Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review of _Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter_ by Ellen Schendel and William Macauley

Review of Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter by Ellen Schendel and William Macauley (2012). Utah State University Press.

ISBN 978-0-87421-816-9, paper $28.95; ISBN 978-0-87421-834-3 e-book $22.95

By Marc Scott, Shawnee State University

     Ellen Schendel and William Macauley’s 2012 book, Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter (Building), is a co-authored text featuring an introduction and coda by both authors, three chapters authored by Macauley, three by Schendel, a brief interchapter by Neal Lerner, and an afterward by Brian Huot and Nicole Caswell. Much of Building explores how important writing assessment scholarship can apply to writing center program assessment, and often uses specific examples from the authors’ experiences directing writing centers. Schendel and Macauley’s goal in writing Building is to provide Writing Center Directors (WCDs) new to program assessment with a text that speaks specifically to the unique needs and opportunities of writing center work. While the text is geared toward assisting WCDs navigate program assessment, Building also provides assessment scholars and practitioners with important ideas and concepts for program assessment, including how to frame assessment and how to think through methodological options.
     Those wishing to develop a culture of assessment at their institution can learn much from Schendel and Macauley’s text. Throughout Building, the authors use tutoring and writing processes as metaphors for assessment work. Just as writers gain invaluable insights by sharing their work with other writers, sharing assessment projects and data with peers only benefits writing assessment. Furthermore, in Writing Center scholarship and practice, tutors strive to help a writer establish a healthy writing process rather than just proofread or edit a text. When applied to writing assessment, a similar emphasis on process over product might help instructors and students engage in assessment as a reciprocal and recursive form of inquiry that improves the writer holistically, rather than a linear process with one correct approach for each context (p. xix). In addition, the assessment process—much like the writing process—benefits from careful attention to exigency, context, purpose, and audience. Using the recursion of writing processes and the context-sensitive nature of tutoring as metaphors for assessment may provide an accessible concept for colleagues reluctant to embrace assessment.
     Writing assessment practitioners can also benefit from Building’s discussion of assessment methodologies. Schendel describes how Writing Center Directors should work to connect a program assessment’s methodology with each specific project’s purpose, audience, and available data. In fact, Schendel provides a useful chart that describes different forms of data a WCD might collect and explains how the data might be collected and who might collaborate in such efforts (pp. 127-131). The design of a writing assessment—be it a placement exam, a portfolio program, or a classroom assessment technique—should take the assessment’s context and purpose into account at each stage of the process, not just in analyzing results.  Rather, a writing assessment should be sensitive to the context of the student and classroom. Neal Lerner’s brief interchapter helps WCDs understand how qualitative and quantitative assessment methodologies might impact assessment projects in writing centers, and his thoughts can also help persuade those reluctant to assess. He argues against “maintaining the status quo” and operating on only a “felt sense” of the work done in Writing Centers (p. 113). Classroom teachers and WPAs might also feel like they “know” their classrooms, but unless they can provide evidence through assessment for what they know, their claims will fail to persuade important stakeholders.

     Building, while effectively tailored to the needs of WCDs, provides assessment scholars and practitioners with useful metaphors for discussing assessment and a thoughtful discussion of assessment methodologies. The bulk of the text provides important information for those interested in programmatic assessment, but it does so by thoughtfully weaving together assessment scholarship in a way relevant to writing centers.