Andrea Bishop, Harding University
Rebecca Hallman Martini’s Disrupting the Center: A Partnership Approach to Writing Across the University disrupted my own understanding and confronted my biases concerning what writing center work truly means. I’ve always considered myself a disrupter-of-expectations, which is why the title of this text called to me, but the writing center model depicted in Martini’s research made me uncomfortable because it pushed me reevaluate what I believe about the inherent and holistic value of writing centers and how such a value might relate to a corporate-minded interpretation of value—the kind with a dollar sign attached.
Martini’s text is directed at an audience of administrators of writing centers and writing programs, but graduate students, staff, and faculty in the diverse academic writing field will find points of interest. The book offers an argument in favor of expanding the scope of the writing center by engaging in creative and profitable partnerships to offer writing centers and writing center employees agency and – quite frankly – much needed funding. Martini creates for her readers a compelling narrative built on rich, on-site, ethnographic research centered on the history and growth of a writing center at a southern research university. Using the pseudonym Southern Research University Writing Center (SRUWC), she details how and why this writing center removed itself from English department oversight and developed strategic, university-wide partnerships with academic departments accustomed to a business-model, where revenue, gross margins, and capital are the focus. Martini walks her readers through how such partnerships can positively disrupt the status quo of a writing center model that is somewhat insular and individualist, where consultants work with individual students, moving writing professionals into new, collaborative university spaces with increased political and social clout.
Her research findings offer a model for combatting the downsizing, defunding, and general disenfranchisement of writing center work by aiming to “find ways to work both within and against a current political climate driven by college administrators who are strongly influenced by a business-model mentality, corporate interests, and post-Ford values” (p. 7). She provides insight on how strategic partnerships may present struggling writing centers a renewed sense of energy and purpose, though some readers may find themselves struggling to hold both a service-oriented ideal of writing centers alongside the capitalistic approach taken by SRUWC.
Martini’s framework centers on how SRUWC uses and maintains disruptive innovation, social capital, agency, negotiated space, mutual benefits, stakeholder engagement, and transformational partnerships (pp. 17-18), and she allows the voices of her participants to narrate SRUWC’s history and evolution. She privileges the words and perspectives of her participants, allowing them to explain what it means to work within or in partnership with the SRUWC. The result is an impressively cohesive narrative that shows the full range of influence of this particular writing center on campus culture.
As I mentioned earlier, this text pushed me into uncomfortable spaces. Like many writing center and writing program folk, I believe the work of the writing center is meant to be student centric. I believe writing centers are integral figures in the university landscape and that writing center work should be readily available and welcoming for any student who wants to improve their writing. Martini’s research at SRUWC details a much different emphasis – one that seems to focus on the needs of the writing center itself as well as the needs of the interdisciplinary faculty, rather than on the needs of individual writers.
When confronted by Martini’s work, my discomfort is mired in my own constructed bias about the value of writing center work – an understanding of value that tiptoes far too close to a martyrdom, as in few universities truly credit the value of writing center work until the writing center work is no longer offered. I’m probably not alone in thinking that only writing admins can truly understand the value of this work in the often solitary moments. Only writing center professionals know what it means to help a writing-traumatized student develop a hard-won, positive relationship with a healthy writing process. Scholars such as Elisabeth Buck (2017) and Nicole Caswell, Jackie Grutsh McKinney, and Rebecca Jackson (2016, p. 113) have said quite plainly that writing center work is hard, but it is also rewarding.
But here’s the kicker. Martini’s work has forced me to examine my understanding of the role of the writing center. What I’ve come to realize is that my (martyr-driven) vision of the writing center might be an ideal preserved from previous decades. Neal Learner (2013) quotes a 1950 CCCC workshop description which reads, “The writing laboratory should be what the classroom often is not — natural, realistic, and friendly” (p. 225). I admit that my ideological writing center privileges an anti-classroom or anti-hierarchical structure where peers have comfortable conversations in a friendly setting. And while it is clearly time for me to disrupt this ideal and consider other frameworks for writing program work, I struggle to move beyond the belief that writing centers should continue to center on a writer’s needs rather than faculty or institutional needs.
If any of my feelings, beliefs, or biases resound with your own, then you too might be challenged by Martini’s research depicting a financially solvent, well-respected university writing center that contracts their services to academic departments for financial gain. Words like “outsourcing” and “customers” and “entrepreneurial” (p. 44) do not align with my understanding of writing center work. Of course, Martini beautifully acknowledges this tension between a commonly held vision of an idyllic “comfortable, homelike” (p. 45) writing center devoted to student success and the example described by Martini’s participants in exclusively cold, sterile, corporate terminology. While she does acknowledge this tension, she also does not shy away from illuminating the efficiency and successes of the SRUWC. Martini shows how SRUWC developed a discipline-specific writing curriculum, including thoughtful writing prompts and rubrics, to be used by writing center consultants and by faculty in a variety of disciplines. Rather than 1:1 encounters where a student meets with a consultant over an often poorly designed writing prompt, SRUWC is changing how writing is taught and assessed across campus.
