A Short While Ago, In a Writing Studio Far, Far Away
The 25 Park Place building, a 28-story skyscraper in the heart of downtown Atlanta and Georgia State University’s urban campus, quintessentially represents academic prestige. The security desks on entry floors, grey walls, and intellectual chatter emit of sense of superiority, separating the most elite members of academia from the citizens who walk right outside the doors. But sitting amid offices that hold deans, department chairs, and tenured professors, the Writing Studio exudes a joyful energy, filling the air with energetic conversation and a scent of coffee that drifts through the hallways to welcome passersby to stop, chat, and rest, if only for a moment.
The Writing Studio is different from other spaces on campus. Relationships and community are its guiding principles, more so than utility and the “bottom line.” In fact the Writing Studio at Georgia State describes itself as such: “At the Writing Studio, we offer space for conversation, coffee, and writers, by creating a welcoming community for graduate and undergraduate students to practice the art of writing.” Connections seem to form naturally in this space. Tutors commonly celebrate with their tutees over a writing victory or commiserate over writing struggles, and collaboration is key when tutors prepare for conference presentations. The Studio functions as a unit, a type of support system for tutor and tutee alike. However, this connection remains constantly in flux due to high turnover rates and transient meetings. For the tutor and the long-time tutee, losing access to this space and its community can be a difficult change, a loss of sorts. This essay tells the story of three people over the course of two years, exploring their connection with each other and the Writing Studio, changes in those relationships, and ultimately, the loss of certain aspects of the relationships.
Many Voices Make Light Storytelling
In this communal setting of the writing center, moving from a space of community to an individual relationship reflects a great deal of effort and development from both tutors and tutees, resulting in a particularly important and influential connection. While the ending of both tutor/tutee and writing center/client relationships are often intentional, it is still a loss of community and support; a loss of a relationship that the writing center strives, at its very core, to build. Studying these individual relationships—their beginning, development, and ending— through an amalgamation of stories strengthens our understanding of if and how relationships can transcend the space of the writing center, which we believe ultimately helps improve best practices and tutoring philosophies.
To assess the effect of ending writing center-based relationships, we highlight the interplay of personal narratives with grand narratives about writing centers. The authors intend to mimic Selfe and Hawisher’s contention in “Exceeding the Bounds of the Interview” that including their interview subjects as coauthors allows them to “demonstrate the active and continuing involvement of participants with whom [they] worked as a way that more materially and visibly [acknowledge] the full range of their contributions as participants” (p. 40). In an effort to include the voice of both the tutee and tutor in the writing center relationship, this essay features three narratives, including two tutors’ and one tutee’s perspectives. These narratives examine each individual’s experience with developing, maintaining, and ultimately ending their professional relationship with each other and the Writing Studio as a shared space. All three authors treat the three narratives as auto-ethnographic data, from which we extrapolate considerations for those leaving the writing center sphere of influence.
Rather than fix our stories into one whole piece and act as if we each wrote every word, we are fragmenting the narrative and labeling the voices to aid in constellating these three stories. We hope that readers will experience our memories and inferences more organically this way, switching voices and perspectives to show the interconnected nature of relationships in our welcoming writing center spaces and to see how it feels to lose a client, even if for the best of possible reasons. After the individual narratives, we return to a collective voice as we reflect together on how our individual experiences may impact other writing centers.
A Grimm Brothers Tale: “How Three Students Got On in the World”
I will never forget my first writing studio appointment back in 2003. I was newly appointed one of two English tutors for remedial English students at my small private university’s Writing Lab in the Instructional Support Lab. A former classmate had graduated the year before and been offered a position teaching remedial English while he worked on his MA at a nearby university, and he gave me the papers for his students who had been assigned to my hours. The first paper I received needed a lot of work, and in my zeal, I marked every single error with an underline or circle or a note to the side; when I was done, apparently the marks could be seen from the door. I know this because the student arrived, stopped at the door, saw their paper bleeding green ink, and immediately broke into tears. They sat for about five minutes of the session, crying more or less the whole time, before excusing themselves and leaving. I never saw that student again, and from what my friend told me, they did not finish the semester. I don’t think this session was the primary cause of their leaving the university, but I had certainly not helped foster a relationship in which they could see me as a colleague or caring professional. My friend came over to ask what had just happened and patiently explained that, for a student placed in a remedial class, it was best to focus on no more than three consistent errors per half hour session. I was much more careful with my green ink from that point on, but the weight of that student’s tears never left me.
