Researching the Writing Center

Towards an Evidence-Based Practice, Revised Edition

by Rebecca Day Babcock (Author) Terese Thonus (Author)
©2018 Textbook XIV, 352 Pages


Researching the Writing Center is the first book-length treatment of the research base for academic writing tutoring. The book reviews the current state of writing center scholarship, arguing that although practitioner-researchers continue to value anecdotal and experiential evidence, they must also appreciate empirical evidence as mediating theory and practice. Readers of this revised edition will discover an evidence-based orientation to research and be able to evaluate the current scholarship on recommended writing center practice. Chapters examine the research base for current theory and practice involving the contexts of tutoring, tutoring activities, and the tutoring of specific populations. Readers will investigate the sample research question "What is a ‘successful’ writing consultation?" Researching the Writing Center concludes with an agenda for future questions about writing center practice that can be researched empirically. This revised edition of the text is intended for writing center professionals, researchers, graduate students in English, composition studies, and education, and peer tutors in training. It is also suitable for courses in writing center theory and practice, learning center theory and practice, composition studies, education, and learning assistance.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Praise for the Revised Edition of Researching the Writing Center
  • Praise for the First Edition of Researching the Writing Center
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Tables
  • Chapter One: Theory, Practice, and What’s in Between: Writing Center Scholarship
  • Overview of the Book and Chapter 1
  • Assessment and Its Relationship to Research
  • Who Are Writing Center Scholars?
  • A Brief Overview of Writing Center Scholarship
  • A Call for Empirical Research
  • Chapter Two: Research Basics in Evidence-Based Practice
  • Evidence-Based Practice across the Disciplines
  • A (Cautious) Argument for EBP in Writing Center Inquiry
  • Taxonomies of Research
  • Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches
  • Data Analysis
  • Research Ethics
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Three: The Contexts of Tutoring
  • Surveys of Writing Centers
  • Institutional Positioning
  • Location and Space Design
  • Administrative Relationships
  • Tutors: Who, How, and Why
  • Service Mode
  • Session Focus and Format
  • Interpersonal Factors
  • Chapter Four: Tutoring Diverse Populations
  • Basic Writers
  • Graduate Students
  • Second-Language (L2) Writers
  • Writers with Disabilities
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Five: The Interactions of Tutoring
  • Communication Modes
  • Functions of Talk
  • The Structure of Tutorials
  • “Directiveness”
  • Paralinguistic Features
  • Chapter Six: A Sample Research Question: What Is a Successful Writing Tutorial?
  • Success in Academic Tutoring
  • Definitions of Success in Writing Center Work
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Seven: An Agenda for Writing Center Research
  • Globalization
  • Identities and Identity Politics
  • Campus and Community Partnerships
  • Multiliteracies/Multimodality
  • Intelligent Tutoring and Writing Applications
  • Professional Issues
  • Certification and Accreditation of Writing Centers
  • Generating (Even) More Research Topics
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Sample Informed Consent Form
  • Appendix B: Sample IRB Form
  • Author Index
  • Topic Index

← viii | ix →



Thanks to the following people for making this book possible: Sue Doyle, for introducing us to the concept of evidence-based practice; Michael Spooner for his helpful feedback on our proposal and letting us know that this was a viable project; Neal Lerner for his thorough reading of the manuscript and excellent suggestions for revision; Nadine Alzubbi, Charles Barkley, Elijah McKee, Ashley Meadows, Amber Norris, Marie Schmitz, Somorah Smith, and Zach Vanderslice from KU, Katie Groneman and Sarah Banschbach Valles from UTPB, and Nehal Kamel of New Tech Odessa for assisting with the indices; Chris Myers, Farideh Koohi-Kamali, Sarah Bode, Stephen Mazur, Sophie Appel, Bernadette Shade, Timothy Swenarton, Janell Harris, and Patty Mulrane at Peter Lang for seeing the book through from idea to reality; and Kathryn Denton, Sarah Littlejohn, Sherry Wynn Perdue, and Sarah Liggett for their published reviews. Of course it couldn’t have been done without the help and support of our family and friends. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →



