Life, Love, and Leadership in the Two-Year Center

This year marks my tenth anniversary as the writing center coordinator at our college. I’ve been doing this gig so long that many faculty and staff here think that I founded the center, that I got the whole enterprise started.

On the contrary. Like most women in academe, I stood on the shoulders of someone else.

I was hired tenure track in English in 2005 and soon befriended by Julie Rodakowski, a North Dakota woman with a passion for composition teaching and a deep belief in the power and value of two-year colleges. I was fresh from defending my dissertation, my head was still solidly in the university realm, so much so that I thought it was sacrilegious to miss a year of CCCC’s. I needed to figure out if community college teaching was going to satisfy me, and more importantly, if I could make a difference in a place where the entire student body turned over every two or three years and job placement and transfer defined student success.

Julie had the answer to both questions: let’s start a learning center. A comprehensive one that includes all the major disciplines that students must take for gen ed requirements, and let’s roll in the writing center. In fact, let’s create a collaborative model in which the writing center, math lab, and sciences all partner… all talk to each other! Oh, and we should probably add ESL, reading, computer applications, speech, and foreign languages while we’re at it.

If the idea of running a regular ol’ writing center was not sexy to me at the time, the Comprehensive Learning Center sure was… and it would emancipate the current, struggling, sad-in-the-library-basement writing center from English department politics and turf battles (as well as the aforementioned basement). Genius!

The rest is history. Julie was the visionary and I was the logistics person, thankfully. I needed someone older and wiser to show me–not tell me, but show me–how change can happen when you believe in your mission, can convince others, and have a game plan to make it work. People on our campus never said “no” to her. She got us a state legislature grant; she got us ongoing college level funding. She got us prime real estate on the third floor of the campus epicenter. I just took notes.

I watched in mute admiration as she waltzed into the office of the college president and said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He had no choice but to leave his desk and follow. The something was our new learning center, bursting at the seams with busy students and busier tutors, hopping from table to table, answering questions, but also posing questions and offering alternate perspectives. Seeing is believing! Julie made a believer out of everyone, even me, the one who was scared to grow anything too large because it might become unmanageable.

I’m happy to say that I’ve outgrown that fear. I am no longer afraid to ask for money, to move furniture around, to push back when the administration pushes in the wrong direction, and to speak out for our marginalized students. I learned from the best.

What am I afraid of now? That the administration won’t approve our request for another fulltime tutor, that my tutor training class won’t fill this fall, that we’re not serving developmental writers as well as we could. These are nice problems to have; they are second or third generation issues in a writing center.

Working in a community college means being tied to assessment, assessment, assessment. Retention is the boogeyman that keeps our superiors up at night. The learning center can help on both fronts. Front-end loading services for students improves pass rates, retention rates, and graduation rates. It contributes to student success and job placement. More importantly, sitting down and working one on one with a tutor can change a student’s perception of learning, how knowledge is made, where agency resides, and what is important in education. Dialogue is key; collaboration is crucial. We use those tools to make education more effective.

Julie Rodakowski knew that; she lived it every day, with her students, with her colleagues, as overall coordinator of our CLC. Even our leadership model—one faculty coordinator for each discipline—was based in social constructionism. Whenever we get a new dean (and lately, that has been annually), I tell her, “We have a collaborative model here. We work as a team and don’t make any decision unilaterally.”

I’m proud of that fact. I’m proud that we have dreamed, built, and sustained a model that is the antidote to so much that is authoritarian, hierarchical, and judgmental in higher education. We are the space that students enter to engage in inquiry, to talk to their classmates, to figure things out.

Figure Things Out. If that’s not a life skill, I don’t know what is. Every day, our tutors are figuring things out too. So am I. We’re all learning together.

Thanks, Julie.

~Pam Whitfield, Ph.D.

Rochester Community and Technical College (MN)



#IWCWeek, Day 5: More Research Stories!

This “totally RAD” research story comes to us from Dr. Sherry Wynn Perdue, Director of the Writing Center at Oakland University.

My RAD Research Journey

My thoughts about research and the research agenda for our center occurs at the nexus of two important themes: 1) the need for more empirical research to sustain writing centers’ claims to best practices and 2) a growing awareness of the important role that sponsorship plays in WC research. In today’s post, I reflect upon the etiology of my own research and how it has shaped opportunities for my own center’s undergraduate- and graduate student writing consultants.

