restricted access 2: IN THE SPIRIT OF SERVICE: Making Writing Center Research a “Featured Character”
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2 IN THE SPIRIT OF SERVICE Making Writing Center Research a “Featured Character” NANCY MALONEY GRIMM For the last ten years, writing center scholars have been cheerily optimistic about the untapped research potential in writing centers. In 1993, for example, Michael Spooner referred to writing centers as “hothouses of knowledge making,” acknowledging the tremendous amount of understanding about literacy that develops as one works in a writing center. Spooner, an academic book editor, was hoping some of “the breadth of expertise” would make its way into print (3). In the same year, Joyce Kinkead and Jeanette Harris concluded their edited collection , Writing Centers in Context, by commenting on a lack of writing center research, and particularly a lack of work on cultural and linguistic diversity. They encouraged research in this direction, speculating that the lack of development of writing center research might be because scholars had not yet addressed “the direction a writing center should take as a research center” (247). More recently (summer 2000), Kinkead and Harris observe that writing centers have still not reached their potential as sites of research, noting that most writing center directors have been too busy keeping programs “alive and healthy” (24). I have heard many people who work in writing centers exclaim how much they learn in one day in a writing center. Indeed, many say that they learn more about how to be an effective teacher by working in a writing center than by taking courses in composition pedagogy. If there is so much learning happening in writing centers, what are the reasons for the untapped research potential, particularly research on the cultural and linguistic diversity that are the focus of so much writing center work? In this chapter, I’d like to explore that question as well as suggest ways to achieve the research potential of the writing center. An area of scholarship called the New Literacy Studies offers an exciting framework for thinking about research in writing centers, yet that potential Center will hold final 8/26/03 9:23 AM Page 41 42 TH E CE N T E R WI L L HO L D cannot be achieved without an understanding of the issues that have blocked the development of writing centers as research centers. One of the reasons for the blocked potential is suggested in Kinkead and Harris’s reference to directors being too busy keeping programs alive to develop a research program. That programmatic busy-ness interferes with research time is echoed by other writing center directors. Harvey Kail (2000), for example, admits that he is intrigued by calls for research emphasizing what is learned in a writing center (he is referring to earlier calls made by North 1984 and Trimbur 1992). Nevertheless, he writes, “The problem for me in answering such calls is that it is late in my day when I get around to thinking of the writing center director as the writing center researcher—very late in the day” (27). Kail describes his priorities in ways with which many writing center directors will identify —”teaching, service, service, service, and then research—on our service ” (28). Kail says that in order to make research “a featured character, not a walk-on part,” we’d need to renegotiate the writing center statement of purpose. Kail is right. Too often, writing center work is perceived as service, service, and more service. Although I have no problem thinking of the writing center serving students, I do have concerns when the same writing center is also perceived as serving faculty. In fact, I think one of the primary obstacles to making writing center research a “featured character ” is located in this muddy vision of service to two different constituencies . Much of the muddiness is historical; many writing centers were established to remediate student writers and thereby lighten the burden of faculty. Linking the remediation project with the notion of faculty burden has created confusion about the primary constituency of a writing center. In the early years at the MTU Writing Center, we went to faculty to ask them to “send” their students to us, and we engaged in efforts to please faculty, to survey faculty, to assess faculty satisfaction, to gain faculty approval. Although writing centers have always prided themselves on the individualized work they do with students, there has always been a sense of looking over the shoulder to be sure the faculty approved. As a result of this dual service mission, there has been a good...