I have been directing university writing centers for 18 years, nine years at one institution and nine years at another. Last week I decided to resign my position, exercise my retreat rights, and go back to the classroom full time.
I love writing centers. When people ask what I do, I say that I hire students who write well to help students who don’t write well. That is it in a small nutshell. I love hiring and training tutors, watching them grow in skill and confidence, and watching them move on to careers in teaching, publishing, law, medicine, whatever. They often return to say that the writing center work improved their writing, helped them learn to deal with people, increased their confidence, and helped them get jobs. They form a community, learn from each other, and often remain in touch with fellow tutors for years after they leave.
I also love working with the students who come to us for help, especially when they come back with big smiles telling us that they passed the course or the test, and that they are more confident about their writing skills. Late in the quarter, when all appointments are booked and the desperate walk-ins are lined up in hope of a no show, I always left my office and started tutoring to help reduce the backlog. It was always a joy to work with them, interesting students doing interesting things, working hard to succeed.
However, I never intended to make a career directing writing centers. I was just about to defend my dissertation back in 1991 when the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the institution I had been working at as a lecturer contacted me. He had been told by the president to create a writing center. He didn’t even know what a writing center was, exactly. Did I know? Would I be interested in creating one? That led to the first nine years, which was great, except that I didn’t have retreat rights to the English Department, so I was faculty without a department. I applied for retreat rights, a process which turned into a big fiasco that took years. Another campus offered me more money, a promotion to Associate Professor, and tenure, an offer I could not really refuse. That led to the second nine years.
Administration is a skill I learned on the job. You need to budget, plan, project, and act. You need to hire, train, and occasionally fire. You need to lead, and manage your employees and your student staff. You need to set policies, and know when to follow them and when to bend them. You need to market your services and defend your program from harm. You need to maintain a network of connections of all kinds, at all levels, from janitors to presidents, and treat everyone with respect and good will. In good times it’s fun. In bad times, it’s challenging, though it can be interesting. Right now, we are in very bad times. The university is shrinking, and parts are going to be lopped off.
So why resign now? I have wanted to do this for some while. It’s not that I have been out of the classroom all this time. I have been teaching two courses a year for the English Department and serving on their Teaching and Learning committee, which was charged with developing an outcomes assessment plan. The courses I have been teaching are mostly graduate seminars in rhetoric and composition with an occasional section of a general education science fiction course. I enjoy designing and teaching courses. I found that in the quarters I was not teaching, I missed it. I wanted to do more.
The English Department also has a lot of re-design work to do. Most campuses in our system are eliminating remedial English courses and introducing “stretch” models in which some students are allowed to take more time to do the same college-level work. They need someone to coordinate this work. In addition, members of the department are talking about creating a writing major, a program in which one could get an undergraduate degree in English focusing more on professional writing than on literary study. I want to work on designing this new program.
I will direct the writing center for one more quarter. In winter, I am currently scheduled to teach an honors section of science fiction, a course in professional writing, and and undergraduate literary theory course. The literary theory course will be the toughest preparation for me, as it has been many years since I thought about much of that material. Back in 1991 I would have been ready to go at it. However, I am already looking at syllabi, talking to other professors, and reviewing the textbooks that are generally used. I am confident that I will be ready. And most importantly, I am having a great time.
My colleagues in English and elsewhere seem to be delighted about my decision. No one has questioned the wisdom of it, even though it involves a pay cut and is occurring in a very uncertain time. I have begun to realize that most faculty think of the writing center director as a very low-level, if useful, position, a sort of chief grammar corrector. When I told one colleague, a philosopher, that I was going to teach Literary Theory, he asked, “Can you do that?” I laughed. I came out of a rhetoric and composition doctoral program that was nationally recognized (and criticized) as being more theory-oriented than most. My colleagues, except in English, just didn’t know.
People come up to me and say, “Congratulations!” I am not sure what they are congratulating me for. But I do know that this decision feels right, and I am looking forward to winter quarter in great anticipation.