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.

24 thoughts on “Writing Center Websites and Their Discontents or
Dissing the Contents of Your Own Writing Center Website

  1. Wow–a focus group. I look forward to seeing what Tim’s comp class has to say. As the writer of my writing center’s web content, I too struggle to achieve “sticky” writing. I constantly have to remind myself who I’m writing for. The real trouble comes when I can’t decide whether to focus my rhetorical attention on colleagues in the college, current writing center users, or prospective new users. My college has an entire marketing department devoted to this balancing act. The Writing Center just has…me. Oh well.

  2. Hi Sarah! You know, we ran into that problem, too – although we envisioned students as the primary audience for our draft, we also thought about colleagues and administrators as well as people outside of the university who might look at our website. And of course, even students have different perspectives, as you point out. It is an incredible juggling act and I never realized how rhetorically challenging this task would be until we started.
    This exercise, aside from its practical goal, has been really useful and revealing. When we put our draft together to show Mickey Harris, we really put a great deal of time and effort into the language we chose. However, I think we were imagining our student audience as having the same concerns about writing and writing centers that we as instructors have. Mickey helped us see that we were giving answers to questions we thought they should ask us, not necessarily the answers to the questions they actually have. (Thanks, Mickey!)

  3. Great post, Christopher (and Aubrey!). In a recent discussion group here at UW-Madison, we looked at a couple of different writing centers’ websites and what struck me most was the different ways people describe their centers on their homepages. Those couple of sentences say so much about what a center’s main missions, philosophies, and aims are, so I really appreciate the work you guys are doing to revise ours!

  4. What a timely post! We here at Walden are also reconsidering the utility of our website and if it accomplishes what it is we think it accomplishes. This post also fits well with a discussion that we had at the Writing Center Professionals of Minnesota (WCPM) meeting we had earlier this month where we discussed “How we explain ourselves to faculty” and the obstacles we face when trying to collaborate with faculty who might or might not understand writing center philosophy. I’ll also be taking Harris’s article to heart as I contribute to a new website here at Walden for our new Academic Skills Center, which will offer tutoring for math, reading, and more!

  5. Thanks for the excellent post, Christopher. I’m especially intrigued (and sympathize with) the difficulty you mentioned in explaining what the writing center does “not” do. To think about this a little further, I wonder if we can turn the concept of “stickiness” on its head. In other words, if how we frame the writing center–either on our website, or at our receptionist desk, or even during our tutoring sessions–has any and everything to do with how the students themselves imagine the center (as opposed to the tutors, or the people who work there), I wonder how much or how little students expectations of the writing center match up both with our understanding of what it is or does, or how they match up with other students. In short, the concept of “sticky” rhetoric is itself a very slippery (and always changing) phenomenon, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is all perhaps a long way of saying that I’m looking forward to what Tim’s intermediate writing class thinks!

  6. As a member of the writing center, I appreciate the effort you all have put into this. I cannot think of a better or more thoughtful group of people to tackle the language we use to describe ourselves and what we can and cannot do. This is kind of a side note, but I just wanted to note that the experience I had in the OGE at the Institutes of Discovery with science writers made it clear to me that the way we describe what we do is often framed through default in language that is coded towards the humanities. This despite the fact that we are often explicit about helping with all kinds of writing at all different stages. Hearing science writers talk about the way the writing process proceeded (writing certain parts of an article or lab report) reminded me that the writing process is unique for different disciplines. Maybe in the same way that we ask questions that we think students should ask to figure out what the WC can offer, we ask questions that we as humanities students think students would be interested in, even if they may in fact be from a science background. A place where we found overlap in the OGE is the idea of telling stories–this metaphor seemed to encompass both what we felt we did in literature, and what the science writers felt they did in describing an experiment or series of observations.

  7. I second Emily’s observations. I admit I am often at a loss when confronted with a piece of hard science writing and the student just really expects me to edit for grammar. How can I understand THAT language and how can I be helpful here? I approach my writing center appointments from the humanities perspective, and am often confounded by the reality that writing is shaped rhetorically, informed by varied personas, audiences, and yes, disciplines. Academic writing is, after all, academic-specific writing. Indeed, narrative could be a commonality across the different disciplines that we could exploit in our individual sessions (and in the language we use on our website). Talking about writing as genres of writing, could be another. Thanks for the post, Christopher.

  8. Hi all, thanks for the comments so far and sorry to take so long to post the feedback from my class. I was hoping to get more feedback this morning from my class, but didn’t ultimately have time. More to come next week.

    Here’s what my class had to say:

    1. Don’t be bashful. If we want to mitigate the myth that a writing center is not just for “remedial” writers, just say so (one student said this works well for the course drop bit on the University’s website). If we don’t want English 201 students making appointments, tell them directly and explain why.

