Change of Scenery: Examining At-Home Writing Spaces to Improve On-Campus Writing Centers
Southern California Writing Centers Association Tutor Showcase 2021
Concordia University Irvine
Written by Makenna Myers in collaboration with Kaylee De La Motte, Kirstie Skogerboe, & Seth Skogerboe
Close your eyes. Picture your writing center. What catches your attention first? How do you feel walking through the threshold? What does the space say to you? The design of an on-campus writing center is its own kind of essay, nonverbally communicating our values and goals through the arrangement of tables and the color of paint on the walls. We need to begin asking ourselves what our writing centers are communicating to students before the consultant has even said hello.
The question of writing center design might seem unimportant or, dare I say, insensitive considering the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down most in-person writing centers and left college campuses echoingly empty. Instead of meeting in person, consultants and clients are now connecting digitally in bedrooms, offices, living rooms, and backyards across the country.
Thus, the question remains, what value is there in analyzing our in-person centers at this moment? The Concordia University Irvine Writing Studio argues this is the time to be discussing our spaces. We have the chance to study the writing spaces students have designed for themselves and, in doing so, answer the question of how we might best serve them when it is again safe to reopen.
To answer this question, we conducted a survey in which students were asked to submit a photo of their writing space and answer a few questions such as what they liked and disliked about it, what they would change about it if they could, and whether or not they felt their writing had changed since working from home. From studying these spaces, we hope to discover ways that we can create actionable change in our Writing Studio whether that be in terms of aesthetic design, functionality, comfort, or something else entirely that students and consultants alike can benefit from once when we can meet face-to-face again.
Here are some student responses to the survey questions, followed by a summary of the emerging commonalities in the data as well as questions to consider when reimagining the design of your in-person writing center.
“[Now] I have to write earlier in the morning when everyone is either not home or asleep. Because it is the only time I can focus.”
“I probably spend more time at this desk then I do anywhere else in my home. (…) I like to keep it clean, minimalist, and simplistic. This helps me to remain focused and calm. My ‘Jesus’ sign encourages me throughout my studies to not lose focus and sight on Him.”
“I just love being able to have so many pictures and memories surrounding me when I write. I’ve been journaling most of my life, so many of the photos on the wall have related stories or were from events and moments that I wrote about at some point or another.”
“I love to look up at the impressionist paintings above me. They’re only posters, but it’s nice to see them amidst all the busyness of the day.”
“I wish I didn’t have to have my desk in the living room. I wish I had a room specifically for an office space to sit down with just my thoughts. (…) It’s hard not to be distracted at home.”
“There’s always sticky notes my roommates leave for me to give me a good smile. I love sharing my space with the people I enjoy most.”
“Before the pandemic I would write in the library or outside near the gym. These places were spacious and helped me focus. I like these spaces more than being at home because I could socialize a little while doing my work. (…) Working at home has made it harder for me to concentrate on my writing. I become easily distracted and lose my place when I am at home.”
“[I love] my board as it holds my two favorite quotes: Don’t let anyone, ever make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want’ & ‘God will never put weight on your shoulders that you can not carry.’ These two quotes make me feel safe & at peace.”
“I feel as if I have not been as creative [working from home]. I feel stuck, almost as if I’ve gone insane. I am too much in my own thoughts, making them scrambled and unorganized.”
“This is where I do everything now, from my job to school projects. (…) This is my designated work-from-home station in my bedroom. I’m thankful for some natural light, but it feels cramped after a few hours, and I’ve gotta walk around in order to not get fatigued or antsy.”
“I have been more cautious this year to work ahead, and I believe it has improved my writing as I will write and edit even more drafts than before.”
“I loved studying on campus. I miss it. Very much. (…) I liked the separation of work space and sleep space. I think a bedroom should be a place of rest and rejuvenation and having my work desk in my bedroom has made it difficult for me to sleep in the night hours and to focus during school hours.”
Each photo is fundamentally the same—a laptop on a desk. Yet, each is also distinct in how the student chooses to dress up their space, silently speaking to their personality and working habits. An exhaustive list could be created detailing all of the similarities and differences of the data, but four main commonalities emerge that prove useful to improving the design of on-campus writing centers.
