A Database Invades the WC

Lyn Brodersen, Karen Kassebaum, and Dianne Pregler

One issue repeatedly confronting a Writing Center staff is deciding what in-house records to preserve and how to maintain them. Written records often prove attractive because they support illusions of respectability and authenticity, verifying that the work is justifiable work. Whatever records a Writing Center decides to maintain, the staff should understand what information is needed, why the information should be stored, who has the right to access that information, and how this work can be done with the minimum number of forms. As C. Michael Smith points out in his article "Efficiency and Insecurity: A Case Study in Form Design and Records Management," while "each writing center has to develop its own forms and systems consistent with its own needs," the cardinal principle for designing any system is to keep it "lean and trim" (121).

Because each Writing Center functions in a different context, with different missions and personnel fulfilling those missions, it is futile to expect that one record-keeping system could work for all programs. In our situation at Coe College, for example, we have never used a formalized referral system. Because Coe is a small college with only 80 full-time faculty, most referrals can be handled with an instructor simply calling the Writing Center Director or informally recommending to a student that she should consider visiting the Writing Center before submitting her next paper.

While we have shunned the written referral form, our Writing Center has used a variety of techniques for tracking and analyzing what we do as a Writing Center. A formal exploration occurs in our one-hour course, "Topics in Composition," required of all staff members. Our class assignments include a monthly journal, the submission of several written observations of consultant-student conferences, and a weekly discussion of issues that arise in our work. The Consultant Conference Form, a written summary we produce for each of our student conferences, is also available for our self-study. Except for the daily log book--used for maintaining our work schedule and recording appointments--the Consultant Conference Forms are the only documents which record what happens in our Writing Center.

Without question our operation could function without any such record-keeping system. Because Coe has no compulsory composition courses, we are not involved in assisting required freshmen writing assignments where instructors need a record of what occurred in the sessions. Despite this freedom, we keep a fairly detailed record system attempting to describe what occurs in our tutoring sessions and to quantify "objectively" those descriptions. We do this for a variety of reasons.

The primary purpose for using our Consultant Conference Form is to ensure that our staff members think about various requirements and opportunities in their conferences. The form prompts the consultant to ask about the assignment, to consider what kind of paper is being attempted, and to discover from the students what help they are seeking. The Consultant Conference Form also invites the consultant to think back over each session after it is finished: evaluating what the session may have meant to the student, and assessing where the writing seemed to be going.

Another value of the form is in providing interested staff members with research opportunities for studying and understanding what happens within a Writing Center environment. The Writing Center scene offers a wonderful laboratory for inquiry, in addition to providing facilities for learning about writing and how to work with people. Although our college is not primarily a research institution, the Writing Center can provide undergraduates with opportunities to conduct studies in fields as diverse as rhetoric, sociology, psychology, and education. Within the past year, nine staff members have worked on one or more research papers using information drawn from Writing Center files and our Conference Forms.

For the last two years we have used Consultant Conference Forms designed for capturing data that can be maintained on a database. Much of this activity has been experimental and generated out of a curiosity to learn how databases work. But we also had some practical goals. If an instructor asked which students had visited the Writing Center and for what purposes, we wanted to a system for efficiently producing that information. We also wanted to compare our individual and group impressions of our tutoring with the portrait that emerges after the database has crunched the various data.

The database opens an attractive avenue for strengthening our credibility with the faculty and administration. While the reputation of the Writing Center at a small college depends primarily on the grapevine, we would be foolish not to keep records that can bolster our defensive stance. Some of the research projects, for example, are written up and distributed to the faculty in biweekly "Information Sheets" from the Writing Center. These reports use data that would not be available without the Conference Forms. Perhaps these records are "self-defensive," reflecting the Director's tendency to paranoia, but the database can substantiate intuitions, open up new lines of thinking, raise questions about long-held assumptions, and tabulate quickly and efficiently who came and why.

As for the establishment of a database capable of analyzing our data, we initially chose Dbase III+, a leading database program currently on the market. The Writing Center had a computer science major familiar with the program, and through the college we had access to the program (which otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive for us to purchase). Using the Consultant Conference Form as a model, we constructed a database allowing for data to be entered on the screen according to the same format.

During our first year of using the database, we encountered a number of frustrations. One major problem was that our three Zenith computers in the Writing Center had neither sufficient memory (RAM) nor storage capacity for handling the size of our database. Although we had originally intended to enter data directly into the computer without using the paper forms, our dependence on a larger computer outside the Writing Center required that we continue to fill out the paper forms, waiting until later to type the data into the database. This delay also meant that we could not quickly produce documents tabulating recent Writing Center usage. Only toward the end of the school year did we obtain funding to purchase a new computer with a hard disk drive that could handle our database.

We also experienced some problems with Dbase III+. Because of the complexity of the program and the difficulty of understanding the manuals, our knowledge of the program's procedures was inadequate for the tasks we wanted done. With the exception of our one computer science majors, none of us had a sufficiently skilled working knowledge of the program and its idiosyncrasies. For reasons that we never ascertained, the memo fields, used for recording the conference summaries, became unzipped and jumbled. Our only solution was to retype the memo fields, a time-consuming enterprise.

After encountering these difficulties with Dbase III+, we decided after our first year to switch to a new database program, PC-File:dB, a Jim Button Shareware program. Several factors contributed to our decision: we liked the clarity and simplicity of this program; it had an excellent manual for explaining how the program works; no longer were we dependent on a computer science major for solving all our database problems; the Pc-File:dB offered simpler procedures for printing data tables, graphs, and charts; the program was capable of reading and working with files originally constructed using DBase III+; and the shareware program cost only $75, significantly less than the price we would have to pay for an updated version of Dbase III+.