That first encounter was as an undergraduate tutor at Faulkner University, which we affectionately referred to at the time as Wright Club after our sponsor Jon Wright. After that, I worked informally on writing while teaching oral English at Chinese universities from 2005-2009, used tutoring skills to coach phone agents in a call center for three years from 2010-2013, tutored again at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2013 while working on my MA, and have just finished my second (and perhaps final) year of tutoring at Georgia State from 2015-2017 while working on my PhD. Reflecting on my first semester at GSU without working in the Writing Studio has made me more aware that not only are our student body clients graduating or transferring out of the studio community, but the majority of college and university writing center staff also put in hours to help them complete their degrees and move to more permanent positions. Thus, a tutor and a client meet in a writing center, both focused on the minutes of the session to get as much done as possible for mutually beneficial reasons. When the session is over, though, both the tutor and the client are likely that much closer to leaving the sphere of influence of that particular writing center.
In my two years at GSU’s Writing Studio, I had the opportunity to work alongside great colleagues in addition to dynamic students. Emily Kimbell and I began our graduate programs at the same time, and, because of the number of courses we have taken together, I often forget that she began in the MA track. Through shared coursework, tutoring together, and working with an innovative tutorial syllabus for a freshman orientation course, I got to know her quite well. As a peer, I value her insight and frequently seek her to read and comment on my work. I have also heard enough students rave about her in the studio, especially students who needed help approaching a topic, that I began to refer several of my own composition students to her for extra help generating ideas and drafting because tutoring my own students was considered a conflict of interest. I did not know until late in our time working together that Chris Wang was also regularly attending Emily’s sessions, but I was very glad to find that he experienced her positive, supporting influence and not just my own somewhat gruff, grammar-heavy approach to his poetic style of writing.
I have often used the image of the indentured servant or the migrant worker to explain to people outside academia what it looks like to be a graduate teaching assistant. This positionality affects the relationships that we student-tutors build, which is why when a tutee breaks through the barriers we erect against getting too close to clients whom we must inevitably leave, the level of commitment to that client is agonizingly high. Throughout my career as a tutor, I have seen a large number of one-off appointments, several frequent appointments, very few regular appointments, and only a small handful of students who have permission to email my personal account for help outside official tutoring hours. So why would I, a commuting graduate teaching assistant with a wife and a toddler, be willing to work outside of studio hours with students? It was all because I had built a close relationship with these few students: our stories had become intertwined in a way that made me want to be able to contact them even after they or I eventually had to leave the studio. That was the case with Chris, who was applying to transfer out of our university to another undergraduate program. We worked diligently with Chris to make sure that his application to leave our university and join a new program would be received favorably.
I worked with him first on big-picture issues:
- Do the stories you present in your personal statement convey professionalism within your field?
- Do your stories work to set you apart as uniquely qualified, or as a stranger who might not mesh well with this program?
- Does your tone show respect while also engaging the reader?
From there, we began dealing with increasingly local concerns, all the way down to comma rules and pronoun cases. Chris would revise more than almost anyone I have ever witnessed in composition, often bringing multiple versions of the same document to get input on which worked best for his purpose. Once he knew that Emily and I were aware that we were both seeing him in our tutoring hours, he would bring mark-ups from one to the other, establishing a type of hybrid synchronous/asynchronous tutoring session.
What always stood out the most in his writing, though, were Chris’s stories. He spoke of his own story with clarity, starting with how his parents had consulted a professional in China to know how to name him. The professional had said that he was lacking a type of wealth, which caused his parents to name him 金 (Jin – Gold), which Chris speculates in his written narrative may have set him on his course to study business. He also wrote about coming to America and getting a keychain from the college to which he was attempting to transfer, which he brilliantly encapsulated in a metaphor as his “first love.” He wrote about the experience of starting, quitting, and then re-starting his college education, specifically focusing on his father’s ultimatum to get into college or move out on his own. He wrote about his experience managing every element of his parents’ store, including a story about helping a woman buy a bra, which he asked the reader not to reveal to his mother! On occasion, Chris would also appeal to outside stories: stories about people from the universities to which he applied or about people who overcame overwhelming odds, because that is how Chris saw his own situation as an applicant. Chris clearly understood the power of story not only to help him stand out in his applications, but also to work as a heuristic that helped him focus on where he wanted to go.
In our sessions, I would set about reading Chris’ stories about growing up in a Chinese family, and I had to offer criticism of the stories that he had carefully chosen and represented. My own story, which had taken me for four years into Chinese universities, made me a little more comfortable with providing intercultural communication feedback concerning the naming ritual and some of the cultural experiences he detailed. Treacherous though that terrain could be, the most potentially damaging aspect was building an increasingly close relationship with a promising student who would, of course, be highly sought after by the programs to which he was applying. In reading these stories about his life, each session with such close interaction made me further involved in the story itself.
