The Naugle Communication Center: Promoting Equity and Process Pedagogy Within and Beyond the Writing Classroom

By: Dr. Courtney Mullis

 

As a graduate teaching fellow during my Ph.D. program, I had the luxury of teaching just one first-year writing course each semester. Each course had a maximum enrollment of 22 students. So, unsurprisingly, my first semester teaching 3 sections of ENGL 1102 with 25 students each at Georgia Tech was a rude awakening. In addition to the extra time in the classroom and the never-ending grading, I found that I missed the close relationships I could more easily cultivate with each of my students when I wasn’t teaching so much. I used to meet with each of my 22 students for an individual conference on every major assignment. With 75 students, that became much more difficult to manage. While I continue to scaffold assignments, provide feedback throughout the writing process, and create opportunities for students to meet with me for individual conferences, I don’t work with students 1-on-1 nearly as much as I would like. I would prefer more opportunities for individualized instruction not only because I find it rewarding, but because 1-on-1 instruction can be transformative for students. Conferences allow me to tailor my feedback to the individual needs of a given student and develop a strong working relationship with them (Algrim 39). These relationships often make students more comfortable asking for additional help in the future and can even promote their confidence and engagement in the classroom. The reality is, however, that most instructors will never have enough time to meet with students individually as much as they would like. When we’re juggling teaching and grading the work of 75 students, serving on committees, conducting research, and navigating the job market, our time is limited.

We can help address these challenges by encouraging students to visit the Communication Center. The Communication Center’s staff of trained writing tutors can help students at any stage of the composition process for any writing- or communication-related project, be it for their required English course, a course in Technical Communication, a course in their major, a scholarship application, or a personal project. Communication Center tutors provide individualized support and feedback that can supplement the instruction students receive in the classroom and in 1-on-1 conferences with their instructors. Additionally, writing and communication instructors can learn from writing center pedagogy to enhance their skills in efficiently providing productive, individualized writing feedback. Even when instructors implement writing center pedagogy and dedicate time to supporting students in 1-on-1 conferences, they can best serve their students by recommending they also visit the Communication Center. Making this recommendation connects students to a resource they can use to navigate the hidden curriculum and other writing and communication challenges beyond a particular course, empowers students to seek support outside of the classroom, and facilitates a more equitable learning environment in which all students can access learning support.

What is the Communication Center?

 The Communication Center, A.K.A. the CommLab, supports Georgia Tech students with communication skills and projects related to their classes, careers, and civic and community lives. We currently have 11 trained consultants—4 professional staff members and 7 undergraduate peer tutors—who can help students with any writing- or communication-related projects, including multimodal projects for English 1101 and English 1102, graduate school applications, STEM reports, group presentations, poster designs, grant proposals, cover letters, and resumes.  The Communication Center supports faculty by offering class visits and tours. If instructors share with the Communication Center what assignments their students are working on, the staff member leading the visit or tour can address the specific ways in which we can support that work.

Since TECHStyle’s last update, many things have changed in the Communication Center. For one, since the COVID-19 pandemic forced innovation and remote services, we have significantly expanded our online services to include online video appointments and written feedback appointments. These changes were borne out of necessity, but the Communication Center is proud to continue offering these types of appointments to make our services more accessible to students. We have also made changes to our website and scheduling platform to promote student access. Students can now easily find information about our services and the link to schedule an appointment via our user-friendly scheduling platform, WC Online. Through this platform, students can select whether they want an in-person appointment, a video appointment, or a written feedback appointment. Because some students prefer online tutoring, and others may not be able to access our in-person services due to their professional and personal obligations, the availability of online tutoring may motivate more students to utilize our services (Bemer 27). Indeed, we have modified our scheduling and tutoring practices to best assist as many Georgia Tech students as possible.