- Avoiding distractions. In their surveys, several students noted it is difficult to avoid distraction because their writing space is in a communal area of their home such as a dining room or patio. Many students’ least favorite part about their space was this lack of privacy. One student wrote, “I wish I didn’t have to have my desk in the living room. I wish I had a room specifically for an office space to sit down with just my thoughts.” Similarly, another student mentioned, “My least favorite part is that the TV is also in the room. I have to choose another space to write in if someone wants to watch something.” More than just a lack of focus, students said that this constant distraction has changed the way they write, one explaining, “I have to write earlier in the morning when everyone is either not home or asleep because it is the only time I can focus.” Another said they “…write more in short bursts, rather than long hours like before because [they] naturally get interrupted often or distracted in [their] at-home space.” Frustration about a lack of privacy and the effects of distraction on productivity were ultimately the most common themes in the responses.
- Art and photography. Of all the elements of a workspace, art and photography is by far the most personal and sentimental to students and was found in nearly every space. Students love how photographs and art make their space more inspiring, one saying directly, “The art on my walls gives me inspiration for writing!” Another elaborated on this concept further, explaining, “I love to look up at the impressionist paintings above me. They’re only posters, but it’s nice to see them amidst all the busyness of the day.” Where the presence of pictures and art inspires students, the lack of it has an effect as well. One student’s least favorite part about their space “…is that it is very blank. I stare at a white wall with a single highlighted note card with my class schedule,” even adding, “I really should add some posters or drawings to liven up the vibe.” Though art and photographs serve no functional purpose, students seem most content in their space when it is visually appealing
- Inspirational quotes. A number of students mentioned how they liked to display their favorite quotes around their writing space to keep them both inspired and encouraged. One student said, “I love keeping motivational sticky-notes on my desk to keep my energy high throughout the day” where another said their quotes make them feel “…safe and at peace.” Another student specified their quote board is “…changeable, but it has been stuck on these lyrics from my favorite song for months now.” Though the presentation and effect of inspirational quotes in each space may vary, the intention remains the same—students like to keep inspiring words close by to encourage them in a time we are often apart from the people who would be giving that encouragement in person.
- Coffee and snacks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many students mentioned snacks and caffeine as a key feature of their at-home writing space. One student mentioned how they enjoyed being home because they had easier access to snacks than on campus. These snacks and drinks are often kept close by, in the corners of desks or in easily reachable drawers. One student said, “My iced coffee is always on the right because I can’t study without it.” Another student echoed that sentiment, saying, “Coffee keeps me going throughout the day. The mug is constantly being filled—I will go through 2-3 pots of coffee a day (also an expensive and addictive habit).” Analyzing the coffee-drinking and snack-eating habits of students might seem excessive, but when a writer is comfortable, they are more likely to be productive.
How do we take these commonalities gathered from the information students have given us and reimagine our commonlities into a space that will better help both students and consultants thrive in a post-pandemic world?
Below is a list of questions and suggestions to take into account when reimagining your center that have been divided into three major themes—comfort, functionality, and aesthetics. When reading over the following information, it is important to remember that as each student’s writing space is unique and tailored to their needs, so is each writing center. This is critical to keep in mind when we are seeking to improve our own space design—there is no perfect writing center.
Thus, take this list for what it is: a collection of ideas. Hopefully, you’ll pick and choose from this list what works best for the needs of your center, ignoring those that are impractical or irrelevant and letting your own ideas grow as well.
Comfort does not necessarily refer to chair cushions or temperature control (though many students did mention uncomfortable chairs as a main complaint in their surveys). Those practical elements of a studio are often determined by university resources and are out of a center’s control. Comfort in this sense refers to the sacredness of the Writing Center as a place dedicated only to writing. Students expressed how much they miss having a space dedicated to writing on campus and how their productivity and motivation is suffering as a result. When it is safe to reopen, here are some questions to consider about making sure your space is as welcoming as possible to students needing a dedicated workspace.
Questions to Consider
- Can our center offer refreshments to students such as coffee or prepackaged snacks? Are there rules in our building about food or drinks we need to be aware of?
- Is there any room to add a small waiting area for clients with comfortable chairs and reading material?
- Is our center a quiet space for students who need to write independently? If not, is there a space we can direct them to (such as a library or a courtyard) where they can focus?
- Are the chairs students and consultants sit in comfortable? If not, could these be changed?
Many students mentioned in their survey that they were greatly dissatisfied with functional elements of their space such as the size of their desk and the lack of proper outlets. These practical considerations for helping students succeed are often overlooked because they are fairly minor inconveniences. However, it is important to consider how the physical space of your center could be better tailored to serving students needs.
