I recently read Neal Lerner’s chapter on writing center pedagogy in A Guide to Composition Pedagogy. I’ve been involved with writing centers since I was an undergraduate tutor, and I’ve long loved the role that writing centers play in writers’ lives. Although I’ve at times wanted to incorporate writing center pedagogy into my composition course, I haven’t quite known how to.
In this post, I will share some of the key features that Lerner notes about writing center pedagogy. Then, I will imagine how these features could serve as the basis of a course designed like a writing center.
In his chapter, Lerner discusses several aspects of writing center pedagogy, and I’ve listed these aspects below:
- Asking questions
- Listening fully and carefully
- Responding as a reader
- Setting an agenda
- Negotiating goals
- Focusing on the development of the writer
- Allowing space for writers to control the session and their texts
- Using meta-language to talk about writing
Asking questions, listening fully and carefully, and responding as a reader speak to the conversational nature of writing center pedagogy. As Lerner (2014) writes, “At the heart of a writing center session is conversation about student writing” (p. 304). What if writing teachers designed the writing course so that conversation about student writing is at the heart of that course? The teacher’s role, then, would be to ask questions about their students’ writing, listen fully and carefully, and respond to students as readers. A writing center pedagogical approach to composition would model the writing classroom after a laboratory in which the central activities are hand-on practice, peer support, and teacher modelling and feedback.
In fact, Lerner writes in more detail about the writing laboratory concept in his text The Idea of a Writing Laboratory, a must-read for anyone interested in teaching writing as experimentation. There, Lerner maps the history of writing centers and their roots in laboratory methods. Essentially, because of the difficulties of teaching students to write, laboratory methods emerged as a solution that focused on hands-on practice and one-to-one conversation. By paralleling the history of teaching writing via laboratory methods and the history of teaching science via laboratory methods, Lerner interweaves these disciplines’ histories to highlight the idea of situated learning as central to learning to write. Lerner then presents an example of a writing laboratory in practice: a course called Laboratory Fundamentals of Biology Engineering at MIT. Lerner (2009) writes that “the notion of students as novice professionals learning to write and speak successfully in their chosen fields leads to the need for writing and speaking tasks that are grounded in the real world of those fields” (p. 165). Here, I’d like to suggest that The Idea of a Writing Laboratory can be interpreted as offering a ninth way to apply writing center pedagogy to the teaching of writing:
9. Working with situated writing tasks
If I were to model my composition class after writing center pedagogy, then, I would create a writing studio where the central text of the course is the writing that students are doing for other courses or on their own. I would allow space for writers to control the class sessions and their texts by running the class like a creative writing critique group, in which members of the course read and respond to each others’ writing. As the instructor, I would model for students the meta-language that allows us to talk about writing, such as how writers analyze their audiences and think about responding to their audiences. At the beginning of the critique group meeting, the writer would negotiate goals and set the agenda with the readers. The other students and teacher would respond as readers by asking questions, listening fully and carefully, and focusing on the development of the writer and the writing.
Such a course would be a radical move away from the design of the prior composition courses I’ve taught, but the design may also help to enact some of the best parts of writing center pedagogy by placing conversation about student writing at the center of the course.
However, such a course would not be without its challenges.
- For one, how would the course ensure that students are composing in their other courses?
- Should such a course design work closely with the writing across the curriculum program to integrate writing into courses?
- Also, how would such a course leave room for direct instruction about writing?
I’m interested in readers’ thoughts, so please share in the comments!
Lerner, N. (2009). The Idea of a Writing Laboratory. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Lerner, N. (2014). Writing Center Pedagogy. In G. Tate, A.R. Taggart, K. Schick, & H.B. Hessler (Eds.), A Guide to Composition Pedagogy (pp. 301-316). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Hi dear Krista, I love your proposal for a lab-based writing approach! I think it would be a radical but beneficial attempt that brings students closer to the heart of writing: writing to communicate. Often times, the writing education that students receive today is so classroom-based and divorced from the most fundamental nature of writing, which is to write to communicate ideas and to promote thinking and learning. With a lab-based writing approach that revolves around conversations and deep thinking about writing, I am positive that student writers will enjoy a highly personalized and autonomous experience of learning to write. The only concern of mine is the size of the class: I think such labs should have an even smaller number of students than the regular 20-25 students. What do you think?
Fascinating proposal here, Krista. I think an approach to classroom pedagogy that was attentive to and learned from Writing Center models would also offer multiple opportunities for student conferences. This could be done in individual as well as group formats. As Jing points out, all of these individualized adjustments do put pressure on instructors in terms of time and energy. Thank you for your thoughtful post!