Tapping Multiple Voices in Writing Center Assessment

By Donnelli, Emily; Garrison, Kristen | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Tapping Multiple Voices in Writing Center Assessment


Donnelli, Emily, Garrison, Kristen, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

In an effort to enhance the quality and quantity of writing center assessments, we turn in particular to Cindy Johanek, whose contextualist research paradigm provides us with a specific framework to guide our efforts to measure the impact of our work on students, faculty, and institutions. This article presents the enactment of Johanek's paradigm in one writing center, the University of Kansas Writing Center, describing this center's evaluation designs and findings. The rich results of Johanek's research approach suggest the usefulness of her paradigm to the writing center community, enabling the challenging of dichotomies between quantitative and qualitative methods and the subsequent production of unique, multi-voiced assessments-assessments that most accurately capture the complex work of a writing center.

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Numbers alone won't reveal everything we need to know. Stories alone can't do it, either. But when researchers stop defining their work by method only ... then the full power of any data, be it story or number, will truly blossom into the knowledge our field seeks and the discipline we hope to become (Johanek, 2000, p. 209). Although Cindy Johanek advances a paradigm to direct research in the general field of composition studies, its specific and immediate relevance to writing center work is obvious. Perhaps for writing center folks, the relationship between stories and numbers is especially immediate: after all, the terrain of our daily work shifts from attention to the narrative, the composed text, and higher order concerns to "The Twenty Most Common Errors" of grammar and usage delineated in composition handbooks like the Everyday Writer. Against the backdrop of this landscape, we must also negotiate performance indicators, demographics, funding proposals, space constraints and the like. Johanek's Contextualist Research Paradigm provides us with the framework for balancing and making sense of the stories and numbers that represent our work; she invites us to use a mixed bag to assess the rich context of writing centers.

This essay describes one writing center's efforts to enact Johanek's contextualist research paradigm--one that looks to the unique context of a writing center to determine methodologies and desired outcomes. Johanek's thesis asserts that the research problem and method should grow out of the particular site; thus, we briefly describe the research projects that arose from applying Johanek to our evaluation process only to show the ways that contextualist research can be fruitfully worked out in a writing center. As our experience researching the ways that gender influenced our writing center work suggests, Johanek can help the writing center community expand our conceptions of writing center assessment in general and our sources for data in particular--moving us beyond methodologies that merely count every body to ones that make everybody involved in our work count as a participant in its evaluation. What follows, then, is not a traditional research article; we do not advance any of the research projects we describe as necessarily replicable, an assertion that would surely undermine Johanek's emphasis on the contextual, historically-situated nature of research. Instead, we simply wish to narrate the story of our assessment to demonstrate Johanek's paradigm in action--in short, we describe a process rather than prescribe a method. Though such an approach does not follow the conventional format of a research article, it does reflect the spirit of Johanek's work by emphasizing the context that gave rise to our assessment. We discuss these implications of our application of Johanek after presenting synopses of selected research projects. Before describing our contextualist exploration, though, we will review some of the influential work in writing center assessment in order to suggest some of the ways Johanek's paradigm complements, both in theory and practice, current methods of writing center evaluation. …

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