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.

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