Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, Middle Tennessee State University
Celeste Del Russo, Rowan University
Amanda Fields, Central Connecticut State University
Elizabeth Leahy, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga
From the proverbial bean-counting to on-demand responses related to programmatic reviews and budget cuts, writing center administrators (WCAs) have had to make difficult decisions within hyper capitalist systems that value numbers and space over effective discursive practices. These circumstances were exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic as WCAs were expected to perform at the same rate or higher, all while supporting stressed out tutors, students, and faculty. Worse, the pandemic delivered a funding crisis to many institutions in the form of decreased enrollment, having an immediate material effect on labor issues, such as hiring and retaining tutors. At the same time, students needed and continue to need more support than before the pandemic to help them overcome any learning loss and to negotiate the pressure they feel to return back to normal.
But what is “normal” in the field of writing center administration? Consider how writing center administrators are often expected to report on their center’s activities or budgets. Typically, the successful receipt of our institutional documents, from annual review narratives to budget and space requests, is strongly connected to our ability to frame the writing center in transactional terms, meaning our ability to convey, in quantitative ways, what the institution receives in return for funding. Yet these high stakes institutional documents often reproduce systemic inequities by silencing or erasing non-quantifiable lived experiences, changing the ways in which we tell our stories. We are encouraged to engage with administrative speak in order to justify our writing center’s value in relation to “utilization” and “student credit hours,” or in relation to student success measures such as “resiliency,” “retention rates,” or “impact,” thus attempting to use such language to clarify the texture of writing center experiences. However, this reporting strategy often results in positioning writing center work in relation to capital. Nicole Caswell et al. (2016) note that the new directors in their research study “showed sophistication in navigating tricky administrative waters. They understood when issues carried political significance and seemed always viscerally aware of where they stood in terms of power within the institution” (p. 178). This awareness is keen because, as Alexandria Lockett (2019) notes, writing centers are “under all kinds of surveillance” (p. 22). Therefore, we take on institutional language in order to continue our funding lines or to be considered for that plum new spot in the library. But we’ve started to notice that engaging in institutional language, which ultimately values transactional framing, has rhetorical consequences, and we aren’t talking about increased funding. Further, using the language of the institution in our documents limits the ways in which we can tell the story of our respective writing centers. Laura Greenfield (2019), in challenging writing centers toward a radical praxis, reminds us that “language itself is engaged in a terrain of struggle” (p. 100). As Caswell, et al. (2016) write, much of our work is “labor intensive, ongoing, often unplannable, and […] highly relational” (p. 173), and much of it doesn’t “count” in annual reviews, at least, depending on how you tell the story.
We started to notice that the language of the institution emphasizes institutional expectations we can only describe as “absurd.” We define absurdity as a persistence in the unreal that does not respond to the real urgency of the situation. Absurdity persists in the status quo, and this results in narratives about our value for the institution which tends to be measured by numbers, usage, retention, and budget concerns. Examples of absurdity include requests from upper administration to provide usage rates or to cut tutors from the payroll during the initial COVID-19 shutdown. These requests conflict with the writing center’s values to support students and our student workers. As we emerge from COVID-19, it seems absurd to continue working within the same frameworks and the increasingly absurd elements involved in presenting our worth and effectiveness to our institutions. We now notice, really notice, certain unsustainable working conditions. Writing our institutional documents brought these conditions further into focus as we began to notice the contrast between what we were expected to perform in these documents and our writing center values. We urge writing center administrators to lay claim to their values and share lived experiences of writing centers where they can.