Questions to Consider
- Is the layout of our center easy to navigate? Can students easily walk from the door to the consultation table? Is our floor space being used in the most effective way?
- Is there any dead space that is not in use? What could be put there instead (i.e. shelf for handouts, bookcase of resources, charging station for laptops and phones, etc.)? Are we making the best use of our floor space?
- Do students have easy access to outlets? Could the center potentially acquire different kinds of chargers if students forget their own?
- Is there adequate signage to help students find our center?
- Does our center have adequate wifi?
- Does our workspace promote conversation? If possible, acquire round tables instead of rectangular so there is less of a divide between client and student.
- Does our center provide paper, pens, and pencils for students to use if they would like to take handwritten notes instead of typed?
- Does our center have a white board for students and consultants to use?
As Evonne Phillips of New Zealand Tertiary College writes in her article about beauty in adult learning spaces, “In adult education, we have sometimes overlooked aesthetic sensitivities, or seen them as being too costly, too time consuming, or of little importance to the overall end result of qualifying grades—something we all want to see our students achieve. We have, perhaps, overlooked something very important, such as the power of the environment to create learning stimulations, enquiry, conversation, inspiration, and discovery.” Though making a space aesthetically pleasing serves no functional purpose, Phillips and the results of our survey say the same thing—students are more inspired to write in a space that is visually pleasing.
Questions to Consider
- What color are our center’s walls? What feeling does that color evoke in students when they walk in? A 2014 study published in the International Society for Educational Planning suggests that white walls can make students more anxious and can even decrease their productivity. Researcher Kathryn Grube suggests that painting walls a cooler color such as blue or green can provide a relaxing setting that calms students.
- Does our center make use of our wall space? If you have an empty wall, consider either installing something functional or something visually intriguing. Some options include:
- A corkboard to display inspirational quotes. Staff and students can write their favorites and pin them up to encourage other students (or make them laugh).
- A photo wall that introduces the staff. Students expressed how much they loved photos and how they make a space feel more homey. Adding photos of the staff would add a personal touch to the center and help clients get to know staff members they have yet to work with.
- Utilize your university’s art department! Consider turning a blank wall into a space where art students could display their work on a rotating schedule, maybe changing each semester. This would provide a lovely opportunity for art students to share their work and everyone coming into the center a chance to appreciate it.
- Does our center have any real or fake plants? A number of students mentioned how much they enjoyed having a living plant with them while they work. Phillips’ article also encourages adult learning spaces to bring the outdoors inside whenever possible. Real plants are certainly not feasible for every space, but a bit of fake greenery will accomplish the same goal of bringing a little more life into your space!
If there is one thing to take from this study, it is the idea that the look and feel of a writing space has a profound impact on the productivity and motivation of writers, whether that is a space they created for themselves or an on-campus writing center. As Phillips writes in her article:
“We need spaces where people are deeply respected and valued; attractive spaces which speak of the value we place on our learners’ wellbeing; spaces which are calming and yet stimulating; space which relax yet engage the mind. We need spaces where the informal curricular reaches out a warm inviting hand.”“Creating beautiful learning spaces for adults: how the world of the child and the adult learn can intersect.” Evonne Phillips, New Zealand Tertiary College
We must turn our on-campus space into our own thesis statement about the purpose of a writing center—to produce more confident and effective writers and to communicate that we as consultants are here to support and uplift them as peers and fellow writers.
In addition to the actionable benefits this study will have on the look and feel of in-person writing centers, this project reminds us that though we may be physically isolated, we’re all living similar experiences. Seeing the at-home writing spaces of other students does well to remind this author that she is not enduring this year alone. I earnestly hope reading this did the same for you.
A thank you to everyone who made this project possible, especially the students who took the time to snap a photo of their space. Your feedback is what made this project meaningful. Thank you.
- Grube, Kathryn. “Detrimental effects of white valued walls in classrooms.” Educational Planning, vol. 21, no. 2, June 2013, pp. 69-82. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=96270199&site=ehost-live.
- Phillips, Evonne. “Creating beautiful learning spaces for adults: how the world of the child and the adult learner can intersect.” He Kupu: The Word, vol. 2, no. 4, 2011, https://www.hekupu.ac.nz/article/creating-beautiful-learning-spaces-adults-how-world-child-and-adult-learner-can-intersect.