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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: E 13 Ways of Knowing: Writing Center Outcomes as Politics, Pedagogy, and Theory
Reviewed by: Candace Stewart, stewarc1@ohiou.edu
Posted on: April 10, 2004
Updated on: April 21, 2004

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Chair: Jill Pennington

Writing center assessment was the central focus of this panel presentation, but as the title makes clear, each presenter had fairly different articulations of both the meaning and context of writing center assessments, politically, pedagogically, and theoretically.

Wislocki’s presentation, titled “Is There a Curriculum in the WC?: The Use of Writing Program Outcomes in WC Research,” focused on what it means for writing center administrators with little assessment instruction or experience who have the spectre of assessment suddenly imposed on them along with attendant threats. Though her title asks a question about curricular issues in the writing center as they connect to outcomes, the presentation focused more on how to assess writing center programs under threats in order to articulate representations that make sense to external, possibly uninterested, reviewers. Wislocki notes, however, that her move to assessment was also fueled by an internal desire to prove to herself that the writing center deserved to exist and have support. She began the assessment process with two assumptions: that writing center sessions are the “site of intellectual activity,” and that “instructional credibility” is possible to obtain, and these two assumptions provide the connection to her title’s focus on curriculum. To argue for a WC curriculum, one would have to “prove” that tutoring sessions work like courses though on the tutorial model of interaction.

Part of Wislocki’s tension with her process connected to the fact that the writing center at her institution is embedded within the Expository Writing Program, so her assessment would, in some ways, reflect the relationship of these two programs. Much of Wislocki’s presentation simply described her process of building assessment into her program through evaluative instruments (surveys, etc.), but the description was heavily contextualized by Wislocki’s perception of the writing center’s position in the institution. For example, she mentioned more than once that she had to borrow an “old” computer from another department, get a “cast-off” scanner from somewhere else, beg software programs from friends, etc., enumerating and reiterating the difficulties of “being seen” and thus being assessed; as an audience member noted later in the discussion, “It’s not always a bad thing to be invisible!” In the end, Wislocki does come away from the impetus to assessment with a decent surveying instrument, experience with assessment, some data (from a fairly small sample—46 students), and had convinced herself that her two original assumptions were valid and could be articulated for an assessment goal.

Hawthorne’s presentation, “But Do They Use What They Learn?: Using Surveys to Study Outcomes,” in many ways extended Wislocki’s as Hawthorne explored the myriad ways in which she is always assessing and re-assessing the work of the writing center that she directs. That is, where Wislocki hoped for curricular outcomes in the writing center, Hawthorne not only assumed it but had moved on to another step: that of transference and embedded learning. Hawthorne expertly surveyed the multiple ways in which she keeps observing and tweaking her program. Her initial survey on learning outcomes included questions that focused on the issues that arose in the writing center sessions, the kinds of work that occurred linking to those issues, actual activities surrounding those issues, and any plans for later activities related to the session’s practices. Hawthorne reminded us that any productive writing center session has three positive outcomes: good things for the paper, good things for the writer, and good feelings/perceptions overall of the interaction or session itself. Hawthorne admitted that her qualitative work here does not offer direct data or evidence of outcomes in any objective way, but we all know that the ways in which we shape our assessment has to arise from within the kinds of work we do, and in this case, Hawthorne, like Wislocki, was following the always-subjective, and often hard-to-pin-down perceptual work that we do in writing centers. In this case, Hawthorne seemed most interested in the follow-up work, where the student provides insight into what s/he thought should come next in relation to the paper’s development, what Hawthorne termed “post-session planning.”

The final presentation, “Liking as a Way of Knowing: Identifying the Outcomes of Conferencing from Strengths,” focused on a more specific assessment issue, one that emerged from Roberta Kjesrud’s interest in researching students’ perceptions of their strengths as writers and how that perception might then affect the students’ intrinsic beliefs about their writing abilities, in turn, translating into stronger writing and rhetorical competencies. Kjesrud began by having the audience answer the question: “What makes me a good writer?” After giving us time to answer the question, Kjesrud took us on a brief tour of her personal history of assessment in the writing center and her curiosity about the affective domain and its connection to writing competencies, most specifically the connections among motivation, confidence, and authority. Kjesrud’s interest in the relationship of confidence to cognitive development encouraged her to set up a way to take stock and observe the possible connections through studying positive feedback from the writing tutors and writing outcomes as perceived by the students. She defined positive feedback in three ways: as general encouragement, as specific praise such as in transitioning moves, and writer-based strengths (what the writer brings to the table). Rjesrud moved to a discussion of the importance of establishing an identity as a writer as part of the transforming experience students could experience when cognizing and developing their own (sense of) strengths.

Her study concentrated on a small group of writing tutors that asked two questions: what makes good writing/good writers? And what strengths did her tutors bring to the table? Kjesrud asked these questions during individual interviews with her tutors and then she followed up with questions connecting to the tutors’ sense of their own identities as writers. She mentioned briefly the angle of gender, in which a larger percentage of the female respondants commented negatively on writing identities as opposed to the males, and noted also that the data seemed to indicate clear articulation of writing strengths in terms of process issues; that is, the tutors believed they had strong revising and editing components.

Kjesrud noted that the writers who had strong writing identities tended to articulate answers reflecting positive perceptions of themselves as writers (“Yes, I am a good writer), but these perceptions were often connected to external loci or sources of identity, through teachers for example. Kjesrud’s study, small and incomplete by her own admission, offers some interesting places to go for further research, particularly since her study looked at writers who we think already are “strong” writers or they wouldn’t be working in our writing centers. Kjesrud noted that her presentation reflected the earliest stages of her research and that she has much work to do in looking at data on motivation, authority, confidence, internal and external loci of control, and perceptions of writing.

I came away from this session more convinced than ever that 1) our perceptions of assessment are just that: perceptions. They can be negative or positive, and our attendant emotions will emerge from the ways in which we shape assessment as an ax falling or as an integral part of our day; and 2) once we confidently decide that assessment is a part of all that we do in writing centers, then we can be creative, descriptive, informative, ground-breaking, and more ready to articulate at any moment the outcomes we continually observe in our work. This session reiterated for me the idea that assessment is something we should always be doing in the writing center, from day one, in as many ways as we can; that waiting for the assessment or outcomes ax to fall in order to define ourselves and our programs through forced assessments is not the best situation in which to train ourselves, and that redefining the meaning of assessment for ourselves as continuing, concrete observations of our programs is to our benefit.

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