There’s More than One Way to Build a Writing Center – A Visit to The Writing Cafe at Plymouth University
Bronwyn T. Williams, Director
Writing Centers – around the world – can be found in all kinds of locations, both physical and institutional. We’re fortunate at the University of Louisville to have a large and prominent new space on the ground floor of the main Library and to have the institutional support of departments and administrators across the university. Other writing centers have to find other ways to create spaces and identities for themselves when the university around them may not yet have figured out how much it needs a writing center – or even what one is. Recently, when I attended the Writing Development in Higher Education conference at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, I had the opportunity to visit and learn about one of the more exciting and innovative approaches to creating a writing center that I have seen – The Writing Cafe.
The Writing Cafe is exactly what it sounds like. Located on the top floor of one of the
academic buildings, it is a place where writers (from both the university and community) can come to get a cup of coffee, have a writing consultation, attend a workshop, or just have a communal, social space to write. It’s a warm, welcoming space that combines the relaxed ambience of a coffee shop with conversations about writing. Even a brief visit made it clear that it was a place that was fostering and sustaining a culture of writing on campus and in the community – which is part of the essential role of any writing center. It certainly tempted me to get a coffee and hang out and write rather than going to the next conference session (but I did go to the next session….)
What makes The Writing Cafe so exciting for people doing Writing Center work, however, is not just the space itself. The story of how Helen Bowstead and Christie Pritchard created and put together The Writing Cafe is instructive – and inspiring – for people wanting to establish a writing center or just find a new way of thinking about how a writing center might inhabit a different kind of institutional and social space. Faced with a university that was reluctant to provide the space and furnishings for a writer center, they came across the abandoned cafe space and convinced the university to let them renovate and
use it. They furnished it with cast-off tables and chairs they scavenged from around campus – as well as abandoned literacy artifacts of, such as an old typewriter, globe, and camera. Their explicit goal was to drawn on “coffee-house culture” to create a place that was social and informal, but also generative and engaging. They also had the ongoing support of the Learning Development team at Plymouth University. People coming to The Writing Cafe don’t make appointments, but just drop in to talk with the consultants who are on call at that time. Unlike some writing centers, they have decided not have appointments or keep records of consultations, so that the atmosphere and experience remains one that is more focused on nurturing a community of writers and less focused on assessment and evaluation of writing. The goal is not only to help people with their writing, but to give them an experience that helps them feel different about writing. Writing Cafe has been a huge success – primarily publicized through word of mouth among students.
Of course, this model doesn’t work for every writing center, but it is a reminder that there are other approaches and values that can be supported in writing centers in addition to
just helping people with the draft in front of them. The idea of a space that offers writers a different emotional experience about writing, and that emphasizes the importance of conversation and the social nature of writing, is refreshing and exciting in a time when universities in many countries are increasingly focused on assessment and evaluation of writing. The Writing Cafe treats student writers – and all writers – like authors with something to say. Finally, The Writing Cafe is an example of what can be done, in a time of shrinking budgets, if you can be creative and work with what you have at hand. As someone interested in the idea of writing centers as “enclaves” of different practices, I was glad I got the chance to find out about this place.