Peer Tutoring and the Serious Work of Undergraduate Scholarship

Samantha Stowers, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, Samantha Lasko, and the author after their presentation.

Samantha Stowers, Rachel Herzl-Betz, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, and Samantha Lasko.

Rachel Herzl-Betz is an Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she has been a tutor and administrator since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian Literature and Disability Studies. 

I’ve always been a fan of academic conferences. At their best, they offer an unprecedented chance for scholars, students, and practitioners to step out of their individual institutions and connect with the wider intellectual community. We often become so ensconced in our own contexts that we forget the possibilities being put into practice one state, one city, or even one neighborhood away.


A Case for Compulsion? On Requiring Whole-Class Writing Center Visits

By Jessica Citti

Jessica Citti, Ph.D., has tutored in the writing centers at UW-Madison and the University of Iowa, where she also taught composition, rhetoric, and technical communication. She is now the Writing Skills Specialist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where she provides one-on-one writing consultations for students and coordinates the HSU Writing Studio.

photo of author

Photo credit: HSU Marcom

I remember learning the word “volition” in college. A friend used it over the phone (a phone with a cord, attached to a wall) and I was impressed. Volition. A word from the medieval Latin: volō, I wish, I will.

Later, after tutoring in writing centers at large public universities in the midwest, I came to think of this word in relation to writing center visits. While an occasional referral might be appropriate, students should come of their own volition. Stephen North sums up the problem with mandatory visits in “The Idea of a Writing Center,” suggesting that such requirements—while well-intentioned—don’t carry lasting impact: “Occasionally we manage to convert such writers from people who have to see us to people who want to, but most often they either come as if for a kind of detention, or they drift away” (440). (more…)

Won’t You Be (More Than) My Neighbor? Writing Center/Library Partnerships

By Heather James and Rebecca S. Nowacek

Rebecca (left) and Heather (right) inside the Ott Memorial Writing Center

Rebecca (left) and Heather (right) inside the Ott Memorial Writing Center

Heather is a Research & Instruction Librarian at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries. She works to develop and promote information literacy instruction for courses and is the liaison for the departments of Biology, Biomedical Science, Chemistry, and English. She also holds an MFA in Poetry from San Diego State University.

Rebecca is the Director of Marquette University’s Ott Memorial Writing Center and an associate professor in the Department of English.   She’s also a former grad tutor and Assistant Director of the L&S Program in Writing Across the Curriculum at UW-Madison.

When a writing center is located inside of a library, it can be easy to feel like a renter: an interloper in someone else’s space rather than a partner in building and inhabiting that space.  And it can be a challenge to develop professional relationships that shift this feeling.  Here at Marquette, we feel lucky.  That “we” is both of us—Rebecca (the writing center director) and Heather (a research and instruction librarian).  Our jobs are busy ones—intellectually demanding and constantly in motion—but over the years we have developed a relationship that allows us to rely on each other, share the load, make each other laugh, and be our best professional selves.  People often speak colloquially of their “work spouses” and we’re happy to report that our “marriage” is three years strong.

The focus of our post is the ongoing and deeply rewarding collaboration that has emerged between the writing center and the library at Marquette University: it began as a somewhat impromptu bit of cooperation based on an idiosyncratic personal connection, but has grown into a collaboration that informs in very deep and often ambitious ways our ideas about how both of our programs can continue to grow within our university community.  We recognize, of course, that there’s a fair amount of scholarship on the relationships between writing centers and libraries—both published (O’Kelly, Garrison, Meyer, & Torreano; Elmborg and Hook) and unpublished (we’ve attended panels at the International Writing Centers Association, Conference on College Composition and Communication, Association of Research Libraries, and LOEX); the common motive in these publications and presentations is to share the structures of and conditions for successful collaborations.  We’re hardly the first to experience such a positive collaboration and while we won’t make the claim that what we’ve experienced is unique, we aim to share in this post the circumstances that have fostered our collaboration, the forms this collaboration has taken, and the ways in which this collaboration influences how we think about the future of both our programs. (more…)

Taking the Pot off the Stove: Teaching Students to Stop Writing Well

By Rob McAlear

Rob McAlear is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Tulsa, where he also directs the Writing Program. He is a former Assistant Director of the Writing Resource Center at Case Western Reserve University and UW-Madison Writing Center consultant.

“The aspects of things which are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something –because it is always before one’s eyes.)” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations


You Can Take the Tutor out of the Writing Center…

The author, in a frivolous moment.

The author, in a frivolous moment.

By Mike A. Shapiro

Mike worked as a tutor at the Writing Center at UW–Madison for five years, and as a coordinator for two. This fall, he is teaching first-year composition in the College of Engineering.

As Julia Dauer wrote earlier this fall, writing tutors often balance diverse instructional lives. But what happens when that balance is disrupted?

From January 2009–August 2014, I worked almost exclusively as a tutor. In those five years, I tutored thousands of students working on multiple thousands of drafts. The time I wasn’t working directly with students was spent supporting other tutors.

This fall, for the first time since 2004, I am not working as a tutor. Instead, I’m back in the classroom, teaching four sections of first-year composition. This shift leads me to a basic question: what skills, if any, transfer from tutoring to teaching? (more…)

Two summer experiments

What's happening behind this door? Watch this blog for the big reveal.

What’s happening behind this door? Come visit us this fall to find out!

