Moving Outward and Moving On: Reimagining the Role of a Writing Center

As writing centers evolve, they can move beyond the simple definition of being places to receive in-person tutoring to sites of community engagement and hubs of social activism.

By: Carsten Finholt (’18)
Skyline Writing Center Co-President | Second-Year Tutor

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Over the course of the year and a half I’ve been a part of the Skyline Writing Center, I’ve had many “how did I get here” moments. Facing a elementary school cafeteria full of twenty plus families waiting to start a fun night, I couldn’t drown out the quiet voice in the back of my head asking “what lead me here?” On a hot day in June, between bites of a donut, I listened to leading educators talk about disciplinary literacy and thought “never in a million years did I think I’d end up here.” Sitting in the University of Michigan Museum of Art, writing poetry on a fold up chair front of a painting, I was struck by just how often we ask ourselves theses kind of questions in the Writing Center world. Our work seems to be an endless stream of “how did I get heres.”

Yet, situated in an educational system dictated by routine and structure, part of what’s so exciting about writing center work is an inability to predict what will come next. In applying to the Skyline Writing Center, I expected to be a writing consultant, but I never could have imagined everything else that would occur alongside that. In fact, some of the most meaningful and exciting projects I’ve been apart of existed beyond tutoring all together.

Most writing centers seem to grounded in a mutual understanding of what their primary function “should” be. In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Jackie Grutsch McKinney writes about a “grand narrative” for Writing Centers as “places where all students go to get one-on-one tutoring on their writing.” Muriel Harris, in the Concept of a Writing Center, defines Writing Centers as “writing program[s] or learning center[s] [that] serve entire schools” which must share uniform approaches and values. Many writing centers start with the goal of fulfilling the “grand narrative” McKinney describes. However, if Writing Centers focus too heavily on a tutor-centered definition, we can start to ask ourselves a dangerous question about unfamiliar territory: “should I be here?”

I believe that as writing centers evolve, they can move beyond the simple definition of being places to receive in-person tutoring. For example, community service has always been one of the Skyline Writing Centers’ core values. Over the past two years, we’ve begun partnerships with Eastern Michigan’s Office of Campus and Community Writing and 826michigan, increasing our focus on community facing projects. As our program becomes more and more invested in these partnerships, I’ve undergone a shift in my understanding of a writing center’s role “should” be.

One of the missions driving both Eastern and 826’s work is to create spaces that celebrate writing while also enriching kids/families’ understanding and practice of it. Throughout their community, Eastern Michigan’s Office of Campus and Community Writing sponsors Family Fun Nights designed to build meaningful literacy skills. At these events, families move from station to station, engaging in a range writing activities that focus on creativity and identity instead of standards and structures. I would argue that this kind of community work is just as critical to a writing centers’ identity as tutoring.

Many people would disagree with this sentiment, considering the work to be too far removed from tutoring. Yet, the family fun nights meet many of the requirements Harris states all writing centers should share: experimentation and practice are encouraged, writers at all levels of proficiency can participate, collaboration outweighs competition, and the work is catered to meet the needs of the community it takes place in. While the fun nights may not look like conventional tutoring sessions, their impact should not be discounted.

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I believe a writing center’s primary focus shouldn’t have to be tutoring in order to be characterized as an official Writing Center. If a program’s priorities lie in community-facing work or encouraging creative writing, these are still valid reasons for their writing center to exist. It’s even possible, I would argue, to be a writing center without tutoring services at all. Distancing non-tutoring focused centers from the writing center world would mean distancing ourselves from some of the most groundbreaking, original, and exciting work.

I understand that this leaves a couple critical questions unanswered: Are there boundaries to writing center work? Are there things we should or should not be doing?

I don’t have answers to these questions and, at this moment in time, I don’t think they’re the right questions to be asking. In examining “how did I get here?,” instead of thinking “should I be here?,” we should take a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come, then ask ourselves “where are we going?”

Works Cited

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Utah State University Press, 2013.

Harris, Muriel. “Writing Center Concept.” International Writing Centers Association, Sept. 1988, writingcenters.org/writing-center-concept-by-muriel-harris/.

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