When Karen Head arrived at Georgia Tech in 2004, she was stunned by the realization that the campus had no writing center. It took a few years, but in 2011, the Communication Center opened in Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons under Head’s direction.
Ten years later, the Center, now known as the Naugle CommLab in honor of pioneering Georgia Tech Professor Helen Naugle, is far more than a writing center. A part of the Writing and Communication Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, CommLab is a thriving hub of research and learning, where Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellows and students work with undergraduates and graduate students from across campus on everything from traditional essays to job applications and interview prep, poster presentations, and more.
“It has never been more important for us to communicate science and technology than it is right now,” said Head, who left Georgia Tech this year to become the founding director of arts and innovation at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “We have seen the danger of misinformation and how that’s played out in the pandemic. People don’t understand how science works, and often that’s because it’s been communicated either not well enough or not at all.”
The scholarly writing center community holds Naugle CommLab in extraordinarily high regard. Its professional staff has won the Southeastern Writing Center Association Professional Tutor Award nine times in its 10 years of existence. Students have received the Peer Tutor of the Year award three times.
“It’s such a special place on campus,” said Rocio Soto, a fourth-year student in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication and lead peer consultant at CommLab. “One of my favorite things is to see other students growing in their skills, especially our ELL (English Language Learner) students. Building that safe space for students whenever they might be feeling out of place or marginalized is important.”
CommLab is a campuswide resource for students who need assistance at any stage of a communication project, whether a paper, poster presentation, speech, or even a job interview. To make an appointment, click the button below.
Emphasizing a Broad Range of Communication Techniques
Here’s one of the first things you need to know about CommLab. It’s not a writing center. Or at least, not only a writing center. Nor is it a place where weak and struggling writers take their crumpled pages for help from essay doctors.
“Most writing centers are focused on the traditional academic essay, even if students are also working on multimedia projects and giving presentations in many of their classes,” said Caitlin Kelly, a former Brittain Fellow who now leads CommLab. “At Georgia Tech, and in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, we are focused on delivering a much more comprehensive approach to communication that includes written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal communication. So the breadth of our services allows us to support students from their first semester all the way through job interviews to graduation.”
We are not a space where students are being evaluated It’s more about supporting one another, empowering each other.
Similarly, while consultants certainly can, and do, help students who are struggling with communications-related tasks, much of the work is focused on assisting Georgia Tech’s high-flying students learn new techniques that help set them apart from their peers, Kelly said.
While high-quality consulting from well-trained staff is the Center’s main drawing card, CommLab also features technology to supplement the experience: SmartBoards, video-capture and videoconferencing equipment, computers, scanners, tablets, and a 3-D printer.
Another unique aspect of CommLab is its research focus. Brittan Fellows are required to conduct research during their three-year terms in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication. Such work often focuses on understanding what advantages or disadvantages technology may bring to the communication center experience and the role of writing centers generally.
Students get into the act, as well. Soto recently co-authored a paper with Center Assistant Directors Jeff Howard and Kendra Slayton on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Center’s operations and community. Students and faculty also recently presented at the International Writing Center Association Annual Conference.
Melissa Ianetta, LMC’s interim chair and director of the Writing and Communication Program, of which CommLab is a part, is noted for her research into the professional importance and personal value of undergraduate research for peer tutors.
“So it was an absolute gift to have the opportunity to join the leadership of the Commlab, and to work alongside the deeply committed undergraduates and postdocs who are tutoring and researching in the center every day,” Ianetta said. “It’s a remarkable place, and I’m lucky to be here.”
Georgia Tech’s Communication Center: From Dream to Reality
The Communication Center traces its roots back to the 1960s when Naugle — one of Georgia Tech’s first women professors and a pioneering scholar in writing center studies — co-opted an empty classroom to run a writing center. She later directed a writing lab that provided remedial tutoring and business, technical, and creative writing assistance. But it was not until after she passed away in 2009 that her dream of a full-blown communication center was to be realized.
In 2007, as Georgia Tech was preparing to build what would become known as the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, a task force convened to study the development of a writing center destined for that space. The Center’s creation was a response to calls from would-be employers and alumni to strengthen students’ writing and communication skills.
