Who Needs a Muse? The Real Reasons Why UW-Madison Students Are Attracted to Ongoing Appointments

By Rachel Carrales.

Writing Center TA Rachel Carrales

Writing Center TA Rachel Carrales

The summer before last, I spent a month traveling through France, Italy, and Spain. It was a whirlwind trip, and I was only able to spend a day or two in each city I visited. It was so fast, in fact, that I find myself remembering only snippets of things: the fat, cuddly pigeons in Florence, the combination of 14th century architecture and graffiti in Toledo, and the palm trees in Rome. One of the things that stands out in particular, though, is my trip to the Louvre. I was finally able to see all of those paintings that I’d studied on slides in dark, crowded lecture halls as an undergrad, and while there was something thrilling about that, seeing brush strokes and colors up close, feeling intimately connected to a painting, my favorite moment was seeing a statue of the Goddess of writing.

I can’t remember the origins of the statue, whether the artist was Greek or Roman, but I know that the goddess is often referred to as Calliope, that she is typically seen holding a tablet in her hand, and that in this particular rendering of her she looked content, like writing was this easy thing that she could will to happen, for herself and for anyone else. After being a tutor at the writing center at UW-Madison, and having the privilege of working with particular students on a regular basis—what we like to call ongoing appointments—I want to clear up some possible misconceptions that some may have about why students decide to create relationships with writing consultants that transcend one appointment, and I want to stress that it has very little to do with students needing a “muse.”

While it may be a lovely idea that students (or even writing center consultants!) could access someone with the answers, someone who possesses an untapped wellspring of inspiration, much like that peaceful, all-knowing lady at the Louvre, it also feels limiting, and not at all an apt description of what happens in sessions. I’ve had ongoing appointments with students for a variety of reasons: some have been undergraduates working on a medical school or graduate school application, who take the process seriously and want feedback about how to best revise it. Other students have been interested in talking through a particularly challenging research paper for an upper-division course in history or political science. Some students meet with me as few as two or three times, and some choose to keep coming back, working on specific writing challenges they encounter across genres and disciplines. But, what is true of all of the writers I work with—whether they are undergraduates, graduate students, or even the occasional faculty member—is that these writers are curious, engaged, and active participants. They aren’t at the writing center to passively receive help, and they are far from what some may term “remedial”; instead, they are here because they feel invested in their work, in eliciting a particular response from their intended audience, or because they have incredibly high standards for themselves and their writing.

In an effort to reframe people’s ideas about the kinds of writers who seek out ongoing appointments, I want to highlight three individuals with whom I currently work. The first is Daniel, a PhD student in engineering whose dissertation involves creating software that can help college students track their health during the difficult transition from pediatric to adult health care. His goal is to create technology that draws upon the needs of adolescents and that takes into consideration their own priorities regarding their health. This is software that students can share with their health-care team, and it has the potential to keep students on track during a period of instability and change, when college students may be less likely to continue the healthy practices that were enforced at home. Daniel’s work is a fascinating and important project, as it draws upon the principles of positive psychology, as well as the SEIPS model, a framework that helps Daniel understand the relationship between the design of his software and the desired outcome for those who will eventually use it.

Daniel

Daniel

Daniel is from Ecuador, and he is a multilingual speaker. He knows English, Spanish, and French. His writing is clear and engaging, and as a health enthusiast, reading his work always makes me excited about the future and about the positive impact technology can have on our health. During a session, I often find myself remarking, “I can’t wait for this to be available!” This is quickly followed by “How can I get this?”

Atsuko, holding a bottle of curry sauce as she makes Thai food with Rachel

Atsuko, holding a bottle of curry sauce as she makes Thai food with Rachel

Atsuko, a PhD student in economics, is a student from Japan who uses economic theory to understand why Japanese women from all economic classes are dropping out of the labor market upon marriage. She is deeply concerned with gender inequality and believes the institutionalized sexism that women face is a problem that has negative economic and social implications for all of Japan. I’m always thrilled to read Atsuko’s work, to see how she is able to weave together different disciplinary strands. She’s never satisfied by relying solely on a quantitative formula to analyze this problem, preferring to think about the complex array of reasons women decide to become housewives after marriage. I’m always struck by Atsuko’s passion and insight, as well as how very sophisticated her analysis is. It always seems to me that she has already anticipated my question, or that she has accounted for my critique or concern in a deeply satisfying way.

Patrick

Patrick

Finally, there’s Patrick, an MA student in History who studies the historical accounts written by the Acholi people of Northern Uganda. Patrick is interested in how historians have largely dismissed the Acholi’s historical narratives, preferring to study the histories written from the colonists’ perspective. His MA thesis makes the claim that a closer examination of historical accounts written from the perspective of the Acholi will result in an expanded and richer understanding of the Acholi people. More specifically, Patrick is interested in using vernacular histories as a way to shed light on the multiple and shifting identities that Acholi historians needed to assume in order to write their narratives in the first place. As a PhD student in composition and rhetoric, I find Patrick’s work inspiring, reminding me that despite the intention with which literacy is taught, people have desires to wield literacy in unexpected ways, and their tendency will often be to use writing to create new stories that have the ability to contest dominant narratives that both define and limit people’s resources and abilities.