Table 1.1:Edited Volumes
Table 2.1:Research Taxonomies
Table 2.2:Examples of Analytical Methods by Category
Table 2.3:Textual Analysis Articles from the Writing Center Journal since 2009
Table 7.1:Global Writing Centers ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


Theory, Practice, and What’s in Between: Writing Center Scholarship


If Darwin were to teach us anything about writing centers, he would probably urge us to adopt a materialist model, complete with rich, thick descriptions of our own pedagogical Galapagos, out of which patterns and revelations will emerge. He would tell us to write them down, not lock them away in a desk and wait for our world to catch up. We must relinquish our faith, stop believing in writing centers and start convincing ourselves, and others, by the evidence. (Boquet, quoted in Griffin, Mattingly, & Eodice, 2007, p. 11)

Overview of the Book and Chapter 1

With a 100-year history in secondary schools, colleges, and universities across the globe, writing centers have become a staple in the teaching of writing. They serve populations of high school, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty. They are located in departments of English, are affiliated with university-or school-wide entities or departments of writing, composition and rhetoric, or communication, or are supported by private endowments. Tutors1 in these centers are peers (secondary students, undergraduates, and graduate students) and professionals (Denny, 2015). With the growing importance of writing centers to education since the late 1970s, writing center scholarship has emerged with the express purpose of mediating theory and practice in writing center work. ← 1 | 2 →

As we consider this second edition of Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-based Practice, we reflect on a field that has made important strides towards the empirical inquiry envisioned in separate calls to research by North (1984b) and Neuleib (1984). The first edition of this book echoed more recent calls to research by Harris (2000) and Haswell (2005). At the 2010 International Writing Centers Association conference, Driscoll and Wynn Perdue argued that while writing center scholars yearn for more empirical research to support theory-practice in the field, we lack the knowledge and skill to carry out such research. Citing Haswell (2005), the authors proposed a rubric for “RAD [replicable, aggregable, data-driven] Research in the Center.” Their analysis of Writing Center Journal articles (1980–2009) found that only 5% of the studies reported qualified as RAD research.

The unified message of these authors is that composition, rhetoric, and writing center researchers need to do some “serious researching” in order to sit at the head table and be respected by our academic colleagues. While theoretical investigations such as Nordlof’s (2014) build the foundation for writing center studies, and anecdotal experience points in the direction of best practices, empirical research creates a credible link between the two. An example of this is the work of Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013, 2014, 2015). They have performed linguistic analyses of transcripts of tutoring sessions viewed through a theoretical lens (cognitive and motivational scaffolding) and thereby created knowledge that writing center workers can put into practice in their daily interactions with tutees.

As the first book-length treatment of the research base for academic writing tutoring, the first edition of Researching the Writing Center anticipated such excellent (though distinct) works as Grutsch McKinney’s Strategies for Writing Center Research (2016) and Fitzgerald and Ianetta’s Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research (2016). Research typologies such as those by Driscoll and Wynn Perdue (2012) and Liggett, Jordan, and Price (2011) have also enhanced our understanding of writing center research. And the transformation of the Writing Center Journal from MLA to APA style symbolizes for us the turn of writing center studies towards empirical research. The purpose of the first edition of this book was to argue for evidence-based practice and for more replicable, aggregable, data-driven (RAD) research on which to base that practice. Since that call, we have seen more qualitative and quantitative scholarship that engages empirical evidence as mediating theory and practice. We no longer need to argue for it. We congratulate writing center researchers and exhort them to continue along this path.

