“It Depends on Who You Talk To”:  Mapping Writing Program and Writing Center Relationships at Small Liberal Arts Colleges

Writing centers and writing programs have been examined through historical, disciplinary, and material lenses over the last century, but rarely are they studied together as parallel but also collaborative units. Balester and McDonald (2001) used a survey study to understanding the relationships between writing centers and programs, and Waldo (1999) used an autoethnographic approach to understand his own positioning between these two separate units. However, no study has used a cross-institutional, qualitative-based approach to better understand the relationships that exist between these two types of programs and their administrators. My dissertation fills this gap by mapping the relationships that exist between writing centers and programs at a specific institution type (SLACs), creating a new taxonomy for classifying relationships between instruction and support units for writing. By utilizing grounded theory methods to examine thirteen different SLAC institutions, this study argues for the need to consider issues of institutionality and context when examining either writing centers or writing programs from other lenses and angles.

SLACs are a greatly under-studied institution type in writing studies. As Gunner (1999) argues, writing program administration (WPA) scholarship has been centered in large research institutions that house writing studies graduate programs or who employ administrators who come from those programs. These larger institutions are also likely to employ the traditional first-year composition model of writing instruction, with some also offering WAC/WID programs. SLACs, though, are very different types of institutions. Instead of research, these small institutions are focused on teaching and service, as well as providing a civic, well-rounded education to students. Despite there being hundreds of SLACs within the United States, they have only in the last decade begun to make strides in representation within WPA and writing center scholarship. The advent of the SLAC-WPA consortium and annual conference has helped small college writing administrators share ideas and present their work, but they still remain vastly underrepresented in writing studies as a whole, and especially in empirical or theoretical work. I chose to study SLACs for two primary reasons: 1) as under-studied institutions, they offered a rare glimpse into issues of institutionality and cultural context in regards to how writing program and center relationships are built and maintained, and 2) their small sizes make a cross-institutional approach both feasible and desired. As a result, my dissertation contributes to a fledgling sub-area with WPA and writing center studies: one of the first empirical works examining small liberal arts colleges.

In my first chapter, I lay out some of the historical context and disciplinary trends that have led us to the current moment of WPA and writing center (WC) studies as two distinct sub-fields within the larger umbrella of writing studies. I argue that the focus on only the historical and disciplinary ignores the tricky contributions of institutionality to disparities between the sub-fields in issues of labor, scholastic inquiry, and material support, as well as disparities in scholarly attention between different institution types. I address how my research fills a gap between what we think we know about writing at small colleges and what these small college writing programs and centers actually look like. Then, in Chapter 2, I explain my use of grounded theory methodology and present my interview-based study methods. Additionally, I introduce my seventeen participants and the thirteen institutions across the United States that they represent.

In chapters three through five, I report on the structure of writing instruction and support units at SLACs, the labor and positioning of writing administrators and tutors/fellows, and the role of institutional contexts on relationship-building at small colleges. All of these chapters highlight the ways in which writing ecosystems at SLACs are a product of the unique context of high levels of faculty authority, the need for shared, service-based labor, and the role of the busy, and often privileged, student body. Chapter Three presents information about the writing instruction and support units in place at the small colleges in my study and how they compare to information about SLACs available in national survey reports. My findings echo the work of Gladstein & Regaignon (2012), who show that writing instruction models at SLACs are very different from traditional first-year composition models at other institutions due to the reliance on WAC/WID models of education at small colleges. Chapter Four builds on this programmatic information by discussing the labor and positionality of writing administrators at SLACs. While the daily labor of WPAs and WCAs are common across all institution types, the positions writing administrators occupy at SLACs is very different from larger research universities. WPAs and WCAs at small colleges are less likely to hold tenure-track positions, often do not hold advanced degrees in writing studies, and are often not given the same opportunities for research and scholarship as WPAs and WCAs at large research institutions. Despite these differences in positionality, though, SLAC writing administrators contribute greatly to the WPA and WC sub-fields, as well as exist as the primary, and often only, writing “expert” on their campuses. In the later parts of the chapter, I argue that positionality is a key factor in determining how writing programs and writing centers collaborate or develop relationships between each other at small colleges.

Chapter Five explores how the role of institutional stakeholders and special contexts affect relationship-building between writing programs and centers. Faculty occupy the true seat of power at small institutions and possess a great deal of power that directly impacts the work writing administrators do in an attempt to strengthen existing or create new writing initiatives. Additionally, the often-privileged student body, which has its own culture of busyness and “well-rounded”-ness, puts stress on attempts to expand the work of writing programs and centers, making it hard to change curriculum, recruit and educate new peer tutors, and work with individual departments. Chapter Five also looks toward the future of SLACs in uncertain economic times and the role institutional success and failures have on writing administration.

Chapter Six takes all of the findings and analysis in chapters three, four, and five and presents three primary models for mapping writing program and writing center relationships at SLACs. The first model is the “institutional model,” in which higher-level administrators or faculty governance have long ago set structures in place for writing support and instruction units to develop relationships. The second is the “programmatic model,” in which writing centers and programs build or break relationships based on converging or diverging goals between individual units. And the third model is the “personal model,” in which a WCA or WPA must individually pursue and create relationships on their campus in order to support student writers. Occasionally, the three models can intersect, and writing units can also slide back and forth between relationship models on a kind of fluid scale. There are benefits and drawbacks to each model, and I use several institutions in the study as examples for how these types of relationships models can be mapped.

As one of the first empirical studies of writing center and writing program relationships, and one of the only cross-institutional studies of SLACs, my dissertation has the potential to make a significant impact on the field of writing studies. My findings illuminate the need for writing scholarship to include institutionality as a primary factor in the way we understand and study how writing instruction and support systems succeed or fail. By studying the ways in which college writing ecosystems are products of institutional factors such as programmatic relationships, faculty influence, and student populations, we can better map writing across institution types and regions and better advocate for new initiatives, better labor practices, and more diverse scholarship.



Balester, V., & McDonald, J.C. (2001). A view of status and working conditions: Relations between writing program and writing center directors. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 24(3): 59-82.

Gladstein, J. M., & Regaignon, D.R. (2012). Writing program administration at small liberal arts colleges. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press.

Gunner, J. (1999). Identity and location: A study of WPA models, memberships, and agendas. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 22(3): 31-54.

Waldo, M.L. (1990). What should the relationship between writing centers and writing and writing program be? The Writing Center Journal, 10(1), 73-80.