I was helping him leave our university early to be a graduate somewhere else, while I was also hastening through my own coursework and comprehensive exam process to finish my degree a bit faster, hoping to be able to be a GSU graduate. I never hear this tension discussed when I am with writing center tutors or administrators. Of course we have the logistical conversations: how many student appointments did we have per semester, and of those how many were new or repeat students and from what demographics? How many new tutors are we picking up next year? What will training look like? How do we take information from our center and create a proposal for a conference or an article for publication? But nothing is said about the personal factor. Many tutors have their favorite clients, and we each brag about them to no end when talking shop amongst ourselves, but nobody seems to address the fact that we student-tutors will be leaving our students, who are also working to graduate and leave us.
During the 2017 summer break, as Emily and I were waiting on our teaching schedules, we knew for a fact that there would be one fewer name on our colleagues’ tutoring schedules. We were not sad for Chris, because he successfully entered the university he desired to enter: he was going to his “first love.” But that departure would affect us as ex-tutors. Emily and I are both stepping away from tutoring this year altogether, thus neither of us will get to see his name on our schedules or read his familiar writing. In addition to losing the major point of contact for our well-developed writing relationship, in many ways we further lose the hours of previous sessions we had built up together. Early in his visits to our writing center, Chris became a fixture of my schedule, and I knew that we could pick up each session right where we had left off the last time without having to go through pleasantries I sometimes find tedious. As I read his stories and became more entrenched in them, our sessions extended beyond the 24th floor of our building (that’s right, no basement for us!). Chris and I exchanged personal emails, because we were in the application process together. I was invested in him not just as a client, but as a co-laborer in the process of writing and as a friend. Our communication became easy, with emails and Google Doc comments, not to mention the likes and comments on each other’s social media.
Now, our main source of interaction is through Facebook and Facebook Messenger. Even as we tried to coordinate meeting times to discuss and revise this document, it was all done through our social media presences. Getting three very different schedules to line up to meet in person outside academia’s structured schedules proves daunting, and our opportunities to engage through Facebook are far more limited in time and scope than the hour or so each week in Writing Studio appointments. Worse, though, in all of our training on how to be on-task in online WriteChat sessions, engaging ELL students, and general training on developing rapport and defining our writing studio pedagogy, we never discussed how to do this across multiple institutions. So while Chris adjusts to Georgia Tech, Emily gets absorbed in her amazing projects as a research assistant, and I slip into deeper and deeper need for any sort of time travel device to allow me to get my prospectus done and out to committee, we are all also trying to figure out how to keep a relationship that means more than the sum of the hours spent working on papers and applications in the Writing Studio. When I saw this special issue’s focus on sharing stories that complicate understandings of the writing center world, I immediately set up a meeting with Chris and Emily to discuss how we could use this chance to collaborate and maintain writing as the comfortable center of our relationship. So here we are, still working on writing, even if we’re not in the same physical space as members of the same university.
Emily Kimbell: “It’s Not the End. It’s Another Beginning.”
The nerves I felt while being interviewed for a graduate assistant position in the writing studio were palpable to everyone in the room. A fairly anxious individual by nature, I was being asked to discuss how and why I would be an effective tutor. The truth was that I had no idea. A couple months prior, I quit my job after two miserable years of monotonously entering data into computers day after day and decided to go to grad school in a completely different field than my marketing undergraduate degree. Though I had studied various subjects, changing my major four times over the course of my studies, neither English nor education had ever been one of those subjects. However, to my surprise, I was offered a position with Georgia State University’s Writing Studio.
I quickly learned that I loved my job. It was my daily task to talk to people and have conversations, something my family would agree that I would do for free. And even more, my experience in various fields, which I saw as detriment, became a strength. I could help students across disciplines because I had studied those subjects; I knew the writing and genre expectations for those classes. I made connections; I commiserated with students and fellow tutors; I found a place where I belonged. Reflecting on my time in the studio, I realize that tutoring shaped who I am as a graduate student, scholar, and teacher, and though I was initially nervous to embark on my journey as a new tutor, my two years spent in the studio formed the foundation of my teaching philosophy and taught me the true meaning of peer relationships.
My tutoring philosophy focuses on connection. When approaching each new session, I tend to dedicate the first five minutes to converse about school, the semester, and life in general. I strive to connect with my students and form a relationship with them, even if it only lasts thirty minutes, and in the world of writing centers, thirty minutes is the typical relationship length. Due to the nature of my background and expertise, I had the privilege of working with many repeat students, most often on application materials and personal statements, allowing this relationship to extend and granting me, as the tutor, the opportunity to witness students’ growth. My sessions are loud, they are conversational, they are personal.