    2. They liked the FAQ set up that we used to frame our information page, it seemed more “clickable.” But they also wanted us to be more direct with our language. They had a few suggestions for how to attract them with the questions and still slip in our messages about the ethos of the center. For example:

    - How far along should I be in a paper to make an appointment? (To show that we like dealing with the whole writing process.)

    -Can I bring in a resume? (To set up that professional writing is encouraged.)

    - What other kinds of writing can I bring to the Center? (They very much liked seeing examples of what was possible and what they could get help with.)

    3. They said it would be a good idea to put more focus on the “things they wouldn’t think of” like bringing in an outline, talking about grant opportunities, or figuring out a job cover letter in the questions themselves.

    4. They expressed a great deal of interest in being able to make an appointment online. While I’m not sure this is a possibility, it did say a lot about their want for an active site where they can take concrete steps toward improving their writing.

    They were very open to continuing to help with feedback, so I suspect more reactions will come back next week when we can make time for another discussion session.

  9. What’s been most useful and invigorating about thinking about the writing on the site is that it’s really forced me to consider how extensive the network of communication is when it comes to describing the writing process and encouraging students and faculty to approach collaborative learning. We know, as writers and writing instructors, that we need to consider the rhetorical situation and our audience while developing effective writing. But when that audience is so very diverse and large…? The challenges that we’re facing now in trying to clearly convey ideas to our audience have been real, but the reward for me is thinking about our WC audience and what they need from us before they ever sit down with a tutor. We focus so much on the actual session in training and professional development (deservedly so!), acknowledging that we’ll navigate any discipline-specific concerns as they arise, that it’s been really useful for me to also think about how extensive that “first conversation” actually is, as well as its importance. The conversation starts before the student ever sits down with us during a session, so it benefits us to analyze the writing on the site, too. Thanks for writing this post, Christopher – I think it really encapsulates the process that we’ve been going through.

  10. Truly interesting blog post, Chris, and I especially enjoyed reading about actually asking students to respond to your description of the wc. It would be equally useful to ask faculty and administrators what they think the wc should be doing. No, we can’t merely mirror back to them what they would like to hear. But we can begin to find common ground between what the wc does and what they’d like it to do. Helping others understand what we do and how we do it is an incredibly complex rhetorical exercise. But we’re exactly the people who should be flexing those rhetorical muscles, not others who want to define us on their terms. You are all asking yourselves some of the most basic, most important questions, and you’re doing it in honest ways. HURRAH! You’re the best hope for our future, not those who repeat the terminology of our journals to others outside the wc who don’t really grasp what that means. And too many people in wc’s are either content to tell each other how well we’re doing or who assume a defensive posture and proclaim what we “DON”T” do. Bravo to you all…you’re taking a much more scholarly, productive path to define the complexity of writing center work. As for that delicate balancing of who to address (students? faculty? administrators?), are there ways to separate the home page so that it directs each audience to follow different paths through the website? Could all of us who are following this blog post spend some time here tossing up suggestions?
    -Thanks for letting me into this great discussion!
    Mickey

  11. P.S.See folks, when you let in wordy types like me to chat with you, I just keep intruding. But I want to explain something. I offered those comments about actually asking students, faculty, etc. about their perceptions and responses to what you write about the wc on your website are based on a story I read somewhere in the literature of the English Renaissance and early humanists. (Hey, I’m so old that there was doctoral program in rhet/comp when I was a grad student.) The story was that some scholars were sitting around debating how many teeth a horse has, and after a few hours of this, a young page attending one of the scholars went outside to the stable and actually counted the horses’ teeth.I realize that this practice now sounds very modern, even has a name like “focus groups,” but it’s not a new concept. Seems like a touch of reality, and to me, leads to the kind of scholarship based on experimental research. Often the best kind, though (as Donald Schoen says), you let the messiness of reality enter in….as opposed to the purity of the clean lab where results can get skewed.
    -Mickey

  12. Great post! Self-reflection is such a huge part of what we teach and encourage, but not something we always engage in, especially as pertains to our own rhetoric. I also think this analysis needs to extend beyond message and audience and to the method. I admire how you are focusing on your online content and the added dimension of new media writing where the demands of content, graphics, and website utility come into play. This project also brings to mind a TED talk by Sinek about the Golden Circle (not to be confused with the Golden Compass) where he discusses how people do not buy what you do, but why you do it. We’ve been working to revise our marketing materials, as well as philosophy, in closer alignment with Sinek’s theory.

