Book Review: Re/Writing the Center: Approaches to Supporting Graduate Students in the Writing Center

Reviewed by Kelsie Endicott
Salisbury University

Lawrence, Susan & Zawacki, Terry Myers. (2018). Re/Writing the Center: Approaches to Supporting Graduate Students in the Writing Center. Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press. 267 pp.

Susan Lawrence and Terry Zawacki’s book, Re/Writing the Center: Approaches to Supporting Graduate Students in the Writing Center, was of the utmost interest to me since I am a doctoral student and a university writing center (UWC) tutor. These two identities framed my reading of this book: I was looking for ways that I and other graduate students at my university could be supported in our writing and our research while simultaneously reading for ways that I as a tutor and my UWC as a whole could better support students. Re/Writing the Center: Approaches to Supporting Graduate Students in the Writing Center, is a collection of research-based articles that explore a current “hot” topic in the field of writing center studies—the graduate university writing center. These articles comprise the twelve chapters of the book, in addition to an acknowledgements section, prologue, introduction, and epilogue. The chapters in this book, each featuring different contributors, are organized into three parts: “Part 1: Revising Our Core Assumptions”, “Part 2: Reshaping Our Pedagogies and Practices”, and “Part 3: Expanding the Center”. The overarching theme of this book emphasizes not only the need for graduate writing centers (GWCs) on university campuses, but argues that in many cases, GWCs should function somewhat autonomously from university writing centers (UWCs) because UWCs primarily cater to undergraduate students and typically employ undergraduate tutors, characteristics that can be perceived as offering less utility for graduate students.

The prologue, written by Paula Gillespie, a former director of various writing centers and past president of the International Writing Center Association (IWCA), not only establishes the book’s purpose—a need for GWCs—but also introduces the use of narrative and contextualization to the issue being examined, a writing move that is important when arguing the case for GWCs and is frequently borrowed by the other contributors to this book. Gillespie examines the issues that typically plague GWCs (i.e. lack of institutional support and funding and frequent GWC staff changes) and offers experienced insight as to how to navigate such administrative issues by forming partnerships with stakeholders and advocating for cost-efficient programs.

The introduction section of this book discusses what the editors refer to as their “origin stories” (Lawrence & Zawacki, 2018, p. 7), or reason for their interest in investigating writing center support for graduate students. Their general conclusion is that oftentimes, graduate students need writing support, but due to a number of issues, (such as lack of funding, assumptions by faculty that graduate writers are already proficient writers in their discipline or genre and do not need such writing support, etc.) have writing needs that go unmet, all of which is familiar rhetoric amongst graduate students, and thoughts that I tend to agree with.

Part I encompasses chapters 1-4 and address perennial writing issues, such as writing across the curriculum (WAC) and its relation to writing center culture and pedagogy; operating a writing center, particularly centers that endeavor to serve primarily graduate students as opposed to undergraduate students; how to better serve multilingual graduate students and those students in STEM fields; and examining the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of academic language in GWCs.

Chapter 1 is written by Michael Pemberton and entitled “Rethinking the WAC/Writing Center/Graduate Student Connection”. In this chapter, Pemberton reflects on and extends upon his 1995 article regarding the topic of generalist versus specialist writing center tutors and problematizes the need for a graduate writing center and identifies the differing writing needs of undergraduate and graduate students. His argument is exemplified by his statement that:

The need for writing assistance is crucial, particularly given the liminal, transitional space that advanced graduate students occupy; however, most writing centers…are not structured or staffed in ways that will allow them to provide discipline-specific writing assistance relevant to advanced graduate students in a wide variety of professional discourse communities. (p. 34)

Here, Pemberton suggests that the university writing center should be the “literal center for writing on campus” (2018, p. 42) and that he is optimistic that writing centers will continue to support the needs of all students. I agree with Pemberton that UWCs should be the center for all writing on campus, but, for many of the reasons he mentions in his chapter, I think UWCs actually struggle to fulfill this role, particularly due to limited budgets, the lack of time UWC administrators have available to lend the kinds of support UWCs need for this role, and the educational backgrounds and experiences of many UWC tutors as undergraduates presumably trained in non-directive tutoring strategies as opposed to directive, or discipline-specific approaches. However, this chapter is crucial because it extensively discusses  and brings awareness to the many factors involved that complicate and even inhibit the success of writing centers to be places of support for graduate students.

