Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

The Writing Center as Workplace: Teaching, Learning, and Practicing Professionalism

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

The Writing Center as Workplace: Teaching, Learning, and Practicing Professionalism

Article excerpt

As administrators, we educate our tutors about writing center theory and practice so they can assist others. Their training and work typically benefit them, providing an environment for developing better listening, problem-solving, and communication skills, as well as for increasing patience and empathy.

But a writing center is also a workplace, and, as such, there must be guidelines for procedures and professional behaviors to make it run smoothly. Tutors must know, for example, what to do if they are running late or where in the center it's appropriate to eat, as well as how to handle ethical situations. Centers like ours typically employ traditional-age undergraduate students. To be sure, most arrive with a sense of professionalism and a good work ethic, but all need to know our center's specific expectations. And since these positions can often be their first jobs, here they can acquire and refine basic skills that are crucial in a professional setting--arriving on time, dressing and behaving appropriately, answering a phone properly--and can learn, practice, and hone other "soft" skills. We see this kind of training as an important and necessary part of our administrative responsibility.

In the past, we put together guidelines that listed the procedures and behaviors we expected of our staff, discussed them at orientation and in our tutor education class, and then posted them in our handbook and on our listserv. Just as they would at any institution, our guidelines reflected our specific writing center with its advantages and constraints. We work on a large (38,000-student), suburban, mostly commuter campus in a large center (4-5 full and part-time administrators, 60-70 tutors, plus 6-8 receptionists) with a diverse staff--mostly undergraduates, some graduate students, and some volunteers (mostly retirees). These factors make regular staff meetings impossible, thus influencing our communication with staff and affecting how everyone relates to one another, plus influencing how we composed and conveyed our guidelines.

Each semester, we found that some aspects of our guidelines bothered us. First, they read like a list of do's and don'ts, a somewhat troubling characteristic in an environment that promotes nondirective tutoring. The influence of the writing center's deliberately comfortable ambiance also gave us pause, as our staff's behavior occasionally reflected this looseness in worrisome ways. In one case, a new receptionist sported headphones and was oblivious to clients arriving, then addressed the administrator who questioned him with "Hey, dude." We wondered if he simply didn't know better. If so, it was our responsibility to make professionalism more transparent. Supporting our reasoning, Molly Worthen notes how newly hired college graduates might misinterpret informality in the workplace:

They see they can call everyone from the C.E.O. down by their first
name, and that can be confusing--because what they often don't realize
is that there's still a high standard of professionalism. [Some] things
are basic, but they require reminders: show up to meetings on time; be
aware that you, yourself, are fully responsible for your work schedule.
No one is going to tell you to attend a meeting. In other words, young
graduates mistake informality for license to act unprofessionally.

We began seeking better ways of explaining expectations by looking at what others had to say about recent grads and professionalism. What we found suggests that colleges and universities should seek ways to assure that their students graduate with the skills to be successful in entry-level positions and beyond. (For an extensive discussion of the resources we consulted, see our chapter, "Teaching, Learning, and Practicing Professionalism in the Writing Center" in How We Teach Writing Tutors.) Collectively, the articles and reports identify key components across industries and occupations and on campus and relate them to graduates in their first jobs. …

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