Though I appreciate all my tutees and often remember individual sessions, one student stands out in my mind. Chris Wang was one of my first sessions as a new graduate assistant. At the time, Chris was an English 1101 student determined to do well on his assignments. We frequently met, having sessions every couple weeks, to discuss each stage of the writing process from brainstorming to final edits. Chris, though an exceptional student, was not a confident writer. He clung to my every suggestion and seemed relatively unsure how to answer any question I posed regarding his writing. Yet with each assignment, he grew as a writer, and when he came back the following semester for tutoring in English 1102, Chris began to demonstrate more agency, answering my questions confidently and contributing his own ideas regarding how to revise the assignments.
I have had other students consistently come for tutoring sessions throughout English 1101 and English 1102, but most move on from the Studio when writing and composition is no longer a central part of their assignments. However, Chris remained my most faithful student; we worked together throughout the summer on scholarship essays and into the following 2016 fall semester on proposals and marketing plans for his business classes. During that semester, Chris decided he wanted to transfer from Georgia State University. As his long-time tutor, I was thrilled to see his growth in confidence, but I was simultaneously devastated that he would be leaving and that I would be losing my best and most faithful student.
Our job as tutors is to regard our students as peers, to connect with them on a different level than their professors, and to invest time and effort into working on a very personal subject matter—their writing. Ingrained into tutoring best practices are these very ideas, yet we do not really consider the impact or the effect of ending these relationships that we have taken so much time to develop. In the case of Chris and many other students who seek advice regarding application material, the tutor is put in the unusual, if not precarious, position of helping to end the very relationship he or she strove to create.
Nevertheless, the job of the tutor is, and my job with Chris was, to continue investing in the tutee, developing their writing skills, and helping to create the most effective work possible. The process of writing Chris’ personal statement began with an untraditional session—we simply talked about our lives. In an effort to flesh out how to write his essay, Chris told me about his life, his troubles the first time he came to college, and his triumphant return to Georgia State. We talked for over an hour, spending moments stifling a laugh and others sitting on the verge of tears, but we did not write a single word. The next few sessions, we discussed how his story could be turned into a personal statement and what components would be important to include. As we continued working through the application process, I noticed how much Chris had changed as an author. We talked as two equals; I gave suggestions that he no longer immediately took but rather contemplated and responded to, adding his own thoughts or creating entirely new ideas. I realized that Chris now epitomized the goal of every writing center, every session, and every student—he had become a confident writer, a true peer with full agency willing and capable of voicing his own thoughts, ideas, and stories. Chris stopped by early in the spring semester to let me know he had received his acceptance letter to Georgia Tech, and I could not have been more proud.
Tutors are taught that writing centers are collaborative, communal spaces. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, but until I tutored Chris Wang, I did not realize the collaborative potential of the writing center. Unknown to us both at the time, Chris and I were beginning new personal journeys that 2015 fall semester as we both had returned to school after a multiple year hiatus. Throughout the first year of our tutoring sessions, as Chris became a more confident writer, I was gaining my footing and confidence as a tutor, in no small part due to repeat students like Chris. As we continued in our tutoring relationship, I assisted Chris with his assignments as he entered business school, and he helped calm my nerves as I entered the classroom for the first time as a composition instructor. We learned from each other, becoming better writers, teachers, and students in the process.
The communal aspect of the writing center extended beyond our tutor-tutee relationship. Chris also worked with Charles Grimm, another tutor at the Georgia State Writing Studio. Charles and I began our graduate programs at the same time, but despite taking several classes together, we were at different phases of our academic careers—he a Ph.D. student with years of experience in academia and me a brand new MA with only business experience. Charles often invited me to participate in class peer review sessions, but my bad case of “imposter syndrome” limited my contribution making me more of a spectator rather than a participant. However, in part by sharing a common student, I found that our professional relationship developed. I would frequently recommend both my tutees and my English students to Charles, particularly for grammar, and he would recommend me to his students, especially for brainstorming and idea development. Not only did our students gain confidence in their work, but I did as well. I noticed myself transforming into a contributor able to converse and collaborate with the other students in my program. By utilizing two tutors, primarily for different purposes, Chris unintentionally created a new dynamic for us in the Writing Studio, one where tutors recommend each other to best suit students’ needs, constructing a collaborative rapport opposite to the initial instinct to promote a singular, personal relationship with a student. This dynamic also helped me realize my own value as an academic—one with particular skills and insight that complement other scholars and contribute to larger conversations in the field.
