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Writing Center Leadership:
Transcript of Writing Center Leadership:
How Collaborative Learning Contributes to the Centers’ Sustainability
Dr. Katrin Girgensohn
Fifth International Conference on Effective Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
American University of Beirut
Nearly everyone who writes likes - and needs - to talk about his or her writing, preferably to someone who will really listen, who knows how to listen, and knows how to talk about writing too.
Maybe in a perfect world, all writers would have their own ready auditor - a teacher, a classmate, a roommate, an editor - who would not only listen but draw them out, ask them questions they would not think to ask themselves. A writing center is an institutional response to this need.
(Stephen North 1984, "The idea of a writing center")
I couldn't imagine my career without the writing center because of all the things I do, you know, I am a good classroom teacher and so forth and I love the teaching part of it, but I feel like this is where the real changes are happening, in students' learning, and in their own confidence and in their ability to chart their own learning path and so forth. The transformations I have seen all across the board, from struggling students and advanced students and everybody in between, tells me that this kind of learning is really, really powerful. We help students achieve a voice that they can bring to the classroom.
What is needed to implement writing centers sustainably at a university?
recognized and valued part of the university
good institutional standing
assured budget, appropriate location
security to do a good job and fulfill its mission.
16 interviewed experts:
7 > 24 years as writing center director
6 > 10 years as writing center director
3 min. 3 years as writing center director
11 public, 5 private institutions:
9 large universities (>20,000 students)
5 middle-sized universities
2 small universities (< 2,000 students)
technical school, all-women school, overall Afro-Amercian school, school with high percentage of nontraditional and non-native students
embedded in participant obversations
Grounded Theory Approach (Strauss & Corbin 1990)
Collaborative learning (CL) is a personal philosophy, not just a classroom technique. In all situations where people come together in groups, it suggests a way of dealing with people which respects and highlights individual group members' abilities and contributions. There is a sharing of authority and acceptance of responsibility among group members for the groups’ actions. The underlying premise of collaborative learning is based upon consensus building through cooperation by group members, in contrast to competition in which individuals best other group members. CL practitioners apply this philosophy in the classroom, at committee meetings, with community groups, within their families and generally as a way of living with and dealing with other people.
(Ted Parnitz, A Definition of Collaborative vs Cooperative Learning 1999)
"a community of knowledgeable peers":
• Sharing of authority and responsibility
• Providing the environment for learning
Collaborative Learning is important for leadership in writing centers. But unlike many people think, collaborative learning is not just letting people do whatever they try to do. You have to set up a framework in the background. Like a canvas, or wallpaper, it is in the background and no one will recognize it, but it is there. And within this framework you will get people to work collaboratively. So I see myself as the person in the background, providing the framework.
I'd like to observe when things develop and much how they develop and that's why I think of myself more as an observer [than as a leader …]. Occurring, I am the director, but a lot if just feels like kind of watching and just trying to pay attention.
Creating opportunities for interaction
Dear wonderful colleagues,
I know this may seem like a strange thing to say. And I know I've already said this to many of you before, for some of you, many times. But I want to make sure I've said it to all of you recently and that you believe me . . . .
If you happen to stop by to see me (which I hope you'll do and which I always enjoy), and I happen to be meeting with someone or happen to have the door almost closed or happen to look busy when you come by, or if I pretend that I'm trying to meet a deadline, please, please don't hesitate to interrupt. I'm interruptible. I want to be interrupted. I want to be available to talk with you. I really mean it. Don't think twice, just knock. If the door is closed, please knock to see if I'm around. I really mean it. I do *not* want you to feel as if you have to schedule an appointment in advance to chat with me briefly.
Seeing and talking with you will always be very high priorities to me. I know your time is limited and I know that you're on campus only certain times during the week, and I don't want to miss the chance to chat briefly when you do have time, or to arrange a time that's convenient for both of us. […]
Please remember, I'll be disappointed if you don't interrupt me. Have a great semester.
Caring for boundary discourse
Creating a comfortable atmosphere
I would say that good writing center directors have that sense of play. They just want to make everything fun because learning should be fun. Fun is important, too.
Respect and highlight individual team members' abilities and contributions
My assistant director did all these graphic arts and backgrounds. I have no talent to do stuff like that.
