Identifying and Delivering Content to Writing Centers Audiences

"Can I drop my paper off to be edited?" This misconception of writing center work can make even the most hardened writing center tutor flinch. The view of the writing center as a grammar fix-it shop seems as hard to remove from students' minds as is the idea that teachers cannot see closed eyes under lowered baseball caps. Regardless of how these clients developed their limited view of writing centers, tutors and administrators must work to present writing centers as centers for writing, that is, locations where writing of all kinds is discussed. Classroom talks are part of educating students and faculty about writing centers, but advertising more broadly is also important. Writing centers that actively construct a vibrant image and cater to various audiences stand a much better chance of being seen as more than simply fix-it shops. To this end, our center has begun to target two audiences for podcasts: (1) traditional writing center clients and (2) writers looking for discussions about writing.

The order of these audiences represents our evolving sense of audience. Considering potential or returning clients as our primary audience was a logical first step, and our first podcasts either described our services or were remediated handouts. Considering potential or returning clients as our primary audience was a logical first step, and our first podcasts either described our services or were remediated handouts. As we developed more podcasts, we began to see their rhetorical potential, their ability to reposition our center. This expansion of the function of the writing center might seem unusual at first (“Why reach beyond usual clients?”), but it actually fulfills one part of our Mission Statement, which views “writing as a complex intellectual activity crucial for participation in academic, professional, and public life” (“About CSTW”) By publishing podcasts intended for a diverse audience, we demonstrate our commitment to writing in its many forms. Moreover, membership in one of these audiences does not preclude membership in the other, and we expect considerable overlap.


Having this broader sense of audience led us to develop or deepen relationships with writing-centered departments and educational entities across our university. It also led us to advertise our podcasts not only on every page of our website and on our online scheduling system, but also on iTunes and Podcast Alley: in other words, far beyond just our university. We intend for this to show our involvement with many kinds of writing, perhaps leading to more collaborations as fruitful as the past podcasts have been.

Podcasting to Clients

When we first began podcasting, we were podcasting at writing center clients almost exclusively. Thus, one of our first podcasts was an introduction to the center, a way to educate clients about how they could be helped by our services. Creating this podcast gave us the opportunity, really, forced us, to reconsider how we present the center to clients, which led us to question our rote method of describing the writing center to potential clients. We based the podcast on our usual introductory script that tutors deliver in classes. It was clear that at 560+ words, this script was too long (and uninteresting) for a short podcast. In addition, aspects of it might be aimed at the wrong audience, since it seemed so exclusively focused on students. The final podcast script was 260 words and aimed at a broader audience, specifically referencing students, faculty, and staff as potential writing center clients. The addition of the school's fight song underneath the narrator's description of the center also allows for a subtle reminder that the center is joined to a particular institution. The song also adds an upbeat feel to the podcast because the song features brass and a quick tempo. Similarly, the music at the beginning heightens (to a comic extent) the emotions experienced by clients, but not, we hope, to the extent that they feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. All together, this podcast's intent is to paint a friendly, positive center dedicated to helping those affiliated with our university. By contrast, the original introductory script is a drier, more academic listing of talking points and is likely to last for quite a bit longer than the roughly 90 seconds that the podcast does.

Next, we turned to that venerable artifact of the writing center; the handout. At our center, these handouts descend from both kill ‘n’ drill grammar worksheets and quick reference sheets. The grammar worksheets are gone, but interest in the quick reference sheets remains strong. After all, what could be better than having the exact information that a client needs in a handy, take-along format? With the advent of the web, many of these print handouts have migrated online, disseminating information on topics such as drafting, grammar, citation and plagiarism, and genres, in much the same but more limited number as the Purdue OWL, probably the most well-known distributor of handouts. Visitors can download numerous handouts and benefit from them anytime. These handouts have offered aid to doubtless thousands of visitors throughout the years, and in no way do we aim to disparage this valuable service, one that we have often relied upon for our own clients. However, podcasting made us wonder if handouts like these rely too heavily on a text-centric style that may not be the best mode of delivery for some client, such as auditory learners.

Writing centers have begun to recognize that offering handouts in audio form may be a beneficial delivery method for their clients and so have begun remediating handouts. Indiana University South Bend hosts audio files about three kinds of commas: enclosing, linking, and separating. These podcasts take a fairly traditional form of a host reading script discussing specific kinds of commas and using them in examples. Interestingly, the text portions of these handouts are available only after clicking on the links under a subheading titled "Podcasts," something of a reversal of what one might expect as text handouts are migrated to podcasts. The IUSB podcasts are not hosted directly on the IUSB website, but instead through a Podomatic site. This allows for easier syndication since the subscription (RSS) feed is produced by the third-party indexing service, but it also means that casual surfers may be less likely to subscribe to the podcasts, since it involves multiple clicking. However, this arrangement is clearly an excellent way for centers to begin podcasting without having to produce XML files, etc.

