A revision addict, I mean—addicted to sharing my work with others and responding to theirs, addicted to creating a community of writing collaborators.(more…)
Here at the UW-Madison Writing Center, we have been thrilled to have Katrin Girgensohn spend the year with us as our visiting scholar from the Writing Center at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. And here on this blog you’ve gotten to see a little of her, too. I’m privileged to get to share an office with Katrin, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about writing centers and about her work. We wanted you to have a chance to sit in on a conversation with us about what it means to be a visiting scholar at a writing center, what Katrin has learned this year, and what she plans to do with the research she’s completed. Katrin’s kindness, enthusiasm, and straightforwardness shine through when you talk with her, and her intelligence about the work she does make her a pleasure to talk to about writing center work. Thanks for joining our conversation!
Jointly offered as a partnership between the Graduate School and the Writing Center, UW-Madison’s Dissertation Boot Camp is based on dissertation camps offered at such institutions as Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and Florida International University. (A special thanks to colleagues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and at the University of Michigan for helping us plan our first camp!) UW-Madison’s Dissertation Boot Camp seeks to help participants accomplish their writing goals, accelerate their time to degree completion, and enable them to learn strategies that will help them with future writing projects.
This past Friday, April 8, I attended a UW system-wide conference about supporting the academic success of “at-risk” students — most commonly, students who are the first in their families to attend college; students returning to college at a “non-traditional” age; students from low-income backgrounds; and students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education. As I listened to the sessions, many of which were packed with quantitative and qualitative data about what places a student “at risk,” I heard a stunning refrain. The single most powerful predictor of whether a student will succeed or slip through the cracks comes down to one word: connection. You can teach the best curriculum, adhere to the most sophisticated educational models, give students access to the fanciest computer labs, etc., etc., but at the end of the day what matters is that students know that someone cares about them. “I felt invisible,” “My professors didn’t have time for me,” “Everyone was too busy”: These are the words of students who, after lingering on academic probation, decided college wasn’t for them. The difference between success and failure in one student’s case? She found an advisor willing to give her twenty minutes of undivided attention twice a semester. That’s forty minutes total of the advisor’s time. Amazing.
No one suggests that reaching out is the only piece of the academic success puzzle. But everything I heard on Friday tells me that without it, little else matters. So I’m reminded that as busy as I may get heading into the end-of-semester (a time of overwhelm for many students), I need to keep reaching out. Even the small gestures matter: making eye contact and smiling warmly to the students who pass in the hall, offering a simple “You ok?” to a student who seems upset. Such gestures say, I see you. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to stay.
On Friday, February 11 we had our monthly staff meeting, which, as we usually do in the spring semester, addressed social justice in Writing Center work. UW-Madison Professor Alberta Gloria, an award-winning researcher, teacher and mentor from the department of Counseling Psychology, spoke with us at length. Her presentation was entitled “Research and Practice Implications of a Psychosociocultural Perspective: Latin@s in Higher Education.” The title may seem somewhat daunting; Prof. Gloria’s impassioned lecture was anything but. She spoke eloquently about a holistic process of mentoring, and while her talk was directly about our goals as teachers, her ideas resonate strongly with larger questions of writing and writing center practice.
One of the things we at the UW Madison Writing Center constantly strive for is to be welcoming and accessible to everyone. Our primary service is to University of Wisconsin-Madison students, but we also try to reach out beyond the campus through the Community Writing Assistance Program, our Writing Center Colloquia, and our online presence. Our writer’s handbook, which offers advice about academic writing, forms the core of our online offerings, and I am delighted to say that this morning an extensive remodel of our handbook went live.**
We decided to update the handbook for many reasons: to match the updated look of our workshop listings, to make navigation more transparent, and to increase our visibility on search engines such as Google and Bing. While changes to the overall look of the material are dramatic and helping people find more of our content is important, the changes that I personally take the most satisfaction in are the improvements to standards-compliance and accessibility.
Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I l – o – v – e coffee shops! The misty aroma of coffee hanging in the air (so much better than the actual taste), newspapers flung about, a chance to eavesdrop on some really fascinating conversations (oh come on, you do it too). Ah, but what I love most about coffee shops is the art. Stroll into any coffee shop worth its artificial sweetener and you’ll find an eclectic, continually rotating collection of locally-produced pieces — pieces that, to my untrained but appreciative eye, are every bit as good as the stuff hanging in fancy museums. More affordable too, if they happen to be for sale.
