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The Worth of the Writing Center: Numbers, Value, Culture and the Rhetoric of Budget Proposals

Noreen Lape
lapen@dickinson.edu
Dickinson College

When it comes to securing funding from upper administration, all writing center directors share a similar rhetorical goal: to justify the “worth” of their writing centers. What kinds of appeals win over administrators, especially in times of economic recession? This question plagues Daniel Reardon, an Assistant Director at Missouri University of Science and Technology, in his Spring 2010 essay in Praxis. Reardon explains how he chose to play the “numbers game” when his administration requested “estimates for a 3%, 5%, 7%, or 9% budget reduction.” He approached budget talks “lightly armed with . . . problematic attendance numbers and the support of a few instructors.” He admits to being “more comfortable talking qualitatively about what an undeniable benefit the writing center is for the student community,” but he “wonder[s] just how much weight those qualitative arguments have” with number-crunchers. Reardon raises an important question: are numbers more persuasive than qualitative appeals when it comes to funding? In “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count,” Neil Lerner describes an all too familiar scenario: a “late-night phone call from [his] department chair, telling [him] of impending budget cuts.” His response, like Reardon’s, is to produce quantitative data since “college administrators often want numbers, digits, results” (2). Because a writing center’s “worth” is a construct that depends on institutional context, both quantitative and qualitative appeals are useful tools in any director’s toolbox. For some budget authorities, usage numbers (or some other quantitative data, like number of first-year students served) indicate the “worth” of the writing center; for others, “worth” resides in the value the writing center adds to students’ learning experiences. In this essay, I will examine several different types of quantitative and qualitative funding appeals. While strong proposals generally combine various appeals, several factors, like the age of the writing center, the campus writing culture, and the institution’s sense of mission, influence the choice to emphasize one appeal over another.

When directors are asked to justify the worth of their writing centers, they often resort to the quantitative appeal—a type of necessary, albeit rudimentary, descriptive statistics that involves, for example, employing usage numbers to support requests for a larger personnel budget, a better space, or new computers. This type of appeal is more likely to be successful if the audience already acknowledges the worth of the writing center. With a dubious audience, a more complex variation is the value-added quantitative appeal, in which a quantitative study is used to measure ways in which the writing center adds value to students’ learning experiences. Pointing out the writing center community’s proclivity for qualitative methods, scholars like Lerner, and Peter Carino and Doug Enders have led the charge to “use quantitative research to gain some answers to a question [that] could not have [been] addressed as efficiently using only qualitative methods” (Carino and Enders 83). Carino and Enders, for example, created a statistical correlation study that measured student satisfaction with the writing center. Such projects, they say, are useful as “‘data driven assessment’ . . . [for] when the Dean comes knocking” (102). Still, assessment data is not the same as budget appeal data. When Carino and Enders found a correlation between “number of visits and student satisfaction,” they considered it “ammunition in arguing that the writing center has a positive effect on student writers’ perception of improvement” (99). While this data might very well convince a Dean who is already favorably disposed to the writing center to continue funding, would it be enough to convince the same Dean to increase funding?

Lerner wisely advises directors to marshal their data to address “the ‘So What?’ question” (3). With data showing that his writing center improved the writing of first-year students, Lerner crafted a successful value-added appeal: by contributing to first-year students’ academic success, the writing center aids the retention effort (1,3).1 In addition, such data is not just personally beneficial, it serves the international writing center community by providing “large-scale evidence that writing centers can and do make a difference” (Lerner 3). Quantitative data, as Lerner suggests, can be used for multiple purposes: evidence of assessment for outside accrediting agencies, meaningful and potentially replicable findings for the community of writing center scholars, and proof of the writing center’s importance and value-added capability for campus administrators. In each case, however, the “So What?” would shift, for assessment data and research results do not automatically translate into project funding. Instead, directors must interpret the data and explain the implications to the campus writing culture.

