Writing and Learning Centers: Expectations and Perceptions (An Experential Contemplation)

Lerner’s essay on “Writing Center Pedagogy” reminds me of my first full-time academic job out of graduate school. I began with Rasmussen College as the Mentor Center Coordinator. The position entailed building an all-purpose learning center from the ground up, hiring and training tutors, and establishing a process of support for students needing help with writing (and yes this included, from administration’s perspective anyway, many of the perceptions and misperceptions about the needs and challenges of beginning writers and English Language Learners we’ve encountered in our reading this semester, i.e. Trimbur, Bizzell, Lu, Matsuda, etc.), understanding difficult subject matter, and developing or honing study skills. At first, I met with students myself and leveraged the assistance of faculty while I built a pool of tutors to better distribute the workload.

During my time as coordinator, and in the several years since I transitioned to different roles within the college, the Mentor Center has become a Learning Center, shifted modalities from primarily residential to virtual through an online service called Brain Fuse (embedded in and linked to the college’s online learning management system), and moved from a campus based to centralized delivery model. In addition to moving to a centralized model, the Learning Center also adopted a program specific emphasis, one in which a centralized coordinator manages tutors, who work either from a campus site or from home, virtually throughout the college’s 24 campuses. To Lerner’s point, I have experienced that “the mere presence of a writing (or learning) center does not guarantee its stability nor provide the resources it would need to fulfill a capacious role” (301). As these changes occurred at Rasmussen, so did the culture around and attitude toward learning services, sometimes for the good but often for the bad—trust in the process, the procedures, and the desired end product waned.

Of course underlying many of the assumptions that drive such feelings toward learning services generally, and here I will extend this perception to writing centers as well because I believe there is overlap, is a belief, though not often articulated, that a Learning Center or Writing Center is going to fix student problems. Lerner refers to this unspoken expectation as the “grammar garage” (303). While serving in the Mentor Center, I often visited with faculty who would request that their students write better after visiting with a tutor for one or several sessions. Unreasonable as it may sound, some teachers mistake the primary goal of such a place—“to produce better writers, not [necessarily] better writing—with quick fix methods meant to minimize their frustration about what they see as sloppy or poorly composed essays, usually reduced to concerns about conventional grammar. Bartholomae, Perl, and Rose are useful references of the complications inherent in such minimalistic views of language and writing.

Students also seemed to share the quick fix mentality. Their expectations of such a site may have been inaccurately shaped by the messaging promoting the learning center and speaks to yet another underlying assumption of learning (or writing) centers: that they are also separate from rather than part of the learning process. When viewed as a service for those who struggle, the site assumes an “othered” reputation and defeats the purpose as collaborative learning space meant to enhance the class experience. I remember spending significant time trying to dispel inaccurate notions of the role and purpose of the Mentor Center.

Measureable learning should be, of course, the hope of all who teach and tutor students. Lerner’s method “of effective practice… in which teaching and learning writing” involves “tutors/instructors” listening “fully and carefully, to respond as readers, and to allow the space for writers to be in control of their session and their texts” demonstrates how a writing center can support students in developing as writers and thinkers with long-term results. Too often, however, I encountered the student frustrated that a session didn’t yield a desired grade or didn’t make a specific writing task good (by which the student often meant polished enough to evade the demerits of incorrect usage circled, underlined, or crossed out by a teacher). While Lerner is correct that “writing center sessions are most useful to students when they focus on higher order concerns, such as choosing a topic, supporting an argument, or re-organizing a text,” I wonder if student expectations of the services rendered in such sites encourage or discourage use.

Based on my experience in the Mentor Center and reviewing Lerner’s essay, I am left with the following questions:

1-       Does emphasis on long-term development over immediate, seemingly urgent, assignment needs help or hurt the perceptive value of a writing center? Are writing teachers and writing centers on the same page?

2-      What qualifications must a tutor meet to offer the most useful peer support?

3-      Where will technology take the writing center in the future? Does it need a physical space?

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One thought on “Writing and Learning Centers: Expectations and Perceptions (An Experential Contemplation)

  1. Rob, you have raised many great concerns, but for he sake of time and space I would like to address the technology question. First, I do believe that writing/learning centers do indeed need a physical space, but since computer technology is developing so rapidly, I think it also needs a “technological” space. I don’t know too much about the Owl Purdue, but what I tell my students, is that it is a great space for help and assistance for the mechanic issues of writing. I believe that it is a online writing center to help students tailor their writing skills if they need specific advice about specific mechanics. I don’t only direct students to this web site, I also recommend the writing center on campus or communicate that I too am willing to meet and discuss issues and concerns with writing, whether it is mechanics or not. Also with the physical space, as mentioned in class, I believe it is key to have a physical space for a writing center so students can have the direct one on one “mentorship” but what makes it better, is having a peer tutor/mentor working with the student to create a more comfortable, relaxed atmosphere so the student has the best possible learning environment. Technology will of course change this physical space, but I don’t think it will change for the worse, only for the better. We just have to remember that computers are not humans, and only humans can offer human advice.

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