This collaborative, communal atmosphere that promotes connections with each other and with students and establishes a sense of trust makes it difficult to leave the writing center space. When spring semester ended, I knew I would be losing Chris as a student and Charles as a fellow tutor. I had not planned on leaving the Writing Studio myself and found out late in the summer that I would working as a research assistant instead of a tutor after graduating from the MA program. The news was bittersweet. I was excited for my position but saddened to lose my community, one in which I finally felt embraced as a scholar and peer. The timing, however, was fitting; I was leaving the Writing Studio with my best tutee and my tutor counterpart. We all started in the Writing Studio at the same time, two years ago, and we were all moving on at the same time for various reasons. We were part of a large turnover at the studio, as several of the tutors have graduated or received different assistantship positions. Leaving was difficult, not just for the studio that had to train new tutors, invest time in new people, and find new leadership. It was also hard for us, who had spent years of our lives in the space and years working with the same people and the same students.
When I was first learned I would be leaving the studio, I felt that a relationship had ended. Now as I reflect on my time spent there, I realize that my connection isn’t lost but merely different. I am both in the community and community adjacent. Though I don’t spend every week in tutoring sessions, I am involved in studio projects, I will join my fellow tutors at future conferences, and I find myself integrating more writing center pedagogy into my teaching style every semester. My individual relationships with Chris and Charles have also evolved. Chris messages me about his time at Georgia Tech and his journey to find new tutors at their Communication Center, and Charles’ office is just a couple of doors down from my own. We meet virtually to brainstorm, write, and revise and in a way, have developed more of a “peer” relationship than before through co-authoring this essay. Starting at the Writing Studio, we were all strangers, each undertaking a new phase of our lives. Now as we start another new phase, we face them with a new perspective: relationships not ended but rather different—grown and expanded as the result of two years of collaboration, camaraderie, and impact.
Chris Wang: Why Seize a Day When Dessert is on the Menu?
In February 2017, I attended a cocktail reception hosted by the business school of Georgia State University. During the event, I asked a business professor what his motto is in life. “Carpe Bellaria,” Professor Ruff replied with a grin. He anticipated my puzzled expression and offered me an explanation. Bellaria means desserts in Roman, and similar to Carpe Diem, “Carpe Bellaria” means “seize the desserts.” Professor Ruff further explained that in a business dinner, entrée is usually the last course served on table. If you want a dessert, it is in your best interest to raise your hand and declare your love for sweet indulgence at the beginning of the dinner. Reflecting on my personal journey at Georgia State, I have raised my hands several times in some critical moments that changed the course of my college life. Entering the Writing Studio the first time in my freshmen year, becoming a regular to my tutors Emily Kimbell and Charles Grimm was the cherry on top.
Writing essays used to be the biggest obstacle I faced during my first experience in college. Until I decided to join Emily and Charles on this publishing project, failing English 1101 courses two semesters in a row was the “dark past” I was afraid to share with my tutors (now Emily and Charles know!). I’d rather solve 20 differential equations than write a 200-word English composition. However, realizing that taking English courses is unavoidable and improving my writing skills is essential to my goal, I told myself to embrace the challenge and seek tutor assistance offered by the Writing Studio. Emily was not only my first tutor at school, but was also one of the few people I chose to share my personal story with. Returning to Georgia State as a non-traditional student, I was reluctant to talk about my struggles in the past and eager to build a new image of myself. Going to tutoring sessions could have been ordering services to me; it is uncommon for a client and a service provider to maintain a relationship after their appointment.
In my first session with Emily, however, she did not jump right into editing my paper, but took time to get to know me as well as to share a few things about herself. Emily and I have a lot in common: we both majored in business as undergraduates. Moreover, I learned that Emily has been performing on stage in musical theater for years, which contributed to the brilliant script writing and storytelling skills I see as her special talents in the studio. I started playing piano when I was five years old, so sometimes we spoke with another form of communication: art, which sparks creativity in my writing. I became a regular to Emily’s sessions where she orchestrated me into a confident writer and played in duet when writing essays. Our duet became a trio when I met Charles.
Having lived and taught in China, Charles connected with me effortlessly as we discussed culture, people, and foods in my home country. One interesting fact is that where he proposed to his wife in Nanchang was also the city where I took my girlfriend on our first vacation. With his grammar savvy, attention to details, and straight-to-the-point tutoring style, Charles is the last line of defense before I turn in my work. More importantly, Charles was involved in every step of my transfer application process, and he devoted countless hours outside our regular sessions to help me reach my personal goal. Aside from giving feedback to my application essay, Charles had done more than what I could ask for from a Writing Studio tutor. From an applicant perspective, he thought how I could develop my story in an unique and meaningful way; on the other hand, he examined the paper as an admission officer to spot any unfavorable ideas that may raise a red flag.
