Book Review: Review of Sensemaking for Writing Programs and Writing Centers by Rita Malenczyk

Reviewed by Red Douglas and Sherry Wynn Perdue
Oakland University

Malenczyk, R. (2023). Sensemaking for Writing Programs and Writing Centers. Utah State University Press.

Because of the nature of the programs we serve and our post-pandemic times, members of the writing studies community often find our gaze focused on “how outside literacies contribu[te] to student literacies,” a situation over which we have little control. Sensemaking for Writing Programs and Writing Centers (2023) shares what writing program and writing center administrators found when asked to turn their attention inward “to the often-unseen interactions within centers and programs that define or make sense of program and center work” (p. 3). Drawn from diverse backgrounds and academic settings, contributors framed their inquiry via sensemaking, an organizational theory that allows leaders to better understand and respond to their environments (Ancona, 2011; Weick, 1995). Editor Rita Malenczyk, an English professor, writing center director, and past president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, organized the collection into two parts. The first, “Sensemaking with Tutors and Teachers,” attends “to the microinteractions of faculty, tutors, and others” as revealed in dominant metaphors, privileged identities, and affective matters, as well as what they might “show us about attitudes and orientations toward” our programs, the people within them, and “how [our] work is done” (p. 3). The second, “Sensemaking and Institutional Structures,” examines the potential benefit of interrogating documents like session logs and “intra-institutional relationships” to expand our programs’ purview (p. 6). 

After sharing relevant biographical information about our collaboration on this review, we closely examine how individual authors enact sensemaking for purposes like decentering the language of administrators and advocating for writing centers within larger academic contexts. We conclude by addressing Malenczyck’s editorial choices. In short, while we longed for a more substantial conceptual overview of sensemaking in the “Introduction,” we lauded the breadth of contexts and voices the book represents and its timely and meaningful contribution to our field.

Our Reviewer Ethos

Reviewing this collection offered us– individually and as a writing team–unique opportunities and insights we feel compelled to foreground before unpacking the book. Rather than blending our voices as we do throughout the rest of this text, here we speak as individuals. 

Red: Sherry has a PhD in Organizational Leadership, and I am a doctoral candidate in the same field. Sensemaking is a concept derived from organizational theory, so it only seemed natural that my first book review would be written with my mentor and would draw upon our shared disciplinary knowledge. As a student of organizational leadership and a graduate writing consultant in our center, I understand the importance of theory in academic work and often work with clients to theoretically foreground their research. 

Sherry: When I helped Rebecca Hallman Martini bring her vision for The Peer Review (TPR) to reality a decade ago, we agreed that it would do much more than offer another peer-reviewed venue for writing center scholarship. TPR would provide a vehicle for graduate students to partner with faculty throughout the writing and editing processes. Writing this review with Red allowed me to demonstrate my commitment to the sponsorship continuum, whereby faculty not only teach and mentor students but also collaborate and coauthor with them (Wynn Perdue, 2014).

As we labored through the reviewing process, we found ourselves engaged in a form of sensemaking of our own, albeit focused on the nature of coauthoring. We revisited issues of authorial voice, such as whose prose version of connective tissue most characterized the work. Sherry wondered about the potential entitlement represented by edits that reflected her writing preferences and the fact that Red always formats documents on which we collaborate in Arial Narrow because he knows it is the font she favors for accessibility and aesthetic reasons. While queries into the unseen and ambiguous nature of coauthorship are ancillary to this review, we found them worthy of highlighting here and plan to pursue them in a future publication. 

Sensemaking in a Writing Center Context 

In acknowledgment of TPR’s audience, we limited our in-depth discussion of specific sensemaking approaches, contexts, and purposes to the five chapters (the book consists of ten) that explicitly address a writing center context. As we discuss each, we draw attention both to how it conceives of sensemaking and to its contribution to writing center practice. We conclude this chapter-by-chapter review by briefly summarizing what readers will find in the five additional chapters.

