What If Our Best Is Not Enough?

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Jimisha Relerford is a Master Instructor in the Department of English at Howard University. She serves as director of The Writing Center and is currently a student in the PhD program. Her research interests include early 20th-century African American literature, archival studies, and composition pedagogy. 


Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Higher Education published “What’s Wrong With Writing Centers,” a profile of the work of Lori Salem, director of the the Writing Center and Student Success Center at Temple University. The profile focused on findings presented in Salem’s Spring/Summer 2016 article in The Writing Center Journal, “Decisions...Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center,” for which she received the 2017 International Writing Centers Association Outstanding Article Award. Salem’s article draws on quantitative research conducted at Temple to implore writing center scholars and administrators to reconsider some of our “best practices”: our use of nondirective feedback in student tutorial sessions, our focus on “higher order” concerns before “lower order” concerns, our insistence upon not proofreading student writing, and our casting of tutors as peers rather than experts. Such pedagogical orthodoxies, Salem argues, are geared toward privileged students and ineffectively meet the needs of the students who visit writing centers most often: women, minorities, and second-language learners.

Reading Salem’s article was a shock to my system. As the newly-appointed director of Howard University’s Writing Center, I’ve spent the past year implementing and strengthening many of the policies that Salem now calls into question! However, Salem’s voice is one of many calling for practical and pedagogical changes in writing centers, and, based on her research, it is reasonable to assume that some of those changes may be beneficial for writing centers at HBCUs. But which ones, exactly? Which pedagogical practices are most effective for the unique student populations that HBCU writing centers serve?

Answering this question requires that HBCUs take a step back and evaluate our own writing center programs. What students regularly visit our centers? What motivates those students to seek tutoring? How are we developing our pedagogies to target those students? How are we training our tutors to best meet their needs? These are the types of questions that I hope will be explored at this year’s Symposium on Teaching Writing at HBCUs entitled “Remembering Our Past, Re-enVisioning Our Future.” The symposium offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on the progress and potential of the work we do in HBCU writing centers. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to learn from each other, to re-visit our own writing center “best practices,” to make plans for our own research, to ensure that our voices are part of the broader discussion.