At the Center: Innovation in Research, Practice, and Service for 21st Century “Writing Centers”

Karen Head

The grand opening of the Writing Center in the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons building. President G. P. "Bud" Peterson gave the first tutoring session to three students. Karen Head (standing) is an assistant professor and director of the Communication Center.

The grand opening of the Writing Center in the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons building. President G. P. “Bud” Peterson gave the first tutoring session to three students. Karen Head (standing) is an assistant professor and director of the Communication Center.

In the 1970’s a new unit began appearing in American universities: the Writing Center. These units were created to offer supplemental academic resources and tutoring for students who wanted to improve their writing. For many of the founding scholars, writing centers were designed to places that would support the interdisciplinary study of writing—places that could transcend departmental boundaries. Creating such spaces was also an attempt to transcend misguided ideas about what traditional English departments do; they are much more than places where students learn to write college essays. These early scholars wanted to raise standards of and provide support for a variety of discourse communities throughout their institutions, offering “safe spaces” within which anyone could explore ways to become a better communicator. These safe spaces were designed to encourage frank discussions about rhetoric and composition across disciplines without connecting it to the harsher criticism of formal evaluation. In other words, these were places staffed by people who were not responsible for awarding grades, but instead focused on the higher goal of leading discussions about the importance of excellent communication for any purpose.

While some people still believe such centers are only about remediation, we are pleased that the culture at Georgia Tech is helping subvert this notion: ours is a place where the best students come to become even better.

Unfortunately, the faculty, staff, students and administrators at many institutions considered writing centers to be mostly about remediation: places bad writers were sent to be “fixed.” While some people still believe such centers are only about remediation, we are pleased that the culture at Georgia Tech is helping subvert this notion: ours is a place where the best students come to become even better. Since our founding and my appointment as director of the Communication Center in 2011, my charge is to make our center a benchmark for writing center research, pedagogy and practice—a place that returns to the ideal of a safe space for active debate and discourse about the best ways to communicate in a variety of modes.

While our center is relatively new, the commitment to such work can be traced back nearly forty years when one of the first female instructors at Georgia Tech, Helen Naugle, co-opted an empty classroom and began tutoring students in writing. As an engineering school, our students have often lacked excellent communication skills, so it is no surprise that Professor Naugle was looking for ways to supplement traditional classroom instruction. The seeds Naugle planted would take years to blossom, but she inspired conversations about founding a writing center at Georgia Tech that continued until her dream became my reality.

As part of the innovative Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, ours is a center granted a prime location with state-of-the-art technology and budgetary support from the central administration. Historically, many writing centers have been located in remote or undesirable spaces. Our dean, Dr. Jacqueline Royster, tells the story from early in her career when she opened a center in an old storage closet behind a campus snack bar. My first day in our multimodal communication center (we now help students negotiate communication in a variety of modes, not just for writing), I was so overwhelmed by the potential of what we would be able to do with students that I wandered around the space in awe—finally retreating to my office, collapsing in my chair, and weeping joyfully. Here was a space designed for students, and I was keenly aware of its special nature. Our students would benefit from a center full of all the bells and whistles—it has everything that writing center directors wish for but rarely have: SmartBoards, video-capture and video-conferencing equipment, computer stations, scanners, iPads, and even a 3D printer. Our students also benefit from our ability to provide the very best tutoring staff; it is rare to have a sizeable professional staff of postdoctoral fellows who split time between teaching in the LMC writing program and tutoring in the center.

Another part of our mission is to find ways to encourage students to become part of our community of learners and scholars. Foremost we want to disabuse students that our center is a last resort for the struggling. 

Another part of our mission is to find ways to encourage students to become part of our community of learners and scholars. Foremost we want to disabuse students that our center is a last resort for the struggling. We want them to understand that this is place where exciting things happen, where even our best students come to hone their projects. Our work touches every aspect of life at Georgia Tech, whether helping students prepare research papers or presentations, make documentary films, develop scientific documents for the public, write novels, or master the art of public speaking. Communication is a fundamental component for success, and our center’s mission is to help our students master the competencies they will need to be successful in their academic and professional lives.

From an everyday perspective, writing center work is about having meaningful conversations: tutors and students talking about the best way(s) to communicate an idea. Technological tools can help make those conversations more productive, even more efficient, but it is the conversations that continue to matter most. From these conversations we also form many of our research questions and projects. Our professional staff members are already acknowledged as award-winning tutors as well as significant contributors in research journals and at research conferences.  Additionally, we involve students in our research. In fact, some of the students who work in our center (as peer-tutors or as research assistants) have engaged in important research they have presented at prestigious academic conferences.

In the last few years, conversations about higher education have often focused on questions about efficiency. As we turn toward technology for answers, we must also ask important questions about what our students might gain or lose from the changes we implement. Certainly we want to offer the best educational resources to the greatest number of students. The Communication Center at Georgia Tech is committed to innovation in teaching and learning, and because we are fortunate enough to have “all the bells and whistles” we are positioned uniquely to pursue research that will help shape the ways writing centers are designed or redesigned, and the best outcome is that our students are the primary beneficiaries of this work.

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