Feeling Welcome in Florida: Writing Fellows Attend the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing

By Rebecca Furdek. florida-conference I was privileged to attend the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW) at Florida International University in Miami earlier this month with my co-Writing Fellows, Alexis Brown and Patrick B. Johnson. As the title of the Conference, “Tutors, Tutoring, and the Teaching of Tutors” suggests, the over 100 individual, panel, and workshop presentations were devoted to broadening the never-ending conversation of how to be an effective tutor or tutor instructor.

Alexis, Patrick and I delivered an hour-long panel presentation titled “Breaking Boundaries: Student-Tutor Relations in the Writing Fellow Conference,” in which we discussed the writing conference conversation between peers and Fellows and how it is affected by small talk, a student’s major, and by student levels of experience in academic writing. Not only did our presentation offer us the chance to meet and discuss our “fellowing” experiences with tutors and administrators from around the country, it also allowed us to share the framework of our UW-Madison Writing Fellows program with many interested tutors.

UW-Madison Writing Fellows Alexis and Becca in Miami

UW-Madison Writing Fellows Alexis and Becca in Miami

And hey–we were conveniently in Miami, where we could wear sundresses and shorts in November. As college students, we were on our first “business trip” together and we took full advantage of our wonderful surroundings. We toured much of the beautiful city of Miami at night, enjoyed breakfast buffets at the conference hotel, and relaxed together on the beach after our afternoon sessions. How can a college student complain about that?…Oh, what’s that you say?  I’m supposed to talk about my experiences at the actual conference? Ok, back to business then…

As I casually browsed the almost dizzying number of potential presentations I could attend at the conference, I was struck by the two “types” of presentations –those that focused on the virtual realms in which tutoring can take place, and those that focused on the more traditional face-to-face dialogues between tutors and students. Several presentations revolved around the idea of inserting social media concepts into the realm of peer tutoring. (Sample titles included: “Creating an Online Multiliteracy Center” or “There’s an App for that: Tutoring with the iPad 2.”) I attended a session titled “Transforming the Curriculum through Course Apprentices” delivered by a provost from Southern Vermont College. While I expected the presentation to offer a parallel to our own Writing Fellows program, much of the discussion centered instead on diversity. New “Apprentices” (tutors) take a required course in which each student embarks on a semester-long project exploring diversity and genealogy. This arguably produces stronger tutors by enabling them to appreciate the multiple ethnic backgrounds that characterize their student body. Through this project, the presenter explained, student/tutors frequently utilized social media. (We were encouraged several times to “like” the Facebook page created by the students in the class.) Additionally, the presentation included Skype interviews and numerous examples of how Facebook posting and threads can be used as spaces for tutors to interact with fellow students and other members of the university body as a means of modernizing the tutor-tutee relationship.

Notre Dame Session at NCPTW 2011

Notre Dame Session at NCPTW 2011

Meanwhile, many presentations never mentioned aspects of social media and technology yet framed similar concerns about making students feel comfortable within the conference setting. In particular, one presentation titled, “Incorporating Hospitality into Writing Center Work” did just that. Within the hour-long discussion, two Notre Dame University undergraduate students incorporated a theoretical psychological framework of hospitality into a discussion of how to create a hospitable working environment for both tutors and tutees. A (jealousy-inducing) account by one of the presenters of her week in the quaint, yet bustling Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris emphasized why the bookshop was so appealing for a writing community. She described the dimly musty smells, the sight of piles of unorganized books, the sounds of customers and writers brooding over their own inspiration and how this setting could appeal to students and tutors.

What was most fascinating to me was that both realms of presentation–the exploration of either virtual or physical conference settings–emphasized connectedness as a key part of the tutoring experience. Whether creating aesthetically pleasing Facebook pages, or providing writers with a physical space conducive to creative output, forming the right environment for a writing community is key. While free writing some thoughts of what I wanted to include in this post, I realized I wanted to write about about the breakfast buffets and relaxing on the beach. My desire to highlight these personal experiences proves my point. I remembered the hospitable moments during my conference experience, much like writers remember the hospitable things we do as Writing Center instructors or as Writing Fellows! I also find it comforting, in some sense, that the basic issues of hospitality remain even as writing center/writing fellow conferences become “modernized” with new technologies.

I feel a renewed challenge as a Writing Fellow to address these concerns of hospitality, whether in locating just the right physical venue to hold conferences with my students or by creating easy-to-use posts on a Doodle.com document to schedule my conferences. As a Fellow, I typically hold my conferences at Lakefront on Langdon in Memorial Union. Perhaps this environment is too busy, open, or distracting? However, perhaps the fact that it’s at the Union creates a sort of collegiate solidarity between the student and me. I also feel it’s important, with the increasing use of technology (such as scheduling conferences online rather than on a physical piece of paper), that we create these virtual spaces for interaction in a manner that seems friendly and inviting.

