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
If you’ve braved the humidity early this past week and found a way through the dust balls of construction lining Park and University to Helen C White, you may have noticed that YES! The Writing Center IS open for the summer. Actually, we have already finished our first, and surprisingly busy, week of appointments. Personal statements, cover letters and resumes have been filling up our half hours, while new and returning ongoing dissertators and thesis writers have been establishing relationships with instructors they will be spending a quality hour with for the next eleven weeks (or more…).
After a week of swiveling around in my chair at the desk, I’ve already started to notice a couple of things that I really enjoy about working in the summer. First, escaping the humidity for a couple glorious hours of air conditioning has been nice – as a reminder, our computer lab is open whenever we are open this summer if you need a cool and quiet place to get some work done.
Each semester, instructors at the UW-Madison Writing Center sign up to participate in one of several “ongoing education” meetings on a topic they find interesting or pertinent to their professional development. As an extension of Katie’s ongoing education last semester on the history of writing centers, Melissa and I recently co-facilitated an ongoing education on (cue scary music) the future of writing centers (cue menacing laughter). The topic—and parenthetical remarks—were inspired by Terrance Riley’s (1994) “The Unpromising Future of Writing Centers,” which we read along with Christina Murphy’s (2006) “On Not ‘Bowling Alone’ in the Writing Center, or Why Peer Tutoring Is an Essential Community for Writers and for Higher Education.”
On February 12, the Writing Fellows Program hosted its annual Joint Writing Center/Writing Fellows Staff Meeting. The meeting focused on grammar and how Writing Center instructors and Writing Fellows can and should address students’ concerns about grammar in their sessions. This year, our staff of 50 undergraduate Writing Fellows, close to 50 graduate WC instructors, and numerous academic staff was joined by writing center tutors from Edgewood College and UW-Waukesha. The addition of tutors from other institutions created wonderful opportunities for exchanges of experience and knowledge.
Happy New Year from the UW-Madison Writing Center! Our semester has gotten off to a busy start—already, we’ve added extra shifts to our regular schedule. And last Friday, we kicked off 2010 with our first staff meeting. The topic of the meeting was social justice and Writing Center work, which will be the subject of this week’s blog.
From the 6th through the 8th of November, four of the University Writing Fellows—Nick, Rebecca, Eamon and Jennifer—attended the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, held this year on the beautiful Mount Holyoke College campus. This year’s theme was “Leadership and Peer Tutoring: Hope, Vision, Collaboration, Action.” Nick, Rebecca and Eamon presented original research that they conducted last year in English 316, the course on writing theory and practice taken by all new Fellows. Their panel, “Questioning Authority: Exploring Traditional Institutional Boundaries in Peer Tutoring,” dealt with power dynamics and how institutions, predetermined ideas about student writers, and the doctrines of Composition and Rhetoric pedagogy are complicated, productively, by the sometimes unpredictable outcomes of the tutoring situation. Jennifer had modified her research into a workshop presentation titled “Collaborating with Campus Communities: Peer Revision in Students’ Social Settings”; in it, she asked session participants to consider the ways Writing Center resources could be mobilized in service of bringing peer revision strategies to students in the residential, social, extra-curricular, or non-curricular environments they inhabit.
I’m the Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program, that branch of the Writing Center that focuses most explicitly on undergraduate learning, teaching and writing. The Writing Fellows, undergrads who come from across the university, are assigned to writing intensive courses. They read and critique drafts of two formal papers, providing both marginal and end comments to help students identify strengths as well as areas for possible revision. The Fellows then meet with students individually to discuss options and strategies for revision. Each Fellow also conducts an original research project that examines through quantitative and qualitative analysis a problem or issue in peer tutoring or Writing Center practice.
The bulk of my job is spent working with the Fellows as they develop their skills as researchers, peer tutors and writing specialists. On occasion, however, I get to leave HC White and go on trips. Later this week, four Fellows and I will travel to Mount Holyoke College for the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. (We will post about our travels for your delectation on November 16.) This year’s conference theme is “Leadership and Peer Tutoring: Hope, Vision, Collaboration, Action,” and each of the Fellows will be presenting aspects of their formal research.