In Chapter 2 of this new edition, we examine fields outside of composition and writing center studies in which empirical research has yielded reputable evidence-based practice, taking lessons we can apply to our own discipline. We also ← 2 | 3 → survey some qualitative and quantitative approaches and methods we believe are applicable to writing center research. In Chapters 3–5, we explore the institutional contexts of academic writing centers, and we present empirical studies that offer some answers to a host of practical questions asked by writing center administrators and tutors on a daily basis. We have searched for not only published literature but also unpublished theses and dissertations. Many writers who have chosen writing center theory and practice as their research topics may never be employed as writing center professionals (Babcock, Manning, & Rogers, 2012; Thonus, Carter-Tod, & Babcock, 2016). Nonetheless, their work is more often than not empirical. Chapter 6 focuses on a perennial research question: What is a “successful” writing center tutorial? We survey the research literature to answer this question and then pose additional problems to be addressed and suggest ways that these can be investigated empirically through the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data. Chapter 7 is an agenda for future writing center research in such areas as contexts of tutoring, tutoring diverse populations, tutorial interactions, and emerging topics such as campus and community partnerships, globalization, identity politics, multiliteracy/multimodality, intelligent tutoring and writing applications, and professional issues.

We make what we believe are important observations about the nature of inquiry, evidence, and argumentation in writing center scholarship. Our field is still young, and the direction(s) in which we will grow depend upon the decisions we make today about the definitions of and the connections among theory, inquiry, and practice.

Assessment and Its Relationship to Research

How does writing center research compare with writing center assessment? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to assess is “to estimate or judge the value, character, etc., of; to evaluate,” from the Latin assesāre, “to assess a tax,” a derivative of assēssus, “seated beside a judge.” Research, on the other hand, is defined as “diligent and systematic inquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, applications,” from the Middle French recercher, “to seek or to search.” Research, then, does not necessarily involve evaluation or judgment. The impetus for research is to develop knowledge.

In writing center work, both assessment and research are necessary, and they share at least three characteristics: First, both must be based on empirical data, be they qualitative or quantitative, including narratives, numbers, and observations. Second, both must involve inquiry, the seeking of knowledge, operationalized as the ← 3 | 4 → request for data (Schendel & Macauley, 2012). Third, both drive what Hawthorne termed an “evidence-based approach to our work” (2006, p. 244). Assessment, like research, Hawthorne noted, qualifies as scholarly activity because it involves setting goals, framing questions, selecting methods, and using what we learn.

Assessments can be used as part of a research project, but they are not research in and of themselves. The impetus for assessment often lies in meeting bureaucratic requirements of one’s institution, state higher education board, or accrediting agency. Assessments generally measure whether or not something happened related to pre-decided goals. So if an objective is for students to learn MLA style, assessment asks, “Did students learn to use MLA style?” On the other hand, research attempts to answer bigger questions related to how or why this phenomenon occurs. So in addition to measuring outcomes, a research question might ask, “What are the factors that contribute to mastery of various citation styles?” Hopkins (2016) considered the difference between assessment and research: Assessment measures the achievement of desired outcomes, and for assessment to proceed there must be a goal or outcome to measure. Research, on the other hand, investigates research questions or hypotheses. We think of assessment as applicable to the particular institution where it is carried out, and common assessment methods may be adopted and adapted by administrators at other institutions. Research, on the other hand, benefits the field as a whole (Upcraft & Schuh, 2002).

And we don’t want to suggest that assessment is only an exercise, or that it only takes place at the bidding of one’s superiors. As Gallagher (2011) argued, “Being there matters” (p. 464; emphasis the author’s); meaningful assessment is always locally contextualized, not carried out by “experts” remote from the setting. Writing center professionals have begun to understand the importance of assessment not only to the survival but also to the growth of their endeavors. Tracing the concept of formative assessment through writing center work from process-oriented pedagogy to the shift to social constructivist theory and practice, Law and Murphy (1997) found that the second wave of social constructivism delegitimized assessment. They quoted from Grimm’s 1996 article, “Rearticulating the Work of the Writing Center,” as support for the notion that assessment need not be inimical to social constructivism; it can be used to show exactly how “the writing center took on an oppositional stance to classroom practices of the homogenization of student voices…Student empowerment became a central goal of formative assessment along with the transformative power of the writing center for academic reform” (p. 108).