12 thoughts on “Feeling Welcome in Florida: Writing Fellows Attend the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing

  1. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts on your NCPTW experience! I am glad you had a good time and were able to make valuable connections between the sessions you attended, your experiences in Miami, and the valuable work you do with writers on your campus. Thank you as well for your conference presentation. As conference organizers, we appreciated all of the great contributions to the program!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Becca! What you learned about hospitality and cultivating a warm, welcoming environment (holding conferences on the beach in Miami might accomplish that…) is fascinating! As a Fellow, it took me quite awhile to settle on a conferencing locale that felt “right” (after much ado, I’ve set up shop in the Union’s Paul Bunyan Room). Moreover, I now realize just how much environment influences most of the academic work I do as a student. I literally can’t do homework unless I’m in a space that strikes me as conducive to productivity (for me, this entails a place that is warmly lit, casual, not too cramped, has large windows, and with a modicum of non-academic noise; in other words, a certain coffee house on Monroe Street).

  3. Becca, I can’t tell you how much pride I feel at being a Writing Fellows program administrator and getting to watch undergraduates such as yourselves deliver well-researched, practiced, professional, and thoughtful presentations at a national conference such as NCPTW. I really enjoyed my time with you in Miami; what a job I have getting to mentor such talented students!

  4. Sounds like Miami was both a fun and educational experience for a Fellow! I know that I considered and re-considered my choice of conference location – union, coffee shop, library – before settling on Coffee Bytes on University. I totally agree with you – it’s all about the hospitable “vibe” an environment can provide that can be either beneficial or detrimental to the conference based on loudness, lighting, even the smell of food can be distracting! In a couple conferences I sat on a comfy sofa with coffee in hand and at others, in a sturdy chair and table. It’s interesting to reflect on how a mere difference in the seat I take can affect how I approach a conference in terms of attitude and tone (everything seems to just chill in a Coffee Bytes chair!)

  5. Fabulous blog post, Becca! While I’ve certainly thought about ways to make students feel comfortable during conferences, it never occurred to me to connect this drive with the idea of “hospitality.” It is a wonderful link, though; “hospitality” isn’t just a location (whether physical or virtual) or a friendly email to students at the beginning of the semester, but a holistic approach to working with students. I think that our status as peers also gives us a unique opportunity to be “hospitable,” to show genuine interest in students’ work by meeting them in a collaborative setting, away from the awkward table/desk hybrids in traditional classrooms. When I think about hospitality, moreover, I think of being welcoming — Perhaps part of our role as fellows, and especially as peer fellows, is to help students feel “welcome” in the world of academic writing and conversation? This, after all, is a journey we all had to make (and are still making) as undergraduates. Thanks so much for sharing, Becca!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us, Becca! It sounds like there were some really neat presentations at NCPTW this year. While all of the topics you write about are fascinating, I find the diversity training for apprentices at Southern Vermont College to be unique and of great interest to me in my current research. Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative post!

  7. Great post, Becca! It’s wonderful to have a window into the many sessions I wasn’t able to attend. That “dizzying number” of promising sessions shows just how much great stuff is happening in writing centers around the country! I appreciate your sharing a glimpse of this wonderful conference with a wider audience. Thank you!

  8. Thank you for sharing your experience at the conference, Becca! I really enjoyed hearing about the variety of presentations. It’s interesting to hear what current discussions are within the field of tutoring writing. As a Writing Fellow, I am very intrigued by your discussion of hospitality and the writing tutor. Like you, it made me reflect on my experiences as a tutor and think of ways that I can improve my students’ experiences.

  9. Thank you for this wonderful post, Becca, and thank you for the generous things you said about the conference. I was so disappointed that as a conference co-chair I wasn’t able to attend your session. Would you, Alexis, and Patrick be willing to send me copies of your papers? We are starting a brand new peer writing fellows program here at Florida International University’s south campus.

    We conference organizers hoped that all of you would explore beautiful Miami and enjoy the beaches! Your pictures add a lot, especially the feet, so telling – in conference shoes, but kicking back.

  10. Excellent rendition of our experience! I would like to focus on two of the points that you made: environment and our encounters with members from other writing centers. First and foremost, I was struck by the freedom we, as undergraduate writing fellows, have in choosing where we hold our conferences. Talking with other tutors about the environments they create for students spoke directly to the theme of hospitality, but more importantly, made me think about the ways that other peer writing tutors think about the “writing” environment.

    One point that stands out in my mind was the way in which an environment can affect discourse. One tutor said that her center had an open room with couches and a few desks, which she felt created an environment in which everyone, students and peers alike, could discuss writing together. She felt that such an inclusive environment both put students at ease and made writing a collective activity.

    Here, it seems almost inevitable that my conferences in the Open Book Café coincide with several other fellows’. The signs on our tables makes this obvious to the students who come in, which, at least for me, gives this sense of “we’re in this together.” We are a bunch of undergraduate students who like writing, and who meet in quintessential student locations (College library, Espresso Royale, etc…). The “undergraduate” environment allows us to connect on a peer-to-peer level. For me, almost every one of my conferences goes 30-35 minutes because we spend a good 5 minutes chatting about our lives and our similar experiences as students—surprisingly enough, this “informal” aspect of the conference almost always facilitates an excellent segue into the work.

    I think that we should keep this topic in mind when preparing for next semester. We can discuss how some locations are more useful than others: noise levels, working space, table/chair situation, obligation to buy coffee, distance, etc…. With the freedom we have to determine where we meet with students it is important that we fully realize how our choices affect the conferences, so that we can create the best environments in which to work as peer tutors.

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