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Fels et al. Issues with Contingent Writing Center Workers. Forum, Fall 2016. Posted 12/9/2016.

Fels, Dawn, Clint Gardner, Maggie M. Herb, and Liliana M. Naydan. “Toward an Investigation into the Working Conditions of Non-Tenure Line, Contingent Writing Center Workers.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 20.1 (2016): A10-A16. Print.

Dawn Fels, Clint Gardner, Maggie M. Herb, and Liliana M. Naydan published in Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, a section included twice yearly in College Composition and Communication. The authors provide preliminary findings from a study in progress on working conditions in writing centers. Specifically, they ask: “What are the personal, professional, and programmatic risks and benefits of contingent writing center positions?” (A12).

Their interest derives in part from recent data showing that the number of writing center personnel with tenured or tenure-line positions has declined during the recent decade. A 2001-2002 survey by the Writing Centers Research Project indicated that about 42% of writing center directors were tenured or on tenure-line tracks. In contrast, a 2014 study by Emily Isaacs and Melinda Knight found that only 29% of directors now held such positions. Moreover, Isaacs and Knight found that peer tutors staffed 81% of the centers studied (A10). Fels et al. cite as well 2011 data from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) that finds that the use of contingent labor has increased across all academic fields (A10).

Fels et al. write that they hope to address the underrepresentation of writing center labor issues in composition scholarship. Data from the National Census of Writing Database, they state, address “the status of writing center director positions” but do not draw the information from these faculty themselves, nor does its report on peer tutors enlist responses from the tutors (A10). In contrast, Fels et al. are surveying and interviewing “all levels of contingent writing center workers” (A11).

With a grant from the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA), an Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English, Fels et al. began their study in Fall 2015 by recruiting participants who were at least 18 years old who had worked in a contingent writing center capacity within the last five years (A12). They publicized their call on social media, on relevant web sites and listservs, and via word of mouth (A12-A13). More than 100 participants who took the preliminary survey agreed to interviews (A13). The researchers will also examine various documents such as “contracts, job descriptions, and policy statements” (A13).

To ground their project, Fels et al. sought out current position statements that specifically address labor issues in writing centers. At the IWCA web site, they found only a thirty-year-old article from the Writing Center Journal by Jeanne Simpson; this article, which was listed as a “Resource,” culminated in a statement advocating “clear job descriptions” and supplying guidelines for directors, while advising against the use of contingent faculty and staff (A11). The researchers note that the 2015 Indianapolis Resolution on issues with contingent labor in writing programs “does make mention of contingency in the writing center field, but only in the first paragraph” (A11).

Fels et al. hope to revise Simpson’s statement and encourage the use of their data throughout the field of composition (A12). They report “preliminary observations” (A13), including a range of participant comments, including one from an interviewee who finds that his part-time job “benefits his family” and supplies him with “considerable autonomy and healthy, collaborative, supportive relationships” on the job despite his recognition that he is “grossly underpaid” (A13). In contrast, other interviewees speak about diminished or non-existent academic freedom and lack of respect from colleagues (A13).

The researchers focus on a participant who was concerned not about her own job situation but rather about the effects of widespread use of contingent faculty on students, for example because of its effect on the “consistency” of the services involved (A13-A14). Issues of student welfare, the authors state, are related to what Seth Kahn calls “the emotional wages argument,” which claims that the intrinsic satisfaction of serving students should be adequate compensation for low wages in the teaching profession (qtd. in Fels et al. A14).

Fels et al. argue that this argument is a version of the tendency to blame poorly paid educators for their own plight because they are willing to work for less than adequate compensation (A14). However, Fels et al. contend that educators’ ability to serve students diminishes if their own needs are not met. They write that “educators . . . need to learn how to articulate their own value” and to understand and express the degree to which “they are integral to institutions of higher education” (A14).

The authors note that many of their interviewees expressed a sense that their own situation must be “unique” because, as one participant indicated, “it was hard to imagine other writing center administrators facing a similar set of challenges” (A15). One result of their study, they hope, will be to alleviate the feeling of isolation that many in the writing-center field report (A15).

Fels et al. estimate that it may take two years to complete the interviews and analysis they envision (A15). They hope to increase awareness of such issues as the replacement of experienced personnel with “less experienced and qualified candidates,” the lack of long-term contracts, the exploitation of staff who “work well beyond their contractual duties,” and the overreliance on student workers (A16). This study, they state, “will fill a void in the current scholarship” (A16).

 

 

 


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Grouling and Grutsch McKinney. Multimodality in Writing Center Texts. C&C, in press, 2016. Posted 08/21/2016.

Grouling, Jennifer, and Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. “Taking Stock: Multimodality in Writing Center Users’ Texts.” (In press.) Computers and Composition (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.04.003 Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

Jennifer Grouling and Jackie Grutsch McKinney note that the need for multimodal instruction has been accepted for more than a decade by composition scholars (1). But they argue that the scholarship supporting multimodality as “necessary and appropriate” in classrooms and writing centers has tended to be “of the evangelical vein” consisting of “think pieces” rather than actual studies of how multimodality figures in classroom practice (2).