Harris’ work provides an excellent example of the shift from assessment in specific contexts to research across a number of contexts. “Diverse Research Methodologies at Work for Diverse Audiences: Shaping the Writing Center to the ← 4 | 5 → Institution” (1999) illustrated a back-and-forth consideration between assessment and research, between the particular and the generalizable, and between diversity and commonality. Harris explained the necessity of “exploring knowledge locally produced for local use in the administration of a writing center” (p. 3), which she termed local research. At the same time that she cited Healy’s (1995) pronouncement that “most discussions of writing centers eventually descend to the particular—or at least they should” (p. 13), Harris encouraged reflective practitioners to employ research methods used by composition scholars, amassing a “research archive” for their centers (p. 14) to be shared with other writing center professionals. Eight years later, in “Work in Progress: Publishing Writing Center Scholarship,” Harris and colleagues’ emphasis landed fully on research, the generalizable, and commonality:

Write for others beyond your local context. Because many of us start by reflecting on our own centers, some essays stay too locally focused…. Articles written to prove to the larger writing center world the glories and success of that particular center generally don’t have much content beyond “hey, aren’t we great.” This too is not a useful contribution to the literature of writing centers, even though the author may be justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished. However, a study of how that center achieved its success, in terms of how that might help other struggling centers, can be useful. (DeCiccio, Ede, Lerner, Boquet, & Harris, 2007, p. 1)

A second example of locally contextualized assessment that has produced valuable research questions is Thompson et al.’s “Examining Our Lore: A Survey of Students’ and Tutors’ Satisfaction with Writing Center Conferences” (2009). The authors collected post-tutorial surveys from tutees and their tutors in the Auburn University English Center to assess ratings of their satisfaction with those tutorials. Coding was based upon seven attributes the authors drew from what they called “writing center lore”: students’ questions answered, students’ comfort, positive feedback, how much students talked, tutors as peers more than instructors, tutors’ expertise, and tutors’ nondirectiveness. Their finding? “Our surveys supported only those lore-based mandates about the tutors’ responsibility to provide a comfortable place for students to ask questions” (p. 95). This finding resulted in immediate application to the local context: “In our training practicums for new tutors, we should discontinue describing lore-based mandates for dialogic collaboration” (p. 100). Thompson and colleagues also suggested future research directions to investigate satisfaction: analysis of asymmetrical collaborations and scaffolding as the primary move in “expert tutoring” (see Chapter 8).

A third example of assessment turned to research is Bromley, Northway, and Schonberg (2013). The authors traced a means by which common assessment ← 5 | 6 → practices can serve as a basis for RAD research. They collected post-tutorial surveys at a large public university, a small private university, and a small liberal arts college. These surveys were based on commonly asked questions derived from a review of WCenter (a listserv for writing center professionals). They amassed a large number of surveys (over 2,000), which allowed for statistical analysis and discussion of results. Because they performed research across contexts (greater than the local), Bromley and colleagues could make comparisons among the various institutional types. Assessment, being strictly local, does not take this broader view. In Bromley and colleagues’ process, we see that assessment tools and techniques can easily pave the way to research, or that they themselves can be the topic of the research.

Of additional interest to the discussion of writing center assessment and research are IWCA special interest groups (SIGs). IWCA conferences have featured SIGs related to both research and assessment: for example, the Research SIG (led by Babcock at the 2012 IWCA) and the Assessment SIG (led by Ballard and Klein at the 2012 IWCA). At the 2016 IWCA, both the Writing Center Research Collaborative SIG (led by Schick and Schubert) and the Assessment SIG (led by Macauley, Moberly, and Webster) met. This binary suggests that writing center studies makes the distinction between the two terms and their associated methods and applications. We view this as an extremely positive, though difficult, transition that will yield more credible empirical scholarship.