 Even when instructors encourage their students to take advantage of tutoring services, it can be difficult to motivate students to visit the writing center for the first time (Bemer 23). For many students, being told or asked to visit the Center is not enough; students need to be convinced “that going to the writing center is worth their time and effort” (Bemer 24). Some instructors create extrinsic motivation for students to visit the Communication Center by requiring that their students have a consultation as part of their course grade, but we discourage this practice because our sessions are most effective when they are “the writer’s idea” (North 442). We find that students who are required to come to the Center are less likely to be fully engaged in the composition and revision process and are therefore unlikely to benefit from the session. We therefore ask that instructors extol the benefits of the Center, recommend our services, and even help students understand our services better via a class tour or visit, rather than requiring their students to schedule appointments with our tutors.

An important part of convincing students to visit the Communication Center is helping them understand who we are and what we do. For instance, although “we aspire to be a service that encourages writing development,” often we are misunderstood as an editing service (Buck). This misconception means that students who feel they have a good grasp of grammar and syntax might not realize we can help them with their writing and communication projects, and students who struggle in these areas may feel frustrated when we explain that we will not revise their writing on their behalf. Students may also misperceive the Communication Center as a remedial service. One research team found that most students on their campus “believed that the writing center was designed for first-year or international students and that the majority of students who do not partake in the writing center’s services believe that it is not necessary for them” (Buck). While the Communication Center happily serves many first-year and international students, we also work with upperclassmen, graduate students, and native English speakers with strong writing and communication skills. For example, we often meet with advanced undergraduate students applying to graduate programs. These students are already exceptional and often have well-developed writing and communication skills, but our tutors are trained to support these students in learning to write in the unfamiliar genre of the graduate school statement of purpose. Even these advanced students need support in adapting to new genre expectations and can benefit from talking about their writing. In the Communication Center, we believe that students working on composition at all levels benefit from talking about their work. Because students have the misperception of tutoring as remedial and don’t understand the range of services available in the Communication Center, they too often miss out on this indispensable resource.

The Communication Center’s Instagram page includes information about our services and hours, announcements of special events, and helpful writing and communication tips for students.

When you refer your students to the Communication Center, they will receive quality support from a peer tutor or professional consultant trained in best practices for tutoring, writing pedagogy, and multimodal composition. The Center’s professional consultants are all Brittain Fellows who teach ENGL 1101 and 1102 courses. The undergraduate peer tutors receive extensive training in a semester-long course (earning 3 upper-level credit hours in LMC) and additional on-the-job training. Like Writing and Communication Program instructors, our tutors help students “learn both conventional and innovative techniques of communication and diverse strategies for effectively conveying ideas.” Tutors discuss with students “the audience, format, medium, and style of their projects,” helping them “further develop their written, oral, visual, electronic, and non-verbal communication skills” (Communication Center).

The Communication Center’s tutoring philosophy aligns with the goals, outcomes, and approaches common among courses in the Writing and Communication Program. In the Center, we never “edit” or “proofread” students’ work; rather, we use non-directive tutoring strategies to facilitate productive conversations about writing and revision strategies that teach students about the composition process. For instance, if a student meets with a tutor to work on revising the organization of their essay, the tutor would not simply read through the essay and suggest the student move a few paragraphs around. Instead, the tutor might teach the student how to create a reverse outline and discuss multiple possible ways to reorganize their paragraphs. This strategy maintains the students’ agency over their work and teaches them a method for reorganizing essays that they can apply independently in future writing projects. Through this kind of process pedagogy, the Communication Center helps make students better communicators in the long term, rather than just assisting students with discrete writing and communication tasks.

Benefits of Working with Communication Center Tutors

Unfortunately, many students’ lack of awareness of the Communication Center’s wide range of services and scheduling options demonstrates that understanding and accessing the center is a skill within the hidden curriculum, or the various resources, unfamiliar social norms, and esoteric jargon that often mystify first-year students (Starkowski 301). Students whose parents attended university and who grew up in the United States are usually more familiar with the hidden curriculum than first-generation college students and international students. Universities tend to overestimate students’ ability to navigate the hidden curriculum and their awareness of campus resources and support services, but instructors can help mitigate this issue (Mowreader). Those opposed to treating first-year writing courses as “service” courses that primarily aim to prepare students for success in college outside of the writing classroom might argue that it is not the job of composition instructors to help demystify the hidden curriculum. However, many instructors recognize that it is the job of all faculty members to promote equity in their classrooms. Faculty concerned with promoting equity understand that social systems—including the social system of the university—”work against entire groups of people to maintain the unequal distribution of opportunity, wealth, and justice” (Poe et al. 3). Guiding our students in navigating the hidden curriculum and accessing available resources means that first-year writing instructors can help disadvantaged students access opportunities equal to those of their peers.

