Writing Center Ecologies: Drawing Insights from Environmental Systems to Shape Professional Development

By Jeanetta Mohlke-Hill

Each year, the Writing Center at Michigan State University (MSU) has hosted a speaker series and workshops as professional development (PD) for writing center staff. Both the speaker series and the workshops are planned and organized around a specific theme that considers important conversations as writing center practitioners. This academic year, we focused our PD series on the theme of ecology.

Now, you might ask: What’s the connection between writing centers and ecology? Trust me, you wouldn’t be the first to ask. For this series, we defined ecology as a metaphor illustrating the interdependence of living and nonliving actors within writing center spaces, as well as a tool for understanding the way power circulates within these spaces. Drawing on insights from ecology and environmental justice, our goal was to take inspiration from environmental systems and cross-disciplinary knowledge about ecology to enhance our writing center practices, actions, and policies.

To do this, our PD staff meetings kicked off with experiential learning events outdoors in the Michigan autumn. Our first event commenced with a tour of our university’s botanical garden led by Angelica Bajos, the Nurture Your Roots Wellbeing Program Coordinator. She guided us through mindfulness exercises that sought to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our place in nature. She encouraged us to think about the garden as an interdisciplinary space, not just for the sciences, but a place for the arts and humanities as well. This mirrors the writing center’s role as an interdisciplinary environment, where consultants do not need to be experts in all fields or genres of writing. Instead, they use their skills to adapt to different writing situations in a way that prioritizes the writer’s voice and expression.

Our next staff meeting took place at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center where Chayce Griffith, a PhD student studying horticulture, guided us through the teaching orchard to discuss the relationships between people and agricultural systems. His presentation prompted a reflection on how human behavior, decision-making, and power dynamics shape an ecosystem, emphasizing that these elements are far from neutral. Instead, they reveal the dynamic ways in which social and political factors shape the environment— a phenomenon extending to educational spaces like our writing center.

Later in the semester, Kimberly Steed-Page, the Director of MSU’s Student Parent Resource Center, led us in a conversation centered on exploring ecological models of social justice work. She guided us in understanding our positionality, emphasizing the importance of recognizing how our identities shape our roles at the writing center staff and society at large. She encouraged engaging in “positive disruption,” which embodies intentional and constructive changes to existing systems and practices aimed at challenging stagnant norms to cultivate a more just and inclusive environment.

Within our writing center community, adopting ecology as a lens has become a means to nurture awareness and contemplation on the relationships between consultants and writers within a diverse ecosystem of programs, identities, cultures, and ideas. An ecological approach to writing center work provides us the space to emphasize systemic issues that surface in our writing center ecosystem and the broader landscape of higher education. In this context, cultivating a sustainable writing center ecology necessitates crafting practices, projects, and policies that are adaptable and flexible in response to social issues— all with the goal of promoting healthy relationships between the people, spaces, and systems in writing center work as they inevitably undergo change, growth, and evolution.