Multiple approaches to online WC resources
All this year as I’ve been building up and revising our center’s website resources, I have been looking across the web at other centers’ sites for models.
Here are some observations.
Online resources for writers seem to fall into two broad categories. Either they are integrally connected to specific curricula in their host institutions, or they primarily offer generalist advice about writing processes applicable to many situations, academic and professional. Of course, sites often strive to do both, but let’s look at examples of the poles:
UVA’s site is a strong example of WC resources based on curriculum. The WC is closely tied to UVA’s writing program which I understand has its intellectual roots in the University of Chicago’s Little Red Schoolhouse. Here, argumentation takes center stage, the writing program and the writing center promote use of a common text, The Craft of Research, and students, tutors, and faculty have precise scaffolding to help them through the process of developing academic arguments with methods that parallel the course offerings.
At the other end of the continuum, the gold standard of generalist online resources seems to be Purdue’s OWL. Google any writing process or term and OWL is likely to come at the top of your search list. Because this Online Writing Lab’s audience consistently includes people outside their institution, the folks at Purdue have filtered and annotated a generous number of their resources just for us: Non-Purdue College Level Instructors and Students.
As a website designer, I now ask: Is the writing curriculum at our school so distinctive that we ought to create resources tailored to it? Or will generalist writing resources fit the bill?
As I write, adapt, and compile resources for my institution’s site, I also struggle with a question of instituting consistency versus linking outside of our center to good resources. Most of the fifty to a hundred writing center sites I have browsed seem to opt for visual branding, using the equivalence of letterhead on their handouts. Even when the advice is fairly boilerplate, or frankly adapted from other resources, the writing resources emanating from a visually consistent site (such as Purdue, UVA, or the cornucopia of handouts from UNC) advertise one center and perhaps build an ethos of credibility through the comprehensiveness of offerings attributable to that center.
But the web folks I have been learning from lately tell me that students care little about branding and instead seek information they can use. So even though I keep telling myself that Phase III of my own site design process will entail making all of our handouts look like they came from the same place, the fact remains that my process of seeking information leads me to articles and resources that I want to link to rather than paraphrase. It’s expedient, sure. But maybe there’s some further value to this approach.
Brown University’s site maintains visual coherence while also recommending outside resources with their annotated links to other sites. Here’s their ESL/ESOL page, for instance. Many other WC sites choose this method for at least some resources. See Westfield State, Trinity, and UVM for variations on that theme.
The ethos of a site that links out abundantly to outside writing resources is fundamentally different from a site that opts primarily for institutional consistency. My question as a web designer, then, is: Which ethos serves our situation better? Do we need to build up credibility as a writing center within our institution? If so, then offering up expert advice as if we were the brandable source of that expertise might be a wise move. But with a well established, well respected center, perhaps there’s room to take on a less institutional-seeming ethos, learning from our Facebook-savvy student audience how to sample, collage, and link to the rest of the writing world purposefully.
The fundamental issues in WC web design remain rhetorical concerns: What is our context. Who are our audiences. What are our purposes. Luckily there are abundant examples of excellent, diverse approaches to presenting online WC resources to use as models — and perhaps even as links.