What’s Wrong with Writing Centers?

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Many teachers of writing may have read an interview with Lori Salem, who directed Temple University’s Writing Center and is now Assistant Vice Provost and Director of the Student Success Center there. Conducted by Rose Jacobs and titled “What’s Wrong with Writing Centers,” the interview focused on data drawn from a quantitative study of responses from 4,204 Temple students (the entering class of 2009) to a variety of questions, including ones about whether or not to use the writing center.


As Jacobs reports in her interview, Salem

found that practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers—such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors—are most effective for privileged students in good academic standing. . . . These methods, meanwhile, poorly serve the most frequent visitors: female students, minority students, those with low academic standing, and those who are speaking a language other than English at home.

In this interview and in other work, such as her prize-winning 2016 essay, “Decisions. . . Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center,” Salem argues that we should completely rethink what we do in writing centers and see writing centers as pedagogical workshops—“”a place where writers encounter writing tutors who know their stuff—and a space where pedagogical practices are constantly being developed, explored, and tested.” The rethinking Salem envisions calls for differentiated pedagogies rather than what she calls “policy pedagogies;” that is, pedagogies that reject monolithic policies in favor of basing tutoring strategies on individual students’ perceived needs.


It’s hard to disagree with these conclusions; indeed, the writing centers I have been associated with never followed monolithic policies and certainly tried to tailor tutoring strategies to the students we worked with. Salem says that writing centers almost universally reject working with grammatical issues, but that also has not been my experience: in my own tutoring, I seldom begin with such issues, preferring to first understand what the student is trying to do in a piece of writing and making a plan, with that student, for achieving the goal. That often leads to intense engagement with student writing along with a lot of careful listening. And it can often lead to a discussion of some grammatical element—but that’s not where I begin.


I have two other responses to Salem’s work, for which I am grateful; we need more such studies and we need them badly. First, I question the efficacy of seeing students who use writing centers as somehow “remedial” or in need of remediation. Salem is right that the “remedial” label clings perniciously to writing centers (it’s what Judy Segal, referring to students’ saying that they “love” lectures when we know that such lectures are largely ineffective, calls the “undertow effect”). But that doesn’t suggest, to me, that the students coming to us are remedial or that it is helpful to think of them as such. Taking students as they come, listening carefully to them, modulating our strategies to accommodate their needs and wishes doesn’t necessitate using any labels at all.


Second, I am not as totally condemning of “nondirective practices” as Salem seems to be; she says, in essence, that such tutoring is “not an effective method for teaching language learners in any way.” I know that Salem has research-based evidence for this claim, and I take the point that such practices may be aimed at students of privilege. But, as always, it depends on what you mean by “nondirective.” In my experience, the term means trying first and foremost to get to know the student sitting beside me so that I can get a sense of that student’s fears and also dreams. A case in point: I was teaching in China and doing some tutoring, working with a woman who was returning to college and for whom English was the fourth language she was trying to master. As I got to know her over the course of many sessions, I learned that one of her primary reasons for reading, writing, and speaking in English was to help her four-year-old son. Knowing that helped me know where to begin, focusing on conversational moves and on learning strategies for helping her son begin reading English. Had I launched into a highly directive approach, I don’t think I would have gained these insights into my student’s very particular needs.


Though I do have some questions and challenges for Salem, I continue to be impressed with the work she is doing. The unexamined writing center is not worth working in, and we need more critics like Lori Salem to help us ask hard questions about whose interests we serve—and whose we do not serve—in our Center.


Credit: Pixabay Image 3211179 by rawpixel, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.