While Georgia Tech had a record enrollment of over 19,000 undergraduate students as of the Fall 2023 semester (“News Center”), tutors in the Communication Center had only 658 consultations with students in the Spring 2023 semester. Some of these consultations were with repeat visitors, and some were group consultations with 2 or more students. Regardless, this number indicates that most Tech students are missing out on this valuable resource. Although instructors may assume that students know how, why, and “when to book an appointment at the Writing Center,” many students do not (Starkowski 301). By making this resource transparent to students, instructors can facilitate a more equitable learning environment in which all students have equal access to writing tutoring.

Students are not the only ones who are missing out when they forgo free help with writing and communication. Indeed, the Communication Center’s services can supplement instructor pedagogies by reinforcing for students the work they do in the classroom because our tutors are trained in the pedagogical principles that guide the work of the Writing and Communication Program as a whole. All instructors have encountered bright, hard-working students whose writing and communication skills are not quite where they need to be to succeed in college. However, all instructors have also faced the dilemma of how to give these students the help they need without spending so much time on a single student that they cannot meet their other teaching and professional responsibilities. The Communication Center can help complement the instruction that Writing and Communication faculty do in the classroom and simultaneously empower students (Khoo and Huo). Indeed, students benefit from both the tutoring itself and the practice of using resources outside of the classroom to improve their work (Rafoth).

Implementing Writing Center Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom

Students can learn from working with writing tutors in the Communication Center, and instructors teaching first-year writing, business writing, and technical communication courses can benefit from implementing elements of writing center pedagogy in their classrooms. In the 9th edition of the MLA Handbook, Kristina Reardon argues that tutors and instructors alike ought “to consider the action of writing (how a student puts words on the page) as much as the product of writing (the essay).” Similarly, writing center pedagogy prioritizes the long-term development of student writers. When writing tutors offer feedback on a student’s work, they consider how to help the writer improve their writing skills for both future tasks and the task at hand. Writing center tutors also recognize that “students can reasonably address only a few writing challenges at a time” (Reardon). Therefore, we encourage tutors to “address the two or three most important areas for improvement” in a given session, rather than trying to make the work “perfect” (Reardon). Instructors, too, can benefit from narrowing their feedback down to a few key suggestions for improvement that students can clearly apply to their next composition task.

When Communication Center tutors work with students, they focus on non-directive tutoring strategies. When possible, tutors ask students questions about their writing choices and discuss them, rather than “correcting” students’ work or telling them exactly what they should do. While some instructors’ grading requirements might mean they need to offer some directive or straightforward feedback, in general instructors can benefit from implementing a more non-directive approach to student writing. For instance, instead of simply telling students to address a particular audience in their writing, one might instead ask students to explain what kind of audience they want to address and why. Asking questions and creating a conversation about the students’ communicative process promotes the metacognitive skills that the Writing and Communication Program values. Both students and instructors can reap the long-term benefits of non-directive feedback strategies in the composition classroom.

Additionally, Communication Center tutors often end sessions by establishing an action plan or list of next steps for the student in their composition process. Reardon suggests that instructors do the same when providing feedback on student work. Indeed, “If instructors provide action steps,” rather than simply marking what is incorrect in the students’ work, then “they will push students to start thinking about what can be done in the future rather than about what went wrong in the past” (Reardon). Including these action steps can also help students understand how the feedback on one assignment will transfer to their work on future assignments. Just as writing center pedagogy entails offering limited suggestions on student writing, it’s best for instructors to create short action plans of only a few, manageable steps. Creating an action plan for—or, ideally, with—students encourages them to focus on future improvement while simultaneously reinforcing that composition is an iterative, open process (Reardon).