In 2017, I asked Emily and Charles to join my “Road to Georgia Tech” campaign. Unlike the current White House crews, Emily, as my Director of Communication, and Charles, as my Chief of Staff, worked seamlessly inside and outside the Writing Studio, and eventually helped me to reach the Promised Land. Our bonds are strong because Emily and Charles have invested in me since the first tutoring sessions. My trust in my tutors is unreserved because they are the key witnesses and catalysts to my transformation in college.
Dr. Ruff’s motto shows me that taking initiative and being proactive will lead me to the right path. When I deliver my message loud and clear, the universe would respond by setting me up to meet people who will guide me through uncertainty. If going to tutoring sessions in the Writing Studio is considered as the entree, then developing and maintaining relationships with my tutors are desserts because I want our interactions and collaborations to stay a little longer. Even though we all have left GSU’s Writing Studio, the fond memories we created and an unbreakable bond we shared are “Bellaria” that I’ve indulged myself in for a lifetime.
Reflecting in One Voice with the Benefit of Time
Writing this article caused each author to write with a keen awareness of person, and the resulting tension may even remain in the text for the reader. That tension, though, perfectly illustrates the way that Stories push against the individual’s story. When first person shifts from singular to plural, and even more so when first person is distanced to third, something changes. For this last paragraph, then, our voices converge as a unity, but not as a totality—not all has been said on how clients or tutors leaving the studio impacts the writerly communities we hope our writing centers embody. More people need to think and speak critically about how the transient nature of tutors and clients in university systems takes a toll on all involved in the writing center world. When we first pitched this idea to the editors, at least one of us was expecting to remain in the studio for this academic year, and suddenly with news of Emily’s new professionalization opportunity we were all gone. There was no debrief, there was no warning, there was just a free-fall away from our Writing Studio’s community of writers.
And now a semester has passed since we left the GSU Writing Studio. With the passing of time comes the realization that continuing relationships both with each other and with the Writing Studio could not continue in the exact same manner as before our departure. Despite the best of intentions, an element of connection is lost: without a physical structure to house or facilitate relationships, other concerns take priorities, whether scholarship, career, family, or new obligations. By examining our individual narratives as a composite and reflecting on our intentions versus current reality, we notice key components of relationships and connections forged in the writing center. To help the greater writing center community consider how to guide tutors and tutees to end their relationships well or continue them into an embodied practice outside of the brick-and-mortar writing center structure, we offer the following reflections.
1) Writing Center Relationships are Transient
Change is an ever-present facet of the writing center. Bonnie S. Sunstein (1998) defined writing center culture as a space of liminality and “in-betweenness” arguing that “Writing Centers exist in an often uncertain present” (p. 7). Questions of change and liminality still plague writing center scholarship, as indicated by the theme for the Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) 2018 conference “Writing Centers in Transition.” The call for papers acknowledges that “the nature of writing center work can seem transient at times, with students, tutors, and, to a lesser extent, administrators, revolving in and out of centers at rapid rates. The cumulative effect is writing centers often being in a near constant state of transition.” Transience has been positioned in writing center scholarship as a positive. Sunstein (1998) argues that a culture of liminality allows for natural pedagogical and professional student growth and SWCA hopes to “explore together how transition in our centers can be seen as a positive force of good and hope.” While we do not disagree with these assessments nor argue that a culture of liminality is inherently negative, we do believe a constant state of transience should be considered from a nuanced perspective.
Writing center relationships will always end in some way or aspect: sessions run out of time, tutors graduate from their programs, directors rotate positions. Despite the fact that tutors and tutees both enter into the writing center relationship cognizant of its eventual necessary conclusion, this inevitable ending can cause psychological strain for both the tutor and tutee. As Chris and Emily both noted in their narratives, forging a relationship helped each of them find out how to be the type of scholar they wanted to be, but now both are continuing on their academic paths with that support weakened without the chance to meet regularly in the Writing Studio. Even though writing center pedagogy focuses on the relationship with the individual, writing centers must understand that the ending of the relationship can be upsetting for the individual agents in the relationship. The tutor or tutee is essentially losing a connection formed through best practices, careful consideration, and contributed time; the more an individual is invested in the center, the greater the potential loss.
We cannot stress enough the abrupt nature with which changes to writing centers and writing center relationships can occur. When we first began drafting this paper, we had assumed that Charles was leaving of his own choice, Emily would be staying through her professionalization in the Ph.D. program, and Chris would, of course, be moving to another university. We had to adapt during our drafting process for this article, though, because Emily found out just before the fall semester began that she would not be professionalizing in the studio. This emphasizes the exigency for discussing the ending, sometimes sudden, of writing center relationships. If funding for a position disappears unexpectedly or any other number of factors takes a tutor out of the center, all members of the writing center relationship must adjust—writing centers hire new people, tutees visit new tutors, and tutors replace their studio time with another activity. Rather than simply accepting that this is the case without remark or comment, we must question and consider how, as a writing center community, to emphasize this inevitable ending even as we continue to reflect on the inception and continuation of relationships within our centers.