These podcasts feature good sound quality and contain valuable information, but the selection of grammar topics has the potential to reinforce notions of writing centers as places that will primarily focus on grammar issues, instead of higher order concerns. Partly, this may be the result of needing to provide specific information to a wide audience, and partly, it may be due to a desire to create short, discrete lessons that can be listened to by clients who may be doing other things. Economic concerns may also play a role here. The longer podcasts become, the more likely it becomes that listeners will want to download a podcast to portable MP3 players, so that they are not forced to sit in front of a computer. Thus, shorter podcasts might be better, since these would not tax the patience of the listener tied to a computer, nor implicitly require that podcast listeners own an MP3 player.

The impatient or casual surfer to a writing center website might also appreciate shorter podcasts, since these fit better into the sense of immediacy clients often bring to writing center websites. Clients often access these handouts in the midst of writing, looking for specific, immediately applicable advice rather than longer ruminations on the process of writing. This creates a tension with some writing center theory that stresses “making better writers, not better writing" (North, 52). Would short podcasts, we wondered, act more as a band-aid than as the coaching assistance we aimed to offer clients? Were we simply offering them easy answers instead of drawing them into social constructivist-approved knowledge creation?

With this background, we approached podcasting our handouts cautiously. Like IUSB’s podcasts, we thought that short informative podcasts on specific subjects might be the most useful for clients. However, we sought to avoid grammar issues and the resulting constricted notion of writing centers. Because of the renewed interest in plagiarism, we chose this topic as our first “content” podcast (following the introductory podcast). We used the text from our long-standing web handout dealing with plagiarism as the basis for the podcast script. The script was shortened by 15%, in spite of the addition of information about avoiding plagiarizing oneself and a lengthy quotation from the official university definition of plagiarism. We titled the piece “Plagiarism Blues,” and since podcasts allow, almost demand, that elements of aural interest be added, we used a podsafe music riff with blues electric guitar backed by bass and drums. At 2:02, the podcast is brief enough to be useful, but not so long as to preclude listening at one sitting, even though some relatively dry academic information is related. To demonstrate how to cite sources (and provide a bit of humor), the podcast ends with the narrator giving the URL for the quotation so that he is “not guilty of plagiarism [him]self.” The end result is, we hope, educational and entertaining to auditory learners and will entice them into trying the center or at least thinking about it in a positive light.

Writing Podcasts

Our experience with writing center client-focused podcasts suggested to us that much more could be done with podcasts and that other audiences could be served. These audiences might not immediately be considering having a tutorial or finding specific advice on writing, but we imagined them as professional writing instructors and academics with interest in writing, much like the audience that Texas A&M’s podcasts might be courting with its interviews of academics about writing. A preliminary search of iTunes, iPodder, and PodcastAlley revealed that interviews about academic writing are a neglected concern on the web.

In The Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North validates (and simultaneously repudiates) what he calls the "lore" of writing. By this, he means the empirically untested knowledge passed between practitioners in informal moments, bits of advice from one teacher to another about what worked on a particular assignment on a specific day. In addition to making talk about writing more accessible to students and the public, these academic conversations add to the House of Lore, putting ideas into general conversation. Although the market for a podcast on academic writing may have a relatively limited audience, educational podcasts are very popular, and we hope our podcasts represent a new educational outlet and archival system. To this end, we have conducted or anticipate conducting podcasts with the following subjects:

  1. writing instructors on teaching writing,

  2. professional and creative writers on writing,
  3. writing center tutors and clients on what happens at the writing center,
  4. student writers on their experiences in writing classes,
  5. administrators of writing-intensive academic programs,
  6. writing center staff presenting at conferences.

For the seven podcasts from group one and four from group two that we have released, some obvious assumptions are made here: interview subjects must be articulate, interested participants with positive feelings about writing. The judicious choice of interviewees, interviewers, and questions has the potential to broaden our audience significantly. In addition, these podcasts can demonstrate to administrators and the public the value of writing instruction. For example, podcasts that demonstrate academic value may provide a way out of the composition basement where writing centers too often dwell. When writing centers begin telling their own stories about working with students, crafting their own narratives about the value of one-to-one interaction, they begin creating their own authority and enacting principles of creating knowledge in conversations, putting into play the Burkean parlor that Andrea Lunsford describes.