While much of the labor in many writing centers is performed by students and other non-administrators, most of the “scholarship that analyzes writing center pedagogy looks to metaphors constructed by administrators to define” work done by others (p. 12). In Chapter 1: “The Medachtic Tutor,” Andrea Rosso Efthymiou disrupts this imbalanced narrative, “placing tutors’ knowledge and their discursive framework at the forefront of defining writing center work” (p. 13) by sharing insights derived from interviews with tutors at an all-women’s Jewish college. The author, a self-identified “Christian person working as an administrator in a Jewish space” examines the metaphors used by tutors like Tara, “an observant woman in Jewish Modern Orthodoxy” (p. 17). By documenting what was previously invisible or inaccessible, including how tutor Shulamit “framed her tutoring through the lens of religion” with language “specific to her religious community–medachtic and kavanah,” Efthymiou helps readers of all faiths appreciate her tutors’ emotional labor and recognize the ways they often draw upon multiple “discourse communities” to make meaning of their work in the center (p. 16). As a result, she not only demonstrates the importance of attending to metaphors as part of the sensemaking process but also advances the “epistemological pluralism” of writing center storytelling (p. 13). Moreover, she shows that while “much that goes on in [tutors’] lives and environments that influence their [tutoring] is beyond our control as teachers and administrators,” their outside lives “might influence how we administer our programs and centers” (Malenczyk, p. 3), particularly when we realize that the line between inside and outside is “fuzzy at best” (Efthymiou, p. 15).

In Chapter 3, “Celebrating Sensemaking Cultures in the Writing Center: Scaffolding Transparent Communication between Tutors and Directors,” Jeanne Smith, Shannon McKeehen, Barbara George, and Yvonne Lee present a narrative case study of a tutoring program at an R1 university in the Midwest (p. 42). More specifically, they recount their tutors’ sensemaking efforts during a difficult time of growth and frustration, when the existing tutoring model did not “transfer to asynchronous online sessions” (p. 46). Rather than blaming cognitive overload or dismissing the difficulties as a “baffling problem,” the authors characterize the misunderstandings and strife that emerged as “a failure of directors to appreciate the sensemaking process of tutors and to integrate that process fully into professional development and ongoing reflection” (p. 56). Put more simply, they argue that “misunderstanding can mean that tutors are doing their sensemaking in isolation instead of in community,” a situation that can be improved when administrators “scaffold negotiations of complex theory” and “build continuous sensemaking conversations into our tutor development” (p. 58). To that end, the authors offer a well-sequenced and practical framework for the application of sensemaking strategies in a four-part succession: Listen to Everyone in a Scaffolded Discussion; Write It Up, Invite Feedback, and Use the Resulting Document; Crowdsource the Center and Distribute Leadership; and Build Recursive, Valuable Collaborations. Not only do Smith et al. affirm the importance of examining tutors’ sensemaking as raised by other authors in the collection but they also emphasize that sensemaking is recursive and ongoing for all stakeholders – whether or not administrators are attending to it.

While previous scholarship on race in the center has prioritized the “tutor-to-writer” dynamic (p. 62), Alba Newmann Holmes explores interactions between tutors in Chapter 4, “Tutor-to-Tutor: Attending to the Operations of Race and Privilege among Writing Center Staff Members.” A self-described white director with a complicated lineage and limited “exposure to antiracist pedagogy and literature” (p. 63), Newmann Holmes draws upon Conelissen’s (2012) description of sensemaking as “a process of making meaning through which people interpret events … that are somehow surprising, complex, or confusing” (p. 66). In the author’s case, sensemaking was motivated by realizing that she could not transform the culture of her center simply by adding several tutors of color when one of those new hires shared that she didn’t attend weekly professional development because she felt invisible. In an effort to address the situation, she implemented focused conversations about race and microaggressions designed to resist “what Asao Inoue (2016) terms a ‘white racial habitus’” (p. 66). Following the advice of colleagues with more experience in antiracist advocacy, Newmann Holmes designed the conversations to focus on race rather than on all aspects of identity, and speakers were not allowed to deflect attention from the undesired consequences of their interactions with other tutors by explaining their intentions. These interventions were important strides to help Newmann Holmes better understand the existing environment and to facilitate “a more authentically inclusive community” (p. 69). The process revealed unexpected conflicts, the complexity of intersectionality, and the complicating role of vulnerability, each which is not easily overcome. As she notes, tutors who understand the importance of collaboration with writers don’t necessarily see their relationships with other tutors as similarly conditioned. To emphasize collegiality, the center drafted guidelines to foreground each tutor’s responsibility to show respect for, and to collaborate with, one another. The intervention inadvertently encouraged “consultants to police each other’s behavior, as opposed to self critique and reflection” and included the potential burden that BIPOC tutors would have to call out the behavior of their white peers (p. 79). Despite such incongruences, Newmann Holmes emphasizes the importance of encouraging tutors to pursue “common understanding . . . intersubjective ways of making sense of interactions, behaviors, and experiences,” even though they are likely to emerge “slowly” (p. 79). Rather than offering yet another account by a white administrator trying to come to terms with her privilege, this chapter demonstrates how one director “accept[ed] the discomfort that often accompanies these messier, more genuine interactions” to facilitate “individual and collective accountability” (p. 80).   

