As campus demographics evolve, it’s critical to ensure your student services are meeting the needs of a diverse population. An evaluation of your schools’ services could start with your campus writing center. Recent research shows the majority of campus writing centers use an approach that works great for privileged students — the middle class and wealthy — but tends to leave the less privileged in a lurch. Writing centers are failing where they’re most needed.
Even academically proficient students from low income backgrounds are more likely to drop out of school than students who arrive on campus from more privileged environs. A full 60% of wealthier students complete their degrees, while only 16% of low income students leave school with diplomas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Schools need to work hard to not only encourage more of these students to enroll but also to offer them the support and guidance they need to get through. That can start with an excellent writing center — a place where students go to receive one-on-one feedback about their work, something composition teachers are often too busy to offer.
However, those writing centers will fail the students who need them most if they don’t reconsider their approach and methods in light of new campus demographics. According to recent research discussed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, most writing centers apply tutoring techniques that alienate students from low-income backgrounds. That can deprive them of an essential component of education — and a critical means of helping them make it to graduation day.
Proficient writing is a must in college. Even classes that aren’t writing intensive require papers and essay responses on tests. Those without basic college-level communication skills cannot demonstrate their knowledge in written assessments — no matter how well they understand the subject matter of the class.
Writing instruction is often neglected in high schools. Teachers are already overburdened and composition grading is laborious. The writing component on standardized tests is voluntary, so many high schools emphasize the areas they know will be tested: grammar and reading comprehension. Unfortunately, the grammar portion of standardized assessments only measures students’ ability to identify mechanical errors in the work of others. It doesn’t help them apply those rules in their own work. This is like teaching kids to drive by way of having them watch a video in which another driver makes numerous errors — forgets his turn signal, fails to check the rearview, etc. — without actually requiring them to get behind the wheel. Recognizing others’ errors might have some benefit, but it does nothing to instill the habits and muscle memory needed to create a safe driver.
So it goes with writing. Practice is essential. Students who arrive in college with little practice are at a severe disadvantage. It’s like entering a NASCAR race after a few test stints driving around your suburban block. In poorer areas, schools are often more concerned with getting graduation rates up than with prepping kids for college. You don’t need a lot of writing experience to earn a high school degree. When I taught composition courses, I often encountered students who had never been required to write a paper in high school.
When students arrive on campus without writing experience, the burden of instilling basic college writing skill falls on composition teachers — many of whom are overworked adjuncts with little time outside of class to offer the kind of one-to-one help that can make the most impact in the least amount of time.
That’s where writing centers come in. If they function well, they can serve as a key to student success. Students are invited to visit as often as they like, and they can receive feedback and instruction tailored specifically to their needs as a writer instead of assessment that looks at their work within the context of an entire class.
Yet, sadly, many writing centers don’t offer individualized instruction. Instead, they operate based on pedagogical theories that have currency among scholars but little practical use for students who need to learn how to build functional sentences and paragraphs from the ground up.
Like everyone in the academy, writing center directors are keen to demonstrate their value as scholars. In their work, they draw on late 20th century radical theories about abolishing hierarchy and patriarchy within the education system. Although these theories are intended to liberate learners from the shackles of top-down education, they are usually most effective for students who already have background in fundamentals like grammar, mechanics and composition structure. In other words, they work best for those who are privileged.
I’ve worked in numerous writing centers and I know their processes well. Typically, a student arrives with a paper that he or she wants to improve. Writing center directors usually want the tutor to have the student read her paper aloud and then guide her through a discovery process. The student is asked to identify areas she’d like to change. The tutor is not supposed to point out issues in the writing or offer advice about how to remedy problems. The student is left to guess whether the grammar and mechanics are working.
This leaves students with need for more pragmatic instruction completely lost. It abandons those who speak English as a second language altogether. Writing centers need to return to planet Earth. High-flying theories are more likely to earn publication in academic journals, but they won’t help low-income students acquire the skills they need for college. They won’t help make higher education more accessible for all.
As Lori Salem, the writing center researcher interviewed in the Chronicle, put it:
“[Writing centers] should be a laboratory for understanding the kinds of pedagogies that would work for these students. Instead, we’re busily denying that they’re there, and then applying pedagogies that work really well for privileged students. That’s not helpful.”
Give your school’s writing center a review. Ask the director if she has found ways to reach the new populations on campus — and point out the research that shows students need structured guidance with fundamentals. A brief intervention could go a long way toward boosting retention — and truly helping to break down walls that keep the less privileged from attaining higher education.