Writing Centers

“Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research”

I’ve been wading around in writing center research for the past couple weeks and wanted to share one of the articles that I found most helpful for thinking about writing center research. Unlike other helpful texts about writing center research from the early 2000s (e.g. Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation and The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship), Sarah Liggett, Kerri Jordan, and Steve Price published this article in the most recent issue of The Writing Center Journal. As someone very new to the field, I thought this was a very useful overview of the different methodologies typically used within WC research.

From the beginning, the authors reject an argument that rearticulates the purpose of writing center research or that chooses one particular methodology over another; instead, this article seeks to show “what has been missing” in terms of discussion and assessment of research methodologies (51). The authors seek to answer, “What methodologies does the writing center community employ to make knowledge about writing, writers, and learning to write?” (51). To answer this, they use taxonomies from Composition Studies (specifically from research books that emerged between 1983 and 1994) as a model to define their own taxonomy of categories: Practitioner Inquiry, Conceptual Inquiry, and Empirical Inquiry. Though the authors discuss a bit of the quantitative/qualitative rift within the writing community, they believe that “the writing center community has moved beyond [these] either/or debates” (54). Instead, they posit these disagreements as signs of a “thriving” research community and encourage methodological pluralism to conduct substantial research (54). Ultimately, the taxonomy they propose is likened to a GPS that maps the “terrain” of writing center methodologies, allowing us to see where we’ve been and how some “unmapped locations…might intersect” (80).

The Terrain of Methodologies in Writing Center Research
"The Terrain of Methodologies in Writing Center Research" (81)

Though they make a lot of important claims about writing research generally, there are two major themes that emerge in this article that are really valuable for me in thinking about writing center research specifically. First is the much-revered, narrative-based methodology termed Practitioner Inquiry (56). Practitioner Inquiry is “reflexive, experientially based research that requires dialectic to examine experience and to arrive at carefully investigated and tested personal knowledge” (58). Though often devalued in other disciplines as faux-research, this type of research is often used as a way for other writing center researchers to make sense of their own experiences and then “springboard” toward more engaged research with other methodologies (59).

I also find it helpful that the authors distinguish between the two types of Practitioner Inquiry: Narrative and Pragmatic. Narrative values story telling, and is often the one that is devalued as too personal or too limiting. Pragmatic Inquiry takes as its focus the creation of knowledge stemming from individual, local experiences or observations that seek to address a problem. The authors warn that Practitioner Inquiry oversteps its boundaries if its researchers “attach global implications to their findings” (64). Though narrative work is valuable on its own—to see what others are doing and experiencing—grounding work in such local contexts makes it difficult to articulate value beyond that context. This can be limiting for scholars looking for disciplinary or institutional change, or even for scholars seeking connections beyond the writing center community.

The second key theme is the role of Empirical Inquiry within writing center research, something that does not appear as frequently as the familiar narrative reflection. Within Empirical Inquiry, there is Experimental and Descriptive. Descriptive Inquiry isthen broken down into Survey as Inquiry, Text Analysis, and Contextual Inquiry (67). For writing centers, Text Analysis is particularly useful for understanding more about genres or for decoding particular texts and the conversations surrounding those texts (69). What I want to draw attention to, though, is Contextual Inquiry, which includes Case Studies and Ethnography. The authors acknowledge that “strong examples of Case Study Inquiry are, ironically, difficult to locate among writing center publications” (70), and that even when people say they are conducting a case study, it is often mislabeled.

This is a really important point about writing center research that isn’t discussed further. Why is it that writing center researchers misuse these empirical terms? What does this confusion (or methodological absence) indicate about the research methods valued by the writing center community?

Liggett, Jordan, and Price ultimately argue that their taxonomy promotes “methodological pluralism,” which allows researchers to blend, blur, and employ a variety of methods in order to create more substantial research (73). I agree with them that this should be the ultimate goal of research and that a lot of writing center research takes this approach, e.g. combining narrative with theory, historical inquiry with reflection, case studies with analysis. However, can writing center research truly embrace methodological pluralism without paying careful attention to the potentials of qualitative and quantitative methodologies?


Liggett, Sarah, Kerri Jordan, and Steve Price. “Mapping Knowledge-Making in Writing Center Research: A Taxonomy of Methodologies. The Writing Center Journal 31.2 (2011): 50-88. Print.


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