The Rhetoric of Space

Everyone at The Writing Center is so kind, considerate and competent; they are a great asset to Wallace, and a blessing to the students.
— Feedback from Student Survey

While reviewing survey data, I noticed an interesting trend: students are praising our center as a whole. Even though the survey questions ask students about an individual session and the tutor with whom they work, many surveys mention other tutors and the environment of the center.

Let’s use some numbers to examine this trend. The first question on our survey asks students to rate their session on a six-point scale. The scale ranges from excellent-very good-good-fair-poor-unacceptable. If we translate these words to numbers with excellent becoming a 6 and unacceptable a 1, our average for the current semester would be 5.93.

After rating the session, students explain “What experience did you have that caused you to rate your session this way?” Interestingly, however, 39% of the responses mention The Writing Center more broadly. For example, many students praise the “welcoming environment” or, like the opening quotation, the staff as a whole.  Here are a few examples of such responses:

“As always, my experience with members of the Writing Center staff was informative and productive.”

“The staff is great! Each tutor is able to resolve issues with different course assignments.”

“I will return because this is a great place of help for writing paper.”

“They are great tutors and really help me to have a better understanding on writing.”

“They give me confidence.”

“They help me better my writing skills, duh!”

This information highlights the importance of what I call the rhetoric of space, meaning what does the writing center say when it speaks on your behalf? What tone of voice do students hear? Whom do students think of when they hear “The Writing Center”? Through which media does your center speak? Is your voice consistent across different platforms?

At our center, we work very hard and mobilize every tool at our disposal to ensure our welcoming message reaches as many students as possible.

People: To borrow language from one of the student surveys,  the “members of The Writing Center staff” are of course the most important representatives of the space. The tutors (or stormtooters, as I might call them) are profoundly compassionate, intelligent, and welcoming individuals. Without them, there is no center.

Space: The challenge becomes creating an inviting environment that accurately reflects the tutors’ personalities and abilities. In other words, the center itself must be an embodiment of the people who inhabit it and give it life. Our center has undergone changes based on who is working in it. We rely on our tutors to decorate, configure the tutoring stations, and decide how we can best meet our students’ needs.

Medium and Message: The physical space of the center is, however, unless you possess a levitating center (if you do, please message me!), immobile. New media make it possible for writing centers to represent and document their daily operations. For example, we record tutoring sessions and show these recording to new hires. These videos allow new tutors to see what exactly we are expecting of them, help me make sure we are meeting the needs of students, and show faculty and administrators exactly the type of instructional interventions our center makes.

Collaborative Effort: We have also started a video testimonial series in which tutors interview students who have visited the center. The series illustrates that tutors, coordinators, and directors may make up the writing center staff, but students make the writing center a collaborative space of growth and learning. The interview format also mirrors a tutoring session: tutors and students share their experiences and maybe, just maybe, learn a little something about writing and life. Check out our Facebook page to watch the first two entries in our series.

I would like to close by returning the favor and giving students some feedback: thank you for sharing your work, time, and energy; we appreciate the opportunity to work with you.


Canvas in Featured Image: Rachel Strain; Photo Credit: Phillip M. Pinyan