Part II opens with “New Writing Center Ecologies: Challenging Inherited Sensemaking in the Center.” In this, the sixth chapter, Genie Giaimo and Joseph Cheatle take a systematic approach to sensemaking that focuses on how writing center knowledge is made, transmitted, and framed within and across documents that are typical of our contexts. More specifically, they triangulate session notes, client surveys, and individual development plans, “attend[ing] to how information is created and moves in ways that are predictable and patterned” as well as “fluctuating and potentially novel” (p. 110). While the chapters we discussed until now primarily focused on an audience within the center, Giaimo and Cheatle employ sensemaking not only to “identify how our centers map onto our mission and our goals” but also to reveal the degree to which and how documentation might encourage upchain administrators to support writing center work (p. 113). By doing so, they demonstrate an important both/and: the need “to speak the organizational language of administration” and the importance of “sensemaking independently of them” (p. 124). Giaimo and Cheatle’s chapter thus offers readers an important route toward becoming “advocates of our centers and our field” (p. 124) by attending to the important insights gained when we revisit mundane texts through the lens of sensemaking.

Narrating current and prior events, “(re)interpret[ing]” and “(re)creat[ing]” an understanding of larger institutional contexts, allows leaders to connect, forge, and reshape relationships as they make sense of their work (p. 127). In Chapter 7, “Stories to Support and Sustain a Program: Connections Among the Library, WID, and the Writing Center,” Susanmarie Harrington, a WID director, and Sue Dinitz, a writing center director, share their sensemaking efforts in a decentralized “network of units, initiatives, and requirements that support writing, writers, and writing teachers” (p. 127) across critical “moments in the evolution of [University of Vermont] writing initiatives” (p. 128). While the authors reflect on three, we focus only on their discussion of a proposed organizational change–in their words a “threat”–that onerously equated “writing center work as equivalent to subject-area tutoring” and that neglected the pedagogical role of the director (p. 137). The decision originated with upper administrators who did not understand these differences and whose own sensemaking was informed by limited resources, “efficiencies,” and fairness, so Harrington and Dinitz “set to work creating an alternative set of stories that would enable our administrative superiors to recognize WID and the Writing Center’s work” (p. 137). By drawing parallels between their programs, particularly their shared values, audiences, and scholarship, they were able to advocate for a more appropriate structure and to address budget oversights. Harrington and Dinitz ‘s organizational narrative therefore fulfills Giaimo and Cheatle’s call both to “sensemak[e] independently” of institutional administrators and to speak like an institutional administrator (p. 124). Although there is much to be learned from how the authors made sense of the writing center’s institutional placement, they are quick to acknowledge the recursive nature of sensemaking. The person who assumes the director role upon Sue’s retirement will likely have to revisit these conversations because “what makes a writing program is an ongoing sensemaking process, in which stories guide the ways we see, and see again, our pastall the while allowing us to see our way forward too” (p. 139). 

Before moving into a discussion of the editor’s moves, we share highlights from the other five chapters, both to acknowledge their authors’ contributions to the collection and to encourage readers to expand their inquiry beyond writing center-specific scholarship. Courtney Adams Wooten analyzes graduate teaching assistants’ (GTAs) stories for what they reveal about GTAs’ emergent scholarly identities and to determine how administrators might derive insights relevant to GTAs’ development as teachers and tutors in Chapter 2, “Beyond the Anecdote: TA Sensemaking as Writing Program Underlife.” Bronwyn Williams unapologetically centers affect, exploring emotion as sensemaking in the context of learning theories, in Chapter 5, “Making Sense of How Things Feel: Attending to Emotional Experiences in Writing Programs,” whereas Melissa Nicolas pursues an institutional ethnography of a University of California writing program via an examination of a Memorandum of Understanding, what she refers to as a “boss text” that frames “the everyday work in and of the program, much like the document analysis” conducted by Giaimo and Cheatle (p. 143), in Chapter 8, “Cascading Texts and Cat’s Cradles: An Institutional Ethnographic Approach to Understanding the Textual Production of Unionized Labor.” Because sensemaking is commonly characterized as a process to get at what is unknown, Christy Wenger offers a case study of distributed leadership informed by feminist rhetorical ecological agency, a theory that she describes as “a method of sensemaking” that “strives to help WPAs structure the unknowns of their workplaces so that they may act and thrive within them” (p. 161) in Chapter 9, “Distributed Leadership for WPAs: Making Sense of Leadership Methods. Finally, in Chapter 10, “Sensemaking as Antiracist Writing Program Administration: Reappropriating Activity and Actor-Network Theory,” Brian Hendrickson, a self-described “white ally” who has taught or pursued degrees in diverse educational settings that include K-8, community colleges, jails, and minority-serving institutions, explains how making sense of his current WPA role in a predominately white private college has compelled him to evolve from an ally to “what Neisha-Anne Green (2018) describes as an accomplice to people of color” (p. 181).

