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Kalamazoo and Assessment Too March 5, 2011

You would never guess from the buzz and chatter at the 33rd East Central Writing Center Association Conference this weekend (March 3-5, 2011) that peer writing tutor programs have a fraught history with the idea of assessment.

Kim Ballard, the fearless director of Western Michigan University’s Writing Center, and her team created a dynamic and stimulating space for tutors, teachers, and administrators to debate and discuss the value and place of assessment in our programs. While I think fears of “assessment” can conjure up images of impersonal statistical analysis that reduce people to numbers, the diverse and research-rich projects presented at the ECWCA conference proved assessment can be an effective process for evaluating and celebrating the people-centered work of peer writing tutor communities.

I was particularly struck with how programs engage with reflection as a means to assess and improve.

At one of the first sessions I attended, Mike Mattison, the Director of Wittenberg University’s Writing Center, lead a panel of Wittenberg Writing Fellows in a discussion about the recent and successful reintroduction of their Writing Fellows program. Part of the presentation focused on writers’ responses to qualitative, short-answer survey questions accompanied the Writing Fellows’ responses and additions to those answers. The Writing Fellows’ thoughtful and critically-informed reflections reminded me how important peer writing tutors are for effective and responsive program assessment and revision.

Krista Stonerock, the Director of Ohio Christian University’s Writing Center, used the eponymous character from Herman Melville’s 1853 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as a metaphor to interrogate the moments of clashing expectations and values that writers and tutors can have. Stonerock interspersed clips from Anthony Friedman’s 1972 movie adaptation, “Bartleby,” with excerpts from tutors’ journals to show how tutors respond emotionally, intellectually, and strategically when working with unresponsive writers who seem to embody Bartleby’s mantra “I would prefer not to.” Through Stonerock’s holistic analysis of her tutors’ internal monologues, she performed an exemplary and rigorous self and program assessment about how best to train and mentor peer writing tutors, including how to minimize the risk of tutors becoming Bartlebys as well.

I left these sessions and others with specific ideas about how to mine reflections for assessment data. This year’s ECWCA conference couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment because the University Center for Writing-based Learning is steadily collecting a rich stockpile of peer writing tutors’ reflections. The peer writing tutors at DePaul have been keeping professional development portfolios since the 2008/09 academic year. This year, we migrated the portfolio process to Digication, an e-portfolio platform which offers even more opportunities for engaging in and capturing reflection. (For an example, check out UCWbL blogger Mia’s e-portfolio.) The conference presenters have inspired me to move forward with building a program assessment plan based on peer writing tutors’ portfolios.

DePaul was also well-represented at the conference. Members of the UCWbL’s Research Team (Matthew, Lisa, Jen, Martina, Jessica, Laura, and Jenny) and Writing Fellow Jill gave well-prepared and well-received presentations. They have promised me they will blog about their conference activities, so I will withhold my reflections on their sessions for now. I will say I was incredibly impressed and proud of how they represented the UCWbL and DePaul.

All and all, I would say the ECWCA conference did much to tackle successfully the ambitious goal of the conference’s title, “Centering Assessment.” I left feeling that peer writing tutor programs and assessment have an exciting and collaborative future together.

We also had another contingent of UCWbLers who attended the Chicagoland Organization of Writing, Learning, and Literacy Centers conference at Niles West High School the same weekend. I hope some of those attendees will blog about their experiences as well.

I’d also love to hear reflections from other participants at either of these conferences. How did they go? What did you learn? What will you take back to your programs?


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