Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hi, have we met?

Writing centers are responsible for fostering a sense of community, and we call ourselves consultants because of the type of interaction we have with students. After all, sometimes a consultation shows more symptoms of a therapeutic session than a paper revision. But as easy as it is to share a sense of community with our student population, it’s difficult to establish that same environment within the center itself. And there are several aspects to blame, such as center size, scheduling differences and high turnover rates. I don’t want to be misunderstood—I’m not saying that we should be like family, because that is an overused, inaccurate comparison. But as coworkers, we should at least be familiar with one another. Sadly, after working at the center for more than a year, I still (from time to time) exchange the “do I know you?” look with other consultants as if they were strangers. Yet in all seriousness, I have introduced myself to new-hires more than 6 weeks after having worked together.

The dynamic of each center affects how community is established and maintained, and size definitely has an influence on a center’s ability to create an open environment. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one size— large or small—is easier to unite. Smaller centers oftentimes have one tutor or consultant working at a time by him- or herself, which eliminates opportunity for collaboration, but fewer people means—or should mean—that  it’s easier for coworkers to get to know one another beyond scratching the surface. Of course my perspective is skewed towards larger writing centers, such as the one at Texas A&M. We have 41 consultants and several other staff members. One great thing about being a larger center is that our resources are more abundant. Some centers may not have the time, space, or money to come together as a unit on a regular basis. Fortunately, we are able to get everyone in the same place at least once a week, a privilege other centers don’t always have.

Structure and function, like size, contribute to maintaining community; scheduling differences have the potential to make or break a center’s ability to establish purposeful relationships between coworkers. At A&M, the scheduling system is fixed, so consultants work the same hours each week, which means working with the same colleagues each shift. With that in mind, it’s possible consultants may never see one another (if their shifts do not overlap). But like mentioned earlier, this concept isn’t isolated to large centers , because smaller ones are more likely to have individuals work by themselves. A more fluid system, where students pick up shifts or are assigned schedules may be harder to maintain. There are rational reasons for each system though, and the design of each center may dictate how the scheduling system is managed. Each has its benefits: while a fixed schedule has kept me from working with a variety of new people, it has also led me to create strong, long-lasting relationships. In fact, it’s this scheduling system that has allowed me to make close friendships that go beyond the center. Furthermore, our schedules change each semester, so after establishing a good relationship with some coworkers, a new opportunity is created for new relationships with others. From personal experience, work schedules are one of the best ways to create meaningful, purposeful relationships with colleagues, and directors can use the schedule as a tool to ensure new-hires have mentors they can use as guides in the learning process.   

Lastly, potentially one of the primary challenges for both consultants and directors is high turnover rate. At A&M, undergraduates make up about 80% of our consultant population. Most students are hired after their freshman year and stay until graduation (about three years). However, in some cases, consultants are hired as juniors or seniors, which results in a lifespan lasting less than three years. This is definitely something directors have to take into consideration, because, just like with any business, turnover rates affect productivity, training finances, expertise, etc. With each new year, some consultants leave while new ones come in, which somewhat interrupts progress of bringing a center closer together. This repetitive cycle of creating and maintain community shows to be a never-ending struggle all writing centers face.

As I take these observations into consideration, I have to remind myself that my experience is limited while the variation of centers is unlimited. I understand that each center will have different systems and operating methods, consultant types (graduate vs. undergrad), and strategies, but regardless of structure, social interface is vital to any center. However, there are methods and programs that can be utilized in order to support a fluctuating system.









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