Even though I was initially resistant to the SRUWC administrator boasting of monetizing writing services and charging certain departments for those services, I was quickly drawn in by the possibilities of what Martini’s participants called a “kind of ‘Robin Hood-like’ mentality: Take from the richer departments and provide for the poorer” (p. 43). Essentially, the SRUWC administrator works with larger departments such as Business or Biology to provide specific writing services ranging from training instructors how to construct appropriate writing assignments to helping faculty create effective writing rubrics to teaching large groups of students discipline-specific genres on behalf of the contracted departments. The only line that the SRUWC administrator seems to have drawn is that SRUWC staff will not assess or score writing, but other than that, her staff works with individuals and large groups of students, trains faculty, and generally goes about the business of helping these larger, wealthier departments prepare their students to be more effective writers. As a result, she also has the funding needed to provide services to smaller departments and to individual writers.
While my bias makes me cringe a little at the use of corporate and capitalistic terminology, I cannot fault a writing center that is increasing the level of writing knowledge across an entire campus. Nor can I fault a writing center willing to move into uncertain spaces. I also cannot fault a writing center administrator who has somehow managed to become known as the university-wide expert on writing and whose knowledge and services are valued in both practice and in pocketbooks. Admittedly, after I came to terms with this approach, I asked myself why I’d never thought to position writing center work in terms of a business department’s frame of reference: valuable payment for valuable services rendered.
Here’s the thing I am still wrestling with from this smart, insightful text: I still believe writing center work should be student centric. As I read through Martini’s research, I kept wondering, “Where are the students in this scenario?” When her participants, those who are stakeholders in a partnership or are writing center staff, are discussing their relationships with the SRUWC, I want to know why the focus seems to be on the needs of the university, the center, and the faculty rather than on the needs of the student. But again, Martini teases out this tension, acknowledging that while some departmental partnerships developed by the SRUWC use “outsourcing” terminology and seem to be as much about faculty members not wanting to deal with the messiness of teaching writing (pp. 87-88), other departmental partnerships have high faculty engagement who are involved with their students and the writing center. And more impressively, the partnerships have helped develop faculty members see the value the peer-to-peer writing instruction and writing expertise provided (p. 88) by their collaborations.
Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, in spite of the agency and university-wide acknowledgment of SRUWC’s value, the broad range of partnerships developed by the SRUWC – business, biology, hotel management, art history, computer science, architecture, law, math, marketing, political science, creative writing, and English (pp. 89-90) – show that the faculty representatives in these partnerships still widely hold an understanding of writing as “a generalizable skill that can be transferred” (p. 88), which is fundamentally counter to what writing center and writing program professionals know to be true, namely that writing is determined by audience, purpose, and scope. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all skill that transfers easily from genre to genre.
And yet, should we bemoan the fact that there are still uninformed disciplinary colleagues who have wrong-thinking ideas about writing, or should we celebrate the fact that a writing center like SRUWC has managed to infiltrate these disciplines and provide scores of students with positive, writing-process focused instruction? Despite my own biases, I want to celebrate what Martini has shown us is possible, namely that partnerships offer the potential to “have far reaching implications beyond a single course or department” and that such partnerships also have the potential to better inform our colleagues in other disciplines. Martini specifically mentions a memorable moment in her research when she learns that the SRUWC partnership with the art history department has resulted in a faculty member whose “approach to the course and his thinking about teaching writing is transformed through his work with the writing center” (p. 190). Such transformation is surely worth celebrating, especially when that transformation would have been highly unlikely without the SRUWC partnership.
Through her careful research, and via the voices of her participants, Martini challenges her readers to step away from firmly held martyrdoms, to step out of homey, cozy, but underfunded writing centers, and to step into the possibility of transformation. While she specifically does not offer her text as a how-to manual for writing centers or writing administrators to transform into modern, corporate-driven, financial machines, she does offer plenty of ideas to consider as we work to disrupt and improve the writing administration work we love.
Buck, E. (2017). Book review: The Working Lives of New Writing Center Directors. The Peer Review, 1(1).
Caswell, N.I., Grutch McKinney, J., & Jackson, R. (2016). The working lives of new writing center directors. Utah State University Press.
Lerner, N. (2013). What is the writing center? In R. Malenczyk (Ed.) A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators (pp. 223-236). Parlor Press.
Martini, R.H. (2022). Disrupting the center: A partnership approach to writing across the university. Utah State University Press.