2) Writing Center Relationships are Perilous
The transient nature of writing center work necessitates formation of new relationships. While on some level this cycle works due to consistent training of new tutors; on another level, old connections and relationships can never be replaced. Writing center relationships are distinct in the university in such ways that they cannot be automated. Textbooks, lectures, or presentations can not simulate the relationship nor the knowledge gained from a tutor-tutee interaction. As Charles’s story about his first tutoring session demonstrates, the loss of a tutee and the corresponding end of such a relationship is often more than merely a loss of knowledge or skill. It can cause a disconnect between the tutee and the university or academia at large, because peer tutors in our welcoming environments are still ambassadors of our universities and colleges. Institutionally, our relationships carry a lot of weight, which is why so many of us are working to provide statistics on how writing centers help with retention and other large-scale issues to justify our continued or expanded services.
Finding a new tutor at a Georgia Tech (GT) has not been an easy job for Chris. When we were discussing this point together, he said it’s not that tutors are irreplaceable, but that he has to find the right one and build a relationship all over again. It was basically a blind date when he first booked Emily’s tutoring session in the GSU Writing Studio. Although it proved to be a perfect match, finding a new “Emily” in Georgia Tech’s writing center on a first attempt amid the difficulty of starting a new school is unnecessarily stressful. Chris did do his due diligence: he went on to the GT writing center’s webpage and read each tutor’s information as if preparing for an important interview. Looking up tutors’ bios and specialties in writing may seem extreme for some tutees, but Chris knew that if the new “Emily” did not in sync with him at the very beginning, he would not feel comfortable opening himself up in order to build a strong and personal relationship in the long term. It took over 50 hours of tutoring sessions between the three of us to reach to the level where Chris’ sessions could be accessed like a “Save/Load” mode on a video game. We all knew each other so well that we could jump right into the project seamlessly without having to replay difficult levels. More importantly, Chris feels that his transfer to Georgia Tech would not have gone as smoothly if he had not gained his tutors’ support–with this history, how does a tutee enter into a fresh relationship without unrealistic expectations of a first encounter?
Thus the reputation of the school, the success of students, and even future interactions with other institutions’ writing centers can all depend on relationships that we foster in our writing centers, and WPAs must remember this. Each of us has worked at places that brag about how they are always hiring, and each of us saw quickly that this can only be true if the company is simultaneously losing people frequently. It would be easy with all of the other duties on our writing center administrators at all levels to see a revolving work force and thus focus solely on starting relationships. We cannot lose sight, however, of the fact that many peer tutors are often struggling with the weight of studies, the attached financial issues that make many of us wonder if we can afford going to the doctor when sick, and the relational strain academic work has on us and our loved ones. For many student peer tutors, relationships in the writing center with other tutors and tutees can defray some of these tensions. We are experts in this room, skilled enough in writing to be asked to help others with their writing, which can boost our confidence in the face of the Imposter Syndrome we all feel. We can safely speak not only of our successes, but also of our failures with colleagues and tutees and get a listening ear that those who only wish for our success are not always ready or willing to hear about. Losing these facets of our community hurts, but the losses are amplified when the community is not disembodied in a space but lives in the specific relationships developed between friends.
As a community, we must think more about the impact of our relationships beyond the atmosphere it creates in our writing center spaces and think about the individual aspect as well. Obviously we cannot promise that each tutor or tutee will develop these relationships, as some on both sides are fulfilling a perfunctory obligation, but the lack of current publications on the loss of relationships indicates that perhaps we as a community are front-loading our research on how to initiate relationships without adequately thinking through what happens to both tutors and tutees when these relationships inevitably go away. This could easily add to the mental and emotional stress for student tutors and tutees, which is certainly not the motivation behind advertising our welcoming spaces.
3) Writing Center Relationships have Growth Potential
In describing writing center culture, Sunstein (1998) argues that “writing centers defy spatial definition” (p. 9). Sunstein’s interpretation gives the writing center an ephemeral/malleable quality: “writing centers are the trunks of part-time adjuncts’ cars…Writing centers are spaces inside other spaces….Writing centers exist in cyberspace…Writing centers are conferences and dorm rooms and under trees” (p. 9). This mobile aspect of the writing center certainly is true; writing centers infiltrate many physical structures of academia, often joining forces with other university groups and organizations in an attempt to meet students where they are. However, writing center culture, while not physically restrained to a place, does experience an element of spatial definition through cognitive separation.
