Writing Center Websites and Their Discontents or
Dissing the Contents of Your Own Writing Center Website

Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk and future word-enthusiast Aubrey

Coordinator of the UW-Madison Online Writing Center, TA Christopher Syrnyk and future word-enthusiast Aubrey.

All Graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs) who are beyond their first semester of tutoring in UW-Madison’s Writing Center participate in professional development opportunities, known as Ongoing Education opportunities, affectionately, as an “OGE.” At the start of a semester, Teaching Assistants will often see a description at the top of an OGE selection form that reads as follows:

Ongoing Education activities are opportunities to challenge ourselves as teachers, think critically about our work, reach our personal goals, and collectively build a broad base of diverse knowledge, skills, and practices from which we all can draw.”

The commitment we have at UW-Madison, like many writing centers, to ongoing professional development for experienced graduate tutors, and for our undergraduate Writing Fellows, who are beyond their initial staff education is one element in a multi-part ongoing education. Thus, in addition to regular staff meetings and to videotaping, these OGEs constitute an essential part of our overall professional development as instructors. When we consider which OGE to pursue, we are encouraged to consider how each activity relates to our areas of interest and expertise as well as topics we find unfamiliar or challenging. Above all, we try to select OGE options that will help us reach our writing center goals to improve as colleagues and instructors.

This fall semester, among the fine offerings, a TA could choose from the following:

“A Window into Writing Center Scholarship: The Midwest Writing Center Association Conference”

OR

“A Discussion with Science Faculty from the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery”

AND

“Pursue your Writing Center Goals” (a self-directed project TAs could design for themselves)

Ok, right, well…at the head of this list, you would have found this one:

“Writing About What We Do: Revising the Description of the Writing Center on Our Website”

I had agreed to lead this OGE with Brad Hughes, the Director of the Writing Center and the Writing Across the Curriculum Program. During one of our weekly meetings at the start of the fall semester, Brad invited me to lead this OGE with him, and of course, how could I say no to such a great opportunity, so I said yes. To be honest, as the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center, I was very keen on thinking deeply about how we describe the work we do, from the metaphors we use to frame our view of writing instruction, to the diction we employ when describing what we do, and do not do, as a writing center.

When Brad and I were planning this OGE, he explained that an essential aspect of this OGE would be reading and discussing an important, recent article by Muriel “Mickey” Harris titled “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” Harris’s article, published in The Writing Center Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2010), asks those involved in writing center work, and in particular, theorists and practitioners involved in producing and maintaining a writing center website to consider “how we define ourselves to our institutions and how our institutions define us” (47). This is not only an interesting, problematic concern, but it also suggests a fundamental question that people who work in writing centers must ask themselves if they are going to be a part of writing centers that stay current, and which truly connect their institution to the people they serve. Harris’s article utilizes “concepts from the fields of business, linguistics, and social psychology and business writing” in order to prepare us for considering the “concept of ‘stickiness’” and how it can help us to rethink and revise how we present ourselves and what we do on our websites. In brief, and really, you should read this article, Harris defines “sticky writing” as “writing that is positive, appeals appropriately to our audiences, is highly memorable, and is concrete and specific” (48). As you can imagine, there’s much more to this concept, and this fine article, than I’ll be able to express in this brief blog post. However, during that planning meeting, Brad also informed me that, if fortunate, we’d be able to videoconference with Harris and discuss with her the work we did to revise our own website.

Time To Work on  Our Website…

Four Graduate Teaching Assistants joined Brad and me for this OGE: David Hudson, Kim Moreland, Tim Johnson and Danielle Warthen.

Writing Center TA Danielle Warthen

Writing Center TA Danielle Warthen

Writing Center TA David Hudson

Writing Center TA David Hudson

During our first of several meetings, we worked through an engaging discussion of Harris’s article and then determined our next steps. Over the course of the fall semester, we rethought and revised how we describe the individual help we offer students when they come to the Writing Center. We also worked diligently to apply the concepts and lessons of Harris’s article. Eventually, we were able to videoconference with Harris—she told us to call her Mickey. We thought we brought to the table some solid revision work on our Writing Center website. Then Mickey began to ask us some rather challenging questions: who we thought our audience was, why and how did we choose the verbs we used to frame our descriptions of our Writing Center tutoring, and why were we addressing our audiences as if we were talking to a group of rhetoricians and writing center theorists…

Writing Center TA Tim Johnson

Writing Center TA Tim Johnson

We offered up, “Who can improve their writing by talking with a Writing Center Instructor?” and Mickey countered with, “Who’s the Writing Center for?” We thought it would be important to ask, “What do we mean by ‘talking about writing?’” and Mickey encouraged us to simplify and revise, and we suggested, “Do you need to talk about your writing project?” During the course of our videoconference, we went from “Who are the Writing Center Instructors?” to “Who are we?” As instructors, we were very grateful for the time Mickey gave to us. She was incredibly thoughtful and supportive in her advice, but at the same time she challenged us to think deeply about the work we were trying to accomplish concerning our own institutional discourse. All of us greatly appreciate Mickey’s professional support, her warm and friendly way of engaging us, and her willingness to spend her time videoconferencing with us last December.

We concluded the videoconference, which was a great learning experience, for all of Mickey’s scholarly grace and good

Muriel Harris is professor emerita of English at Purdue, where she is also the Writing Lab Founder and Director (retired), and Editor of the Writing Lab Newsletter.

Muriel Harris is professor emerita of English at Purdue, where she is also the Writing Lab Founder and Director (retired), and Editor of the Writing Lab Newsletter.

advice, with an invitation from Mickey to write an article about the work we were doing on our website (and what we needed to rethink, revise, and redo) and then to send this article to The Writing Lab Newsletter, where Mickey is founding and current editor. We left our work last fall and planned to reconvene this spring. “Dissing” the words you use to represent the contents of your own writing center website can be a rewarding and eye-opening experience: I believe all of us left the videoconference with a new appreciation for the differences between how you believe you come across to your readers and how your readers actually interpret your words.

Time Marched On…

Writing Center TA Kim Moreland

Writing Center TA Kim Moreland

When we resumed our work this spring, we started to consider how this kind of website revision work could shape our online identity. We were inspired to think about what a good learning process could be when we have a group of experienced graduate level instructors, inspired by Mickey, and how could we apply her ideas, and extend them. During our most recent meeting, we were all fully engaged in this process. Kim and David pushed the lot of us to debate the perceived collision between pursuing a more direct, exigence-oriented approach (the, “what do you need” and “what do you want”)  versus the need to “frame” what we do in a positive manner (i.e., we struggled with how to say what we cannot do) and along with the appropriate “you-attitude” (creating a way for students to see themselves in what they were trying to accomplish). Danielle and Tim led the charge to ponder questions versus statements on the website, and what our audiences would prefer: we could sense the productive tension amongst ourselves as we deliberated, and we ultimately decided to take some of our questions to the students themselves. And Tim volunteered to take some of the texts we produced to his intermediate composition class—they were game to apply their rhetorical analysis skills to our texts.

If you would like to see what happens, stay tuned for the next blog post.

You could also look for the changes when we post them to our website.

And if you have some ideas or suggestions, thoughts or advice—send us an email at writing.wisc.edu, or post a comment below.

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