I’ve long argued that writing centers at research universities should prepare interested doctoral students to lead strong, innovative writing centers and WAC programs when they move into their faculty careers. And that we should do this in systematic and sustained ways. Being a dedicated, successful, experienced writing tutor is of course a necessary part of that preparation, but that alone is not sufficient. Professional development for future writing center directors is something our Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison takes seriously—my colleagues and I are proud that this past year, in 2011 alone, seven more of our PhD alums, at various stages of their careers, were offered positions as writing center directors or assistant directors around the country, joining many other distinguished UW-Madison alums who direct writing centers.
This question—of how research universities can prepare graduate students to become writing center directors as part of their faculty careers—has been an important topic of discussion when the writing center directors from the universities in the Big 10 conference meet once a year (I’m always hoping that some athletic competition will break out during meetings of Big 10 writing center directors, but, alas, none yet). We’ve talked several times about what we can do—intentionally and systematically–to prepare our grad students to lead strong writing center and WAC programs. As an outgrowth of these discussions, at the 2010 IWCA conference in Baltimore, several members of the Big 10 group spoke about the opportunities we have and the challenges we face as we prepare graduate students to be future writing center directors.
Writing Center Leadership in and Beyond the Curriculum
There are, of course, many ways to prepare graduate students to direct writing centers and WAC programs. The first and most important, of course, is to offer an excellent PhD program in composition and rhetoric, to give doctoral students deep knowledge of theory and research and first-hand experience designing and conducting original research in composition and rhetoric. At the same time, during their years in graduate school, doctoral students need to gain deep experience working in cross-curricular writing centers. In addition to experience within a writing center, numerous PhD programs now offer graduate WPA seminars specifically on writing center and WAC studies and leadership. Among the many: Linda Bergmann’s at Purdue, Ben Rafoth’s at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Frankie Condon’s at the University of Nebraska. These graduate courses give future directors a strong grounding in the literature of the field, as well as critical perspectives on writing center theory and practice. And, crucially, they help doctoral students move from thinking like a tutor to thinking strategically as a director needs to do. (For more information about graduate courses on writing center leadership, see Rebecca Jackson, Carrie Leverenz, and Joe Law, “(RE)shaping the Profession: Graduate Courses in Writing Center Theory, Practice, and Administration,” in The Center Will Hold, ed. Michael Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead; and for important perspectives on graduate-student leadership in writing centers, see (E)Merging Identities: Graduate Students in the Writing Center, ed. Melissa Nicholas.) At our Writing Center, this semester 15 doctoral students have chosen to participate in a new four-part series about writing center and WAC leadership—a reading and discussion group for graduate students interested in preparing to make writing center and WAC work part of their faculty careers.
The week-long IWCA Summer Institute has, since its inception here at UW-Madison in 2003, always welcomed graduate-student participants who are interested in writing center careers, and when we’ve hosted the institute here, we’ve created numerous opportunities for UW-Madison doctoral students to lead and participate in sessions. For a description of the Institute, see this article in the IWCA Newsletter. The 2012 IWCA Summer Institute will be held near Pittsburgh, from July 29-August 3.
Many writing centers also give undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to engage in writing center and WAC research and cross-campus collaborations, research that is important preparation to lead writing center programs. If you’re interested in examples of these research projects, I’d recommend two of my favorites: Jon Olson, Dawn Moyer, and Adelia Falda, “Student-Centered Assessment Research in the Writing Center,” in Writing Center Research: Extending the Discussion; and Carol Haviland, Sherry Green, Barbara Kime Shields, and M. Todd Harper, “Neither Missionaries Nor Colonists Nor Handmaidens: What Writing Tutors Can Teach Faculty about Inquiry,” in Writing Centers and Writing Across the Curriculum Programs. As centers host regional and international conferences and IWCA summer institutes, graduate students often play important roles in planning and presenting, as we did here at Madison when we partnered with Edgewood College and Madison College to host the October 2011 Midwest Writing Centers Association Conference.