They present a study of multimodality in their own program at Ball State University as a step toward research that explores what kinds of multimodal writing takes place in composition classrooms (2). Ball State, they report, can shed light on this question because “there has been programmatic and curricular support here [at Ball State] for multimodal composition for nearly a decade now” (2).

The researchers focus on texts presented to the writing center for feedback. They ask three specific questions:

Are collected texts from writing center users multimodal?

What modes do students use in creation of their texts?

Do students call their texts multimodal? (2)

For two weeks in the spring semester, 2014, writing center tutors asked students visiting the center to allow their papers to be included in the study. Eighty-one of 214 students agreed. Identifying information was removed and the papers stored in a digital folder (3).

During those two weeks as well as the next five weeks, all student visitors to the center were asked directly if their projects were multimodal. Students could respond “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” (3). The purpose of this extended inquiry was to ensure that responses to the question during the first two “collection” weeks were not in some way unrepresentative. Grouling and Grutsch McKinney note that the question could be answered online or in person; students were not provided with a definition of “multimodal” even if they expressed confusion but only told to “answer as best they could” (3).

The authors decided against basing their study on the argument advanced by scholars like Jody Shipka and Paul Prior that “all communication practices have multimodal components” because such a definition did not allow them to see the distinctions they were investigating (3). Definitions like those presented by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus that emphasize the “conscious” use of certain components also proved less helpful because students were not interviewed and their conscious intent could not be accessed (3). However, Bowen and Whithaus also offered a “more succinct definition” that proved useful: “multimodality is the ‘designing and composing beyond written words'” (qtd. in Grouling and Grutsch McKinney 3).

Examination of the papers led the researchers to code for a “continuum” of multimodality rather than a present/not-present binary (3-4). Fifty-seven, or 74%, of the papers were composed only in words and were coded as zero or “monomodal” (4). Some papers occupied a “grey area” because of elements like bulleted lists and tables. The researchers coded texts using bullets as “1” and those using lists and tables “2.” These categories shared the designation “elements of graphic design”; 19.8%, or 16, papers met this designation. Codes “3” and “4” indicated one or more modes beyond text and thus indicated “multimodal” work. No paper received a “4”; only eight, or 9.9%, received a “3,” indicating inclusion of one mode beyond words (4). Thus, the study materials exhibited little use of multimodal elements (4).

In answer to the second question, findings indicated that modes used even by papers coded “3” included only charts, graphs, and images. None used audio, video, or animation (4). Grouling and Grutsch McKinney posit that the multimodal elements were possibly not “created by the student” and that the instructor or template may have prompted the inclusion of such materials (5).

They further report that they could not tell whether any student had “consciously manipulated” elements of the text to make it multimodal (5). They observe that in two cases, students used visual elements apparently intended to aid in development of a paper in progress (5).

The “short answer” to the third research question, whether students saw their papers as multimodal, was “not usually” (5; emphasis original). Only 6% of 637 appointments and 6% of writers of the 81 collected texts answered yes. In only one case in which the student identified the paper as multimodal did the coders agree. Two of the five texts called multimodal by students received a code of 0 from the raters (5). Students were more able to recognize when their work was not multimodal; 51 of 70 texts coded by the raters as monomodal were also recognized as such by their authors (5).

Grouling and Grutsch McKinney express concern that students seem unable to identify multimodality given that such work is required in both first-year courses, and even taking transfer students into account, the authors note that “the vast majority” of undergraduates will have taken a relevant course (6). They state that they would be less concerned that students do not use the term if the work produced exhibited multimodal features, but this was not the case (6).

University system data indicated that a plurality of writing center attendees came from writing classes, but students from other courses produced some of the few multimodal pieces, though they did not use the term (7).

Examining program practices, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney determined that often only one assignment was designated “multimodal”—most commonly, presentations using PowerPoint (8). The authors advocate for “more open” assignments that present multimodality “as a rhetorical choice, and not as a requirement for an assignment” (8). Such emphasis should be accompanied by “programmatic assessment” to determine what students are actually learning (8-9).

The authors also urge more communication across the curriculum about the use of multiple modes in discipline-specific writing. While noting that advanced coursework in a discipline may have its own vocabulary and favored modes, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney argue that sharing the vocabulary from composition studies with faculty across disciplines will help students see how concepts from first-year writing apply in their coursework and professional careers (9).

The authors contend that instructors and tutors should attend to “graphic design elements” like “readability and layout” (10). In all cases, they argue, students should move beyond simply inserting illustrations into text to a better “integration” of modes to enhance communication (10). Further, incorporating multimodal concepts in invention and composing can enrich students’ understanding of the writing process (10). Such developments, the authors propose, can move the commitment to multimodality beyond the “evangelical phase” (11).