January 3, 2013

Book Review: Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice by Rebecca Day Babcock and Terese Thonus

Researching the Writing Center is an evidence-based text that emphasizes the importance of vigorous empirical research that can and will inform best practices in writing centers across the country. The authors, writing center professionals (an Associate Professor of English and a Writing Center Director) have put writing centers and their tutoring sessions under a scientific microscope, to examine the various ways we can investigate and study academic tutoring—what works and what doesn't?

In this comprehensive text, Babcock and Thonus describe the current status of research in writing centers (or lack thereof), give readers a crash course in research basics (what aspects have and can be explored), and discuss the various contexts of tutoring, including studies of different tutoring populations and some of the existing recommendations for practice. They then examine the sequence of events (specific actions and responses) followed in a typical tutoring session; “What defines a successful tutoring session?” (143-169). While they give some potential answers to this question, the authors reiterate the need for more scientific RAD (replicable, applicable, and data driven) research that builds on existing studies and methodology. The text concludes with various agendas for future writing center research: questions and approaches, methods, data analyses, and possibilities in terms of modifying professional practice (170-179).

Babcock and Thonus view writing center scholarship as “largely artistic or humanistic, rather than scientific, in a field where both perspectives can and must inform our practice” (3). They are concerned with connecting “theory, inquiry, and practice” (3) in the same way that other fields must question, examine, theorize, and put into action recommended changes. Writing centers are not a hot topic of research, like health and medicine, and do not garner even as much attention as classroom teaching practices in public and private schools, though the similarities are evident.  In a field such as medicine and pharmaceuticals, the necessity of empirical research, repeated testing, and experimentation is obvious. But every field can benefit from a more scientific approach—where statistically sound data and evidence using different methodological approaches (often a combination) that builds on past research—is used to help make changes in the way professionals approach their work, companies manage their employees and their products, and services and product quality are enhanced. It is too easy to use “anecdotal evidence or hasty surveys” to serve some other purpose, such as making an institution look good on paper, but backing up claims with solid research (that requires time and funding) is the real impetus for change and can result in a fundamental shift in the way professionals view and approach problems.

The authors serve as a model for the very practices they wish to encourage: Babcock and Thonus provide the reader with background and a slew of published and unpublished dissertations and theses (“grey literature”) that explore various aspects of writing centers and give us a detailed picture of what work has already been done, as well as offer suggestions and potential questions for further research: What do current writing centers look like, what populations do they serve, and who staffs them? What tutoring methods are effective for various populations (deaf, second language learners, culture)? What types of consultations are preferred and result in the best outcomes? What do tutoring sessions look like and what kinds of actions appear to work best in various contexts?  What specific details in linguistics (directives, suggestions, politeness, tone) affect consultations and in what ways? (172-178).
“Researching the Writing Center” is exactly as the title suggests: It is a type of research and discourse about research that serves both as an informational tool for researchers and writing centers, but also as a generative, thought and question provoking text that gives anyone involved with a writing center new avenues to explore (in terms of critical thinking and potential for revision). It is NOT a how-to manual for what a writing center should be like and how a consultation should enfold.  

Though Babcock and Thonus give us recommendations for practice, based on current and past research, they do not subjectively argue for any particular course of action. Some of these recommendations include: considering private space for tutoring in addition to open space, lengthen consulting times, rethinking the required consultation, considering open negotiations between tutor and tutee, encouraging writing consultants to really listen to the tutee, considering tutor vs. tutee centered sessions, and exploring the incorporation of read-alouds and pauses during the session. Many of these are less recommendations as they are considerations, as it is always important to take context into account; each writing center serves different populations and different needs. It seems that a more encompassing recommendation would be that writing professionals learn sensitivity to the needs of various populations, become flexible in the way that they structure a consultation, and be open to changes in implementation. If we return to the important question of what makes a successful consultation, it seems that most writing centers define success as making “better writers” as opposed to satisfying course instructors or tutees, or even just improving a given paper (145).

This is a critical perspective to consider; making better writers is something that is hard to quantify and measure and is something that is more inherently concerned with process (how does the writer write?) as opposed to product (what grade did the writer earn on his or her paper?). Babcock and Thonus would argue that it is essential to research the unquantifiable elements in whatever ways we can. And it is even more essential to look for ways to be better at the process of writing and tutoring writers, as it is essential to focus on the process of research—collecting information methodically, analyzing and replicating studies in order to learn more about the role of the writing center and the ways in which it can be improved.
“Researching the Writing Center” offers some provocative questions that can serve to incite researchers and writing centers to action—perhaps some will continue the research and use this text as a mine of valuable information and potential methodologies; or perhaps this book will serve as an educational point of discourse for writing center professionals—helping to increase reflective practices and thoughtfulness in their work.

About the Authors:

Rebecca Babcock is Associate Professor of English at UT Permian Basin where she teaches courses in writing and linguistics. Visit Rebecca's website: http://www.rebeccababcock.com/ 

Therese Thonus is the Director of the University of Kansas Writing Center and a trained linguist who has published extensively on writing centers and tutoring. She teaches courses at the graduate and undergraduate level.


  1. The writing center field has needed a book like this for a long time. Babcock and Thonus have written a clear, readable, and interesting explanation of ways that tutors in all writing centers can use existing research and create their own investigations. I highly recommend.
    - Ben Rafoth, IUP Writing Center

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