Chapter 2, authored by Sarah Summers, is entitled “The Rise of the Graduate-Focused Writing Center: Exigencies and Responses”. In this chapter, Summers discusses how changes in writing centers are usually a response to a “perceived crisis in education” (p. 51). The development of GWCs is a result of such a crisis, in particular the length of time to degree or PhD attrition rates. The reputation of UWCs and now GWCs as being reactions to literacy crises is at this point, an unfortunate, but well-known phenomenon and is documented in both Elizabeth Boquet’s (1999) work and Peter Carino’s (1995) work regarding the history of writing centers. For years, UWCs have been trying to rid themselves of the residue of being places for remediation. The view of UWCs as places of remediation largely stems from this practice of reacting to a literacy concern by implementing a program to “fix” the problem. This isn’t necessarily a poor way to approach such crises, but such reactions are oftentimes short-lived and lack intentionality beyond the scope of the present crisis. After establishing this context, Summers discusses the results of her survey regarding the pedagogical practices of GWCs (p. 54). Her main finding was that there is a need for sustainable GWCs (p. 62). This finding is similar to the call that Pemberton issued in chapter 1 regarding the need to maintain UWCs on campus so that they continue to best serve all who visit them.

Supporting Summers’ desire for a sustainable graduate writing support, Chapter 3 by Steve Simpson draws our attention to the needs of GWCs for non-native English speakers. He advocates the need for improved pedagogy for non-native English speaking graduate students, positing that even though L1 and L2 speakers may struggle with the same aspects of writing, their reasons for doing so are different. He suggests that non-native English speaking graduate students need better scaffolding of the writing process, and recommends that writing centers should perform a “periodic, institution-wide needs analysis that surveys graduate students and faculty advisors about potential unmet needs and the particular writing experiences and challenges they face” (p. 77). He concludes his chapter by asking writing centers to realize the complexity of their multilingual graduate students’ needs and looking for ways to provide more nuanced and holistic support to this population, a similar theme that is echoed in the next chapter of this book.

Part 1 concludes with chapter 4, “Getting the Writing Right: Writing/Language Centers and Issues of Pedagogy, Responsibility, Ethics, and International English in Graduate Student Research Writing” by Joan Turner. In this chapter, Turner focuses on the writing of L2 graduate students and the challenges that writing centers face while playing the role of mediator between student and institutional expectations. She discusses how academic language and writing is no one’s first language and that this is something students become enculturated into as they progress in their specialized fields. Centering her discussion on the concept of proofreading and the negative connotations that are inherent for those who work in a writing center, Turner argues that proofreading can be valuable to L2 students if the context is appropriate, such as in a one-to-one tutoring session with a tutee who has an established relationship with the tutor, and on a small portion of the text. She also recommends that writing tutors be familiar with the genre conventions of the writing that tutees bring to a writing consultation so that they do not incorrectly edit graduate students’ papers. Both Simpson and Turner’s chapters argue that a more directive approach is needed when tutoring graduate, non-native English speakers—an approach that probably many tutors can relate to and simultaneously put into practice. Turner makes an important point about the need for tutors to have genre knowledge, particularly when working with graduate students. This is an idea that has recently been taken up by scholar-practitioners in the field, and tools such as rhetorical reading guides (Greenwell, 2017), or RRGs, have been created in an attempt to supplement this gap in both knowledge and practice within the context of UWCs and GWCs if applicable. However, more research is necessary on the topic of genre, genre conventions, and pedagogical approaches to genre instruction for tutors.

Part II, “Reshaping Our Pedagogies and Practices”, encompasses chapter 5-8, and includes articles on writing center instruction and their implications for GWCs. These chapters examine intake consultation procedures for GWCs, hybrid consultations, the pedagogy of “noticing” for multilingual writers, and training tutors on how to handle highly technical and specialized writing. In Chapter 5, “Intake and Orientation: The Role of Initial Writing Center Consultations with Graduate Students”, by Patrick S. Lawrence, Molly Tetreault, and Thomas Deans, is a study of intake procedures for GWCs at two universities, which finds that graduate student writers appreciated having an intake process before attending a tutoring session and being matched with a tutor based on the intake interview. This approach to tutoring helped to ease anxiety in tutees, led to better tutor matches, tutees felt that their time was well invested with such intake procedures, and that it led to an enhanced perception of professionalism of the writing center. The idea of having intake procedures in a GWC seemed particularly novel to me as I’ve never read about or experienced such a process. I could see this being extremely helpful to graduate students. At my UWC, we encourage graduate students to make appointments with graduate student tutors or our UWC director and associate director, so to some extent we have put this idea into practice. As it stands, however, we do not have enough graduate student or advanced degree tutors where we could even think about implementing this practice, but for those that have the staffing required for such a process, I think it would be a worthwhile venture. I do, however, have minor reservations about the medical terminology being used to describe this process, especially since in the history of UWCs, there was a time period where some writing labs essentially practiced “armchair psychology” in the context of writing to the detriment of our field (Carino, 1995).