As a group of writing center directors who frequently commiserate with and support one another, we recognize the liberatory nature of sharing stories. Our collaborative writing group, which we’ve named Radical Sandwiches, meets weekly during our lunch break to reflect on and analyze our respective administrative experiences. Similar to the authors of Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice, “we share a passion for and commitment to certain ways of knowing and practicing what we are always coming to know” (Geller et al., 2007, p. 114). We do this by sharing our stories with each other through text chats and zoom meetings. We also recognize the need to fold these stories into a pedagogy of resistance and equitable transformation. As writing center directors with doctorates in rhetoric and composition, our rhetorical training has taught us to be savvy and strategic when we file our administrative reports and budget requests. We were all hired specifically to direct writing centers in tenure-track positions. While each of us is housed in different institutional contexts, we tend toward administrative approaches that speak to our rhetorical training. We all work in public institutions: Amanda and Beth work in regional comprehensive universities, and Celeste and Erica work in Research II universities. Our administrative and teaching duties vary based on our contracts and home departments: Celeste and Erica teach one course per semester due to writing center administrative and/or research release time, Amanda teaches two courses per semester with writing center administrative release time, and Beth is library faculty with full administrative, research, and service duties. These roles are distinctive in terms of how we strategize administratively. Further, we approach administration with feminist values that attend to gender and affect in our labor and daily lives. At the same time, each of us has committed to antiracist writing center practices while working to maintain cognizance and critique about our positioning as cisgendered white women. We are conscious of the demographics in our field: in a review of writing center administrators and diversity, Sarah Banschbach Valles, Rebecca Day Babcock, and Karen Keaton Jackson (2017) found that “writing center leadership is not as diverse as we had hoped or expected to find” and that the lore of writing center directors being mainly white women is not far from the data (Conclusion section, para. 12).
Given our status, our identifications both assist in our ability to disrupt administrative discourses and limit what we can perceive and change. For instance, up until now, we believed it was strategically sound to frame our writing centers using the language of the institution. After overseeing pandemic-era student services that have been vital to student success during a time when students have struggled with more than they can manage, we now return to our institutional documents with an awareness of absurd institutional expectations. If, as many of us have discovered, our institutions have failed us in terms of supporting students and faculty’s needs during times of crisis, then perhaps now is the time to be more explicit about our writing center values. In posing and implementing these strategies at our institutions, we understand that our particular roles in the academic hierarchy strengthen our capacity to question convention and upper administration. We also understand that this questioning is risky for most WCAs, given the precarity of contractual positions and the ubiquity of budgetary and employment cuts. The strategies we suggest happen in contextualized, kairotic moments; therefore, we are not suggesting a redesign of reporting systems. Instead, we identify strategies for reframing reporting that could be adapted to different writing center contexts. Working in unsustainable conditions has heightened the need for a radical reframing of how we approach institutional evaluations and has reinforced the importance of engaging in feminist administrative practices that center the lived experience of tutors, students, and administrators.
While we agree that quantitative assessment of our practices is important and serves a purpose, we would like to expand what we assess and measure and ensure that what we measure tells the nuanced story of our writing center practices and reflects our writing center values. We propose a radical shift toward centering writing center values and the lived experiences of writing center personnel in evaluations and institutional reporting. We see this shift as an opportunity to push back against unsustainable practices and institutional absurdities we encounter. In this article, we take up the idea of intentional reporting strategies with a human element: in other words, how we tell the stories of our writing centers. Going beyond the initial work we have done to respond to the pandemic and call up real-time rhetorical strategies, we have become more deliberate and strategic about our institutional reporting. We examine how we shape high stakes documents with measurements of what we value. Yanar Hashlamon (2021) invites administrators to move toward “community-based systems of support” that emphasize lived experiences and experiential knowledge—two things that resist quantification (Introduction section, para. 4). In translating certain values that refuse bean-counting and quantitative reporting, we push against the hypocrisies evident in institutional visions versus material conditions, on the ground, at these institutions. We reflect on how our stories and values have helped us generate language and strategies for shaping high stakes documents that can subvert institutional absurdity. In doing so, we hope these narratives resonate and invite creative solutions for more equitable and just measures of assessment and institutional reporting.
