Writing Centers, Ethics, and Excessive Research

Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Metropolitan State College of Denver



I want to articulate here a theory of writing center intervention in source selection, reading, and comprehension.

Most writing centers try to focus tutorials on Higher Order Concerns before dealing with Lower Order Concerns. Higher Order Concerns, or “global concerns,” are issues that affect an entire draft or a large chunk of it, such as thesis, focus, support, and organization. Lower order concerns, or “sentence-level concerns,” are issues that affect meaning at the sentence-level, such as grammar, punctuation, and word choice. I think it makes sense to consider a student’s research processes to be part of Higher Order Concerns. A student’s research should inform, at the very least, a draft’s thesis and support, so it is logical to consider it a global concern.

A student in my Writing Center Theory & Practice class, Melissa Powell, recently used the analogy of a personal trainer working with a client to describe a writing center tutorial she had observed. I want to borrow that analogy to unpack the notion of working with students on their source selection. Imagine a personal trainer meeting a new client who has impressively large muscles. Unbeknownst to the trainer, the client is taking steroids to enlarge his muscles. Without an understanding of what has led to the client’s large muscles, the trainer cannot adequately help the client build strength. Now imagine a tutor working with a student in the writing center. The student comes in with a draft that cites many sources. Without an understanding of how the student selected those sources, the tutor cannot adequately help the student develop appropriate support for a thesis.

As writing centers begin to concern themselves more with the design and interface issues that students working on multimodal writing assignments need help with (Sheridan, 2010), I think it makes sense to further open up our idea of what it means to help students with writing, considering entire writing processes. If we accept Stephen North’s premise that we make better writers, not better papers, then I believe we need to work with everything that is a part of a writer’s process and claim it as our purview. It’s long been accepted that intervening in students’ thinking is appropriate, such as working with students on pre-writing activities that help them develop an idea, take a stand, and discover evidence to support their ideas. When students are working with sources, those sources are—we hope—shaping students’ thoughts and ideas.

The many questions raised by the research of Burton and Chadwick, McClure and Clink, Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue, and Jamieson and Howard about students’ use of sources can and should be a part of writing center tutorials. Questions about how the student found, evaluated, and decided on sources, how critically the student read each source, how much of the source the student read, and is the student’s use of sources in her own work responsible and ethical, should be incorporated into tutorials. In fact, I believe that to not bring these concerns into tutorials is unethical.

Beyond the fact that the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ Statement on Best Practices for Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism advocates “support[ing] each step of the research process,” beyond the fact that although tutors are not content experts, we coach students through outlining positions on topics that we may know little about, is the fact that we already consider students’ thinking about the topics they write about as our territory, and isn’t their thinking—or shouldn’t their thinking be—informed by the sources they select? We are not content experts, but that should not stop us from helping a student read and understand a source. Just as we coach students through developing a thesis statement on a topic we are unfamiliar with, we can also coach students through previewing and other critical reading processes using readings we may not fully understand ourselves.

Talking with students about their sources is just the beginning. I’d like to see writing centers help students reconceptualize research, moving towards what I call “excessive research.” This idea is modeled on Welch’s (1997) concept of “excessive revision.” Welch envisions the teaching of revision less as a narrowing and focusing process and more as a process of “getting restless” with a draft’s initial meanings and looking for alternatives, “questioning the ideal of the . . . complete, contained, and disciplined text” (p. 165). I want to suggest extending Welch’s idea of excessive revision to the idea of excessive research: helping students see the initial sources they’re drawn to as starting points and resisting the urge to immediately narrow and focus on the first few sources located. For example, when I first began writing this webtext, I consulted at least 34 sources before settling on the 19 that ultimately informed this piece.

Welch asserted that by focusing on revision as a negative act of correction, fixing, or cleaning up, we fail to teach students how to fully explore ideas and their consequences. In fact, Welch says, students “understand that ‘revision’ means the . . . systematic suppression of all complexity and contradiction” (p. 135-36). Instead of advising students away from the conflicts in a draft, Welch urges us to reconceptualize dissonance as “the start of a productive struggle” (p. 30). Now imagine those same ideas being applied to how research is often taught in first year composition classes and reinforced in writing centers. Typically, students are extolled to find sources that support their points, implying that they should ignore sources that contradict their points; in other words, research is understood by students to be a “systematic suppression of all complexity and contradiction.” Taking this idea a step further, we can understand the student’s cherry-picking ideas and quotations from two pages out of a 240 page text, as the student working with the David Weinberger book described by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue did, as a “suppression of all complexity and contradiction.”

In practice, “excessive revision” results in fuller, more complicated drafts, and often, a longer, more complicated drafting process. In practice, “excessive research” results in more sources consulted and read and a longer, more complicated research process.

Because writing centers are outside the typical “power structures” of the university, we are able to intervene in students’ source usage in ways that professors cannot. For example, a student concerned that his paraphrase might be judged to be plagiarism by his instructor might fear bringing the situation to his instructor’s attention; what if the instructor immediately accuses him of plagiarism? The fear students feel about the distant but real possibility might keep them from sharing their source use anxieties with their professors. The writing center, however, because it doesn’t have any authority over the student, can be advertised as a place where students can go when they fear they may have misused a source.

Many writing centers already position themselves as the “safe houses” Wolff (2000) envisions. Wolff points out that writing centers aren’t automatically safe houses; rather, the notion of a writing center as a safe space develops through deliberate policies and practices. When tutors refuse to judge students and their writing, staunchly maintain confidentiality, and help students learn to self-advocate, then their writing centers are closer to being safe spaces. This kind of deliberate construction of the writing center as safe house is particularly important in a writing center like mine where the majority of my tutors also wear the hat of adjunct English instructor. Because so many of my tutors also function in the English department as instructors where they do have grading authority and other types of authority over some students, they need to actively distance themselves from that role when they enter the writing center.

If writing centers are to advocate for excessive revision, taking up the ethical responsibility I believe they have to do so, they need to also take responsibility for training tutors in how to effectively intervene in students’ research processes. I talk about how we have approached working with students on their research processes in Practice.