Our Failed Writing Center: A Response

A few weeks ago The Chronicle wrote a disparaging story on SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s initiatives (local coverage here), primarily her vision to bring town and gown together through our nationally recognized Scholarship in Action agenda and other programs, like the Connective Corridor. Since most of my visitors here are from Syracuse, I won’t bore ya’ll with my summary of the debate, but yesterday I was surprised to see that the Writing Center was evoked by Professor Sam Gorovitz, one of the Chancellor’s most vocal naysayers, in letter he wrote to The Daily Orange, our student paper.

In his letter Gorovitz, lists several “social costs” to the Chancellor’s agenda, including this one: “The rhetoric claims we teach students the skills, including writing, they need for success. In reality, our underfunded Writing Center fails to help many of the students sent to it.” The point of Gorovitz’s letter is to call for more serious inquiry into the Chancellor’s agenda so that problems, like a failed writing center, might be improved, instead of wasting $ on other community initiatives that take away from the primary mission of an R1. Fair enough. But his criticism of the Writing Center stinks of that age old, anecdotal faculty gripe: “I sent Student X to your writing center and she still has problems.”

So I spent a little of my day yesterday crafting a response. I’m not sure if the DO will publish it since I couldn’t get it in before 4 yesterday, but my blog has no such deadline and has kindly agree to reprint it here for your review:

I appreciated Sam Gorovitz’s call yesterday for “serious inquiry and discussion on campus” regarding the costs of “Cantor’s social agenda.” I too consider the tradeoffs of pursing such ambitious goals at a large, elite research university as ours. In the spirit of that discussion, then, I would like to address one of the more or less random examples Gorovitz provided about said costs, namely that “our underfunded Writing Center fails to help many of the students sent to it.”

I had the pleasure of directing our Writing Center for six years; in that time we conversed with thousands of students sketching, drafting, and revising a variety of writing projects: from their first essays in WRT 105 to their final theses and dissertations in their respective disciplines. These students come from a host of diverse cultural and geographic locations and seek our professional advice as they navigate the complexities of academic writing. As part of my role in leading the Center, I worked with the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) to evaluate the experiences of new and returning students when it came to both their satisfaction with our services and our learning outcomes. What we found was interesting.

In 2009-2010, for instance, OIRA surveyed over 200 repeat visitors (those students who visited with a consultant 3 or more times). Those students reported high levels (i.e. more than 3 on a 4-point scale) of improvement on such skills as organizing ideas, focusing their writing, understanding an instructor’s writing assignment, and critiquing their own writing. They reported having a better understanding of the writing process, being able to talk more fluently about writing, improving their confidence, and incorporating talk into their normal writing process. Finally, in terms of whether or not students would use our services in the future or recommend the Writing Center to others, the mean scores were consistently higher than 4.3 (on a 5-point scale).

Note: This table wasn’t included in the LTE.

Although the sample size wasn’t enormous, statistically speaking, it is difficult to get higher scores than these. This begs the question: by what measure is Gorovitz judging failure? What is his definition of help? Perhaps his understanding of our Center is limited to anecdotal evidence. Or perhaps when he “sends” his students to the Writing Center, they don’t actually go.

Gorovitz is right, however, when he says that the Writing Center is underfunded. If our OIRA assessment told us one thing, it was that our students wanted more time to talk about their writing. And as the Center’s weekly schedule can attest, it is often booked days in advance, especially during peak times of the semester.

I’m all for supporting “serious inquiry” as we reevaluate our priorities at SU, but like most students and faculty on this campus, I assume that means producing evidence for claims, especially when those claims seek to dismiss one of the best student services available at SU.

Jason Luther
Doctoral student, Composition and Cultural Rhetoric