While these strategies inspired by writing and communication center pedagogy make a great addition to instructors’ classroom pedagogy, students also benefit from working directly with trained tutors outside of the classroom. The Communication Center can be an excellent resource for students and a means of supplemental instruction for Writing and Communication Program courses. Although the Center is not yet working with as many students as we would like, we hope that instructors will encourage their students to schedule an appointment with us by telling them about our services and by scheduling class visits and tours of the Center. Encouraging students to work with our tutors helps them succeed in their courses and careers by teaching them transferrable communication skills.

 

Works Cited

Algrim, Lori. “Writing Conferences: The Power of a Teacher’s Feedback.” Michigan Reading Journal, vol. 45, no. 2, Dec. 2013, https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/mrj/vol45/iss2/9.

Bemer, Amanda. “Exploring the Representation of Scheduling Options and Online Tutoring on Writing Center Websites.” Praxis, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, http://www.praxisuwc.com/newpage-63.

Buck, Olivia. “Students’ Idea of the Writing Center: First-Visit Undergraduate Students’ Pre- and Post-Tutorial Perceptions of the Writing Center.” The Peer Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 2018, thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-2/students-idea-of-the-writing-center-first-visitundergraduate-students-pre-and-post-tutorial-perceptions-of-the-writing-center/.

Communication Center. Georgia Tech, https://www.communicationcenter.gatech.edu/.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn and Bonnie Devet. “Writing Centers as a Space for Transfer: Supporting Writing, Writers, and Contexts.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, https://wlnjournal.org/digitaleditedcollection2/DriscollandDevet.html. Accessed 30 Aug 2023.

Howard, Jeffrey. “The Shift to Online Consulting at Georgia Tech’s Communication Center, Part II.” TECHStyle, 1 Dec 2020, https://techstyle.lmc.gatech.edu/the-shift-to-online-consulting-at-georgia-techs-communication-center-part-ii/.

Khoo, Elaine and Xiangying Huo. “Listening to Diverse Voices: A Liberatory Writing Pedagogy for Empowerment and Emancipation.” The Peer Review, https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-7-1-featured-issue-reinvestigate-the-commonplaces-in-writing-centers/listening-to-diverse-voices-a-liberatory-writing-pedagogy-for-empowerment-and-emancipation/. Accessed 21 Nov 2023.

Mowreader, Ashley. “Lack of Awareness Causes Students to Fall Through the Cracks.” Inside Higher Ed, 20 July 2023, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/student-success/college-experience/2023/07/20/survey-college-students-dont-know-about-support.

“New Student and Transition Programs.” Georgia Tech, https://transitionprograms.gatech.edu/faset-first-year-students. Accessed 21 Nov 2023.

“News Center.” Georgia Tech, https://news.gatech.edu/news/2023/08/23/georgia-tech-welcomes-new-first-year-and-transfer-students?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=Full%20Story&utm_campaign=Daily%20Digest%20-%20August%2025%2C%202023%5d. Accessed 21 Nov 2023.

North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, Sept 1984, pp. 433-446. https://www.jstor.org/stable/377047?seq=10.

Poe, Mya, Asao B. Inoue, and Norbert Elliot. The End of Isolation. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/assessment/intro.pdf.

Rafoth, Ben. “Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, 2010, https://writingspaces.org/past-volumes/why-visit-your-campus-writing-center/.

Reardon, Kristina. “Adopting Writing Center Practices in Teaching.” MLA Handbook. 9th ed., https://style.mla.org/adopting-writing-center-practices/. Accessed 6 Sept 2023.

Starkowski, Kristen. “Inside the Hidden Curriculum: ‘How-To’ Practices for Supporting Underprepared Student Writers in the First-Year Writing Classroom.” Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie, vol. 32, 2022, https://journals.sfu.ca/dwr/index.php/dwr/issue/view/85.

“Chapter 1: Writing and Communication at Georgia Tech.” WOVENText. http://woventext.lmc.gatech.edu/chapter-1-writing-communication-at-georgia-tech.

 

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