At the half dozen or so conferences I’ve attended over the last year, there’s been a noticeable spike in the interest in secondary school writing centers from college and university peers. Moving closer to the main party from the hidden corners of the Burkean Parlor is an exciting development because we have worthwhile perspectives, excellent pedagogies, and best practices to contribute to the larger conversation about how to build, sustain, and improve writing centers. Working more closely with our post-secondary partners also helps us develop and grow professionally, particularly as we learn the administrative skills required to be a successful director.
While we’re excited that you’re interested in our work and that we’ve been able to form closer collaborations, we need to talk about some problematic and troubling trends.
As we work together more closely and more often, having a contextualized understanding of the state of secondary school writing centers is vital. Last year, I worked with a team of people to create and administer a Secondary School Writing Center Census through IWCA. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:
We have a large segment of our population that is relatively new to being a writing center director and often these folks are self-trained. One of the most difficult aspects of secondary school directorship is that teachers are being asked to perform administrative functions that they didn’t train for and never thought that they would have to do. Although we’re making progress through new organizations like the Secondary School Writing Centers Association (SSWCA) and IWCA, real-deal mentorship has traditionally been difficult in secondary school centers, as centers are often not geographically close or well connected to others in the field. We also have a significant population of people that are either not compensated or undercompensated for the work they perform in the writing center, as some institutions struggle to see the value in something that may not look like or align with traditional secondary school practices. Moreover, writing center work is most often something that we do in addition to teaching three-to-six class each day. In other words, writing center director is an “and” in our job titles. The point of this snapshot isn’t to draw distinctions between us—we share some familiar institution realities—but I wanted to provide insight into how to understand the very long, existentially perilous, and incredibly rocky road many secondary school centers walk.
Tips for Talking About Us and to Us
Every so often, a post will appear on WCenter that’s a generic request for information about secondary school writing centers: do we exist? Are there any centers near me? How do I start one? This happens to us frequently at conferences, too. The discussions are always about the basics, and rarely, if ever, about the rich legacies, amazing programs, and vital systems we’ve built in our schools and communities.
While our field is relatively new, there have been some true pioneers—scholars, activists, and researchers—who have put in an uncountable number of uncompensated hours to ensure that newcomers had resources and guidance when entering the field because there wasn’t much to be found about secondary school writing centers. We’ve worked hard to ensure that many of these resources are widely available for free online to anyone wanting or needing them.
While your requests for information are awesome, there’s an onus on post-secondary folks to educate themselves about our contexts, structures, and realities before asking us to share our collective knowledge with you, especially when simple poking around would uncover so many great resources from some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. As we’ve tried to become more central in our Burkean Parlor, we did the work—we studied, we wrote, we published, we presented, we collaborated—and it’s important that it’s reciprocal. My writing center has two very successful collaborations with university partners, and, in each case, our partners took the time to think about our context and learn about our work.
Honoring the smart, thoughtful practitioners in secondary school writing centers is a must. Many folks have been on-the-ground practitioners for years—researching, writing, training tutors, presenting at conferences, building partnerships, closing achievement gaps—that its disheartening to see how little value our voices and our experiences are often given. These folks have done some hard scrabble, often in unthinkable conditions, to establish themselves, their centers, and their tutors.
I’ve been to three conference presentations in the last calendar year about secondary school writing centers that didn’t involve a single secondary school voice in person or digitally. There’s an ugly paternalism when those with no history or substantive involvement in secondary school writing centers pass themselves off as experts in our field, especially when we’re in the audience. Indeed, I was so jarred by what I saw at one conference that I left early, and I know many of my colleagues felt similarly taken aback even though they decided to stay. Most secondary school directors would relish the opportunity to be on a panel with you—in some cases, it’s the only way they’ll be accepted to the conference—so it’s vital to develop a relationship with directors and invite them into your process. Similarly, when requests for information about secondary school writing centers come through the listserv, the first person to answer is usually a member of a postsecondary writing center. Your excitement and enthusiasm about our work is welcome, but let us speak for ourselves. When you answer first, it silences us, preventing many of the awesome, thoughtful people with years of experience from responding. It’s more than symbolism to allow us to answer first and have our voices be primary; it’s giving powerful space to expert voices that haven’t always been heard.
I’ve had many people tell me that they’re allies when I’ve gone direct with this message, but allies don’t award themselves the title. If you are or want to be an ally to secondary school writing centers, it’s important to remember what responsible allies do.
We want to be involved in the larger writing center world, which is why we keep coming to conferences, participating in professional development opportunities, and the discourse going on listservs, Twitter, and online forums. When you see in these spaces, you need to seeus in these spaces.
Many secondary school directors have reported feeling unseen and unheard, and, some, when they are seen, have reported hostility toward them and their tutors. I experienced the former over the last year as well where, twice, post-secondary directors that I know walked right past me in hallways at conferences without a glance, nod, or acknowledgement to talk to the person right behind me. We don’t need a long conversation, but a simple hello and eye contact can go a long way in making people from a smaller, typically marginalized group feel part of the larger community. It really only takes one bad experience for folks to avoid spending their hard-won time and hard-earned money to come to conferences. The same set of circumstances applies within sessions, too. Audible sighs and visible eye rolls when secondary directors (or their tutors) ask questions or make a point are troubling, and it’s consistent enough to discuss it here (note: we’ve gone direct, too). Like most of you, we have to fight for any time away from the classroom (districts have to pay substitute teachers) and many of us are on the hook for our total cost of attendance. The impact of every pass without a glance and every negative word is the same: people never coming back.
I teach in a well-resourced district, have formal and informal leadership roles, present at conferences regularly, volunteer for several professional organizations, and have a large local and global professional learning network; imagine how someone who doesn’t have the same privileges feels when they’re invisible in these venues. I was so shocked by the lack of acknowledgement at the conference, I’m genuinely not sure if I’ll ever return.
Follow the Leaders
I’ve met some really great folks who have been amazing allies to secondary school writing centers since I’ve been involved in the work: Christine Modey, Brett Griffiths, Ann Blakeslee, Cathy Fleischer, Jackie Grutsch McKinney, and John Nordlof are only a few of the many. Follow their lead.