    Keep up the great work,

    Kathryn

  13. There’s been a lot of (good) talk about text. Now I wonder, what about multimedia? Can it, too, be sticky?

  14. Thank you for this interesting post, Christopher! I am really impressed by the way ongoing education is integrated in the writing center work here at UW Madison and how it is also used to ensure ongoing improvement of the writing center itself (I reported on that in our German Blog, too: http://schreibzentrum.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/workshops-und-weiterbildungen/).
    Muriel’s article is very helpful. We studied it in our writing center in Germany to think about writing a letter to faculty, explaining what we do.
    Katrin

  15. I second Emily’s observations. I admit I am often at a loss when confronted with a piece of hard science writing and the student just really expects me to edit for grammar. How can I understand THAT language and how can I be helpful here? I approach my writing center appointments from the humanities perspective, and am often confounded by the reality that writing is shaped rhetorically, informed by varied personas, audiences, and yes, disciplines. Academic writing is, after all, academic-specific writing. Indeed, narrative could be a commonality across the different disciplines that we could exploit in our individual sessions (and in the language we use on our website). Talking about writing as genres of writing, could be another. Thanks for the post, Christopher.

  16. Thanks for directing me to your blog, Christopher. It is exciting to hear the writing center’s recent initiative. I just recently sent in revisions for Wisconsin Lutheran College’s Academic Success Center page. Since the site features resources for both students and faculty/staff, it was difficult to describe the center for both audiences. I understand the struggle of deciding on audience intent! Your blog post encourages me to include an actual webpage for the writing center on our main site. Right now, the writing center details, services, etc. are on the students’ online learning site that contains class content, online courses, enews, etc.

    Since we are a small college of only one thousand students, we promote our writing center a bit differently. The webpage is not the main faq or q&a for our students. In fact, I doubt that many students have even used the website to find information about the writing center. Instead, our tutors attend freshmen orientation and talk in small groups to the incoming freshmen about the writing center. The writing tutors also go to most of the wac courses to have a five minute description of the services available along with a q&a time for the students. I am interested in doing more with online centers, information, resources, etc. to supplement what we are already doing face-to-face. Thanks for the post!

  17. What a great project. Kim’s comment really struck me: “I think we were imagining our student audience as having the same concerns about writing and writing centers that we as instructors have.” I’m wondering now if I’m doing this as I’m drafting up ways to represent our forthcoming online option. Harris’ paper will be a great resource.

    Asking students for feedback is great idea, too. I’m stealing that one.

    I look forward to seeing the changes you make on the website. Please let us know when they go live!

  18. Truly interesting blog post, Chris, and I especially enjoyed reading about actually asking students to respond to your description of the wc. It would be equally useful to ask faculty and administrators what they think the wc should be doing. No, we can’t merely mirror back to them what they would like to hear. But we can begin to find common ground between what the wc does and what they’d like it to do. Helping others understand what we do and how we do it is an incredibly complex rhetorical exercise. But we’re exactly the people who should be flexing those rhetorical muscles, not others who want to define us on their terms. You are all asking yourselves some of the most basic, most important questions, and you’re doing it in honest ways. HURRAH! You’re the best hope for our future, not those who repeat the terminology of our journals to others outside the wc who don’t really grasp what that means. And too many people in wc’s are either content to tell each other how well we’re doing or who assume a defensive posture and proclaim what we “DON”T” do. Bravo to you all…you’re taking a much more scholarly, productive path to define the complexity of writing center work. As for that delicate balancing of who to address (students? faculty? administrators?), are there ways to separate the home page so that it directs each audience to follow different paths through the website? Could all of us who are following this blog post spend some time here tossing up suggestions?
    -Thanks for letting me into this great discussion!

  19. it was difficult to describe the center for both audiences. I understand the struggle of deciding on audience intent! Your blog post encourages me to include an actual webpage for the writing center on our main site. Right now, the writing center details, services, etc. are on the students’ online learning site that contains class content, online courses, enews, etc.

    Since we are a small college of only one thousand students, we promote our writing center a bit differently. The webpage is not the main faq or q&a for our students. In fact, I doubt that many students have even used the website to find information about the writing center. Instead, our tutors attend freshmen orientation and talk in small groups to the incoming freshmen about the writing center.

  20. Pingback: Now is The Writing Center Website of Our Discontent, Made Glorious Summer by This Sum of Our Work (or Feast Your Eyes on Our Revised Individual Help with Writing Page!)

  21. Great article. Reading it makes me think of how writing is central to your webdesign strategy nowadays. With so much emphasis on the actual content on your website and quality of writing I think small business owners need to step up to the plate in a sense and become writers to really succeed.

  22. Muriel’s article is very helpful. We studied it in our writing center in Germany to think about writing a letter to faculty, explaining what we do.

  23. This post also fits well with a discussion that we had at the Writing Center Professionals of Minnesota (WCPM) meeting we had earlier this month where we discussed “How we explain ourselves to faculty” and the obstacles we face when trying to collaborate with faculty who might or might not understand writing center philosophy. I’ll also be taking Harris’s article to heart as I contribute to a new website here at Walden for our new Academic Skills Center, which will offer tutoring for math, reading, and more!

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