The remainder of this paper will discuss some conferencing patterns that became evident after using the DBase III+ and the PC-File:dB for analyzing our tutoring sessions from the fall '88 term. According to our log book we had approximately 625 student conferences from September 1 to the middle of December. Of those conferences 484 had Consultant Conference Forms entered in the database. Concerning the conferences not recorded in the database, most were either conference summaries lost when DBase III+ crashed or sessions the consultant judged inconsequential.

The first conference factor we examined was the consultant's perception of the "mode of the conference." Consultants had five choices for describing what the consultant felt was the primary modes used when conducting the conference: Conversing, Questioning, Suggesting, Directing, or Other. Most conferences combine elements from all modes, but the Writing Center Director asked the staff to identify one predominant mode for each session. In effect, we allowed the consultants to define each category and to decide which mode best described each session.

For the 413 conferences where consultants identified one predominant mode, the distribution was as follows: Conversing - 37% of all conferences Questioning - 18% Suggesting - 34% Directing - 11%

One revelation from the data was that the consultants reported using Questioning less than we expected since our training emphasizes the role of good questioning techniques. The database results suggest that, however frequently consultants may rely on questions to guide a conference, the approach was either less appropriate or less appealing than the more informal Conversing or the more authoritative Suggesting or Directing.

Another issue explored was the relationship between what help was requested by the student and what help was then offered by the consultant. In over 80% of the conferences, the forms indicate that the conference focused on what the students wanted help with. The most notable exception to this pattern concerned requests for assistance in expanding or developing a draft (Focus 7, one of sixteen possible choices listed on the forms). While only 38 students sought this type of help (less than 10% of the total conferences), the consultants reported this to be a major focus in 62 of the conferences. Because expanding a draft requires further effort and time, few students are intentionally seeking that assistance unless they know a paper does not fulfill a minimum page requirement. This problem of undeveloped papers, however, was frequently identified by consultants, presenting a challenge as they felt obliged to move students in a direction they had not chosen.

A third area of interest in our study was in considering what patterns of conferencing emerged for specific subgroups of students. The two identifiable groups we most frequently dealt with were international students for whom English is not their native language (ESL) and students enrolled in the Reading/Writing Workshop, a course in academic reading and writing strategies that enrolls about 15% of the freshmen class.

Concerning the international students, about 10% of Coe's student body is comprised of ESL students, but they were responsible for 37% of their fall conferences. The consultants, however, reported virtually no significant difference between the pattern for ESL degree-seeking students and for all other students. For example, Conversing was reported to be the dominant mode in 37% of the conferences and Directing in only 11%. The pattern was consistently within 5 percentage points of what we found for all conferences. As for the various Foci of conferences with the degree-seeking ESL students (all with TOEFL scores above 525), these sessions followed the patterns for all conferences with three exceptions. One item, previously mentioned, was that ESL students were more likely to ask for assistance with editing and proofreading their papers. They were also more likely to seek help with trimming and tightening a draft (55% of requests for assistance in this area came from ESL students). This higher than expected percentage may have occurred because many of these ESL students were in a freshman course that required a series of weekly papers with a maximum of two pages per paper, a requirement some of the students had some difficulty meeting.

While the ESL students reported little trouble generating ideas for their papers, a second group of students was frequently seeking and receiving help in this area. Although the Reading/Writing Workshop (RWW) students comprised 24% of our conferences for the term, 64% of the conferences dealing with Focus 2 (getting started) and 59% with Focus 3 (generating ideas) involved students from the three sections of this course. This class is comprised of students who scored in the bottom 25% on the college's writing test for incoming freshmen. The conference summaries reveal that these students often came to their conferences with either no draft or a rudimentary beginning to their paper. In many instances they were frustrated with their assignments and had problems understanding what they should be doing in their papers.

This group of freshmen also had an unusually high percentage of conferences dealing with reading problems and how to respond to an accompanying composition assignment. Perhaps because these students encountered so many problems with their assignments--and because their instructors expected them to come for tutoring--the consultants' conference summaries frequently indicated that the sessions did not always run smoothly. Almost 20% of the conference summaries included comments expressing the consultant's frustration over the student's unresponsiveness or absence of commitment to the task. Although we are anxious to lower the rate of unsatisfactory conferences, the database numbers reveal that we frequently get converts from students initially hostile or skeptical about using our services. In the spring term of 1989, for example, 69% of the freshmen voluntarily coming in for a conference came from the 30% of the freshmen who had instructors requiring them in the fall to have at least one conference. But we don't have universal success. The conference forms are a frequent reminder of how frustrating it can be working with uncooperative students.

After wading through these findings and the many other reams of computer printouts, we perhaps need to pause and consider what we learn from all these numbers. The major benefit of the forms and the database is that the information can help guide the training of new consultants and the retraining of the old pros. The more precise we can be in foreseeing what lies ahead, the better we can develop tutoring strategies to meet those needs. The database records are another means for challenging our assumptions and introducing angles of perception that would have otherwise been overlooked.

Let us end with an admission that the forms and database are at best mere supplements, products of gadgets that are attractive but hazardous to one's health when held too closely. Our primary business is always people struggling with words. Neither fancy forms nor a sophisticated database can impart much guidance in solving those problems. The ultimate solutions lie with the student-writers and us, working one-on-one. If the forms and database begin to block our way, let us hope we have the good sense to unplug the computers and throw the forms away.

Works Cited

Smith, C. Michael. "Efficiency and Insecurity: A Case Study in Form Design and Records Management." In Writing Centers: Theory and Administration. Ed. Gary A. Olson. Urbana: NCTE, 1984, 115-122.

Presented at the Midwest Writing Center Association Conference in St. Louis and published in the Writing Lab Newsletter in February of 1992

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