While the positive appeal emphasizes growth, the negative appeal focuses on deficit. There is a writing center oral culture of “war stories,” as a quick search for “basement” and “closet” in the Writing Lab Newsletter archives reveals. One director describes a writing lab housed in a “dimly lighted, ill-equipped broom closet that masqueraded as an office” (Davis 16); a second depicts one “in the basement, two or three floors away from the Arts and Sciences offices” (Farkas 3); and a third inhabits “one small room, too large to be a closet, too small to be anything else” (Kossman 1).2 I, too, have published my experience of setting up my previous writing center: “Immediately, we hired a staff of two tutors; cleared out the buckets, brooms, and cleaning solutions; and moved into a rather large-sized maintenance closet.” Within the writing center community, these stories are fun to share at conferences and in celebratory, rags-to-riches narratives illustrating how far we have come as a community. Yet, as several directors have pointed out, hanging on to the “war stories” can undermine funding requests—requests that could lead to the growth, change, or even the reinvention of writing centers. The less hopeful versions revel in lack and thus participate in recreating the writing center’s marginalization. As Linda Poziwilko observes, “We complain and fret to each other about being given quarters in the darkest corner of the basement of the humanities building . . . but we are not always eager to explore the avenues that will help us secure a more prominent place in our institutions” (4). Paraphrasing Jeanne Simpson, she suggests we focus on writing at the expense of engaging in the kind of “institutional politics” that will enable us to secure more space and resources (4). To that end, positive quantitative appeals indicating, for example, growing usage numbers and/or the writing center’s contribution to retention support bids for better lighting, access, and/or space to serve the students who threaten to overflow its boundaries. Positive quantitative appeals can also help new directors establish their credibility and garner the support of faculty. Joe Essid dares us to get “out of our battered chairs in our legendary leaky basements and stifling attics” and “mi[x] it up on the faculty e-list whenever curriculum discussions touch upon the role of writing” (3). These directors suggest a strategy for gaining credibility within the institution that involves moving into the campus writing culture and interacting with its natives.

Once a director moves into the campus writing culture, she or he can begin to construct the value-added cultural appeal. This appeal uses qualitative evidence grounded in an understanding of the writing culture and the mission of the institution to (re)imagine the worth of the writing center. To explain how this type of appeal works, I will draw on my recent experience transforming a robust, three-decades old writing center into an even more active Multilingual Writing Center (MWC) with writing tutors in eleven languages. In developing the MWC, I emphasized the value-added cultural appeal for several context-specific reasons. First, I was seeking to expand the staff and services of an English writing center that was well-established (30+ years old) and functional (3000+ visits for the last five years in a school of approximately 2400 students). Quantitative appeals would have served only to confirm the good reputation that the writing center already enjoyed on campus, not to extend its mission. Second, the change I proposed was a response to the 2006 external evaluators who charged the director with the task of “better integrating the Writing Center” into support programs, a challenge best tackled qualitatively.

My primary qualitative method was a type of ethnographic investigation. In The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision Making, William G. Tierney suggests an ethnographic approach to administrative work. Tierney advises directors of all kinds to gain “an understanding of [the] organization’s culture” in order to approach “the organization as an . . . interpretive undertaking.” Such “cultural understanding” is “essential” for directors who want to “foment change in the organization” (3). These directors forego the presumption “that all organizations should function similarly” and develop “a schema to diagnose their own organizations” (Tierney 39). They act as “researchers” who, like participant-observers, “do not enter the field with preconceived notions about the problem to be studied but, instead, attempt to understand the problem ‘from the native’s point of view’” (14). Participant-observers do not rush to make changes, implement imported models, and/or solve problems. Instead, they gather data in a “variety of settings”: “the researcher tries to uncover informational data such as language habits, forms and patterns of written communication, and the agendas and interactions at various kinds of meetings. Clues of particular interest concern how members of an institution interpret the school’s history and environment both to themselves and others” (15). In diagnosing and interpreting an organization, the researcher-director uses the qualitative tools of an ethnographer, like observations and interviews that are structured and open-ended (Tierney 15).