We realize that some readers may take exception to our characterization of assessment and research as distinct endeavors. We do not devalue assessment. Quite the opposite. Assessment contributes to evidence-based practice; in fact, the “evidence” of evidence-based practice derives from both assessment and research. Those interested in learning more about assessment should consult Thompson (2006); Gofine (2012); Schendel and Macauley (2012); and Welch and Revels-Parker (2012).

Who Are Writing Center Scholars?

Let’s return to the quote by Beth Boquet that opened this chapter. Her reference to Darwin and the Galapagos Islands reminds us of a key evolutionary tenet, the survival of the fittest. If anything, writing center professionals are survivors, amassing “the numbers” and student and faculty feedback to demonstrate anew each academic year the reasons for their existence. Between running their centers and fighting for funding, some have little time to think beyond the immediate. Research cannot take place without time for thought and reflection. ← 6 | 7 →

In “Writing Center Work: An Ongoing Challenge” (2000), Kail personalized the struggle:

It is late in my day when I get around to thinking of the writing center director as the writing center researcher—very late in the day. Why? Because research is something we have added on after the original writing center creation myth was well established in our minds and embedded in our job descriptions…as Writing Center Director my priorities are teaching, service, service, service, and then research—on our service. (pp. 27–28)

His lament still resounds today. Perhaps the most cogent exegesis of the professionalization-research issue is “Sites for (Invisible) Intellectual Work” (Marshall, 2001). While we agree with Marshall’s analysis of the institutional marginalization of writing center work, we disagree with her conclusion that until writing center administration is accorded the same institutional status as faculty work, engagement in “intellectual projects” for scholarly publication (a.k.a. research) is futile. What Marshall does remind us is that it is impossible to describe and evaluate writing center scholarship outside of its institutional contexts. Who does writing center scholarship? What is the perceived value of this scholarship to the institutions that employ writing center scholars? And most important, how many writing center professionals actually think of themselves as scholars?.

Two studies of alumni of the yearly International Writing Center Summer Institutes take a stab at answering these questions. In “The Summer Institute for Writing Center Directors and Professionals: A Narrative Bibliography,” Babcock, Ferrel, and Ozias (2011) detailed how the writing groups formed at each Institute created a “community of practice” that fostered on-site and future scholarly collaborations. Much of the resulting collaborative work appeared online, in conference presentations, and in newsletter articles:

While a presentation at a regional writing center conference or an article in IWCA Update (the IWCA’s biannual newsletter) may not hold the cachet of a Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) presentation or an article in a peer-reviewed journal, for some scholars these publication venues begin the intellectual conversation, increase the scholarly presence of the individual, and provide a needed line on a vita, yet they all belong to the same discursive formation.

The results of a second study were less encouraging: Salem and Eodice (2010) reported on a survey administered to 75 attendees during the 2009 and 2010 Summer Institutes. Using factor analysis, the authors searched for beliefs underlying patterns of answers to attitudinal and demographic questions on a Likert scale. Factors that emerged were (a) long- vs. short-term commitment to writing center ← 7 | 8 → work; (b) doing writing-related analysis themselves; and (c) everyday administrative concerns, especially tutor training. Salem and Eodice realized that 50% of those surveyed did not anticipate a long-term commitment to writing center work; rather, they viewed their current positions as “temporary service gigs.” The other 50% of respondents fell into two groups: 25% who assumed “writing center director” as their primary professional identity, and 25% who professed a long-term commitment to writing center work and to research, though not necessarily writing center research. The authors concluded that the primary orientation of Summer Institute attendees towards writing center research was that of consumers, not producers. Circumstances are changing, however. In a post-survey of participants at the 2016 Summer Institute, Trixie Smith (personal communication) reported that

Respondents mentioned that they would like more information about research and publication. In addition, several attendees focused their Works in Progress time/project on research projects in/about their writing centers or writing center issues generally. Specific requests included help with IRBs, grant writing, the publishing process.

