In the physical writing center space, we encounter the mass differences that exist across the student and faculty population as well as the disciplines these populations are housed in. As a result, writing centers have made possible in the past, and create new possibility in the future for, teaching and learning across varying disciplines, positions, and levels of education that are part of a university community. Teachers, students, and administrators from a variety of fields gather in writing centers and are able to both educate and be educated by the surrounding participants. As a result of this array of constituents, the writers and audiences for writing center scholarship are varied and vast. The community that speaks for writing centers and to what ends includes students, tutors, and administrators; all are given a space in the field’s scholarly publications, conference proceedings, and regional and international conferences. These researchers and authors include undergraduate students, graduate students, and administrators who often write from their personal practical experience working within a writing center, combined with independent reading. However, as we know, the practice of writing centers is only a part of a larger field of inquiry. Researchers also include graduate students and faculty who have specialized in Writing Center Studies with extensive coursework, exams, and dissertations interrogating the theory and meta-analysis or meta-discourse surrounding the identity of writing centers. As a specialty, Writing Center Studies examines practical topics, like tutor training, or what happens within an individual tutorial, while also analyzing the purpose of writing centers, their position and role on campuses, and methods for doing research.

Writing center scholarship, like Composition Studies, has sought to create an intellectual identity that goes beyond simply fostering the goals of writing instruction in a particular education setting. Instead, many writing center scholars seek to create a body of knowledge about writers, writing, and public literacies that, while accessible through the writing center space specifically, could also potentially impact an understanding of academic institutional structures, learning, and public discourse and activism—if exported into other academic and public venues. Yet, as writing center administrator scholars have found stability in their local institutions by negotiating service mandates, they continue to struggle with issues of relevance and acceptability in broader scholarly venues, particularly beyond their own journals, conferences, and community (Boquet and Lerner; Lerner “The Unpromising Present”). While the field has attempted to combat this insulation by accepting a wide range of authorities, audiences, objectives, and research practices into the field, this has ultimately led to a scattered disciplinary identity for Writing Center Studies. This situation may be partially due to the lack of a clear definition of “Writing Center Studies,” as well as a lack of agreement over which scholarship and research practices best represent and advance the field. Establishing the parameters of the field is a strategy that may combat misconceptions, encourage a clearer articulation of intellectual focus, allow specialists in writing to export their knowledge to other fields, and reaffirm the viability of Writing Center Studies as a worthwhile area of academic engagement. Writing centers invest in an understanding that Composition Studies is a discipline that, when studied, credentials a writing specialist and a specialist in writing instruction. This credential does not denote a standardized skill set or stagnant tomes of knowledge, but instead signifies dynamic understandings that are constantly being reevaluated. Such is the case for Writing Center Studies.

Participants in the writing center community propose ideas that attempt to impact others— tutors, students, and administrators at all levels, across a range of fields, and even beyond the walls of the academy. Yet, the writing center has been historically and discursively constructed as reactionary to the needs of local institutions, encouraging local faculty and higher administration to “buy in” to the benefits of tutoring through the articulation and subsequent rearticulation of what writing centers “do” to assist students in accomplishing the goals of university education. Whether to emphasize local contexts, field-specific agendas, or national projects seems to be a conflict in writing center research, partly stemming from the multiple audiences the scholarship attempts, or hopes, to address, and partly stemming from unresolved goals for the purpose of scholarship itself—who is supposed to use it, and how. Regardless of the audience, writing centers generate research. Whether this research is meant to serve the practical needs of students, tutors, and administrators in a local institution or the theoretical expectations of the field and academy, a writing center is a site for conducting and gathering research, and it produces endless supplies of data. I see great potential for larger agendas for writing center scholarship through an examination of its current disciplinary configuration, a configuration I illustrate in a “map” (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Mapping Writing Center Studies: Theory-Activism-Practice-Service