In chapter 6, “Hybrid Consultations for Graduate Students: How Pre-Reading Can Help Address Graduate Students’ Needs”, Elena Kallestinova analyzes the results of data taken from a hybrid consultation approach she uses at the Graduate Writing Lab (GWL) at Yale University. She discusses the details of a hybrid consultation, but it is essentially a service where the tutee submits their draft online to a writing tutor, and the tutor reads it over and takes notes that will be used in synchronous discussion between the tutor and the tutee. The results of her data indicate that graduate students especially, including the tutors, prefer this approach to tutoring over the traditional one-session, synchronous writing appointment. Kallestinova recommends that other GWCs adopt this approach to tutoring because it is highly beneficial for everyone involved. Her recommendations for how to approach tutoring graduate students is particularly intuitive and seems practical as long as universities are willing to fund such a hybrid approach. In my experience as a graduate student and tutor, I find that graduate students write lengthy papers that require more than just one appointment at the UWC to review the entire paper, therefore it would be advantageous for both parties to implement Kallestinova’s process.

Michelle Cox’s chapter, ‘‘Noticing’ Language in the Writing Center: Preparing Writing Center Tutors to Support Graduate Multilingual Writers” examines tutor training practices that are supportive to second language writing processes through the theoretical framework of linguist Richard W. Schmidt’s concept of “noticing” (p. 146). Cox adapts this theory and applies it to writing center pedagogy, which includes the use of mentor texts from the student’s field that tutors can use to direct tutoring discussions to a focus on features of the mentor text as a pathway to learning how to construct a similar text (p. 148). Cox’s suggestion for using mentor texts during tutoring is similar to Turner’s call for pedagogy on genre conventions. Cox’s use of mentor texts is a form of modeling the reading process within the tutees disciplinary field, and is a pedagogical strategy that is greatly needed amongst current university students since there has been a recent call for renewed interest and attention to reading within a UWC/GWC context (Adams, 2015; Carillo, 2017; Harris, 2017).

The need for directive tutoring, genre knowledge, and a focus on writing in the disciplines is echoed in Chapter 8, titled ‘‘Novelty Moves’: Training Tutors to Engage with Technical Content” by Juliann Reineke, Mary Glavan, Doug Phillips, and Joanna Wolfe. The topic of this chapter is how to train tutors to address highly specialized content while also providing appropriate guidance on discipline-specific writing conventions. The authors suggest using a genre-based method that they refer to as CGA, or Comparative Genre Analysis. The authors believe that by training tutors to learn about various genres that they may encounter, this will better enable tutors to assist graduate students who are writing in a technical field, or any other field that the tutors may be unfamiliar with. This chapter is intriguing, but does not quite seem to convey what the novelty moves are and how they can be used. The authors of this chapter spend a lot of space discussing how their approach to instructing tutors on how to aid specialized writers with their technical content is successful, but I wanted to know how it was successful, not just that it was. Clearly defining what the novelty moves are with examples of such tutoring strategies might have made me understand this approach better.

Chapters 9-12 comprise the final section of the book, “Part III: Expanding the Center”. The topics in this section cohere around ways to better serve graduate students, whether that be in the form of providing dissertation support, helping writing center directors grow and better manage their writing center, and/or tailoring writing support to align with professional goals of graduate students and developing their identities as academic writers. Chapter 9 is entitled, “A Change for the Better: Writing Center/WID Partnerships to Support Graduate Writing”. The chatper’s authors Laura Brady, Nathalie Singh-Corcoran, and James Holsinger focus their discussion on the theory of Organizational Development, which is a theory that espouses that change occurs either episodically or continuously, and proactively or reactively. The authors applied this framework to their writing center, which they call a Writing Studio, to examine various issues that graduate students were experiencing and to try to resolve those issues. They recommend that other writing centers examine their processes through the lens of Organizational Development theory and make beneficial changes to their operations. This particular chapter is especially useful for writing center directors and administrators because it advocates that such writing center leaders pay close attention to their issues, identify their complexities and take a deliberate, process-driven approach to resolving the issue. Organizational Development theory is related to other root cause analysis methods for resolving problems, such as developing a fishbone diagram or applying improvement science strategies (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, LeMahieu, 2015) as a part of problem-solving techniques. Applying OD theory to your UWC or GWC could enhance the value of any practices within your writing center and make your praxis more effective.