With no predetermined plans to appeal for more funding but seeking only to interpret the organization from the “native point of view,” I adopted Tierney’s approach and undertook an “ethnographic tour” of the college’s writing culture in Fall 2009 when I was a brand new hire. The purpose of the ethnographic tour was to understand how faculty teach and students learn writing across the disciplines as well as the pedagogical role of the writing center in that process. At the end of the year, I interviewed over thirty different departments to whom I posed the same five questions:

1.  How do you implement the “three-tiered” writing program in your department—that is, first-year seminar, writing intensive, and senior capstone writing courses?
2.  Where is writing taught in your curriculum?
3.  How do you teach majors the writing specific to your discipline?
4.  How do you teach the writing process?
5.  What kind of support can the Writing Program provide for you?

In addition, I kept field notes and collected writing artifacts (e.g. syllabi, writing guides, email follow-ups).

What I learned from the ethnographic tour defied all expectations: foreign language faculty, as a cohort, wanted more writing center support for their students. The foreign language faculty understood the value of writing center pedagogy—particularly peer review. Some had abandoned peer review after observing non-fluent second language learners leading one another astray. Yet the same faculty were open to the idea of trained undergraduate peer writing tutors. In fact, for years they had been recommending talented bilingual students for the tutor training course. When those students became tutors, they would tutor writers in English and the second language as needed. Finding these limited interventions helpful, faculty across the languages supported the idea of a centralized writing center staffed by trained and fluent undergraduate peer writing tutors, some of whom were foreign exchange students. The ethnographic tour resulted in a proposal to create a Multilingual Writing Center where U.S. students, matriculated international students, and foreign exchange students would work with writers in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

Once the idea of the MWC was formed, value-added cultural appeals to upper administration helped bring the idea to fruition. First, I used the data from the ethnographic tour to show how and why a writing center would benefit the second language learners in foreign language classes. The MWC would benefit the whole campus since all students are required to study a foreign language through the intermediate level. Second, I appealed to the institution’s desire for programs that are distinctive. The MWC would be a new type of writing center needing a new theory and pedagogy, for there is no model of an internationalized writing center built through the collaboration of writing and foreign language specialists.3 Third, I appealed to a central mission of the college: to create global citizens. The college offers courses in thirteen foreign languages, houses a nationally-recognized global education program, and ranks near the top of U.S. baccalaureate institutions in the number of students who choose year-long study abroad. The MWC proposal supported the work of the foreign language departments and the Center for Global Study and Engagement.

This last point about connecting project funding appeals to the mission of the institution should not be taken lightly. Throughout the ethnographic tour, I noted that the campus community had a clear sense of shared mission; people routinely echoed parts of the mission statement in meetings; successful initiatives had strong connections to the mission. Tierney explains the importance of a clear mission when he asserts that an institution “is in charge of its destiny if it understands itself” (18). My interpretive foray into the college’s writing culture via an ethnographic tour enabled me to craft value-added cultural appeals to the college’s sense of identity and destiny. Quantitative appeals would have been less successful. The fact that in 2010 thirty-seven students worked with bilingual English tutors on Spanish writing does not make as strong a case for funding an MWC as does a collaborative proposal rooted in the mission of the college and endorsed by several foreign language departments and the Center for Global Studies and Engagement. As a result, despite tough economic times, the MWC was funded.4

Before making a funding request (or defense), directors should fully analyze the rhetorical situation—audience, purpose, and context. Does the proposal aim to support growth and change, or simply to maintain current conditions? Is the writing center new or established? Does the writing center overtly complement the mission of the college by linking its mission statement to the college’s mission? Does it have the buy-in of many or few faculty? Are upper administrators swayed more by numbers or by institutional values? For a new and developing center, qualitative arguments may be less compelling than quantitative evidence of growth. A marginalized or fossilized center could revive itself via an ethnographic tour that results in a revised strategic plan and concomitant value-added cultural appeals for fiscal support. Conversely, a named or well-established center would not need to argue about quantities in the way that a new center would. In the case of writing centers seeking a mission change, qualitative arguments place proposed changes in the broader contexts of the writing culture and the institution. By closely analyzing the rhetorical situation, writing center directors can enter budget talks strategically and persuasively.

