By Elisabeth Miller and Anne Wheeler, Graduate Co-Coordinators of Madison Writing Assistance.
As of the Fall 2011 semester, Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) was active at 7 Madison area libraries and community centers, conducted nearly 200 sessions, employed a staff of 10 people from several different disciplines and programs within the UW-Madison Graduate School of Letters & Science, and involved multiple community volunteers and partners. In any given week, a Madison resident might receive help with his or her resume, learn to use Facebook, get feedback and assistance on a letter to a landlord, or compose a recipe for MWA’s weekly cookbook workshop. In the same week, as MWA’s consultants testify, we also have the opportunity to meet and interact with people and work on writing in a way that augments our graduate school experience and contributes massively to our teaching and research.
Though the work that community members bring to the table, such as resumes, might initially seem to be a far cry from the work we do in the “academic” environment, our consultants are able to make clear connections in the work that they do. Chris Earle, a Ph.D. student in composition and rhetoric who has worked at nearly all of MWA’s locations since joining the program last summer, explained that MWA has helped him to see how writing is so intimately related to identity. By conceptualizing writing in this way, Chris reminds us all of how important it is to see writers as multifaceted individuals who, by sharing their writing and accepting feedback, are making themselves vulnerable. While, for example, the medical history shared by a community member in a consulting session might make this most salient, the key is to carry this reminder back to our university teaching and writing center work, and consider how, for university students, personhood may be just as related to their own term papers.
Beyond the more abstract connections that Chris points us to, the material conditions MWA writers encounter make the stakes of rhetoric’s role in daily life feel concrete. For example, all writers struggle with word choice. When writing this blog entry, for example, we spent several minutes finding the right adjective for the connections that Chris made. Were those connections theoretical? Esoteric? What were the connotations of these choices? At the end of the day, our choice was one of style and clarity but not, as in the case of an action verb on a resume, persuading or dissuading someone to bring us in for an interview. The agony that this word choice invoked reminds us that writing always feels high stakes when you’re in it, but the community work might lend a meaningful sense of perspective that complements the rhetorical situations we encounter in the university.
Working with MWA also gets us out of the university. Most of the MWA consultants have moved to Madison from different countries and cities around the world, and community work provides a meaningful way to engage with our new city. The very act of driving from site to site has helped Elisabeth Miller, a Ph.D. student in composition and rhetoric, literally get to know the geography of the city and, through her work at Pinney Library, she is now a loyal patron of Michael’s Frozen Custard. Frozen treats aside, we think that many of the MWA consultants have appreciated the opportunity to get to know the wonderful people who give Madison its unique vibe. As a Ph.D. student in composition and rhetoric and a born-again Packers fanatic, Anne Wheeler has had plenty of great conversations about resumes—and about how awesome Aaron Rodgers is. In addition, our attendance at last year’s Celebration of Writing, held annually at the Goodman Branch of the Madison Public Library, provided an open forum for sharing writing, where Anne (along with several other current and former MWA consultants) read her creative work publicly for the first time in several years, participating as a citizen of Madison.
This human interaction is what makes doing MWA work well worth it for our consultants. Amy Huseby, an M.A. student in literary studies who also happens to be in the year that students take four classes a semester, says that her shift at Lakeview Library, where she offers job writing and computer assistance, is “intensely rewarding.” She explains, “It’s been wonderful to see the patrons with whom I work become successful in their job seeking computer skills and improved writing processes.” Amy’s reflection reminds us that writing is hard work and that MWA is a productive enterprise. In addition, Anne found out that a former client got a job in the arts that came with health insurance. In the current economic climate, this position is a bit of a “holy grail,” and although Anne was happy to have helped, it was the client who ultimately did the hard work of writing the cover letter, interviewing for the position, and now performing the job.
For us, the opportunities that MWA has provided have helped to inform the ways in which we look at where we live, what we study, how we teach, and how we see our role as academics. It’s been said before, but we’re going to say it again: graduate students frequently wear many hats. We’re students, we’re teachers, we’re tutors, we’re administrators, and occasionally, we’re even people who leave the house at night. And to stretch the hat metaphor beyond what may be healthy, Madison Writing Assistance is a great hat to wear.