On Oct. 30, 2007, the task force, chaired by Rebecca Burnett, the now-retired director of the Writing and Communication Program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, issued its report recommending not a traditional writing center, “but rather a series of highly engaging and innovative learning spaces for studying, discussing, and practicing written, oral, visual, and nonverbal communication, both individually and collaboratively.”
That vision was borne out four years later when the Communication Center opened along with the rest of Clough. That first semester, nearly 600 students from 32 majors made use of the program, resulting in a “hectic, but heady” fall, former Brittain Fellow Malkvika Shetty wrote at the time in a post for TechStyle, the Brittain Fellowship blog.
“The first half of the semester was spent trying to just get the word out about the existence of the Center,” Shetty wrote. “We made class presentations, distributed flyers, invited class visits to the CommLab, and did everything we could to tell people about the CommLab’s services. Our efforts paid off. The trickle of people in the first few days after the Center opened its doors at the end of September, turned into a flood. Soon, there were people waiting to see a tutor.”
The Center took on its current name in 2017, after a chance encounter between Head and Naugle’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Gadsby, a Georgia Tech alumna who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 2004.
Head was attending a College of Sciences advisory board dinner with her husband, former Georgia Tech Vice Provost Colin Potts, and was seated across the table from Gadsby, who serves on the board.
“I mentioned that my grandmother was Helen Naugle and her face lit up,” Gadsby said. “I was just so thrilled to hear someone else who had this admiration for my grandmother. It was a beautiful moment of connection.”
Head and others worked with the family to secure an endowment, ensuring that Naugle’s legacy of innovation, intellectual excellence, and compassion for students lives on.
“It’s an incredible center,” Gadsby said. “It’s amazing to see that glimmer in my grandmother’s eyes taken even further.”
The Georgia Tech Communications Center Today
Today, the Naugle CommLab provides consultations, opportunities for international English learners to practice conversations, and learning opportunities such as the Dissertation Accelerator — a one-week program giving Ph.D. candidates structured resources to help them work on their writing. Other workshops include topics such as “Revising and Editing Your Own Writing,” “Principles of Design: Posters and PowerPoint,” on tap for Nov. 18 in the CommLab, and “Professional Communication for Student Researchers,” scheduled for Dec. 1. The Center also often works with student speakers for Georgia Tech convocations and graduations.
The Center also offers a collaborative workspace, desktop computers, breakout rooms, and spaces for students and teams to rehearse or deliver a presentation.
It remains just as busy as it was when it first opened, if not more so. Center consultants provided services to an average of 1,654 students in the last two complete academic years, conducting an average of 2,026 consulting sessions each year.
The Covid-19 pandemic required the Center to accelerate plans to expand its virtual offerings. A CommLab committee had looked into the possibility of online consulting before the pandemic hit but shelved the idea only a few weeks before campus shut down.
The facility is once again open, providing traditional face-to-face sessions, but virtual options remain. Students can book appointments for online sessions or asynchronous consulting, in which students upload documents and receive written feedback from staffers via the Center’s Tutor Trac software platform. Virtual options are a boon for students who work or cannot make it to the CommLab for in-person sessions.
Regardless of how students interact with Center staff, the goal continues to be to provide a different experience than many students are used to on the Georgia Tech campus.
“We are not a space where students are being evaluated,” Kelly said. “It’s more about supporting one another, empowering each other.”
Natalie Zukerman, BS CE 2019, is a former Center consultant who continues to rely on the lessons she learned in her day-to-day life as a bridge engineer.
“As a student, when I didn’t get the grades I wanted, or I needed some support, or just a place to be around people I cared about, it was my safe haven,” she said. “It was a place as a student where I could feel confident and make a difference.”
Today, she uses the skills she learned to help develop training programs and lead meetings.
“The confidence and support from the CommLab showed me my voice was worth hearing,” she said.
To support programs such as the Naugle Lab, please visit mygeorgiatech.gatech.edu/giving/special and indicate you would like your gift directed to the Naugle Communication Center in the special purpose box.