The Limitations of a Transactional Framework
In our field, it has become almost commonplace for us to frame what we do in a series of transactions. WCAs often report their work to upper administration through numbers, e.g., student visits; utilization percentages; labor costs. Neal Lerner (1997) prompted writing center administrators to consider the ways in which they can express their value to the institution through assessment of writing center practices. Fifteen years later, William Macauley (2012), in discussing writing center assessment, asked administrators to consider, “[c]an it be measured or counted?” (p. 52). Data generated from these measurements and counting are utilized for yearly assessment reports typically called annual reports—outward-facing documents that illustrate the usefulness of a writing center and report on its annual programming and everyday practices. Furthermore, writing center studies scholarship frequently positions annual reports as the exigency for assessing writing center practices; these annual reports detailing writing center assessment are then often used to justify funding (Gofine, 2012; Lerner 2012). Because of their connection to possible funding, how we approach annual reports can have a material effect on writing center practices. Andrea Zachary (2005) encourages WCAs to engage with technical writing strategies to better convey writing center practices to a busy audience and to situate these practices within institutional goals and missions. Often, similar advice is directed toward new WCAs and explicitly encourages the use of institutional language in funding requests (Kinkead & Simpson, 2000). We acknowledge that annual reports are high stakes documents that are often tied to visibility and sustainability, and for these reasons and more, it is important that we pay attention to how we represent our work in them to our audiences and stakeholders. For example, Geller et al. (2007) rightly point out that “[f]rom water cooler talk to formal annual reports, we are complicit in filling the gap with words that attempt to be recognized, accepted, and funded” (p. 118). We agree that we should be able to speak to student credit hours and understand how our institution prioritizes retention and recruitment (Kinkead & Simpson, 2000). This messaging is important to help frame writing center practices that align with goals related to offices of student success, such as retention and sustainability.
However, we believe that using a transactional framework reduces writing center work to numbers on a spreadsheet, one of many absurdities that asks WCAs to ignore or crowd out the robust relational work that happens in writing centers. And it can be challenging to articulate our own writing center values when they may be at cross-purposes with institutional values that assume different frameworks. After the pandemic, we noticed that the stories we wanted to tell about tutors and students in the writing center did not fit into a narrative framework focused on numbers, so our annual reports felt incomplete. We also started noticing that faithful adherence to a transactional framework no longer benefited our funding. So why continue writing up our practices within these limiting frameworks? And to what end? We seek to enact change in institutional norms, not change what we value. Most significantly, telling the stories of our practices through transactional terms not only reifies institutional language that positions higher education within a capitalist framework, but it also results in the obfuscation of work that we value, the work that is highly individualized and relational. Furthermore, taking on institutional language to convey our message elides how rhetoric functions to create new knowledge and affect action. In other words, if we uncritically take on institutional language to tell the story of what our writing centers do, not only do we feel internal conflict resulting from the clash of values, but also we prevent the possibility of enacting change at the institutional level. While we agree that quantitative assessment of our practices is important and serves a purpose, we seek to tell a more nuanced story of our writing center practices and our values.
Nancy Grimm (1999) warned us that writing centers were at risk for reproducing the same limiting frameworks institutions rely on to justify their own existence and practices, such as a fixation on grades and outcomes rather than a focus on growth as writers, something much more complex to measure. Resisting institutional values such as oppressive language ideology, and speaking back to the banking concept of education in favor of a more collaborative, co-constructed view of knowledge are often what draws us to writing center work. We see our work no longer on the margins, but subverting from the center. And this subversion is directly connected to absurdity: “[b]ecause it is in that [subversive] moment that normalizing practices and the assumptions that underlie them are exposed not only in their absurdity, but also in their destructive power” (Geller et al., 2007, p. 114). Before the pandemic, we had not noticed the absurdity (and destruction) in taking on institutional language in our annual reports. Since then, we have sought new ways of communicating what we value and conveying its complexity and labor-intensive nature. Our work is also gendered, in particular the affective dimension of our labor, and this informs our scholarship. Even though labor and gender are important components of our writing center stories, a transactional framework can easily obscure or muddle these aspects of our work. According to Anna Sicari (2022), ignoring the gendered nature of writing center work leads to burnout; further, this burnout affects the retention of women and those with intersectional, historically oppressed identities. The soft language of inclusion at many institutions doesn’t adequately describe the exigency of writing center burnout. Kelin Hull and Marilee Brooks-Gilles (2022), however, propose using relational framing to articulate how our practices are situated within a particular set of values that prioritize the relationships within the center, rather than just visits and numbers, and thus can inform how we approach annual reports.
For the remainder of this article, we discuss strategies for weaving in writing center values as we draft annual reports. We describe the aspects of reporting that lend themselves to resisting solely quantitative language. We start with ways to center writing center pedagogy and expertise. Then, we discuss ways to make writing center labor visible, acknowledging unsustainable or inequitable labor practices, and centering lived experiences and writing center values over numbers. Throughout, we offer examples from our annual reports, and identify ways our annual report language conveys our values, such as through practices of collaboration or culturally responsive mentorship. We conclude with a discussion on the importance of a through-line in relation to naming and repeating our values and goals. We leave readers with a few generative questions for writing and reflection as they prepare their own high-stakes documents.