Our podcasts of writing instructors discussing writing instruction includes two podcast between the authors of this study, one between Ben and Doug and one between Time and Doug. For each, we discussed guiding questions and then met online via Skype to discuss what students could expect in the instructor’s class, what the instructors value in writing, and how these instructors think the Internet will impact writing in the future. Our audience here was not necessarily potential students in these instructors’ classes, although this audience could occur. Instead, it was a chance for listeners to hear more about writing classes as they are situated at particular universities by particular instructors. These podcasts were also a way to engage ourselves meaningfully with the technology, to experience what our students would have to experience in classrooms such as ours that require technological involvement. In other words, we got to practice what we preach.

A series of writing instructors took part in our podcast of workshop put on by the WAC branch of our center on using collaborative tools in the writing classroom. This podcast was motivated partly because several would-be participants had conflicting schedules and could not attend the workshop and partly because we wanted to make public the generative conversations we knew would occur. This podcast was released in four parts, each corresponding to the speakers and general subtopics of the workshop, both to create structure and to ease downloading and storage. Thus, we started with the introduction to the workshop, moved on to discussions of using Google docs, then using wikis at work, and ended with using wikis in classes. One of the crucial issues we faced here was recording good audio in a room that seemed specially designed to defeat this. Indeed, significant differences in sound quality exist in these recordings and represent part of our learning curve for podcasting.

Using different equipment, we obtained better quality sound at a workshop about proposal writing put on by an experienced grant writer, Nancy Hill McClary at The Ray Miller Institute for Change & Leadership series. The intent of the series is “to cultivate knowledge and skills necessary for effective leadership,” and the podcast focused on effective grant writing strategies, an especially valuable skill for academic leaders. The original recording was about 50 minutes long, but was edited to about 10 minutes so that listeners could get only the most important information. This editing produced a better podcast, but took a great deal more time, so, in a bow toward efficiency, we did not do this for other podcasts.

We have also podcast creative writers, such as our once a quarter Spoken Word events. The three podcasts in this series cover a gamut of writing genres and purposes, from poetry to readings of canonical writers. We hope that these podcasts alert more students to our presence and help local creative writers build a regional writing community. We usually cosponsor these readings, such as the Open Mic Night that we cosponsored with the English undergraduate organization and the two-part (one and two) Spoken Word Event that we cosponsored with the Speech and Debate Club. We were also fortunate to receive permission to record an interview with the comic book author Harvey Pekar when he visited the Ohio State Cartoon Library. We did not participate directly in this interview, but this podcast creates the opportunity to have our writing center’s name become much better known.

Podcasting Lessons

We have traveled widely from our original goal of acquainting clients with the writing center, but we remain committed to creating educational podcasts about writing. Creating these podcasts has been educational, but not simply as a matter of learning new software or systems, although this was certainly true. Working with the handouts brought home to us anew how much work has to be done to remediate material to make it useful online. Also, it forced us to revisit material that we had not revised for some time and to reconsider ways to make our services and knowledge more attractive clients, with the ultimate goal of being so attractive that clients would subscribe to our podcasts. The increased comfort we feel with podcasts does not mean that we were able to return to the benign neglect we practiced with our handouts before we considered podcasting. Perhaps the greatest lesson here is that we need to provide mechanisms to monitor client interests. To this end, we are developing methods of asking about what kinds of information clients are seeking, both online and in our physical center.

Additionally, we realized that our center’s tutoring and administrative staff could benefit from constantly focusing on our clients’ needs. Just as teachers may grow stale if they don’t occasionally try new methods (i.e., become the student again), writing center staff can be re-energized by refocusing on clients. Tutors found that the podcasting might allow them to reach a wider audience, thereby giving them both a sense of affecting more clients and more influence in presenting the center on campus and beyond.

The big question we are left with is whether we are actually building an audience for our center. Unfortunately, the primary external conduit for our podcasts, iTunes, does not make audience metrics easily available. We can count the number of unique addresses that download our podcasts, but this number may not accurately represent listeners (since users may download and never listen to podcasts). However, one anecdote stays with us. One podcast files was inadvertently misidentified in our xml file (our rss feed) overnight. By the next morning, a subscriber from a different university had emailed us to point out the error and ask when the correct audio file would be ready. While this is an isolated incident, it suggests that an audience does exist, perhaps even a larger one than we had imagined. For now, this is enough.