“Writing Center Pedagogy” by Neal Learner

Neil Lerner on campus at Northeastern University

Neil Lerner, Writing Center Guru

In his chapter for A Guide to Composition Pedagogy,  Neal Lerner, traces the development of writing centers from a place for developmental writers to a place for all writers. Lerner, the Writing Program Director at Northeastern University,  describes writing center pedagogy’s defining features: a point of contact and a conversation about writing.

Lerner points out that as the number of college students increased in the twentieth century, so did the number of underprepared students. Writing faculty recognized that these students needed more than lectures; instead they needed a laboratory-like support with one-to-one attention, a great deal of practice, and a teacher who “is a guide rather than a sage” (303). Therefore, Lerner argues that “Moving these laboratories from the classroom to stand-alone entities was an inevitable outcome” (303).

The first defining feature of writing center pedagogy is what Mary Louis Pratt called the “contact zone” (qtd. in Lerner 305). In other words, writing centers are inherently social spaces; instructors, students, and tutors–from all cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines–come together because of writing.

Essential to writing center pedagogy is that writing is a social process. Lerner notes, “At the heart of the writing center session is conversation about student writing” (304). Instead of focusing on editing and grammar correction, writing centers are foremost focused on talking about writing so that writers of all levels can improve their craft. Lerner emphasizes that question-asking is the quintessential tool of the writing center tutor.  As a result, “…a student’s role in writing center session is ideally active and participatory,” Lerner states, “a kind of learning by doing that is essential to social theories of learning and the development of expertise” (306).

I worked at Montana State University’s Writing Center as a peer and professional tutor. When I came to Michigan and began teaching, I developed a relationship with Lansing Community College’s writing center. Eventually, I landed an office in the Writing Center when I became Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator–and after I left that position, I somehow remained in the Writing Center and became the defacto MLA documentation expert.

My writing center training has definitely been integrated into my personal pedagogy. As Lerner argues, “…our understanding of effective practice in the writing center easily translates to effective practice for any context in which teaching and learning writing might be taking place” (305).

I  definitely believe in the power of questioning writers. I’ve even used Microsoft Word’s “autocomplete” function easily insert the questions I ask most often of my students. I believe in the power of reading aloud, another common writing center practice. In class, I take time to read student essays aloud. I believe in the power of simply talking about writing. I often give my students time in class to complete research so that I can have a “mini conference ” with each student instead of lecturing or solely conducting large class activities.

When I participated in my writing center training in 1993, we read Stephen M. North’s seminal description of the pedagogy, “The Idea of a Writing  Center.” In 1984, North wrote, ” …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” (50).  Even when my students had to pass an external review of their portfolio to pass my class, I worked on the assumption that I would create better texts by creating  better writers. I regularly tell my students, “My job is not to teach you what to say; my job is to help you say what you want to say to the best of your ability” OR “My job  is to make everyone a better writer, no matter where you are when you arrive in class.” Now, I realize how intensely writing center pedagogy influenced by personal pedagogy.

Sadly, I fear for the future of writing centers. As  Lerner notes, “Unfortunately,for many writing centers, arguments for funding need to be repeated in each budge cycle, and struggles for adequate space take constant negotiations” (310). Through Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing Center listserves, I’ve read the tales of budget slashes. One recent tactic to save money and space has been to fold  writing centers into into larger tutoring centers–sadly, the unique writing center pedagogy is often lost in such moves.

This spring I attended and presented at the East Central Writing Centers Association Conference. The featured lunch speaker, Kyle Boswell, had led the Mattawan, MI High School Writing Center since its inception. Unfortunately Kyle and her tutors were told in January that the Writing Center would be closing. The school board decided that peer writing support was a luxury, not a necessity. For those of us who believe that good writing does not occur in a vacuum and that conversation is a necessity if we expert to develop mature writers, such news is very sad. If we are not working to develop strong writers and responders from the earliest days of writing instruction, we are losing one foundation of creating better writers.

Works Cited

Boswell, Kyle. Keynote Presentation. East Central Writing Centers Association, Dowgiac, MI. 24 Mar. 2017. Lecture.

Lerner, Neil. “Writing Center Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper Taggart, Kurt Schick, and H. Brook Hessler, eds. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 301-316. Print.

North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors.  4th ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood, eds. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s , 2011. 44-58. Print.