Resisting Templates: Centering Writing Center Values
As we demonstrate in our literature review, we must go beyond transactional terms in sharing our centers’ stories. Rather than merely reporting on yearly statistics that perpetuate a focus on numbers, WCAs can leverage their annual reports to emphasize writing center values and the lived experiences of our students and staff. Because annual reports are an institutional artifact, they are not usually a genre that WCAs gain experience with until they are expected to produce one. Further, the format and contents of writing center annual reports necessarily differ across institutional contexts. However, as Anis Bawarshi (2003) explains, “there is room for resistance and transformation within genres, some genres more than others” (p. 93). We argue that this genre, because it has some ambiguity, can be generative for WCAs looking to resist institutional absurdity. An intentional approach to these reports may allow us to underscore writing center values and resist unsustainable or downright absurd institutional practices or expectations.
Each of us has written annual reports, and the contents and format of these reports differ depending on audience, purpose, and local contexts. For example, as a member of the library faculty, Beth’s report is included in the library’s Research and Public Service department’s annual report to the Library Dean. However, because Beth lobbied for, and received, additional funds for her center from another campus area, she is also required to submit a separate annual report on the success of her funding to the Vice Chancellor of Student Services, and she approaches this report differently, as we will describe below. Celeste’s annual report is submitted in a combined report along with Writing Arts, the department that houses the writing center. The annual report is then submitted to the Dean’s office which then draws from it to angle for support for the writing center through the Provost’s office. Amanda’s experience with annual reports began at her first institution, where, in building a writing center from the ground up, she had leeway in determining the content and form of the annual report to her department, Dean, and Provost. Now, in a similar situation at her current institution, Amanda’s budget has been pulled into its own line within the English department. As a result, her reporting work is often a response to upper administrators’ queries about budget justifications. However, there is no deadline or expectation for an annual report at her current institution: not yet. Erica sends her annual report to multiple stakeholders, collaborators, and funding units; this wide audience informs how she structures her annual report narrative, paying close attention to the information she wants to feature in her annual report. She does this in addition to a standard form with a strict template that she fills out annually as an administrator for her Dean.
The below strategies represent intentional efforts, informed by embodied experiences, to push back against institutional absurdities. Although we note the productive possibilities of the ambiguity of the annual report genre, we acknowledge that many WCAs work within context-specific constraints for producing these reports. For example, reports collected via a standard university form may contend with character limits and specific fields. In other cases, we may feel constrained by previous iterations of our centers’ annual reports. Still, we believe it’s possible to use the genre of the report to highlight absurdities and place them in contrast with writing center values. To that end, we offer the following invention strategies for annual reports and other high-stakes documents. While there is overlap among these strategies, they may help readers draft reports that explicitly articulate their writing center values. Ultimately, it is our hope that engaging in these strategies will inspire a shift from institutional values that prioritize transactions towards values that prioritize relationships.
Strategy 1: Emphasizing writing center pedagogy and expertise
Because many writing center positions are precarious and there is often a gendered assumption that teaching and tutoring writing is menial labor, WCAs should be explicit about the necessary expertise for administering a successful and meaningful writing center. When Deans and Provosts are happy to throw money to corporate tutoring programs because of the promise of 24/7 tutoring availability, WCAs must feel called to emphasize how our work is situated in expertise that cannot be matched through outsourcing. Framing a writing center’s success only in terms of growth and quantity of consultations sets centers up to be compared to for-profit tutoring companies. Where possible, WCAs should look for opportunities to highlight the researched best practices of our pedagogies and daily praxis. For instance, WCAs can focus a hearty percentage of institutional documents on sharing the daily activities and labor of tutors, including their extensive, ongoing training and professional development. Additionally, WCAs can articulate the pedagogical theories that undergird our practices, including how we work to enact them.
