ve probed a little deeper.

Story Three (S3)

I’ve worked with some students multiple times over the course of semesters, and as the semesters progressed they seemed to improve and have a better grasp of writing. For example, last semester I worked with a student who would come in with her ENGL 1300 (developmental English) assignments. At the beginning…she had trouble identifying the thesis of the paper that she was meant to interpret, but by the end of the semester she seemed much more confident and was able to identify the thesis and main points. What I think helped was that I made sure to ask a lot of leading questions about what she thought during the earlier sessions while trying to guide her to the parts of the text where the author was explaining or alluding to his thesis.

Discussion of S3

In S3, power is more equitably distributed. The consultant asks leading questions and refers to previous sessions to help the student engage in the material and reach a deeper understanding of her writing. To me, S3 represents an ideal consultation, but you’ll notice it only occurs after frequent previous meetings. For this reason, it’s important to ask, “Who visits the center? How often do they come? Do you see regulars or first-time visitors more often? Does the writing center get more visits from, say, freshmen than seniors?” (Appendix). Writing center administrators and consultants alike need to have a clear idea of the kind of people who come to visit or who are struggling. “Are they all coming from the same class or for the same assignment? Does the professor make visits to the writing center mandatory?” (Appendix). The reasons people come to see us can greatly impact how consultations run. This story also highlights the way that learning is both a product of the writing center and an ongoing process. It demonstrates what all writers know to be true: to be a stronger writer, you need to write.

Story Four (S4)

In the first part of the semester, Patty mostly understood and was able to grasp the content being taught in class. She was able to independently create and voice her opinions on topics for assignments, so she mostly needed help with organizing her thoughts and staying on topic. Patty approached writing documents as more of an informal speech than an essay. She would review the prompt and any reading material related to the prompt, and would then handwrite her response as if she were talking. I noticed that Patty could get distracted by subtopics the prompt brought up, so one regular discussion we had was whether or not information was relevant to a paper. I also noticed that when Patty presented an argument or opinion, she would sometimes forget to use sources to back up her claims. To help with this, I provided Patty with different guides on ways to incorporate sources into an essay, and we talked about how to look for essential information in text that could be used to support her arguments.

Patty tried to use the same approach to writing more complex papers as she did with writing simple papers. She ran into problems with this approach since she often didn’t fully understand what the prompt was asking for, and she didn’t understand the requirements of these papers (e.g. format, structure, connections). To help with these problems, I began helping Patty to create outlines before writing her papers. The outlines showed me what Patty understood or misunderstood about the assignment. Together we would go over the prompt and her reading materials in order to complete the outline. Since Patty often didn’t understand what the main points of her essays were, we would focus on first making sure she understood the topics of the essays. I tried to help her see the connections between concepts and topics so she could make connections herself when creating her sub-points. For some topics, this meant breaking one of several main ideas into several smaller ideas, asking many questions to determine understanding of those ideas, and walking her through the connection between each idea leading back to the main idea.

This helped Patty to understand the content enough to create her own main points in essays since several of them were opinion-based. However, the process didn’t work all the time, especially since Patty would often began guessing at what she thought I wanted to hear by repeating phrases I said instead of trying to learn the content. This made the process more difficult and time consuming, so as an alternative I would give Patty examples of different connections or main points and would ask her to apply it to her essay. Other times I would give Patty different options of main points and would ask her to put the ones she chose into her own words to show understanding. This seemed to help Patty in understanding and completing her essays.

Discussion of S4

S4, for me at least, was one of the most memorable. This student was in basic composition, so not a remedial class, but she had learning disabilities and required more time to grasp concepts. S4 stands out to me because the student came in twice a day for four hours on each day to work on her writing assignments with the consultant, Vanessa. While Vanessa’s retelling of this story is somewhat mild, this particular student threatened to drop the class on more than one occasion because she didn’t feel she was getting the help she needed.

When a consultant begins working with any student, they may instinctively interpret why a student may be struggling with writing. Patty, however, was up front about her struggles and her reasons for them. However, many students may not have engaged in this kind of self-analysis or achieved any level of metacognition. It might be more effective for a consultant to think explicitly about a student’s struggle with writing and ask themselves, “How can a student’s background be used to help increase that student’s understanding of academic discourse? In what ways are students’ backgrounds different or similar to my background or the background of other writing consultants?” (Appendix). Even without explicit training in cultivating positive writing ecologies, Vanessa is able to pinpoint Patty’s problem areas and devises strategies and activities to guide Patty toward stronger academic writing. Patty’s frequent visits also contributed to an overall positive experience. Through their work together, she and Vanessa formed a strong relationship.

