Some ruminations on today's theme: where do writing centers come from, what is their history, and what is writing center theory?
A lot of people seem to think that writing centers are a fairly recent phenomenon, stemming from the huge uptick of undergraduates in the 1970's. However, WCs have actually been around since the early 1900s, although their purpose has shifted over the years.
According to Longman, "As early as 1895, two influential English faculty members, John Franklin Genung of Amherst College and Fred Newton Scott of the University of Michigan, described the importance of laboratory methods in the teaching of writing...The student-teacher conference that we take for granted in our schools has a long history and is a strong influence in the development of stand-alone writing centers." (pg 142)
So originally, the WC was viewed as a sort of 'writing laboratory' where people could get help fixing their atrocious grammar and punctuation skills: a remedial center for the hopeless causes. Some people even called for the abolishment of freshman composition classes, proposing that they ought to be replaced by this laboratory/conference/tutorial method. The popularity of WCs then rose and fell in waves (they rose in prominence in the 1930s, only to fall out of favor in the 50s and 60s as lesser-prepared students were shunted off to junior college until they were ready for a four-year institution) until the aforementioned influx of students in the 70s.
Once WCs again became hugely popular in the 1970s, the shift to a focus on composition rather than grammatical elements began. Again, WCs were called upon to help less-prepared students, but now the WC was expected to help the student understand how to write - not how to punctuate. Since the 1970s, the WC field has seen tremendous growth and is making strides towards having a professional status of its own.
Along with all of the growth in WC literature and study has come an increase in WC theory. While there are many theories out there, a few of the basics:
1) the three-part model, theorized by a variety of people (under a variety of names):
a) the cognitive/storehouse method proposes that knowledge of the proper way to communicate is passed from the teacher/expert to the student/novice learner
b) the literary/garret method proposes that writers use their interior knowledge as they work alone in a quest for truth
c) the social/parlor method proposes that writers work in collaboration with others in the larger literary community (typically seen as the most effective method for writing centers due to its natural conversation about writing between the tutor and student)
2) the nondirective or minimalist method states that tutors should try to be just that: nondirective and minimalist. Instead of cramming information down students' throats, tutors should try to help them figure out what they want to do - not what the tutor would do.
3) Stephen North's proposal that "writing centers should produce better writers, not better writing". Basically, this agrees that WCs should focus on how to write, not on how to punctuate. While this may disappoint students who come in looking for a quick fix for their paper, not a lasting fix for themselves, if practiced over time should help students turn out higher-quality work in the long run.
Although these theories, as well as other similar ones, have all been proposed as the 'best' way to approach working in the writing center, we do need to keep in mind that they are just that: theories. Since writing centers involve real people dealing with other real people, theories may often need to be tweaked, modified, or temporarily abandoned altogether in light of the situation we actually handling. However, that does not mean that theories can't at least provide a useful guideline as we work towards our ultimate "ideal" of what a WC session should be.