In one example of Strategy 1, Beth’s most recent report highlighted the depth of cognitive and motivational scaffolding that she and her tutors were intentionally building into her center’s newer asynchronous feedback option. She chose this focus because, in a year marked by a significant shift in tutoring modalities and labor, she wanted to redefine success through the lens of writing center values. In her annual funding report, she chose to emphasize the quality of her writing center’s online services rather than focus on a statistical comparison of center visits, which were down due to a variety of pandemic-related factors. She focused instead on a qualitative assessment project she and her staff completed wherein they analyzed data from their asynchronous written feedback service. Beth and her staff sampled written feedback comments from the year and coded them according to the methods of instruction. In her report, she focused on key takeaways from the assessment that she thought would demonstrate how the service is situated in expertise. For example, when discussing the amount of comments that are typically included in each written feedback consultation, she wrote “while these comments vary in scope depending on the project, 94% of the consultations we observed incorporated cognitive scaffolding strategies, where tutors co-construct meaning with students to help them move their thinking toward a new understanding.” As a result, Beth was able to demonstrate the depth and scope of this new service, while also laying the foundation to discuss the considerable shift in labor that this new service represented.
Similarly, in her 2020-2021 annual report, Erica brought attention to the shift in tutor education which resulted from going remote. Like many centers, her tutors had to shift to 100% online tutoring and introduced asynchronous tutoring for the first time. The shift in tutoring modes demanded new tutor education on asynchronous tutoring along with a deeper engagement with synchronous online tutoring best practices. Erica highlighted her center’s additional tutor education in the first few paragraphs of the annual report, using it to frame the rest of the text:
The University Writing Center (UWC) tutor training, which had to immediately shift online last year, has morphed into something stronger. In coming up with new ways to train tutors for online work, UWC administrators used all of the technologies available, including creating a D2L Tutor Education shell with both synchronous and asynchronous content and new orientations to be delivered remotely each semester. In addition, UWC administrators work hard to ensure tutors understand the differences between the modes of delivery (face to face/ online synchronous/ asynchronous) as well as best practices in tutoring in each mode. For example, we have to work hard to ensure that the [asynchronous tutoring] does not turn into an editing service, and much of that has to do with setting students’ expectations. But it also means developing tutor education that centers on student learning in asynchronous spaces. This is an ongoing and iterative part of their training, and doing spot checks on [asynchronous tutoring sessions] and conducting official tutor observations each semester helps administrators identify topics for further tutor education.
She placed this narrative above the numbers so that readers encountered tutors’ lived experiences before reading about how many students were served. In this way, Erica emphasized the writing center practices she values: a robust tutor education program grounded in writing center research that provides an engaged learning experience for tutors. Well-trained and supported tutors are a necessary component to effective tutoring and writing center growth, a fact that is difficult to convey in quantitative terms and therefore often escapes upper administration.
Further, professionally developing tutors and orienting them to the field of writing center studies features in all of our reports. For example, we each ensure that our annual reports contain a section on scholarship, editorial work, academic conference attendance, and networking. We see this as more than just tooting our own horn. By providing this information, we position the writing center as a place where students professionally develop and come to know the field and the discourse, where mentoring occurs in mindful ways. Concurrently, our stories resist quantification and transactional framing.
Strategy 2: Making labor visible
Our first strategy allows us to emphasize writing center values, and our next strategy allows us to demonstrate the labor that goes into enacting these values as well as highlight unsustainable labor practices in our centers. As feminist administrators, gender and labor, including affective labor, are of concern to us, and therefore feature prominently in our proposed strategies. While the language of the institution may favor and praise our ability as WCAs to “pivot,” and “adapt,” or to be “resilient”, we want to pause, reflect, and examine what exactly these terms mean for WCAs working in pandemic conditions. For example, to pivot, to adapt, and to be resilient all indicate that one has the ability to handle more and more pressure or absurdities. As a counter, our strategy emphasizes language that resists “resilience” framing and instead centers on what we value.
While the genre of annual reports and other outward facing documents is meant to share the successes of the center, we also see an opportunity in these reports to document unsustainable workloads or underfunded initiatives. When prompted to file her annual student services funding report for the previously mentioned grant, for instance, Beth initially struggled with how to talk about the “success” of the funding for the following reasons:
- The funding was based on pre-pandemic goals that no longer aligned with immediate campus or center needs.
- The funding request was based on an assumption that Beth’s base budget was static, but these funds shrunk during the 2020-2021 school year. Beth had to use student services money to fill that considerable gap.