While I’ve decided to focus on these three students, all of whom happen to be graduate students, I want to stress that their work-ethic, as well as the sophistication of their projects, is not specific to the graduate students with whom I work. Though I’ve found myself consulting with graduate students this semester, I’m looking forward to hearing the voices of my fellow graduate tutors, whom I’m sure will chime in to discuss how rewarding it is to have ongoing appointments with undergraduates, capable writers who are attracted to multiple meetings because they know it’s a important service that can benefit both the writer and the writing.

If you’re new to the writing center, or if you’ve dropped in before to work on a specific assignment, I hope you’ll consider this a warm invitation not only to visit us again, but to build a relationship with a writing center consultant, someone who can challenge and support you. Even if you aren’t working on a thesis or a longer term paper, feel free to set up ongoing appointments to work on something as simple as a weekly response paper or summary. You and your writing center tutor can create goals that are tailored to your needs. We may not be able to make writing effortless, like the Goddess Calliope, but as we like to say at the writing center, “Writers needs readers,” and what we lack in magic, we more than make up for in an unwavering belief in our writers’ ability.

11 thoughts on “Who Needs a Muse? The Real Reasons Why UW-Madison Students Are Attracted to Ongoing Appointments

  1. Rachel, I love reading about your on-going writers. Now that I’m doing primarily satellite work, I miss having that sustained contact and conversation. The satellites offer their own benefits in terms of variety and unexpected connections and sparks, but I do think there is something particularly valuable about building long-term relationships (for lack of a better, more writing-specific word) with writers from different disciplines and backgrounds. Rather than a one-way, muse type of relationship, these on-goings seem to be mutually beneficial and sustaining: we can take inspiration from one another as we find it. Writing is a beautiful way to mediate these relationships, as writing offers such unique ways of experiencing one another’s thought processes.

  2. I really like that you emphasize the relationship part of this – that it’s not about having a person who tells you what’s wrong and then fixes it – but that you can develop an ongoing relationship with someone who’s an advocate for your work and is excited to read it.

  3. I loved reading about how much validation you give your ongoing students for the *content* of their writing. So often we focus on the writing itself (as though we can keep the writing and the content separate anyway!), like structure and style, and we remind ourselves to validate the students for what they’re doing well in those “mechanical” categories. But working on a long writing project like a thesis or dissertation can introduce new insecurities about the value of the work itself, and of spending so much time on one project. It’s great that you help students believe not only in how they’re writing, but in what they’re writing about. I’m sure it makes the words come easier for them!

  4. Rachel, your stories reminded me of why I miss working at the UW Writing Center as I continue to work on my own writing: talking to other writers about writing. I think my best ongoing appointments have been like the ones you describe here: they may begin with some idea that I’m an “authority,” but they become more give-and-take relationships. I think its productive for all instructors to reflect on the ways in which we become writing partners rather than muses!

  5. Thank you so much for those comments! It seems that what we can all agree on is the usefulness of meeting with someone over and over again and really building a relationship with that person, which makes us feel less alone in our own writing. I know that when I was meeting with Nancy about a particularly challenging paper I was writing for Mike, it wasn’t just that she was able to ask excellent questions, but the entire writing process felt less like an uphill battle. It motivated me to write and to clarify my ideas because I knew I had a reader who was invested.

  6. It’s refreshing to read about the reciprocated enthusiasm of your writing partners, as we’re working to implement scheduled tutoring sessions at our UWC. Have you found there to be a period of animosity when initiating these meetings? Who determines the rate at which the regularly scheduled meetings progress and continue?

  7. Thanks for this post, Rachel! It reminds me what a wonderful and unique space the Writing Center can be for writers across the university to connect with one another. So often university-level study (whether graduate or undergraduate) requires a degree of specialization that can begin to feel insular. The contact between disciplines that takes place in Writing Center sessions is, I think, a reminder that all of us work in the real world, on real problems of interest to real readers.

  8. Thanks so much for all of your wonderful comments! In answer to your question, Randall, I’ve never experienced animosity from any of my students at this writing center. If anything, students–particularly those who request ongoing instruction–are thrilled to find curious, committed readers of their writing. Perhaps the enthusiasm of my students can be traced to the fact that they aren’t forced to attend writing center sessions. They decide when and how often they would like to meet. Although, in fairness to all of the students who would like to use our writing center, we have to limit writing instruction to an hour a week. Thanks so much for the question, and I look forward to hearing more about the writing center at UT-El Paso!

  9. Thanks so much, Rachel, for sharing your experiences working with three dedicated writers (with fascinating research projects). Really inspiring–I want to bring my writing to you!

  10. Thanks Rachel! This really reminds me of why I love writing center work so much. And that it never fails to surprise me how much other writer’s work inspires my own, regardless of the discipline or genre.

  11. Rachel,
    Thanks for this post! I have a Korean friend in the sociology department whose research (on the participation of Japanese women in the non-traditional labor market) sounds very similar to the work of Atsuko, the woman that you profiled. Next time we talk, let’s figure out some way to put them in touch with each other (if they don’t already know one another).

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