My RAD research journey commenced when my colleague Dana Lynn Driscoll and I launched a content analysis of all research articles from 1980-2009 in The Writing Center Journal. This was soon followed by a large-scale survey of writing center professionals (WCPs), follow-up interviews with a selected sample of WCPs, and a focus group of WCPS attending a national conference. (Thank you writing center colleagues for being so generous with your time!) Our first publication demonstrated that of the articles classified as “research,” less than five percent would meet the conditions for empirical research or RAD Research (Haswell, 2005), meaning that most of this research was not replicable, aggregable, or data-supported. Despite this disappointing finding, we determined that research scores were rising over time, particularly over the last decade. More important than our findings about research production was our growing attention to the question, “Why?” As such, we next turned to the conditions that potentially hindered empirical research in and on writing centers.

In two follow-up articles we have shared six themes that appear to influence WCPs’ research: 1) education and training, 2) labor and institutional oversight, 3) financial resources, and 4) sponsorship as well as our field’s 5) definition of and politics of research and its 6) research practices. Of these, the linchpin is sponsorship.

Shortly after completing the interviews and surveys and while helping our own department to build a new undergraduate major in writing and rhetoric, we realized that sponsorship needed to occur on all fronts; we needed to BOTH address conditions affecting the situation of our professional colleagues AND prepare the next generation of scholars to do empirical research. While we already taught research and we certainly mentored our WRT majors and consultants, we needed to hone the sponsorship continuum by inviting students, the primary WC practitioners, not only to study with us and work for us but also to collaborate with us on publications and on research projects that we envisioned together.

Our first effort yielded an article for Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring in which Dana, I, and three UG consultants (Enrique Paz, Jessica Tess, and Jacob Matthews (two who are now graduate students doing exciting work at other institutions)) reflected on our participation along the sponsorship continuum—moving to and fro among teaching, mentoring, collaborating, and coauthoring. While it did not describe a collaborative empirical research project, it did 1) empower three UGs to articulate their process of becoming researchers in their own words and via their own projects and 2) share a sponsorship framework for future collaborations.

In our current project, Dana, I, and a UG colleague have I have extended that sponsorship into a truly collaborative empirical research project that examines WCP job descriptions. With undergraduate researcher Sam Boyhtari, we are coding 10 years’ worth of position descriptions culled from the MLA jobs’ list, the WPA Job Board, and job posting shared on WCenter. This project was motivated by a wave of recent job announcements that shocked our community in different ways. One type appears to describe two jobs in one, with expectations for research, a heavy teaching load, and full-time writing center oversight. Another type, which entrusts the leadership and training of an academic service to someone with limited education—a B.A.—carries an embarrassingly small salary and a laundry lists of duties . . . . With this study, we hope to determine how institutions understand the WCP’s role and how this might further affect WC research as well as to make recommendations for a WCP position statement . . .

Well, I’ve penned too much for a blog post and now run the risk of composing a biography of my scholarship . . . . And, while I share the need for kudos, I don’t think you are reading this just to learn about me . . . .

In sharing today, I hope to demonstrate the rewards inherent in research—for me, for the center, for the future of the field—even research conducted when not a part of one’s job description, even when I’m coding during the wee hours, even when simple numbers of clients might have been deemed enough. I’m thankful for the research sponsorship extended to me (Thank you Dana (yes, we can learn from younger colleagues), Linda Bergmann, Eileen Johnson, and Julia Smith) and for the opportunity to pay it forward.

This moment of gratitude leads me to my last point of reflection. I would not be in a position to help my co-editor Rebecca Hallman bring her vision for IWCA’s new journal The Peer Review: A Journal for Writing Center Practitioners to life if it were not for this journey, my sponsors, and the lessons I continue to learn from and with my writing center colleagues—directors, graduate students, undergraduate students, and high school students.

#IWCWeek Day 5: Research Stories

Every center has a research story–often more than one! Check out a few of them below.

From Dr. Lindsay Sabatino of UNC Greensboro and Dr. Maggie Herb of Stetson U

“Understanding the Collaboration between Libraries and Centers”

At the university level, centers and learning commons are increasingly moving into libraries. As stated by Elmborg (2005), “Libraries are self-consciously redefining themselves, moving away from the warehousing definitions of the past and toward instructional models” (p. 4). As libraries redefine their roles on campus, who and what initiate the collaboration between centers/commons and libraries? What stakeholders are a part of the conversation? How does this change impact center pedagogy and culture? In order to better understand the impact of such moves, the effect on center, culture and pedagogy, and what makes center/library collaborations effective, we are collecting responses from directors of centers/commons whose primary home is located within their institution’s library. The purpose of this research is to understand what is prompting this trend, the circumstances and conditions around these moves, and the impact of these moves on the discipline. Our goal is to offer advice and guidance for those who are engaged in or anticipating this type of collaboration.

