“Hello? I’m not really sure how this works. I’m hoping to have someone look at my paper…”
Before our students sit down with one of us for the first time at the Writing Center…
Before the opening chit chat…
Before the delving into concerns and ideas…
Before they begin to explore the power of talk for their writing process…
Before all of that, each of our students has to work up the courage to dial our number or to find their way from a packed elevator in a strange building down the hall to our door. In this post I want to take a moment to focus on what happens when our eventual students hit call on their phone or stride into our waiting area for the first time. That’s because, although we might think that learning in the Writing Center begins in earnest once tutor and tutee sit down over a draft for the first time, we should also remember that that first encounter is a packed educational moment, too.
I’m John Bradley. For many years I taught in the Writing Center as an instructor, but this year, after graduating in May 2011, I am back as the Writing Center’s Interim Associate Director. Returning to the Writing Center in this administrative role has been an incredible experience so far, and one of my favorite new responsibilities privileges as Associate Director is coordinating the Writing Center’s amazing undergraduate reception staff. More than likely, when our future students call us up or step tentatively into our waiting area, it is one of our smart, friendly, and dedicated receptionists who greets them warmly and who helps set them on the path to an eventual meeting with one of our tutors. However, in that first interaction and in all their subsequent interactions with their fellow students, our hardworking receptionists act as educators of a sort themselves, I’ll argue, and I’m glad to use this forum to praise the talent with which they do a complex job, while also inviting all of our readers to reflect on the important role a thoughtful reception (whether from our receptionists or any member of our staff) plays in our continuing success as a Writing Center.
So let me return to the idea of the receptionists as educators of sorts. When I first began working with our six-member reception staff this year—Martha, Shoshana, Jackson, Molly, Dana, and Gail—I was struck by this succinct description of their job in our Reception Desk Handbook:
“As a receptionist, you play a crucial role in the teaching mission of the Writing Center. You EDUCATE students on how the Writing Center works, HELP students make appointments with instructors, and SUPPORT the daily functioning of the Center. Without you, we couldn’t help the thousands of students we see each year.”
Each shift they work, the members of our reception staff have to be able to answer innumerable questions about the Writing Center and what we do from a wide audience of students and faculty alike. Can someone edit my paper? How can I reserve your computer classroom? Do you have any experts on my essay topic? Can someone from the Writing Center visit my course? And they have to be ready to slip in important information that might not even be on a caller’s radar. Those tidbits might be a quick explanation of our online instruction options that many students aren’t aware of or a subtle cue about the value of our time and the high demand for our services (“if you need to cancel, please make sure to give us 24 hours notice so we can offer that spot another student”). Even a question such as Can someone look at my papers? can open up a complex negotiation as the receptionist gathers information about an assignment’s length, which course it is for, and how soon a student hopes the appointment can be.
These interactions begin for one of our desk staff each day at 9:30am when he or she turns the phone on, a half hour before our first appointments and fifteen minutes after he or she arrives to begin flipping on computers, updating the publicity on our white board, listening to our overnight voicemail messages and generally getting the center ready to start its day. This time of the year, with the semester fast coming to a close and the Writing Center’s services at peak demand, I am both especially grateful for and impressed by the job our receptionists perform with such grace. There are long stretches from the moment our phone is turned on when it seems they barely have a moment to catch their breath as the calls roll in and students begin arriving ready and eager for their appointments.
Yet, as I know from passing through the center and watching them juggle the phone and the crowd in front of our desk during the most hectic times of the day, they all do a fantastic job of treating each interaction—each question answered and appointment made—as singular and important. That is essential and, of course, it’s key to who we are and who we want to be as the Writing Center. Students learn what to expect from us in the first interaction, and our receptionists’ reassuring warmth and confident guidance set the tone in many ways for the interactions we have with students in our conferences, much as a skillful introduction sets the tone for an entire essay.
Of course, content matters, too, and the education they offer about how the Writing Center works to their peers has real consequences, consequences that the semester’s crunch time and the main Writing Center’s often full schedule make particularly apparent. When all of the available appointments in our main location are full, many students receive a glimmer of hope when our receptionists offer a quick lesson in the first-come-first-serve instruction available at our satellite locations and online. They help others learn how to become savvy about calling first thing in the morning to grab the spots opened up by overnight cancellations. Its never easy to turn students away when our schedule is packed, and what I admire in our receptionists is the skill with which they are able to encourage and reassure students to persevere and in such a way that many of those students feel better prepared to come back to us in the future.
So far I’ve focused on what they teach the students they interact with, but it’s worth mentioning how much they teach us as the Writing Center’s instructors, too. They are often a TA’s first stop with a question about troubleshooting our database or scheduling spreadsheets. But beyond that they are also just cool, smart, engaged undergraduates who remind us of what its like to be an undergraduate here at UW and whose intellectual and extracurricular curiosities and passions constantly remind me of what an enormously talented and well-rounded student body we are privileged to work with. On the job, Martha, Shoshana, Jackson, Molly, Dana, and Gail are database ninjas and masters of scheduling spreadsheet as well as expert and professional greeters and educators about what we do. But their talents don’t stop there. Need to build a computer operating system from scratch? Martha’s learning how to do that this semester. Want to know how writing centers throughout the Midwest address diversity in their training and regular operations? That’s part of Molly’s honors research. Have a question about contract law or the protein an infant should be consuming per ounce of body weight? Jackson has you covered. Shoshana can regale you with study abroad stories and hilarious cooking misadventures. And Gail and Dana, the newest, talented members of our staff, keep us in touch with what it’s like to be first-year students on campus and have given me an invaluable heads up, for instance, on when their large lectures have papers due.
I try to imagine what our Writing Center would be like without our receptionists, and it’s hard. For years I taught an evening shift at our Pop’s Club satellite where we have to be both receptionist and tutor, but even on my busiest nights there, the flood of students I would see was only a trickle compared to the volume of students our receptionists help every day, especially on days like today near the end of the semester. I am grateful that we are able to make them an important part of our center and that I get to work with them. If you are on our staff, I’m grateful for the time you take to get to know our wonderful desk staff and for any opportunity you have to step in and give our receptionists a hand during those busiest of moments—greeting students waiting in line to talk with them, answering the phone for them while they are helping another student, or running to let one of your colleagues know that his or her next student is waiting. And, for the whole audience of this post, I welcome your comments and questions about the role receptionists and the act of reception plays more generally in the operation of a successful Writing Center.