Leadership Positions for Graduate Students
Many writing centers have substantial leadership positions for graduate students. Our Center, for example, gives doctoral students the chance to work in these one- or two-year leadership positions, all of which involve extensive mentoring:
- TA assistant director of the Writing Center
- TA Assistant Director of our Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program
- TA Coordinator of our Online Writing Center
- TA Coordinator of our Writing Center’s Multicultural Initiatives
- TA Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum
- TA Coordinator of our Writing Center’s Outreach Program Across Campus
- Graduate Coordinators of Madison Writing Assistance (a community writing center program)
As many centers do, we also give grad students on our staff the chance to design and teach in our extensive writing center workshop program and work and teach collaboratively with faculty and staff in many departments through our campus outreach program. The process of applying and interviewing for these leadership positions, the year or two of work in these roles, and the extensive mentoring that occurs between the Writing Center’s career staff and the TAs in these leadership positions–all of these are, we hope, valuable preparation for leading a writing center or WAC program in the future. For more about mentoring graduate students in leadership positions within writing centers, see Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli, “Mentoring Graduate Students as Assistant Directors: Complementary Journeys,” in (E)Merging Identities: Graduate Students in the Writing Center, ed. Melissa Nicholas.
The Idea of the Colloquium
In addition to these important opportunities, for close to 20 years our Writing Center has sponsored what we call the Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium. It’s an informal gathering, held once a month during the academic year, in the evening from 5:30 to 7:00. The colloquium, which usually draws 15-20 people each time, is open to anyone in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois interested in discussing writing center theory, research, and practice.
This mix of current graduate students from the University with tutors and professionals and faculty from other schools in the region is deliberate and powerful. Participating in these cross-institutional conversations gives our graduate students who are interested in writing center work as part of their careers a chance to broaden their knowledge of other writing centers, specifically the ways that missions, models, programs, staff, and cultures can vary across centers. The contacts developed in the colloquium also help graduate students make connections for future research with and jobs at other centers.
The colloquium also simultaneously serves as a mini-regional group, bringing together and building community among directors and student tutors from writing centers throughout this part of the upper midwest. Participants come from from a wonderful mix of two-year colleges, high schools, comprehensive universities, research universities, public and private. And undergraduate writing fellows from our staff at UW-Madison and undergraduate tutors from other colleges and universities participate because of their interest in a particular colloquium topic or their desire to explore graduate study in composition and rhetoric.
Colloquium Topics and Speakers
Here’s a sample of the colloquia from the past two years:
- Research on tutor learning and tutor alumni, with Harvey Kail, University of Maine; Paula Gillespie, Florida International University; Margaret Mika, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Brad Hughes, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Writing Center Assessment, a discussion of Dara Rossman Regaignon and Pamela Bromley, “What Difference Do Writing Fellows Programs Make?” (The WAC Journal)
- “How Contexts Shape Writing Center Work: Insights into Writing Instruction and a Writing Center in Germany,” with Katrin Girgensohn, European University Viadrina and Visiting Scholar (2011-12) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center
- Writing Center Collaborations with Faculty Across the Disciplines: A Discussion of Jeff Jablonski’s Academic Writing Consulting and WAC
- “Paths to a New Writing Center: Proposing, Politicking, Planning and Persevering,” with Margaret Mika, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
- “Shifting the Boundaries: Importing and Exporting Writing Center Practices Between the University and the Community,” with Annie Massa-MacLeod, David Hudson, Elisabeth Miller, Anne Wheeler, Rachel Carrales, and Melissa Tedrowe, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- A Videoconference Conversation about The Idea of a Writing Laboratory, with Neal Lerner from MIT
- A Discussion of Karen Rowan’s “All the Best Intentions: Graduate Student Administrative Professional Development in Practice” (The Writing Center Journal)
- Facing the Author: A Videoconference with Harry Denny about Facing the Center, St. John’s University
- “Writing Assessment Through Film: An Experiment in Collegiality,” with Angela Woodward, Jed Hopkins, and Emily Keown, Edgewood College
- “Growing Pains: More Students, More Tutors, More Space, Same Budget,” with Sarah Johnson, Madison College
- “Cultivating Potentials for Social Change,” with Beth Godbee, University of Wisconsin-Madison
- “‘How to Be a Writing Center Director’ and Other Lessons I Learned Five Minutes after Graduate School,” a videoconference with Mary Lou Odom, Kennesaw State University
- “(Some of) What a Writing Center Director Needs to Know,” with Angela Woodward, Edgewood College; Melissa Tedrowe, Nancy Linh Karls, Brad Hughes, University of Wisconsin-Madison
In the past, the colloquium has featured numerous distinguished guests who’ve joined us in person or by videoconference:
- Christine Cozzens, Agnes Scott College
- Michele Eodice, University of Oklahoma
- Nancy Grimm, Michigan Tech University
- Harvey Kail, University of Maine
- Lisa Ede, Oregon State University
- Christina Murphy, Marshall University
- John Duffy, University of Notre Dame
- Paula Gillespie, Florida International University
For more information about the Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium, here’s a link to its webpage. And here’s a link to a poster about the colloquium, a poster designed by our Writing Center’s administrator, Terry Maggio.