Although more writing center professionals are becoming interested in research, not all can find the time (reflecting Kail). Recently, Caswell, Grutsch McKinney, and Jackson (2016) published a multiple case study of nine new writing center directors. Although eager to do research and acknowledging its necessity, they found that the demands of the job left little time for research. Research need not be only the domain of professionals, however. Undergraduate peer tutors bring a unique perspective to writing center research (Ervin, 2016; Fitzgerald, 2014).

The studies above convince us that writing center professionals are eager to share their research findings and even their experiences and anecdotes with their local and global professional communities, but they face institutional, time, and even disciplinary barriers to doing so. All have learned to assess their practice; some have written theses and dissertations not only in writing center studies but in rhetoric and composition, linguistics, education, and literature; and some have done valuable theoretical reflection in writing center contexts (Thonus et al., 2016). Even if writing center scholars secure institutional support and the time to address a research agenda, we hazard a guess that many of our colleagues lack training in research approaches, whether qualitative or quantitative. We can only begin to address this subject in Chapter 2 of this volume. Those desiring more detailed information on research methodologies should consult Grutsch McKinney (2016) and Fitzgerald and Ianetta (2016).

We owe a debt of gratitude to those writing center professionals who have pursued research despite institutional and personal hurdles; without them, writing center scholarship would still be in its infancy. ← 8 | 9 →

A Brief Overview of Writing Center Scholarship

In this section, we summarize writing center scholarship since 1984. We first discuss important contributions to writing center theory in the form of single- and co-authored monographs. We then describe the influences of writing center journals and seminal articles that set the stage for empirical research. Next, we focus on anthologies, which we term “canonical collections;” by printing and reprinting key articles, they have set the tone for explorations along the theory-practice continuum. We then examine edited collections from 1984 to the present for research content, and finish the overview with mention of research monographs and metasyntheses (of which there is only one).

Along with the acceptance and significance of research as a term in writing center scholarship, we continue to advocate for the conceptual and historical roots of our field; the value of both theory and knowledge production; and openness to self-reflective, qualitative, and quantitative approaches and data analyses. Excluded from this discussion are publications specifically meant for tutor training. These include excellent volumes by Harris (1986); Meyer and Smith (1987); Rafoth (2005); Gillespie and Lerner (2008); Bruce and Rafoth (2009, 2016); and Ryan and Zimmerelli (2010).

Volumes on Theory

Several works of writing center scholarship, beginning with Weaving Knowledge Together: Writing Centers and Collaboration (Haviland, Notarangelo, Whitley-Putz, & Wolf, 1998), Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times (Grimm, 1999), and Noise from the Writing Center (Boquet, 2002), merit our attention here. Although they do not qualify as research in the sense we use the term in this book, these volumes have created a contemporary theoretical framework for writing center endeavors. More recent additions to this literature are the collaboratively authored The Everyday Writing Center (Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, & Boquet, 2006), Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring (Denny, 2010), and Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers (Grutsch McKinney, 2013). Lerner’s The Idea of a Writing Laboratory (2009a) reported a history of the laboratory approach to writing and science in the academy and theorized from those findings.

Let’s look specifically at single-authored theoretical monographs. Grimm’s (1999) Good Intentions examined writing centers from a postmodern perspective. She pointed out that in many cases, writing center professionals’ good intentions backfire for those students they most wish to help. Part of this, Grimm noted, was ← 9 | 10 → that hands-off, nondirective tutoring can be unfair to non-mainstream students. In Noise from the Writing Center, Boquet (2002) took an introspective look at writing centers, exploring metaphors such as clinic, lab, and center, making connections with music and art. She also explored a tutor education class and questioned the concept of community. Denny’s 2010 book Facing the Center conceived of the writing center as a place to unravel identities so that tutors and tutees can make the most of the tutoring and writing experience. His final words to readers were an appeal to consider writing center work more deeply and more seriously by investigating writing center employees’ own identities and practices. In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Grutsch McKinney (2013) explored the “grand narrative” of writing centers: They are “comfortable iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing” (p. 3, italics original). She wrote, “We can discern outsiders by those who stray from the narrative” (p. 4). Grutsch McKinney analyzed each part of the narrative, complicating it at times and agreeing with it at others. Although we classify this work as primarily theoretical, part of it is based on survey data that she gathered from postings on writing center listservs. The raw survey data were included as an appendix.