 

Notes

1. In “Choosing Beans Wisely,” published in the Writing Lab Newsletter in 2001, Lerner points out that his 1997 study was “flawed, both statistically and logically” (1).

2. For other narratives of humble origins, see Abels, Broussard, Miller, and Puma.

3. Shortly after I wrote the essay, DePaul University in Chicago developed a Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research with foreign language writing tutors in eighteen languages. A search for other colleges and universities that have a Multilingual Writing Center yields few results. The University of San Francisco has a writing center that assists writers of French, Japanese, and Spanish. There are Spanish writing centers at the University of Minnesota, Amherst College, Grand Valley State University, the University of Iowa, Ohio State University, State University of New York, and St. Lawrence University. There are even fewer French and German writing centers. There are several English language writing centers that provide foreign language tutors.

4. The proposal won the approval of the writing center’s stewards. In my annual stewardship letter to our benefactors, I talked about extending the mission of the writing center and including writing tutors in multiple languages. The benefactors responded with a generous gift in support of the new initiatives. In the inaugural year, AY 2011, there were 298 visitors who made 819 visits. The following year the numbers rose 57% as 574 visitors made 1283 visits. This all occurred at a college with an enrollment of approximately 2400.

 

Works Cited

Abels, Kimberly Town. “The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: A Site and Story Under Construction.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Eds. Christina Murphy and Byron L. Stay. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006. 393-402. Print.

Broussard, William. “Collaborative Work, Competitive Students, Counternarrative: A Tale from Out of (the Academy’s) Bounds.” Writing Lab Newsletter 28.1 (2003): 1-5. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Carino, Peter and Doug Enders. “Does Frequency of Visits to the Writing Center Increase Student Satisfaction? A Statistical Correlation Study – or Story.” Writing Center Journal 22.1 (2001):1-5. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 22 June 2011.

Essid, Joe. “Working for the Clampdown? Being Crafty at Managed Universities.” Writing Lab Newsletter 30.2 (2005): 1-5. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 12 March 2011.

Farkas, Carol-Ann. “’Idle Assumptions are the Devil’s Plaything’: The Writing Center, the First-Year Faculty, and the Reality Check.” Writing Lab Newsletter 30.7 (2006): 1-5. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Kossman, Barbara. “Computers and the Perception of the Writing Center.” Writing Lab Newsletter 25.5 (2001): 1-3. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Lape, Noreen. “Trickster at Our Table: The Columbus State University Writing Center,” Southern Discourse 11.2 (2008). Print.

Lerner, Neal. “Counting Beans and Making Beans Count.” Writing Lab Newsletter 22.1 (1997): 1-4. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 22 June 2011.

Miller, William V. “Now and Later at Ball State.” Writing Lab Newsletter 6.6 (1982): 1-2. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Poziwilko, Linda. “Writing Centers, Retention, and the Institution: A Fortuitous Nexus.” Writing Lab Newsletter 22.2 (1997): 1-4. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Puma, Vincent D. “The Write Staff: Identifying and Training Tutor-Candidates.” Writing Lab Newsletter 14.2 (1989): 1-4. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 18 March 2011.

Reardon, Daniel. “Writing Center Administration: Learning the Numbers Game.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal 7.2 (Spring 2010): n. pag. Web. 15 March 2011.

Tierney, William G. The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision Making. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2008. Print.



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