Some Reflections on the Colloquium from Participants
From Angela Woodward, Director of the Writing Center at Edgewood College, Madison, WI:
“I think I’ve been coming pretty regularly since 2005. For me, it’s been revitalizing, a once a month boost, to get to think about broader writing center issues, when much of my day-to-day occupation is keeping up with the next thing in front of me. So the colloquium has been an ever-resurfacing reminder that there are bigger issues than today’s absent tutor. And we’ve had some wonderful topics. I remember the time we looked at gaming and tutor training simulation a few years ago, and last year’s colloquium with Beth Godbee, when she showed her film and discussed conversation analysis. We’ve had video conferences with Nancy Grimm and Michele Eodice, and we had Christine Cozzens, from Agnes Scott College, while she was visiting Madison. Even though I’m at a tiny college where I’m the only writing center person on staff, the colloquium has kept me connected to the field.”
From Beth Godbee, Assistant Professor of English, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI:
“The Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium has been, in many ways, an intellectual home for me since moving to Wisconsin in 2005. Presentations and discussions vary from session to session, but always inspire further questions and inquiry into what we do everyday in writing centers (in our work with writers, tutors, faculty, community partners, and others involved in writing and the teaching of writing). I love connecting with colleagues from Southern Wisconsin and even Northern Illinois, and this vibrant mini-regional has inspired those of us in Milwaukee to hold our first “Milwaukee Area” meeting later this spring.
“As a presenter, I’ve appreciated the thoughtful questions and feedback that have pushed my research further, and as a group/audience member, I’ve appreciated the opportunity learn about colleagues’ research in campus and community writing centers.”
From Margie Mika, Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee:
“The Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium is a professional and collegial lifeline. Participating allows me stay connected to valued colleagues and to join lively conversations about always relevant issues. I learn from–and with–some of the absolute best in our field. Brad Hughes, Nancy Karls, the UW-Madison students and all the other participants never fail to make the short drive to Madison entirely worthwhile.”
From Dave Stock, a Ph.D. Student in Composition and Rhetoric and the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
“Shortly after I moved to Madison and started the PhD program in Comp/Rhet at UW-Madison, I began attending the Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium. These colloquia were my first entry point into the writing center community in the Madison area, and they have become an important way for me to feel connected with people at UW-Madison and abroad who are interested in and engaged in some kind of writing center work. I really enjoy being with others who share an interest in writing center work, and I really appreciate having this space to talk about research, reflect on experiences, ask questions, and lend support to others. The greatest thing about these colloquia is being able to build connections and friendships with scholars, teachers, and administrators who value and engage in writing center work.”
From Sarah Johnson, Director of the Writing Center at Madison Area Technical College:
“As Director of the Madison Area Technical College Writing Center, I’ve enjoyed immensely the contact and collegiality of the Colloquium over the years. Our discussions range from the deeply theoretical to the grittily practical. And because the group comprises directors and tutors from all sorts of institutions, from small private colleges to research universities to two-year transfer schools, we’re able to tackle a wide range of issues facing modern writing centers. Yet more importantly, we also discover how our work intersects, how what we do is essentially similar. We all want writers to look at their words on the page and say, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to say.’”
As I’m sure you can tell, my colleagues and I hope that the colloquium is one modest way to help prepare future faculty directors for writing centers. We also hope that, in some small ways, the colloquium helps strengthen the community of writing center tutors and leaders and scholars in our part of the upper Midwest, and hope that it strengthens the centers we all work in.
Thanks so much for reading! Do you have reactions to or questions about the Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium? How does your center or how did your graduate program prepare graduate students to be great writing center directors in their faculty careers? Thoughts about additional ways that universities and our professional associations can contribute to this effort? Please add a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.
director, writing center
director, writing across the curriculum