Writing Center Position to Change

By Natalie Butz, News Editor

Dean Chris Ames’ announcement that the Office of Academic Services is considering “reallocating” the director of the writing center’s position after Gerry Fisher retires at the end of this academic year has been met with concern from both faculty and students.

Faculty first heard about the decision at Monday’s faculty meeting, even though Fisher announced her retirement months ago, according associate professor of psychology Kevin McKillop.

Ames said at the faculty meeting preliminary discussions had started about reallocating a position in the writing center to elsewhere in academic support. Come fall semester, there will be only one professional tutor in the writing center meeting with students, helping professors with assignments and meeting with classes when formerly, there were two.

Instead, the second position in the writing center will be replaced with a tutor coordinator.

“The external review was very positive about our writing center. It also noticed a variety of deficiencies in other areas. It specifically recommended the hiring of a tutor coordinator, which is what we’re talking about,” said Ames.

A tutor coordinator would serve as an administrator for the writing center, the math center, and the office of academic skills. They would also be in charge of training course mentors and peer tutors including those who work in the writing center.

But McKillop said the decision to hire a student coordinator at the expense of eliminating a professional tutor position in the writing center goes against what the review suggested, and sends a negative message about the value Washington College places on writing.

“The Dean made the point that there are a number of schools like us who also only have one person in the writing center, and that’s fine, but we’re supposed to be better. We’re supposed to be the school that emphasizes writing, that has the Sophie Kerr Prize and a writing program and all of these things, and I’d like to hope that we’re better than those other schools and one way to say we are is ‘hey, they only have one person in their writing center. We have two,’” said McKillop.

“I’m not qualified to know whether one person is right or two people is right. The people who is qualified is [John Boyd], who says we need two. We also had an external review team come in, particularly because of their expertise, who said two was the right number. Those seem to be the experts. We seem to be more than willing to go along with what the experts tell us when it supports what we want to do but in this case, it seems the experts are telling us to do one thing and we don’t want to do that so we’re ignoring their advice,” said McKillop.

He is not alone in thinking so. Even though Ames insists that the writing center will not be losing resources when this new tutor coordinator, some are still skeptical.

“I think that’s semantics. I think they are losing resources,” said department chair of history Carol Wilson.

It would be difficult to find a professional who is truly experienced in helping students of different capabilities learn different material from different departments.

“That’s the part I really don’t understand, because what they do is discipline specific. The way that someone would help a student with a paper who comes to the writing center, the way you help someone having trouble in a statistics class and the way you help someone with a learning disability learn a foreign language, those are very different things and I’m at a loss as to how someone would really have that skill set,” said Wilson.

Wilson works closely with the writing center and often recommends her students if they need extra help. Wilson stressed that while she believes the peer review system can be helpful to students, she also thinks there are unique benefits to meeting with a professional tutor, like Fisher or Boyd.

“There is a big difference between the best student tutor and a professional. The people in the writing center have Master’s. Mr. Boyd is working on a Ph.D. in that field. [The professional tutors] all been doing this for over a decade. Even the best student is just getting started. You can’t replace that experience with anything else,” said Wilson.

While Ames said discussions are preliminary, McKillop is worried about the timing of the Dean’s announcement.

“I believe people tried to get some clarification on what was going to happen before this. But it’s been left until right at the end of the semester when there’s no time for anybody to really weigh in. So I’m concerned that a decision is being made without getting the input of all the faculty and the students who will be impacted by this decision,” McKillop said.

Also, the Dean announced that the search for the tutor coordinator would start in two weeks, which Wilson said does not leave much time for discussion.

“I would hate to see the writing center lose such a valuable resource in the name of efficiency. In my opinion, each academic service on campus functions more efficiently independent of one another. My concern about this new position would be a lack of personal involvement in the center. It is so much easier to lose perspective of something when you do not have daily contact with it,” said Schaefer.

She is not the only one who thinks the center will be negatively effected and the reputation of the college will suffer if the writing center position is reallocated.

“I am severely displeased with the decision to do away with another writing center position. The peer consultants are very capable and well trained, but the professional staff is essential in helping students’ unique and long-term situations. They frequently meet with students at all levels, which is important because the student-professor relationship is a commodity that makes this college stand out,” said writing center senior Laura Walter.

Unfortunately, it seems like student concerns may fall on deaf ears.

“There’s a general tendency in higher education, it’s been going on for years, of growing administration and shrinking faculty. It’s sort of a natural tendency that people who are administrators see the solution to every problem as more administration. I think that’s what going on here. We’re replacing a position that actually does the work with a position that supervises the people doing the work,” McKillop said.

Ames says its not uncommon for writing centers to have just one professional tutor and the reallocation will make WC more similar to its peer institutions.

“The review also cited that there are 55 writing centers in a group called ‘small liberal arts colleges’ and 27 of those 55 are run by a single professional,” Ames said.

By why become just one of the numbers? Why fix what doesn’t seem to be broken? Why risk losing the one-on-one attention students are getting now from professional tutors?

“I think this is a possible revision that will improve both the writing center and the academic support for all students in all disciplines including quantitative skills, students with learning disabilities, and the course mentor programs,” Ames said.

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