These monographs question the established ideas and orthodoxy surrounding writing centers and are possibly the most widely read of all writing center publications. We will refer to them again in subsequent chapters because they frame much current writing center scholarship.

Journals and Key Journal Articles

Writing center scholars enjoy an array of periodicals dedicated to our work (see DeCiccio et al., 2007). In the first edition of this book we counted two with “journal” status; now there are six. The earliest among these is the Writing Lab Newsletter, founded by Muriel Harris at Purdue University in 1976, recently redubbed WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. WLN continues to blend tutor reflections and mini-research reports with pithy commentary on the state of the art of tutoring along with professional networking opportunities. In a departure from this norm, WLN published Lerner’s valuable bibliography of theses and dissertations on writing center work and tutoring since 1924 (2009b). The second major publication, The Writing Center Journal, has appeared in 36 volumes and is one of the official journals of the International Writing Centers Association, an assembly of the U.S. National Council of Teachers of English. It has become the preferred venue for publishing in-depth writing center scholarship, although the former editors of the journal, Boquet and Lerner (2008), lamented that it has been, at times, the only place to do so. Fortunately, this is changing, and writing center ← 10 | 11 → scholars now have more publication venues from which to choose. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal has been published online by the University of Texas Writing Center since 2003. This twice-yearly journal covers theory, practice, and administration of writing centers. Formerly Southern Discourse, the newsletter of the Southeastern Writing Centers Association has become the peer-reviewed journal Southern Discourse in the Center: A Journal of Multiliteracy and Innovation. Recently, a new official IWCA publication, The Peer Review, co-edited by Hallman and Wynn Perdue, has launched and has produced their first issue. Two additional online publications, The Dangling Modifier from the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (Texas A&M University), and the blog PeerCentered (hosted by Gardner at Salt Lake Community College), publish writing tutor reflections on their practice. Finally, the official IWCA website and regional affiliate newsletters keep members up to date with news and announcements of writing center events.

In this chapter, we limit our review of journal articles and book chapters to those that survey the state of research in the field. The continued novelty of this term emerged in our perusal of the MLA Bibliography (most recently on 13 November 2016). We performed a search using the term writing center in peer-reviewed sources, which yielded 844 results. A Boolean search using “writing center” AND research “anywhere” yielded only 23 results. All of the sources listed were from the Writing Center Journal, WLN, or Praxis: A Writing Center Journal. Exceptions were Shafer (2012) from Research and Teaching in Developmental Education; Chewning (2007), Varma (2008) and Doucette (2011) from Young Scholars in Writing; and Babcock (2011) (but not Thonus, 2008) from Linguistics and Education. Certainly, not all of these sources qualify as RAD research, and interestingly, many more empirical studies did not make it into the MLA Bibliography under these search terms. A Boolean search using “writing center” and study yielded 28 results, some different from the research query results. Interestingly, a Boolean search of “writing center” and research in Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts produced 11 results from such publications as the Journal of Second Language Writing and College Composition and Communication; we cite seven of these sources in this book.

As we mentioned above, since some writing center professionals also wear faculty hats in university departments, they may often publish outside of specialized writing center journals. For example, North (1985) published a piece on case study research methodology (“a prelude to research”) in the Rhetoric Review. Later, in Education, Jones (2001) lamented how little empirical research on the effectiveness of specific tutoring practices had been conducted. As an assessment of the literature, though, Jones did not present new research findings. And his assertion that “hard, concrete evidence for [writing tutoring’s] efficacy may be minimal” and that because of this, “the writing center movement may be viewed as the ← 11 | 12 → intellectual cousin to the self-help movement” (p. 18) certainly failed to encourage future empirical research. Maxwell (1994) asked a more fundamental question: Why has so little research been published on the topic of peer tutoring in general? We find her reflections valid even today:

1. Tutor coordinators rarely have the research skills and almost never the incentive to undertake research projects with the exception of those individuals who are pursuing doctoral degrees. Research and evaluation studies take money, time, and resources that are rarely available to the tutoring program.