In order to locate the varying functions, purposes, methods, and audiences embodied under “Writing Center Studies” and to examine the connections between these entities, I created a preliminary map of the field. It begins with “The Writing Center,” a term meant to signify both physical space and pedagogical method. From “The Writing Center” stem four major potential audiences: “Larger Publics,” “The Academy,” “The Field,” and “The Institution.” By “Institution” I mean the local university that an individual writing center operates within, including its students, faculty, staff, tutors, writing center administrators, and higher levels of administration. “The Field” consists of professionals who work in and study writing centers beyond a single institution. They are linked by their common practice, specialization, and research interests: writing center tutors, administrators, scholars—including graduate students and faculty—and writing program administrators. “The Academy” denotes all of the fields and disciplines, including English Departments, that together constitute the intellectual enterprise of higher education. “Larger Publics” are those outside of the institution, including local community groups, businesses, corporations, political parties, policy makers, and government organizations.

These are the desired audiences for writing centers in various capacities who have numerous expectations of “The Writing Center” and purposes that it should serve, most notably “Activist Objectives” and “Practical Objectives.” Inherent in the activist objectives is the expectation that writing centers and those who work within them can operate as change agents, effecting change not only in the local institution, but across institutions and beyond to impact broader conceptions of literacy and education in the world. These activist objectives generate theoretical understandings through engagement with the writing center as an intellectual and cultural contact zone (Mackenzie and Babcock; Monty). The activist objectives create opportunities for theoretical inquiry, which then feeds back into creating more activist objectives for Writing Center Studies scholars. Practical objectives, however, concern much of the day-to-day work of writing centers, the roles of those who work and use that space, as well as those impacted by it within the university. These include focusing on tutor staffing and training, designing a center, managing budgets, assessment, and negotiating relationships with faculty, programs, departments, and other administrative bodies. While the separation of activist and practical objectives in my map might denote a binary opposition, often these two objectives inform and assist one another.

As a result of these audiences and their understanding of the purposes for the writing center, certain kinds of research are expected from the center to maintain its viability, visibility, and sustainability: “Theoretical,” “Historical,” “Empirical,” and “Lore.” Again, the separation of these genres of research is constructed, as each influences the others. As a result of the kinds of research produced by the writing center, two prominent functions for “The Writing Center” are evidenced by scholarship: “The Writing Center as Site for Scholarship” and “The Writing Center as Site for Service.”

Using this map of Writing Center Studies as a generative tool for understanding the complexities of the field and its scholarship in more intricate ways, I argue for the scholarly and intellectual value of writing center research as coming from multidisciplinary sites that produce interdisciplinary scholarship.

Multidisciplinary Sites with Interdisciplinary Scholarship

Lyne and Miller describe disciplinarity as “the conviction that knowledge must be systematic, methodical, and self-conscious and that such knowledge is shared amongst those who devote themselves to its acquisition and testing, that is, among experts” (167). This reflects the tendency for disciplines to be understood as insular, with research that circulates amongst the experts in the field. On the other hand, multidisciplinary approaches highlight the inclusion of multiple, distinctive disciplinary contributions, with each discipline maintaining its individual and recognizable contribution to the knowledge-making process.

Many scholars have argued that, as a site of instruction and service, writing centers are multidisciplinary (Bergmann; Clark; Ede and Lunsford; Savini; Walker; Wallace; Shamoon and Burns; Vorhies). For example, Neal Lerner envisions a multidisciplinary formation for writing centers, being “complex places, and, as such, bring[ing] forth a wide variety of questions for us to explore. And those questions, in turn, give rise to a variety of research methods, a sort of big cross-disciplinary tent, equally comfortable for the linguist, the historian, the anthropologist, and the compositionist, as well as others” (“Seeking Knowledge” 55). As a space and a physical site, writing centers work with students, faculty, and administration from across the institution and bring into communication multiple disciplines, communities, and programs, thus making the site itself multidisciplinary.