When thinking of the writing space through Sunstein’s definition as the individuals, tutors, and practices associated with the writing center, we could argue that space plays a larger role in the writing center than previously thought. Concepts of collaboration and community are paramount in writing center pedagogy, yet these ideas are more affixed to those currently within the writing center space instead of applying to those who have come through the space or previously been part of the space. The community exists, but it is transitory. In contrast, groups like fraternities and sororities that hold similar values of relationships and community extend notions of connections even after individuals leave the confines of the space. This concept does not particularly translate in the writing center space. Once a tutor or tutee leaves, there is a disconnect; ties to the community are disrupted.
The question then is how do writing centers become a space where relationships are transferred instead of ended? Some tutors, like Charles, have a more standoffish positionality within the writing studio, while others like Emily prefer to be personable with students immediately. Regardless of the personal style or tutoring philosophy, just as writing studies hopes for transfer in students’ writing abilities, we in the writing center world should also be aware that relationships transfer as well. We always want our students to take away at least a few things from each session for their writing, so we in the writing center research community should also be thinking about what each tutor and tutee takes away from the experience of tutoring in the writing center, which includes the individual relationships they will form. A lack of discussion about leaving well may inhibit tutors or tutees from taking writing center methods into other aspects of their lives. And our discussions of retention, although fueled by honest motivations, run the risk of quantifying what is unquantifiable in our specific relationship that caused three students at different points in their academic, professional, and personal lives to invest their spare moments to keeping a relationship going when the writing center is no longer expedient for them.
Through the Glass Dimly: a Formal Conclusion Cannot Stand in Relationships
For each of the three stories presented, the building and continuation of relationships within the Writing Studio space should come as no surprise. Writing center pedagogy has always aimed for this style of lateral communication, surpassing the simple editing of a paper and working alongside authors to create writerly habits. However, when faced with the prospect of continuing these relationship outside of writing center space, previously established connections became difficult to maintain and develop. Even as we work together to write this article, we shared confusion: Chris, who has not involved himself in the academic literature because it is outside his scope as a business student, had to rethink how losing the common space impacted him beyond the obvious change to his schedule. Emily and Charles, both of whom have presented research at writing center conferences and helped conduct training sessions for their Writing Studio, also struggle to explain how mediating relationships after ending our tenure in the studio is ultimately a psychic strain. This shared confusion raises questions about how the field prepares rising scholars for the continuation of peer-to-peer relationships. While writing center literature encourages collaboration and community, the constructs remain within the confines of the writing center space. Rarely does the peer relationship so heavily promoted in scholarship extend beyond the tutoring session, especially between tutor and tutee. However, if we truly advocate for collaborative principles, we must find ways to prolong the writing center relationship and challenge ourselves to continue peer relationships beyond a tutor’s tenure at the center. In this way, writing center work and principles become less temporary. It is no longer the ending of a relationship, but rather a transformation of one—writing center principles embodied outside of the space.
We choose, then, not to see our three-way departure as the ending of a relationship but rather as an opportunity for it to grow further. In working together over the course of several months to co-author this piece before yet another semester takes us further away from each other, we find ways to meet. Early in the process, we commuted some distance through Atlanta traffic to meet literally right outside our writing center, which was not open between the summer and fall semesters when we had the time to meet and write. As our colleagues in the writing center prepared their orientation materials for the new and returning tutors, we were nearby but distanced from them. The fall semester threw enough curve balls at us that meeting in person again has not been expedient, so we meet digitally, checking in through Google Docs and Facebook messenger, staying in each other’s lives, sharing in each other’s joys and sorrows, reading and commenting on each other’s works, embodying the peer relationship in an effort to contribute our relationship, our stories, to furthering the body of research that comprises writing center scholarship.
Selfe, C. & Hawisher, G. (2012). Exceeding the bounds of the interview: Feminism, mediation, narrative, and conversations about digital literacy. In L. Nickoson & Mary Sheridan (eds.), Writing studies research in practice: Methods and methodologies, pp. 36-50. Southern Illinois University Press.
Sunstein, B. S. (1998). Moveable feasts, liminal spaces: Writing centers and the state of in-betweenness. The Writing Center Journal, 18(2), 7–26. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/43442045.
Writing centers in transition. (2017). Southeastern Writing Center Association. Retrieved from https://southeasternwritingcenter.wildapricot.org/2018-Conference
Writing studio services. (2017). Georgia State University Writing Studio. Retrieved from http://writingstudio.gsu.edu/writingstudioservices/