We will be collecting responses until February 20, 2015. If you are a director of a center or learning commons and are interested in participating in our research, which is confidential and anonymous, please click on the following link: Also, please share the link with any colleagues who might be interested in participating. If you have questions, want more information, or have suggestions, please contact Dr. Lindsay Sabatino at or Dr. Maggie Herb at


Elmborg, J. K. (2005). Libraries and writing centers in collaboration: A basis in theory.

In J. K. Elmborg & S. Hook (Eds.), Centers for Learning: Writing centers and libraries in collaboration (pp. 1-20). Chicago, IL: American Library Association.


From Holland Enke of the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum, St. Mary’s College of California

In our center, we are preparing for the Northern California Writing Centers Association Conference, which means many of our advisers are engaged in some fantastic research! One group of advisers, inspired by our minimalist pedagogy, is exploring brainstorming sessions and the adviser’s task to work from the ground up. They are busy researching how qualities of vernacular language and dialogue can help students develop ideas through a collaborative experience. Another group is exploring the importance of safe spaces and the writing center, researching the link between social identities and perceived safe and unsafe spaces and discussing the roles assumed by writing advisers in facilitating these spaces. All work from undergraduate advisers, these presentations sprung from our close relationship with our community and hope to assist others and ourselves in continuing to serve our students to the fullest.  With so much research and discussion about writing fluttering through the Center, it definitely feels like IWC Week here!

Get ready for #IWCWeek!

IWC WeekWe are happy to announce the approach of International Writing Centers Week! This event, created to celebrate the amazing work of writing centers around the world, will kick off tomorrow, Sunday February 8, and continue until Saturday February 14.

In order to highlight as much rich and diverse writing center work as is possible, we want you and your center to participate. To that end, we will be using our official social media channels (Facebook and Twitter) as well as this newly-created IWCA Blog (, to create spaces for centers to share, learn, collaborate, and celebrate.

Each day of IWC Week has a theme, which will focus the content posted and shared.

  • Sunday, February 8: What is a Writing Center? We kickoff IWC Week with this perennial question and invite you to answer in 140 characters or less, and to tag with #IWCWeek. We also will highlight the centers that make up IWCA, including descriptions of and links to all of our regional organizations and affiliates.
  • Monday, February 9: Show Us Your Staff! We welcome photos of writing center staff—tutors/consultants, directors, support staff, mascots—in action. Tag your photos with #IWCWeek!
  • Tuesday, February 10: Show Us Your Space! Share photos of what your center looks like, whether that be its physical or virtual space. We welcome before and after shots and “MTV Cribs”-style tours, tagged with #IWCWeek, of course.
  • Wednesday, February 11: A Day in the Life of Your Center! We will feature guest posts on the IWCA Blog from writing center professionals talking about what goes on in a typical day in a writing center. Tag your “day in the life” posts with #IWCWeek!
  • Thursday, February 12: Research and Publishing Spotlight! Share a brief description of your current research and publishing projects and tag it with #IWCWeek. Have an idea but need some guidance? Experienced writing center scholars will be hanging out on Twitter and available to hear your pitch!
  • Friday, February 13: Put Your Center on the Map! Check back here for a link to our official Writing Center Map, and instructions for how to add your center. Tell us about your meaningful connections to other centers and affiliates and tag your posts with #IWCWeek.
  • Saturday, February 14: Love Your Center! Tell us why you love your center, your tutors, your directors, your staff, your regional organization, and your work as a writing center professional! Tag your posts with #IWCWeek and #WCLove and make a writing center your valentine.

You can participate by tagging your posts, tweets, and photos with our official hashtag, #IWCWeek. Centers with perfect participation (a tagged post every day of the week) will be recognized on the IWCA website and via our social media outlets, and will enter those centers into an end-of-week drawing to win a pizza party courtesy of IWCA! Also, any new members who join IWCA during IWC Week will be recognized, and entered into a drawing to receive Ben Rafoth’s new book, Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers!

We’re excited to showcase all of your incredible work. For a downloadable flyer with all the IWC Week info, click here. Get ready to celebrate #IWCWeek!