Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

The Storying of Writing Centers outside the U.S.: Director Narratives and the Making of Disciplinary Identities in Germany and Austria

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

The Storying of Writing Centers outside the U.S.: Director Narratives and the Making of Disciplinary Identities in Germany and Austria

Article excerpt

In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Jackie Grutsch McKinney highlights the cognitive dissonance between the work of writing center directors and the stories they tell about that work. When describing their centers to stakeholders, directors all too often rehearse what she calls the "writing center grand narrative" (WCGN), namely the story that says "writing centers are comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing" (3; emphasis in original). While this narrative allows directors to assert that they belong in a professional community, it also has significant costs (5-6), preventing others from "understand[ing] the complexity of our work" and perpetuating "untenable positions" within our institutions (85). Stories are not simply interpretations of the past. When internalized, they actively construct the future by informing what seems possible in the present.

Grutsch McKinney's research shows that our stories have a direct bearing on the survival and growth of writing centers, serving as tools for educating stakeholders, asserting institutional value, and defining disciplinary identities. Yet to what extent are our stories also limited by U.S.-based frameworks? Since the first writing center was founded outside North America in Bielefeld, Germany in 1993, writing centers have proliferated across the globe (Thaiss). Despite this growth, writing studies scholarship published in North American journals remains largely monolingual and U.S.-centric in its orientation (Anson and Donahue; Horner et al.). In my contribution I turn an international lens back onto this research to ask how directors are storying the work of writing centers in other countries and what those stories tell us about the distinctness of disciplinary identities, institutional cultures, and research traditions in other countries. How universal is the WCGN even in regions, like German-speaking countries, where writing centers have strong transatlantic histories?

Based on responses from 14 writing center administrators (WCAs) from 11 of Germany's roughly 60 centers and from 1 of Austria's 8,1 argue that the WCGN, as we've come to understand it, may need to be qualified as a writing center grand narrative in the United States. The United States-based version often informs these stories, authorizing directors' work by situating it within an established discipline with a transatlantic reach. Yet the stories are also shaped by a set of unique institutional and disciplinary narratives in the region. To get at these differences, I contextualize directors' stories in German-language scholarship on writing and higher education. (1)


I began my study by reproducing two surveys in German translation: Grutsch McKinney's 2011 open-ended survey of directors, designed to elicit stories, and Rebecca Jackson and Grutsch McKinney's 2009 questionnaire about non-tutorial activities in writing centers. Reproducing these surveys and supplementing them with questions specific to Germanic contexts allowed me to test the validity of past studies and engage in comparative research--something rarely done in the field. It also allowed me to build on existing research that uses narrative inquiry as a method (Caswell et al.; Grutsch McKinney).

In Fall 2014, I distributed this comprehensive survey to the EWCA listserv and to the 14 attendees of the 2014 EWCA conference who signed their names to a recruitment list. I also posted an invitation to the website of the Society for Writing Pedagogy and Writing Research based in Germany. From the twenty-one individuals who completed the survey, I chose to include in this study only the fourteen surveys from participants who identified as WCAs (defined in the instrument as a "director, assistant director, coordinator, etc.") or whose roles aligned with this definition. Central to my analysis here were four open-ended questions from Grutsch McKinney's 2011 survey:

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