As Stephen North (1984) proclaims, “in a writing center, the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438). S4 seems to deliver this result. However, from an ecological view, where all the layers of an ecology inter-are the rest, there is not a difference between changing the writer and changing the writing. Further, is it really the writing center’s place to change the writer at all? Grimm (1996b) claims, “the scope of writing center practice is focused on changing students rather than changing teachers or academic practices. Writing problems are located in individuals rather than in assumptions embedded in academic discourse…Tutors, in general, aren’t supposed to question the wisdom of academic practices” (13). While I personally think Vanessa performed laudably, I also must pause and consider the ways in which we altered not just Patty’s writing, but Patty herself.

Conclusion

In reviewing these stories, I noticed the different ways that ecological power is held, shared, or hoarded. I shared these stories in an attempt to show the challenges our writing center faces (and that others may face). An essay itself is a product both of a writing center ecology and a writing classroom ecology, linking the two together. However, I’ve also shared these stories for myself, so I can better understand how I and the consultants narrate the writing center. I asked the consultants what they thought the story of the UHV Writing Center was. This is one answer: “My impression of the UHV Writing Center’s narrative is one of adaptability and growth.” To me, creating a narrative like that is paramount because it allows me to re-tell, re-shape, and re-narrate our story again and again. Every consultation is a chance to adapt, grow, and evolve. While we must think of the students we’re serving now, we must also think of the students who are yet to come through our doors.

Part of the goal of this paper was to question the norming function of writing centers. If everyone who visits and works in the writing center forms a series of interlocking relationships with one another and if everyone are the relationships they form, to what extent is correcting errors in writing actually correcting “errors” in people? Questioning this function is exactly what creating an antiracist writing assessment ecology is designed to do. If writing centers don’t begin problematizing their existential writing situations, as Inoue would have students and writing faculty do, we risk, as McKinney fears, fracturing writing center studies (p. 90). When writing centers leave the dominant discourse unchallenged, they end up doing the kind of work that made North so frustrated, the kind of work the UHV Writing Center was doing unconsciously. Without questioning, frankly, the motives of the dominant discourse, writing centers will always focus on products and close themselves off from discussing process.

The essay, the review, the document, etc. is an embodiment. It’s an embodiment of the struggle students face when they try to adapt their own discourse to that of the dominant one. Students often see the essay as the primary product of an assignment. However, the real product of any assignment is learning. The essay is merely a way to assess that learning. In writing centers, though, assessment is at the core of our work. Even if we argue that we practice non-evaluative techniques, Inoue (2015) counters, “Assessment as an act is at its core an act of reading” (p. 15). To read is to assess. However, a writing ecology is more than that. Inoue (2015) writes:

But writing assessment as ecology is more than reading and providing feedback, it’s also thinking privately and publically about expectations for writing, about the nature of judgment, about the nature of discourse itself, about one’s own existential writing assessment situation, one’s relation to the dominant discourse expected in the classroom or academy, and one’s own habitus that informs one’s judgments of texts. (p. 283)

Reading and conversation are the primary tools of a writing consultation. How can writing centers do more than provide feedback and suggestions? How can we explicitly give students the tools to clarify their visions and bring what is at the periphery into focus? The answers to these questions are actually more questions, which should surprise no one who’s ever worked in a writing center. Asking the right question at the right moment, can steer the consultation in a positive, equitable direction.

In a writing center, each session has the potential to be antiracist, which essentially means being critical of academic discourse and helping a student (and maybe even the consultant) understand why he or she is being asked to write in this way. Why can’t I say “I”? Or “you”? Why did my professor say I use too much passive voice? What is passive voice? These can be immediate concerns for students, but each one links back to a “standardized” version of American English, one that people in universities tacitly agree is academic. To answer these questions accurately, we must also question this academic discourse and allow students to question it as well. If every part of an ecology inter-is the others, then to change a writer, to change a person, means to change the entire system. A single narrative, grand or otherwise, cannot contain the work of writing centers, the impact they have on a student, the way these impacts echo across an institution.

 

References

Grimm, Nancy . (1996a). Rearticulating the work of the writing center. College Composition and Communication, 47(4), 523-548. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/358600

Grimm, Nancy. (1996b). The regulatory role of the writing center: Coming to terms with a loss of innocence. The Writing Center Journal 17(1), 5-25. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43442013

Inoue, Asao. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing

for a socially just future. South Carolina: Parlor Press.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. (2013.) Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan: Utah State

University Press.

North, Stephen. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English 46(5), 433-446. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Wilson, Shawn. (2008). Research is ceremony. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing Co.

 

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