Warm breezes waft down State Street, students linger on Memorial Terrace, and a thousand construction vehicles purr in the gravel-filled trenches that used to be our roads and sidewalks. It’s August in Madison, and the Writing Center is open.

Many of the Writing Center’s programs continue over the summer—instruction, Fellowing, outreach, and workshops, among others—with a smaller staff and on a smaller scale.

But great summers are about not doing the same things you do during the rest of the year. Summer in the Writing Center is, for us, the perfect time for experimenting with new approaches to supporting student writers. This summer we piloted two exciting instructional programs that really took off. (more…)

How to talk with a student who isn’t there

Ineffective and effective practices for commenting on student writing

By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro, TA and Co-Coordinator in the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.

The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.

Those of us lucky enough to teach in a classroom or tutor in a writing center recognize how much learning can happen in a 30-minute conversation. Spending those same 30 minutes writing comments on a student’s paper can feel like we’re teaching only a fraction of what we’re capable of, and yet writing these comments is an enormous part of our work! A professor in a writing-intensive discipline may spend 300 workdays of her career grading papers, and a writing center may spend a large percentage of its tutoring time on written feedback.

But what do students learn from all these hours dedicated to commenting? Troublingly, the answer is that we don’t know.

C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon have, for thirty years, followed research on teacher feedback. They believe commenters fall for the logical fallacy that what teachers teach is the same thing as what students learn, and they think we count as student learning things that are really just error correction. They conclude from the studies they reviewed that comments on student writing have “limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virtually no demonstrable effect on performance from assignment to assignment” (2006, p. 14).

As Anson (2012) puts it, “What would it mean to us, psychologically and pedagogically, if we were to find only a modest educational return on the colossal investment of time and energy we put into responding to student writing?” (p. 188).


The Importance of Being Interested

By Michelle Niemann

Michelle Niemann is the assistant director of the writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 2013-2014. Her first tutoring experience was in the writing center at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, in 2003 and 2004. She recently defended her dissertation and will receive her PhD in English literature from UW-Madison in May. 

The author on a bird-watching walk at Horicon March.

Michelle bird-watching at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. Photo by Liz Vine.

Tutoring in the writing center at University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2009 has given me a great gift: it has shown me the power of being interested. In anything, or anyone. In the next student signed up to meet with me and whatever project they’re working on. At the same time, as a graduate student in English literature at UW-Madison, I’ve also learned a lot about the corresponding power of being interesting.

Being interesting is, quite rightly, the coin of the realm in advanced scholarship. And I’ve absolutely, nerdily loved the opportunity to pursue my interests in poetic form and sustainable farming by writing a dissertation about organic metaphors in both fields. But I’m also grateful that I’ve been working in the Writing Center, because tutoring constantly reminds me, and indeed requires me, to look up and notice at least some of the other interesting things going on around me. (more…)

Déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu at the UWMC Writing Center

By Andy Karr

Andy1Andy Karr is Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center and Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Andy worked from 2008-2010 in the UW-Madison Writing Center. He is completing a dissertation on writing and thinking in general education.

The University of Wisconsin-Marathon County is one of the thirteen two-year UW-College campuses. About 1400 students attend UWMC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Many UWMC students transfer to Madison, but, at the same time, all UW Colleges have a policy of admitting all qualified applicants. This makes for a broad range of services our writing center aims to provide. Not all UW College campuses have a writing center that operates in the same way that UWMC’s does.


Evolution of a Writing Center Tutor: Reflections and Lessons

By Anna T. Floch

Anna Floch is a third year PhD student in Composition & Rhetoric and an instructor of intermediate composition here at UW- Madison. Her research interests include the intersection of identity and literacy, collaboration, and examining affect and emotion in the writing process. She started as a writing center instructor at UW in the Fall of 2012. 

Anna Floch

Anna Floch

I recently overheard a friend and colleague as he began his first shift as a writing center tutor. Before the shift began I had spoken with him about his first appointment and he mentioned he was expectant, nervous, and excited – all very valid emotions to feel when one is stepping into a new role as a consultant in the writing center. Overhearing this moment and talking with him about it beforehand offered me a chance to reflect on my own journey as a writing center instructor (note: I will use the terms “writing center instructor” and “writing center tutor” interchangeably in this post). Up until the point when I began my role as an instructor in our writing center I had tutored in community writing programs, taught my own introduction and intermediate composition classes, and worked in a number of non-traditional educational settings, but I had never stepped foot in a writing center. I came to UW-Madison from a large private university and I (sheepishly) admit that I never utilized the writing center during my undergraduate or masters experience. Though writing centers’ core tenets of talk, collaboration, and relationship building fit deeply into my own personal pedagogy and identity as a classroom teacher, I was concerned with my own ability to navigate the challenges and demands of writing center instruction.

Needless to say, when I started in the writing center last fall, I felt as though I was peering into a big deep canyon (see above): it loomed large, felt thrilling, and was a little bit terrifying. The last year has been a lesson for me in what happens when we close the gap between instructor and student, when we discuss disciplines we do not immediately understand, when we interface with new students from around the campus on a daily basis, and when we take time to really listen to the needs of the writers we work with. In short, my experience in the writing center has made me a better writer, student, and teacher. In that spirit, and as many students and tutors across the country are returning to their work in the writing center, I want to take time to reflect on the key lessons that I have learned over the last year which I hope are useful to both new and returning writing center tutors. (more…)