Interdisciplinary approaches, however, emphasize integrating these disciplinary contributions to create a more holistic view or common understanding of a complex issue that results in new theoretical paradigms, questions, terms, concepts, and methods that transgress disciplinary boundaries. Scholars within interdisciplinary fields understand that directing their attention toward a remedial curriculum or curricular trajectories based on single-department majors only limits academic growth, and may prove to result in insufficient objectives for meeting the needs of future generations of students (Klein). In their 2004 report on the interdisciplinary research efforts that are developing in higher education, The National Academy of Sciences in the United States identifies four primary drivers of interdisciplinarity today:

  1. The inherent complexity of nature and society,
  2. The desire to explore problems and questions that are not confined to a single discipline,
  3. The need to solve societal problems,
  4. The power of new technologies (26).

Many leaders in education and university administrators continue to believe that society currently faces complex challenges that do not neatly fall within the parameters of a single discipline; therefore, they endorse research and collaboration that crosses disciplinary boundaries, including the sciences, arts, humanities, business, and law.

When we move away from considering the writing center as physical site of teaching, and instead consider it as a place for scholarship, that interdisciplinary features become more apparent. The writing center space is a vessel for employing and teaching students from a variety of disciplines that, while physically in close proximity, remain distinctive. In contrast, the activist and theoretical scholarship that comes from writing centers is blended so that each disciplinary influence is less recognizable individually. Blending these disciplines creates something new in comparison to the original materials, Writing Center Studies, a unique knowledge field. The uniqueness of this scholarship comes from the vantage point that writing centers have in assessing an institution’s views on literacy and writing education as a result of their engagement with students, faculty, and administration from across disciplines and at varying levels.

As Cornwell and Stoddard illustrate in “Toward an Interdisciplinary Epistemology,” the transition from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary entails deep collaboration:

Disciplines are discourse communities, bounded cultures, and multidisciplinary teaching and scholarship calls for earnest listening, patience to stay in conversation through struggle, and a disposition to see differences as productive. But the second phase of interdisciplinary collaboration transcends the comparison or juxtaposition of two ways of knowing two cultures. The next phase is radically reevaluating one’s own inquiry to incorporate the questions, methods, and perspectives of others, to perceive the partiality of disciplinary practices (162).

Thus, a key difference between the terms multi- and inter- disciplinarity is that interdisciplinarity refers to an integrative process or relationship amongst disciplines, whereas multidisciplinarity draws separately from several disciplines in an additive process (McFadden et al. 163). Overall, interdisciplinary fields foster a new academic model that leads students and faculty to engage in scholarship through methods that conceptualize problems and solutions in innovative ways. This model is evident in Writing Center Studies.

George and Grimm argue that the expanded roles and responsibilities of writing centers mean that “a center director who takes on a cross-curricular program should insist that the program be aggressively interdisciplinary,” referencing writing centers as part of larger writing programs that include first-year writing and writing across the curriculum initiatives (65). As a result of writing center research that attempts to maintain the multidisciplinary space of writing centers, Boquet professes that much work in writing centers “does not get at what is most challenging to me about my work in the writing center: the excessive institutional possibilities that the writing center represents. The ways in which the writing center exceeds its space, despite a university’s best efforts to contain it; the way in which the writing center exceeds its method” (478). Like Boquet, I see the ways in which the writing center exceeds its method, its space, and its practice to create the interdisciplinary scholarship of Writing Center Studies. It is this excess that may be studied and added too through understanding the parameters of the field and encouraging scholars to engage in writing center scholarship and subsequently add to this scholarship themselves. Recent book-length publications have begun to showcase these possibilities, including Monty’s The Writing Center as Interdisciplinary Contact Zone and Mackiewicz’s Writing Center Talk Over Time. Each of these texts demonstrate the interdisciplinary possibilities of writing center work, incorporating scholarship from psychology, history, sociology, linguistics, anthropology and geography, to name just a few. These texts grapple with questions about how writing changes over time, across disciplines, within disciplines, and amongst different identities and cultures. These recent publications are examples of how Writing Center Studies can adopt an interdisciplinary identity and use it to define ourselves as a field of study.

Works Cited

Bergmann, Linda S. “The Writing Center as Site of Engagement.” Going Public: What Writing Programs Learn From Engagement, edited by Shirley K. Rose and Irwin Weiser, Utah State UP, 2010, pp. 160-176.

