Madison residents and UW students know that Halloween can be a big deal. In fact, as a Wisconsin alum, some of my fondest memories of my time in Madison are of Halloween-related activities. So perhaps it is only natural that my love of this funny, freakish holiday followed me to my new home in suburban Atlanta and Kennesaw State University. And while today my writing center at KSU hosts its biggest and most successful student event on Halloween, I can’t take much credit for it. Why, you ask? That, like the lesson of the Great Pumpkin, is the story about what Halloween taught me about the value of trust and a little blind faith – writing center style.
While I certainly embraced Halloween in my post-graduate, non-writing center life, ghouls and goblins did little to permeate my existence in my first year as a writing center administrator and new assistant professor. By my second year, however, some of the more spirited, creative undergraduate staff decided the Writing Center could benefit from a spookier late-October atmosphere. I was a little wary of too much unorthodox décor, but I decided to let them give it a try. Soon, in addition to our lone trick-or-treat bucket of miniature candy bars, we had spider webbing draped across the front desk, a skeleton hanging from the door, and various other tricks and treats scattered throughout the Center. The following year, in the midst of a conversation about Halloween plans, one staff member turned to me and said, “Why can’t we have our own Halloween party here in the Writing Center?” A student signing in for her appointment chimed in with her support for the idea, and one of our graduate writing assistants, who happened to be a practicing Wiccan, offered to come in and read tarot cards even though she wasn’t scheduled to work on Halloween. Who could say no to such enthusiasm? The KSU Writing Center’s Annual “Writing Isn’t Scary” Halloween Extravaganza was born.
Our first Halloween celebration was spooky, fun, and successful. We put up fliers and sent out emails encouraging students to come in for a treat, and we added more decorations, including more spider webbing complete with a giant moving spider so realistic that a few students even hesitated to enter the Center (we’ve subsequently relocated the spider). We offered free candy and baked goods for whoever dropped in, and we had a steady stream of visitors throughout the day. I had assumed that our efforts at Writing Center Halloween were mostly going to be for the benefit of our own staff, but I was surprised by how many first-time student visitors stopped in, many of them making comments like “so this is the Writing Center” or “what is it you do here?” or “you mean I just bring in my paper and you help me with it?” We even had some English department faculty who hadn’t walked by the Center in years drop in. I realized we were on to something.
When Halloween rolled around the next year, everyone who worked in the Writing Center was excited to repeat the celebration, and by now I realized I should encourage them to give it their all and let them be. After all, those first writing assistants had clearly known better than I did what would work. Once again, the diversity of our staff proved a plus; an elementary education major created haunted house-worthy bulletin boards to promote the celebration. A graduate student with an affinity for haiku poetry came up with the idea of a Halloween-themed poetry contest (complete with festive orange paper pumpkins – designed by the elementary ed major – on which students could write their submissions). As the buzz about the haiku contest started to grow, it suddenly occurred to me that if our Halloween celebration was going to be part of what the Writing Center was known for, we should be doing all we could to make writing a bigger part of the celebration.
Hence, my one original contribution to Writing Center Halloween: its slogan and sentiment that “Writing Isn’t Scary.” In addition to the Halloween Haiku Contest, now complete with prizes sponsored by the university bookstore, we provide everyone who visits the Center on Halloween a handout with “Ten Tips to Make Sure Your Writing Isn’t Scary,” and we continue to promote less traditional literacy practices such as Tarot readings, though we fear our accuracy has gone down somewhat since our Wiccan graduated.
Over the years, Writing Center Halloween has brought our staff some of its fondest – and funniest – memories. A faculty member once waited in a long line of students for a Tarot card reading because he was convinced he would learn the secret of why his house wasn’t selling. (Although anyone who knows much about the Atlanta housing market of late probably could have been just as useful to him.) One year a writing assistant used so much red food coloring to make her grandmother’s homemade caramel look like blood that we almost had to close the Center because half the staff became ill. Our former director, originally a 19th American literature specialist, delighted faculty, staff, and students one Halloween in a splendid Headless Horseman costume; unfortunately the costume was inflatable and we had to perform a quick rescue when it sprung a leak and began to entrap him in the middle of the Center. Wardrobe emergencies notwithstanding, the costumes are generally my favorite part of our celebration . . . it’s never more fun to observe a writing center session than when it involves a mythical creature, the Mad Hatter, or Marie Antoinette. Much to our delight, students have started showing up in costume too.
But in addition to all that our Halloween celebration has done to create a sense of community in our writing center and a spirit of fun and inclusion for our student and faculty visitors, it has also pointed out to me a number of very important truths about writing center work.
- Listening to the staff – and the students they serve – is essential. They are the real voice of a writing center, and their insight is often the greatest source of information as to what the center needs to do, change, or explore. As members of the same student body, peer tutoring staffs have an innate sense of what will work for students: what will draw them in, what will help them learn, what will keep them coming back. For me, the key to this truth is remembering that leading sometimes requires more listening than talking.
- What benefits the individuals who work with students generally benefits students as well. Whether we call them tutors, consultants, writing assistants, or instructors, knowing that their opinions matter and that they are respected as a vital part of the life of the writing center makes for a more positive, committed working environment for staff and students.
- Everything can be instructional. While it took us a while to capitalize on the notion of using Halloween to make writing fun and accessible for students, it has worked. Whether talking about the simple structure of haikus or explaining a tip on how to make writing less scary, Writing Center Halloween now includes plenty of talk about writing in addition to its other attractions. We’ve even found a way to incorporate Halloween all year around: when one writing assistant developed a workshop for ELL students this summer, she used a picture from Halloween to illustrate preposition use.
All of these truths point to something larger too, something I alluded to when I began this post: a writing center that “works” requires a lot of trust – in and on the part of its staff, students, and administrators. Sure, we need to be wise; we need to consider the implications as well as the potential of each other’s ideas, plans, and imaginations. But sometimes a little blind faith can take us into uncharted, fun, and wildly successful territory. It is worth the risk sometimes. As Linus learned, the worst thing that can happen is you spend a night or two in a pumpkin patch. And, really, there are worse places a person could be this time of year.