- The funding was supposed to include a full-time assistant director position, but, like many new positions during the pandemic, it was put on hold due to budget concerns.
- The funding was precarious. In January 2020, Beth received an award letter stating the funds would be available on July 1. In March 2020, the award was rescinded. In May, she was told the funding would be coming after all, only to hear it was paused again a month later. In August, Beth found out her funding might still arrive. The funds finally hit her account in mid-September, too late for her to develop any meaningful fall programming.
Beth realized the funding report was an opportunity to demonstrate how these setbacks impacted writing center operations, and to bring attention to the absurdity in trying to plan amidst all of the uncertainty – and then be expected to report on progress when nothing was certain! In the first field of the report, which asked her to give an overview of the programming supported by what was called the “Soar in Four” funding, she wrote:
COVID-19 and its impacts on our service model required us to temporarily refocus our original plans for the Soar in Four funds. We originally planned, with the help of the new assistant director position, to continue the work we began with our 2019-2020 Soar in Four funds: developing the Writing and Communication Center’s classroom-based tutoring support. However, the reality of our COVID operations necessitated a focus on programming that fit with our online remote operations and current staffing situation. As a result, we used our Soar in Four funding during this unprecedented year to develop our asynchronous tutoring program, support our online operations, and offer a variety of services beyond our online tutoring.
Here Beth reminds funders that her original plans were not possible without an assistant director, and she was also able to acknowledge that remote operations in her center required different labor than in-person operations. She went on to articulate new goals for this funding, including one she labeled “Continuity of Services.” In describing this goal, she wrote “As we adapted to new workflows and supervisory models necessitated by remote operations, we were able to use the Soar in Four funds to help us maintain similar hours to our in-person operations.” Including this goal in her report created space to discuss the different workflows and processes that she implemented, as well as highlight the increasing precarity of her budget and how it impacted service hours.
In a similar move, when submitting a budget request for post-pandemic summer programming, Celeste noted important summer initiatives that would be cut without sufficient funding. The absurdity here lies in the institution’s commitment to bringing particular student demographics to campus to address historical underrepresentation, yet then provide no funding for or de-fund programs set up to support these students. Many of these programs consisted of summer “bridge” programs to support specific populations of students participating in pre-college institutes, including minoritized, first-generation, and neurodiverse students. In her annual report, Celeste wrote,
The proposed budget accounts for necessary resources that provide programming for specific at-risk student populations. The Writing Center has been partnering with programs such as PATH, EOF, and the International Center to provide one-on-one support for students in pre-college programs meant to prepare students for college success. Funding is used to provide one-on-one tutoring, orientations to the writing center, and workshops on academic integrity, writing in the disciplines, and college-ready skills such as time management, writing strategies for success, and building communities of support. Without sufficient funding, the Writing Center will be unable to continue these meaningful collaborations with students during the summer months, and will have limited opportunities to introduce the center as a resource that can support their success at university.
In her budget request, Celeste emphasized how cutting these programs was not in line with the university’s increased focus on supporting diversity, inclusion, and equity, and that writing center support during summer months was crucial to preparing students for being “college-ready,” a term her university uses in conversations around the retention of students. In her annual report, she also underscored the years of developing community and relationships across campus with students, faculty, and professional staff that would be neglected if funding fell short for summer programming. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is often invisible and not frequently compensated; the same goes for relationship-building, which often goes hand in hand with DEI work. Celeste was mindful in making sure this type of work, which is typically gendered and grounded in affect, was made visible. In this way, her budget request simultaneously connected to college and university initiatives while pushing back against absurdity related to labor and budgetary challenges. She also continued to underscore the writing center’s values and hidden labor.
In our conversations with each other, we learned that this strategy of making labor visible—from tutors to front desk workers to administrators—from intellectual labor to emotional labor, features prominently in all of our annual reports. We do this because annual reports, when coupled with transactional language, can hide the labor we put into our everyday practices in the writing center. For example, it certainly does not allow for a description of the long-term labor needed to cultivate collaborations and partnerships across campus and with the community, something Celeste needed her annual report to do. We also learned that we all made sure to articulate the labor involved in moving online. When being praised by colleagues for so “easily” shifting to online, remote tutoring, we explicitly and carefully call out the steps it took to shift the center online in documents such as our own annual reviews or self-reports. We do these kinds of things to make our pandemic labor more visible to colleagues who don’t understand how much work it actually was. Strategy 2, making labor visible, resists the absurdity of “resiliency” language that might otherwise dismiss the labor involved in our day to day lives as writing center directors. Pushing back against transactional language honors our labor, as well as the labor of our colleagues, tutors, mentees, and students, which brings us to Strategy 3.