Chapter 10, “‘Find Something You Know You Can Believe In’”: The Effect of Dissertation Retreats on Graduate Students’ Identities as Writers”, by Ashly Bender Smith, Tika Lamsal, Adam Robinson, and Bronwyn T. Williams, details how writing retreats should serve the equally important purpose of developing graduate writers’ identities as scholarly writers besides simply giving them time to work on writing their dissertation. They suggest providing workshops during a retreat that will necessitate graduate students to think about how they perceive themselves as writers, in addition to teaching them practical writing skills they can utilize to write their dissertation. The writers argue that by allowing graduate students to think about their writing identities, these students in turn will develop confident literate identities and approach the difficult task of writing a dissertation with confidence rather than being stifled by fear and anxiety. As a doctoral student who has not yet begun the dissertation process, I am intrigued by the idea of having a retreat where I would only focus on writing my dissertation. With that said, I can also think of myriad ways that such a retreat would fail to meet my needs. I think that for a writing retreat to be successful, it would need to clearly communicate to students what such a retreat would entail, and what the rules of the retreat are so that writers could self-select into such a retreat. All writers have differing writing processes, and what works for some, may not work for others. For example, I am a writer who becomes highly distracted when placed in a room with others—I find ways to lose my focus just by being interested in what is (or isn’t) happening with others in the room. I work best in quiet isolation. However, I know plenty of writers whose writing process requires background noise, music, or even a coffee shop setting in order for them to do their best work. Writing centers that decide to offer such a retreat would need to consider that writers have different writing processes and be cognizant that they may not be able satisfy each graduate student’s writing needs. Ultimately, I still see offering such a retreat as a positive move toward supporting graduate student writers, and both chapters 11 and 12 contribute more on this subject.

Chapter 11 is entitled, “More Than Dissertation Support: Aligning Our Programs with Doctoral Students’ Well-Being and Professional Development Needs”, and in this chapter, author Marilyn Gray identifies the connection between meeting well-being needs of graduate students and their academic progress. She asserts that a way to accomplish this is through meta-disciplinary dissertation boot camps/retreats and designing workshops in her GWC to meet such needs, thus, her recommendation for GWCs is that they consider implementing these kinds of services for their clientele.

The final chapter in Part III is chapter 12, “Revisiting the Remedial Framework: How Writing Centers Can Better Serve Graduate Students and Themselves”. Here, Elizabeth Lenaghan argues that writing centers can help to lose their stigma or perception of being places for remedial instruction by paying careful attention to designing, conducting, and promoting writing consultations in such a way as to cultivate students’ development as writers and scholars. She suggests that GWCs may want to consider ways in which to expand their services for graduate students, such as connecting with graduate faculty, promoting the writing center throughout campus and to different academic departments, staffing writing centers with well-qualified and well-paid tutors, and by communicating a consistent message about the writing process as being dynamic and educational.

Extending what GWCs know about writing support, in the epilogue, Sherry Wynn Perdue advocates that dissertation supervisors should receive training and support from writing center staff on how to guide dissertators with their writing process. All told, Re/Writing the Center: Approaches to Supporting Graduate Students in the Writing Center, is an excellent resource for anyone involved in working with graduate students in a writing center. Every chapter of this book makes a compelling case for the need of GWCs on college campuses and strongly portrays graduate students as a population in need of writing support. While some of the approaches mentioned in this book may be more accessible to some UWCs/GWCs than others, readers can still use these thought-provoking recommendations as a vehicle for entering into conversation about how to improve writing support for graduate students. In sum, the structure of this book is well-designed and includes insightful and intriguing articles that are certain to spur change amongst those who work in writing centers with graduate students.


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Harris, M. (2017). Writing centers are also reading centers: How could they not be? In S. Sullivan, P. Tinberg, & H. Blau, Eds. Deep reading: Teaching reading in the writing classroom. National Council for Teachers of English. 227-243.