Graduate Writing Centers
Western Washington University
Graduate writing centers are a support tool offered at many institutions of higher education. Graduate student attitudes regarding these centers and how their satisfaction should be measured is not clear. Most existing data discuss undergraduate students. While there is data regarding graduate students, nothing definitive exists regarding what they want from writing centers, or how they measure the success of using a writing center.
Keywords: graduate student(s), writing center(s)
Graduate Writing Centers
The writing center was a natural component of my graduate level studies. In my very first graduate level course on research, the writing center staff spoke in our class. They gave a workshop during class time to improve and support our writing. Then I forgot about the writing center, until my proposal to present at a conference was accepted. Suddenly I was in need of a writing expert to analyze my paper. I used our writing center’s online submission option, and received prompt feedback. In my final two quarters of graduate school, I found myself working as a TA in our Graduate Research and Writing Center (GRWS). Suddenly, I helped with online drafts, and as a thesis or project partner. All of these experiences color my perceptions of writing centers. This is especially important, because all of my experiences were extremely positive. Every interaction seemed so natural and almost a built in component of graduate studies.
I realized that this expectation of writing centers as an integrated component of higher education were a creation of my own experience. The positive nature of my interactions and the improvements to my own writing led me to believe that this was the expected experience for all patrons of writing studios. All graduate students use these services, right? My bias of integrated services and my positive view of the writing center will be on my mind as I wonder about the students who do not use writing centers. Through surveys of current graduate students at my own institution, I hope to uncover the answers to four questions:
Why should graduate students use writing centers?
What increases their motivation to use the center?
What makes a graduate writing center successful?
How should we measure that success?
According to Peter Carino, writing centers existed in some early iteration prior to the 1970s, however the advent of the writing center as something we would recognize in today’s centers are relatively well documented back to the early 1970s (2001. p. 10). The writing lab, which shared many qualities with today’s writing centers, dates back to as early as the 1930s. The University of Minnesota and the State University of Iowa had separate lab facilities with writing tables, reference books, and tutors in 1934 (Carino, 2001, p. 13). Some would argue that writing centers did not begin until the 1970s. Most agree that some form of writing centers, as writing labs, existing in the 70s, and by 1978 several hundred schools had writing labs (Kinkead, 2001. p. 30). Writing centers, as we would recognize them. Appear to have been born, post-1980, with the introduction of the peer tutor. Bruffee’s rationale “for the peer tutorial by citing several studies on the importance, and under-utilization, of peer group influence on intellectual development.” (as cited in Boquet, 2001. p.52). This idea of the peer interaction-writing center with a focus on the social aspect of writing and the benefits of a peer tutor bring us to today.
Stephen North’s is perhaps my favorite explanation of the purpose of the writing center. North states that, “in a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.”(as cited in Lerner, 2002. p. 55). In addition, the changing writers, writing centers are growing to meet the needs of an every changing student population. These changing student demographics produce an environment with a diversity of student ability that often goes unaddressed within the classroom. Courses created with a generic student in mind cannot meet the needs of all students. Faculty are not in a position to fill these gaps. Here is where writing centers come in to play. “Writing centers are coming of age…because they make room, provide space and time, for students to talk about ideas, to explore meaning, and to freely engage in the trial and error of putting their thoughts into writing.” (Olson, 1984, p. xi)
Graduate level writing centers are growing alongside their undergraduate counterparts. While the pedagogy and approach are similar, the needs of graduate level students are subtly different. Graduate level students are no longer simply completing an assignment. These students are creating their own academic work and navigating the process of writing with their own voice. Writing centers provide a place for these students to practice and hone their writing skills separate from the pressures of their own programs. Fitzgerald et al., discusses writing centers as a place for collaborative writing, really referring to a supported method of writing and a social approach to addressing writing (Fitz p. 133-134). “Then, in the collaborative setting, students have an opportunity to learn the language of the academy without abandoning their own speech community.” (Fitz p. 134). Students can relax and discuss their work with peers, in a low stakes situation. This places the focus on their work and ideas, as well as on the process of sharing that work. This collaborative setting can also support students who are writing in a language other than their native language. “This social approach to learning the language of the academy is particularly important for students whose native language is not English and who feel a loss of personal identity when asked to abandon their own discourse in favor of the English on they are entering.” (Fitz p. 134).
There appears to be a clear gap in the literature available, specifically relating to graduate level writing centers. While the current work on undergraduate writing centers can provide a basic understanding of writing centers and undergraduate students who use them, there are too many differences between graduate and undergraduate demographics and needs to answer the questions I am concerned with answering.
Rationale for Research Methodology:
This action research project will include a mixed methods approach. Qualitative data regarding graduate level student attitudes and opinion on writing centers gathered via digital survey is step one. Quantitative data through focus groups is step two. By inviting students from the survey to participate in focus groups, I hope to find an increased understanding of survey results. This approach will allow for consideration of survey data already collected and the collection of new survey data from current graduate students, to determine their opinion on writing centers. I will obtain further information regarding graduate students and writing centers by following surveys with focus groups.
All 728 current graduate students will receive the questionnaire distributed via their school email. The questionnaire format will consist predominately of structured items, although there will be some unstructured items. The survey will include demographic data, Likert scales, and open ended questions. Open-ended questions will be coded based on response patterns. Then survey responses are entered into Excel, and organized into pre-set and emergent codes. Participants will self-identify willingness to participate in focus groups. Focus groups will consist of these volunteers. This random-purposive sampling should provide the largest number of participants and a wide range of participants across graduate student programs. The goal is to receive 252 survey responses from the 728 request emails, which provides a 5% margin for error and a 95% confidence level. After coding these into graduate students who have used a writing center and graduate students who have not used a writing center, two focus groups will emerge. Five to eight participants in each focus group is ideal.
Limitations & Constraints:
Results will apply only generally to graduate writing centers; only Western Washington University graduate students were surveyed. The short time frame to end of quarter creates an additional barrier to completion of this project. Focus group participation depends upon self-selection of survey participants.
Implications for Practice & Contributions to Discipline:
Less data exists regarding graduate student use of and satisfaction with writing centers. There is much more data regarding undergraduate centers but the student population and needs are dissimilar. Any additional data regarding why graduate students use or do not use writing centers is going to be useful. Understanding how graduate students score their satisfaction with writing centers will provide alternative methods of scoring satisfaction and open up possibilities for writing center improvement.
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