Strategy 3: Narrating lived experiences
The ability to narrate lived experiences in the writing center is a WCA superpower. In our own group texts, we have shared end of year photos of our WC gatherings with each other–a writing center BBQ, writing center prom, tutor selfies at conferences—because these images express pride and joy in our tutoring communities, and these images capture our emotions in ways that numbers and stats do not. The annual report is supposed to be a snapshot of what happened throughout the year, but the lived experiences of people in the center, including tutors, students, and administrators, are not easily captured in a brief, text-based document. Writing center practice isn’t something that can easily be articulated in this way that is ongoing, reiterative, relational, and emotional, and so we propose the annual report as a collaged document that honors these multifaceted purposes. For instance, WCAs can pair numbers, statistics, tables, pie-charts, etc. with examples that demonstrate the voices and narratives behind the numerical impact, such as:
- Embedded photos of tutors engaging in professional development, presenting at conferences, or celebrating each other in end-of-year events
- Embedded photos of tutors and students collaborating and engaged in programming
- Links to resources generated by tutors for use across campus
- Quotes from student surveys that offer specific ways that tutoring has changed their writing and/or their orientation to learning and higher education.
Paired with numerical data, the suggestions above highlight our student-centered mission. For example, paired with a pie chart of student user percentages or other statistics, a quote from a graduate student who attended a dissertation retreat and successfully submitted her first two chapters brings a human element to services as it effectively describes the relational work we do in writing centers. In another example, Erica recently began to feature student survey responses in her annual report. She begins each section with a quote from a student survey that connects with a poignant detail from that section, such as a survey response that mentions the accessibility of asynchronous sessions or the value of a long-term writing partnership with one specific tutor. While survey numbers that reflect student satisfaction with tutoring tend to be high across writing centers, these specific qualitative responses offer readers a student voice that is often missing from institutional documents peppered with quantitative data.
Writing centers directly impact the experience of students, and we don’t need numbers to prove that. As WCAs, we observe the impact our tutors have on student writers. WCAs can use strategy 3 to measure impact in ways that we value. Instead of emphasizing the annual number of writing center visits, we can measure how writing centers impact student success at a human level.
Conclusion: Finding a Through-Line
From students to faculty to administrators, there is always the need for writing centers to clarify and facilitate the narratives about who we are, what we do, and why. For WCAs, the most effective institutional reporting will offer a through-line that consistently and strategically positions language and concepts to shape readers’ perceptions. It’s a simple but effective rhetorical strategy to implement this kind of repetition until others begin to use the same kind of language and eventually develop the same kind of understanding as WCAs might have about the pedagogical approach and needs of the writing center.
In the above examples of our strategies, we provide consistent messaging about our centers’ visions and goals, and, when absurdities arise, we return to those visions and goals and respond. Underscoring models of tutoring writing such as collaboration and fostering a whole-student approach to teaching and learning, values that our centers hold, constitute one through-line. For example, when Celeste’s university acquired Smarthinking, an outsourced 24/7 online and on demand tutoring service across a range of disciplines, including tutoring writing, she turned to allies in her Writing Arts department and university senate and together they drafted an email that addressed the limits of Smarthinking (i.e., writing tutoring in Smarthinking is wildly inferior to what the writing center provides, feedback is generic, and tutors have limited knowledge of our students’ context and assignments). These concerns were addressed in the email and on record at the university senate meeting. From the email:
Why send students to the Rowan University Writing Center?
- The center has done progressive professional development around DEI for YEARS. Tutors are engaged in conversations, scholarship, and practice around topics such as neurodiversity, social justice, anti-racist tutoring practices, wellness and mindfulness, LGBTQIA+ issues, and they collaborate to develop resources for their tutoring and for their student-writers around these topics.