Framing Sensemaking

In her “Introduction,” Malenczyk explains that an important goal of sensemaking as explored within this book is to render “unseen interactions” (p. 3) visible within writing programs and centers “from a range of perspectives” (p. 5) and contexts “for more effective administration” (p. 3). The diversity of institutions represented, voices included, and contexts explored as well as the sensemaking and problem-solving approaches iterated across the collection attest to the success of that mission. We therefore echo Karen Keaton Jackson’s praise of Malenczyk’s work for its inclusive nature, both for “embrac[ing] all participants” (p. 205), particularly tutors, as meaning makers and for recruiting contributions from educational settings that are less frequently represented in scholarship. Moreover, we appreciate how she arranged the collection, not simply for how she grouped chapters within two distinct-but-related parts but also for how she sequenced them, allowing authors to comment on and build upon prior discussions.

Because Malenczyk is a powerful advocate for inclusion and a skilled editor, we were tempted to end the review with the above-mentioned accolades. Our duty to the field of organizational leadership, however, obliged us to address a missed opportunity or gap. Although we are organizational leadership scholars, we were only superficially aware of sensemaking before being tasked with this review. We expected the introduction to provide a robust overview of the theory of the book’s naming, but instead we had to consult numerous outside sources–some referenced in individual chapters–to compile a working definition of the practice. A cursory review of the literature on sensemaking indicates that it has a rich and nuanced history (Ancona, 2011; Brown et al., 2015; Helms Mills et al., 2010; Nardon & Hari, 2022; Taylor & Williams, 2022; Weick, 1995, 2012 ), yet Malenczyk neither overviews its major tenets nor introduces its fragmented landscape. Having done the reading, we would argue that some of the authors in Sensemaking for Writing Programs and Writing Centers are engaged in a specific iteration of sensemaking, what Taylor and Williams (2022) call critical sensemaking or sensemaking.  A related issue with Malenczyk’s overview of the theory is that she cites only three sensemaking texts and relies primarily on broad strokes drawn from Karl Weick’s 1995 book Sensemaking in Organizations. As a result of these editorial decisions, readers are left to infer what sensemaking is across chapters and to sort potentially discrepant descriptions of the process on their own. We fear that without more scaffolding, readers who lack our background and/or mandate to review might infer that sensemaking is simply a “highfalutin” way of representing how a series of writing program and center administrators made sense of leadership dilemmas within their settings, especially because there was some unevenness in the degree to which individual contributors explicitly mapped their analyses within a sensemaking process. In sum, the editor’s introduction needed to more comprehensively frame the sensemaking terrain. 


Although readers will have to seek additional research on sensemaking if they are to employ the theory within their own contexts, they will find many models to guide their inquiry in Sensemaking for Writing Programs and Writing Centers. We greatly appreciated the opportunity to collaborate on this review and to derive lessons about how to see our centers and the interactions within them anew through the lens of an organizational theory. By employing sensemaking, writing center administrators can comprehend both the necessity of, and potential for change within, their contexts as well as harness resources to fuel their advocacy across larger organizational networks.


Ancona, D. (2011). Sensemaking: Framing and acting in the unknown. In S. Snook, N. Nohria, &  R. Khurana (Eds.), The handbook for teaching leadership: Knowing, doing, and being (1st ed., pp. 3-19). SAGE.

Brown, A. D., Colville, I., Pye, A. (2015). Making sense of sensemaking in organization studies. Organization Studies, 36(2), 265-277. 

Helms Mills, J., Thurlow, A., & Mills, A. J. (2010). Making sense of sensemaking: The critical sensemaking approach. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 5(2), 182-195. 

Nardon, L., & Hari, A. (2022). The sensemaking perspective. In L. Nardon & A. Hari (Eds.), Making sense of immigrant work integration: An organizing framework. (International Marketing and Management Research, pp. 15-30). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 

Taylor, L. D., & Williams, K. L. (2022). Critical sensemaking: A framework for interrogation, reflection, and coalition building toward more inclusive college environments. Education Sciences, 12(2), Article 877.

Weick, K.. (2012). Organized sensemaking: A commentary on processes of interpretive work. Human Relations, 65, 141-153. 

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. SAGE.

Wynn Perdue, S., Driscoll, D. L., Matthews, J., Paz, E., & Tess, J. (2014). Negotiating the sponsorship continuum: Preparing undergraduates to conduct RAD research in writing studies. Perspectives in Undergraduate Research and Mentoring, 3(2),1-19.