2. Tutoring takes many forms—individual, group, in-class, etc., and is offered in many types of courses. This makes it difficult to find large enough numbers to find significant differences and to generalize the results. Furthermore, researchers rarely describe the amount of experience and training of the tutors.

3. Tutoring represents just one part of programs designed to help under-achieving students. There is often staff resistance to attempting to measure the effects of complex, interpersonal interactions. (p. 114)

The (under)professionalization of tutoring Maxwell alluded to is a topic we have touched on elsewhere (Thonus et al., 2016); we will do so again here as we examine reasons why empirical research appears to have been historically undervalued in our discipline. Fortunately, we have seen changes and anticipate even more changes in the future.

The Anthologies

Preferred sources for writing center scholarship include anthologies containing mostly reprinted and some original articles assembled under loose chapter headings related to history, theory, practice, and administration of writing centers. Five widely-read writing center collections, several in multiple editions, have compiled previously published writing center scholarship from WLN, the Writing Center Journal, and various composition-related publications. We call these “canonical collections” because they have for so long been essential reading for prospective and current writing center professionals. Two of the volumes intended for tutor education are more than tutor-training guides since they combine instructional material with reprinted articles.

Among these anthologies are Fitzgerald and Ianetta’s The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors (2016); Lee and Carpenter’s The Routledge Reader on Writing Centers and New Media (2014); Murphy and Sherwood’s The St. Martin’s Sourcebook ← 12 | 13 → for Writing Tutors (2011); Barnett and Blumner’s The Longman Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice (2008); and Murphy and Law’s Landmark Essays on Writing Centers (1995). Twelve articles appear in more than one collection, and five articles appear in three of the collections. The five most highly anthologized articles are North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center” (1984a); Bruffee’s “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” (1984); Lunsford’s “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center” (1991/2003); DiPardo’s “Whispers of Coming and Going: Lessons from Fannie” (1992/2003); and a newcomer to the list for this second edition, Grutsch McKinney’s “New Media Matters: Tutoring in the Late Age of Print” (2009). North’s and Lunsford’s articles provided a theoretical foundation for the field (Murphy & Law, 1995), and DiPardo’s offered an “on the ground” example of work in tutor-led small groups. Nine of Murphy and Law’s 21 chapters also appeared in either Barnett and Blumner (2008), Murphy and Sherwood (2008), or both. One of its articles (Bruffee, 1984) also appeared in Fitzgerald and Ianetta (2016). Murphy and Law’s multidisciplinary grounding in writing across the curriculum (Wallace), writing to learn (Leahy), Bakhtinian dialogism (Gillam), sociocultural theory (Bruffee, Ede) and feminist pedagogy (Woolbright) announced that writing center work had “achieved a kind of legitimacy: Writing centers have become academically respectable programs” (p. xi). None of its essays, however, qualifies as a RAD research study.


XIV, 352
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XIV, 352 pp., 5 tbl.

Biographical notes

Rebecca Day Babcock (Author) Terese Thonus (Author)

Rebecca Day Babcock (Ph.D., Indiana University of Pennsylvania) is William and Ordelle Watts Professor and Chair, Literature and Languages Department, University of Texas of the Permian Basin. She is the author of two other books on writing center research, the co-editor of Writing Centers and Disability, and the winner of the 2012 IWCA outstanding article award. Terese Thonus (Ph.D., Indiana University) is Professor and Director of the Writing Program, Klein Family School of Communications Design, University of Baltimore. She has published articles in writing center and applied linguistics journals.


Title: Researching the Writing Center