Community Writing Assistance (CWA) is the community outreach branch of the UW-Madison Writing Center. Teaching at seven different locations around Madison, from public libraries to our local Urban League Building to neighborhood community centers, CWA instructors provide free, drop-in help with writing of all kinds to writers from all walks of life. In this post, CWA instructor Stephanie White reflects on what she finds most meaningful about teaching in this program.
Recently, I conducted a quick poll of our 53 graduate student tutors. Of the 36 who responded to my informal e-mail, 25 said they visit the Writing Center as students. 23 of those come sporadically, while two visit regularly. Of the 11 who said they don’t use the Center, three expressed shame at this fact (as they should).
I open with these numbers because they provide a glimpse into the opportunities a Writing Center provides for its own student tutors. As the T.A. Assistant Director, I’ve made it my priority to understand the many different ways Writing Center tutors can learn and develop from their experiences. At our staff meeting in September, I half-jokingly put forth my guiding philosophy for the year: “What’s in it for me?” I’m pushing all our tutors to look more closely at the work they do and the service they provide, to look for moments of professional and personal development. I want them to gain something from all this work, and to actively consider what those things are.
Along these lines, one question that has occupied my mind is the role of the Writing Center tutor as Writing Center student. As someone who has worked here for four years and been visiting as a student regularly, I’m coming more and more to reflect on the kind of student I am in a conference. Given that I know our underlying philosophy, as well as most of the tricks of the trade, does that affect how I approach my own text with another? Do I practice what I preach? Do my concerns as a student mirror what I do to address the concerns of my own students?
In some ways, I’m an excellent student: I almost always have a clear agenda in mind. I think about the strengths and weaknesses of my work ahead of time, and try to lay those out clearly to my tutor. I know how much we can expect to get through in one session, and how to set goals for the future. I try to always be responsive to help.
In other ways, I’m a truly awful student: I repeatedly ask for directive tutoring, and am actively looking for my tutor to tell me what’s “wrong” with my work that needs to be “fixed.” I almost never write anything new during the conference, instead making obscure notes to myself for the future, and then moving quickly on. I often expect the kind of content-focused critique that I as a tutor tend to shy away from, because I know my tutor is in my field. And as an “insider” into our practice, I always have a sense that my conferences will be “different” than “normal” sessions.
I know I’m not alone in these concerns, either. One tutor told me that, while she thought tutors made good students, we might also be more demanding of our peers, or that we might come in with higher expectations. Another told me that he often tells himself he’s “going to be the worst writing center student possible,” because he’s unfocused or has unreal expectations.
Given that so many tutors make use of the centers where they work, I wonder to what extent the unsettlement of being a student can be productive. When we enter into conferences as students, we inherently take on the anxieties that our own students face, no matter how well we know the score. “In thinking that I’m the worst writing center student ever,” the above tutor continued, “I think I’m probably pretty typical.” In the most basic sense, when we bring our work in, we can better understand the students we meet ourselves.
In this regard, I’d challenge our tutors (myself included, obviously) to see sessions not just as places for developing our writing, but places that can help develop our own practice as tutors. I’d point out these sessions as sites of unfamiliarity, a productive unsettlement. We are, in the words of one colleague, “negotiating a new relationship with someone [we] know.” We are taking on a different power dynamic. We’re seeing methods that may radically differ from our own, and learning to participate in a conversation that we can only partially control. We may even be sitting in a different space entirely. (As a tutor, I always sit to the right. As a student, I’m more often than not on the left. It’s weird.)
So to wrap up this longish post, I invite my colleagues to look more closely at themselves as students, in order to better understand their roles as tutors. How do you approach a conference about your work? Who do you choose to work with, and why? What questions of power, or familiarity, are involved with your choice? And how can you keep a focus on both sides of the table, so that these sessions can be productive for you, regardless of which role you’re inhabiting today?
-Brian Williams, T.A. Assistant Director
It’s week four of the semester in the Writing Center, the week in which I usually exhale a sigh of relief. There are so many moving pieces in this large and busy place, so much to do to “get the show up and running,” to quote our wonderful program assistant Terry Maggio. By week four, the foundations have started to settle: the TA schedules are set, our many satellites and Online Writing Center are up and running, our first classes have come and gone. This is the time I allow myself to look around and ask where we are now, to see who or what needs a little extra attention. This is also the time when I feel extra proud of the work I’m privileged to do: along with Brad, Nancy, Terry, Emily and over 100 talented undergrad and graduate student instructors, I’m part of a unit whose mission is to support a strong culture of writing at UW-Madison. Together we help make this university a better place, one student writer at a time.
May your fall 2010 be filled with rewarding work, frequent moments of joy, and words on the page!
The UW-Madison Writing Center