- The tutors know our curriculum and courses. Tutors are ready to work with students at any stage in the writing process and the center’s goal is not just to improve a specific piece of writing but to improve the writer by helping them develop strategies they can transfer to future writing situations.
- The tutors actually understand the campus and its resources. If a client/student needs support or if something is wrong, the tutors are ready to alert their director and get the student the help they need.
- Clients can request a specific tutor and keep going back to the same person; this bond can be critical for accessing support and feeling understood.
The values and pedagogical expertise of the center shared in the content of this email (and later echoed in conversations at the university senate) drew from Celeste’s annual reports and personal review materials that provided a consistent message about the writing center and its values and goals. In other words, she had found and followed her through-line, and collaborated with others on campus.
The above examples also indicate how the connection among reports from year to year can shape the institutional understanding of the writing center. The through-line, then, is made up of resisting templates, centering writing center pedagogy, and making labor visible. Having a through-line also guides our response to absurdities we face as WCAs. In other words, WCAs can use the annual report to consistently resist, center, and make apparent what they want others to believe and say about the writing center. They shift the lens; they offer a new lexicon that, repeated enough, is integrated into institutional language and, if not believed deeply by others, at least accepted as the approach of the writing center, its language tethering itself and reverberating from casual conversations among students to upper administrative analyses of use and effect.
The strategies we suggest here can assist in developing a through-line and generating annual reports. We acknowledge that WCAs, depending on their positionality, need to be strategic when choosing to resist institutional discourse, and that we all make choices as to when the time is opportune to interrupt the status quo. As we conclude, we want to offer additional questions for reflection. These questions may also assist WCAs in writing reports and identifying values specific to their institutional contexts:
- What kinds of absurdities have you encountered in your work? What sorts of emotions and values do you have that relate to the absurdities you’ve identified? In what ways might these emotions and values connect with overarching institutional expectations or measures?
- What are some rhetorical strategies you can use (or have used) to emphasize your values in this moment of absurdity, and how can you use those strategies in your assessment and evaluation documents?
- In what ways do the strategies you’ve identified resist transactional approaches to framing writing center labor and practice?
We have used these questions in facilitating interactive conference sessions over the pandemic, and we continuously return to them in our group chats. After all, institutional absurdity will keep doing its thing. Still, we have hope. We collectively view the act of writing and reflecting as an important mechanism for naming and living our values, for understanding our commonplaces, and for transforming our campuses into more humane and just spaces.
- This is a feminist collaborative project, and as such, all authors contributed equally. Our names are listed in alphabetical order rather than order of contribution. ↑
The authors would like to thank our reviewers and editors for their thoughtful feedback and support.
Erica Cirillo-McCarthy is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the University Writing Center at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research examines writing center administration through a feminist rhetorical lens and attends to antiracist writing center practices. Her scholarship is published in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, WPA Writing Program Administration, and edited collections, including the recently published Emotions and Affect in Writing Centers.
Celeste Del Russo is an Associate Professor in Writing Arts and Writing Center Director at Rowan University. Her research interests include tutor education for social justice, access, and inclusion. These areas impact her work with K-12 educators in her role as a site leader for the Rowan University Writing Project. Her work has been published in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship and edited collections including, Linguistic Justice on Campus: Pedagogy and Advocacy for Multilingual Students and Emotions and Affect in Writing Centers. Her favorite part of writing center work is feminist-ing with colleagues.
Amanda Fields is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Director at Central Connecticut State University. She co-edited My Caesarean: Twenty-One Mothers on the C-Section Experience and After (a 2019 Foreword INDIES Silver winner), and Toward, Around, and Away From Tahrir: Tracking Emerging Expressions of Egyptian Identity. Her academic and creative work has been published or is forthcoming in Writing Center Journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy (2016 winner of the Kairos Best Webtext Award), Journal of Adolescent Research, Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Brevity, Indiana Review, and others. She serves as Editor-in-Chief of Literary Mama.
Elizabeth Leahy is an Assistant Professor in the Library’s Research and Public Services department and Director of the Writing and Communication Center at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Her research interests include feminist writing center administration, writing center assessment, and composition histories of border spaces. Her work is featured in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Rhetoric Review, and edited collections including Emotions and Affect in Writing Centers.
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