Boquet, Elizabeth. “‘Our Little Secret’: A History of Writing Centers, Pre- to Post-Open Admissions.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 50, no. 3, 1999, pp. 463-482.

Boquet, Elizabeth H., and Neal Lerner. “Reconsiderations: After ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’.” College English, vol. 7,1 no.2, 2008 pp. 170-189.

Cornwall, Grant and Eve Stoddard. “Toward an Interdisciplinary Epistemology: Faculty Culture and Institutional Change.” Reinventing Ourselves: Interdisciplinary Education, Collaborative Learning, and Experimentation in Higher Education, edited by B.L. Smith and John McCann, Anker, 2001, pp. 160-178.

Geller, Anne Ellen, and Harry Denny. “Of Ladybugs, Low Status, and Loving the Job: Writing Center Professionals Navigating Their Careers.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 33, no. 1, 2013, pp. 96-129.

George, Diana and Nancy Grimm. “Expanded Roles/Expanded Responsibilities: The Changing Nature of Writing Centers Today.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 1990, pp. 59-66.

Harris, Muriel. “Writing Ourselves into Writing Instruction: Beyond Sound Bytes, Tours, Reports, Orientations, and Brochures.” Marginal Words, Marginal Work? Tutoring the Academy in the Work of Writing Centers, edited by William J. Macauley, Jr. and Nicholas Mauriello, Hampton, 2007, pp. 75-83.

Ianetta, Melissa, et al. “Polylog: Are Writing Center Directors Writing Program Administrators?” Composition Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2006, pp. 11-42.

Klein, Julie Thompson. “The Rhetoric of Interdisciplinarity: Boundary Work and the Construction of New Knowledge.” The Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies, Sage, 2009, pp. 265-283.

Lerner, Neal. “The Unpromising Present of Writing Center Studies: Author and Citation Patterns in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-2009.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, 2014, pp. 67-104.

—. “Seeking Knowledge About Writing Centers in Numbers, Talk, and Archives.” Writing at the Center: Proceedings of the 2004 Thomas R. Watson Conference, edited by JoAnn Griffin, Carol Mattingly, and Michele Eodice, International Writing Centers Association Press, 2007, pp. 55-90.

Lyne, John and Carolyn R. Miller. “Rhetoric, Disciplinarity, and Fields of Knowledge.” The Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies, Sage, 2009, pp. 167-174.

Mackiewicz, Jo and Rebecca Day Babcock, eds. Theories and Methods of Writing Center Studies: A Practical Guide. Routledge, 2020.

Mackiewicz, Jo. Writing Center Talk Over Time: A Mixed-Method Study. Routledge, 2018.

McFaddden, Kathleen, et al. “Creating an Innovative Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate Program.” Innovative Higher Education, vol. 36, 2011, pp. 161-176.

Monty, Randall. The Writing Center as Cultural and Interdisciplinary Contact Zone. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

National Academy of the Sciences. Facilitating interdisciplinary research. National Academies Press, 2004.

Olson, Gary A., and Evelyn Ashton-Jones. “Writing Center Directors: The Search for Professional Status.” Writing Program Administration, vol. 12, no. 1-2, 1988, pp. 19-28.

Savini, Catherine. “An Alternative Approach to Bridging Disciplinary Divides.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 35, no. 7-8, 2011, pp. 1-5.

Shamoon, Linda K. and Deborah H. Burns. “A Critique of Pure Tutoring.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 15, no. 2, 1995, pp. 134-152.

Vorhies, Heather Blaine. “Building Professional Scholars: The Writing Center at the Graduate Level.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 5-6, 2015, pp. 6-9.

Wallace, Ray. “Sharing the Benefits and Expense of Expansion: Developing a Cross-Curricular Cash Flow for a Cross-Curricular Writing Center.” The Writing Center: New Directions, edited by Ray Wallace and Jeanne Simpson, Garland, 1991, pp. 82-101.

Walker, Kristen. “The Debate over Generalist and Specialist Tutors: Genre Theory’s Contribution.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 1998, pp. 27-46.

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