The students who work here, we look at in developmental terms. So the student is very shy, or he is having trouble organizing his time, or whatever it is, we will think about a way to help that student strengthen something. So it’s a developmental process. So we look at some students and we think OK, he hasn't had an opportunity to do something yet in leadership. So let’s ask him to take on this role for this semester or whatever.
Provide professional development possibilities
Being open to explorations
I would say that a good writing center director wants to think ahead but should be free to explore. I wouldn't want to have a rigid plan: this is where I want to be tomorrow.
Expert Interviews: Meuser & Nagel (2009); Bogner, Littig & Menz (2009)
We encouraged a lot more interaction between the different groups [within the team] and that has been really useful.
My assistant director did all these graphic arts and backgrounds. I have no talent to do stuff like that.
For example, we have monthly staff meetings. And I run those, that's my role. Those are professional development or professional preparation.
Barnett, Kristine M. (2007): Leading college writing centers into the future: Strategies for survival and sustainability. Johnson & Wales University, Ann Arbot, MI.
Bogner, Alexander; Littig, Beate; Menz. Wolfgang, (2009): Introduction: Expert Interivews - An Introduction to a New Methodological Debate. In: Bogner, Alexander; Littig, Beate (Hrsg.) Interviewing Experts, Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 1-16.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. (1999): Collaborative learning. Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, Md: John Hopkins University Press, 2nd ed.
Harris, Muriel (2010): Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric. The Writing Center Journal, 30/2, 47-71.
Meuser, Michaela; Nagel, Ulrike (2009): The Expert Interview and Changes in Knowledge Production. In: Bogner, Alexander; Littig, Beate (Hrsg.) Interviewing Experts, Houndmills, England: Palgrave, 17-42.
Murphy, Christina; Stay, Byron L. (2006): The writing center director's resource book. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
North, Stephen M. (1995 (1984)): The Idea of a Writing Center. In: Murphy, Christina; Law, Joe (Hrsg.) Landmark Essays on Writing Centers, Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press, 71-86.
Parnitz, Ted (1996): A Definition of Collaborative vs. Cooperative Learning. URL: http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/deliberations/collaborative-learning/panitz-paper.cfm, last visited: 22.08.2013.
Senge, Peter (1990): The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. 1. Aufl., New York City: Doubleday Business.
Strauss, Anselm; Corbin, Juliett (1990): Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques: Sage Publications.
Picture Collaborative Learning:
Picture Kenneth Bruffee
Picture Writing Center Directors:
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What challenges do writing center directors face and how can they handle them?
Community of Knowledgeable Peers
I think Pizza Parties are important. […]
I think parties are serious academic work, you know?
Creating a transition community
university as learner
(learning organization, Senge 1990)
There is a burden on us to educate people about what we do and to earn confidence and respect. And we have to do that over and over and over again. Because our audiences change, our partners change, and I think we just have to accept that that is part of the work that we do.
I always try to seek advice from people. Not just people who are more powerful or in higher level positions. I really believe deeply in talking face to face with people.
I really think offering workshops in an advanced level with topics associated with particular research writing, writing in particular disciplines, writing at high levels, writing with new media, all of this send messages about who the writing center is for.
Placing as academic unit
Having different target groups
I think that a key to our success is that we try to work really hard to do everything well. And to get known for that. I have been committed to excellence, knowing that we are working in an organization that respects excellence. Just that. That's the nature of universities.
I think we are known, not all across campus but by many people, for trying new things, for trying to meet the evolving needs of the university’s writers here.
We can really disagree. Really challenge each other in ways like: wait, what if this happens? […] And I think we do that in a way because we are really trying to push each other's thinking. We are not trying to just make consensus so that we all feel good. […] But sometimes I know we all get frustrated arguing. […] Because sometimes we hassle over things for a long time.
get familiar with theory of collaborative learning
aim for congruence between
pedagogical approach and
build community of
knowledgeable peers inside
aim for transition communities outside
• What is a writing center?
• Starting point: Growing of writing centers in Germany
• Equipment: Research Design
• Explorations: Writing Center Leadership as Collaborative Learning
a) inside the writing center
b) outside the writing center
Change happens slowly!