Bridges That Outlast Their Builders: Creating Ongoing Partnerships through Outreach

The Sociology building's Carillon Tower

The Sewell Social Sciences' Carillon Tower

During the snow storms last week, I trekked through the layers of fresh Wisconsin slush to the Social Sciences building. I made my journey upon an invitation to meet with a Sociology faculty member, prepared to discuss co-teaching a session on poster presentations. While watching flaky descents of snow through his window, we chatted for almost an hour about how we might help his students emulate the department’s prize winning posters. Of course, we didn’t actually need nearly that much time to discuss the session. We were both so eager to explore the challenge and craft of visual design and to understand one another’s approaches to teaching this genre that our conversation stretched beyond our original plan. By the end of our meeting, we both left with an enhanced understanding of how our respective fields (Sociology and Composition and Rhetoric) approach visual design in posters, and we had collaboratively developed a strong lesson plan for teaching research posters for his department’s graduate student professional development group.

These kinds of thoughtful, collaborative, back and forth conversations with faculty and staff from across the campus form an integral part of the Writing Center’s Outreach program. For decades, Outreach has visited courses and organizations around the UW-Madison campus. Last semester alone, the Outreach team visited over eighty courses, campus events, and campus organizations. At its most basic, the Outreach team seeks to “get the word out” about the Writing Center. We want undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and leaders of campus organizations to know who we are and how we can work with them. “Getting the word out” is just the beginning. While Outreach offers several different kinds of class visits, each has one thing in common: the goal of creating a strong, collaborative, ongoing partnership between the Writing Center and other parts of the university community.

Two ways of creating partnerships through Outreach visits

Outreach visits fall into two broad categories: brief introductions to the Writing Center and instructional visits. (For a little more on these types of visits and on Outreach as a whole, see Rik Hunter’s post about the Outreach Program.) Brief introductions explain how the Writing Center can work with a specific class or campus group. I always love leading these short class visits; they let me meet a group of students, learn a little about the kind of writing they are doing for their class or professional development group, and share how the Writing Center can work with them on their current projects.

Instructional visits offer a glimpse into the teaching strategies at the Writing Center. In these visits, one of our instructors works together with a contact person from the class or organization that invited us. Together, our instructor and our contact person decide how the session can provide customized, focused writing workshops for that class or campus group. Our instruction-based outreaches usually involve workshops for a specific genre of writing (like developing literature reviews for an engineering class) or interactive lessons about a specific aspect of writing (like developing strong research questions for a political science paper). Instruction-based Outreaches can last anywhere from half an hour to over an hour, and we are eager to work with instructors in every discipline. Personally, I have co-planned and co-taught sessions on writing in disciplines as diverse as Political Science, Chemical Engineering, Languages and Cultures of Asia, Geology, and Library and Information Science–to name a few–as well as professional development workshops organized by various students services and campus organizations.

Co-teaches, like the session I co-planned with the Sociology faculty member, illustrate the spirit of collaboration that is so integral to Outreach. But other kinds of class visits also seek to create strong partnerships. Before making a simple ten minute introduction to a class, for example, the Outreach staff member matched with the course will need to dialogue with the course instructor. Learning even a little about the course and students can help our instructor explain how we can work with the specific group of students in the class, on each stage of their current projects.

Chamberlin Hall, site of an Outreach session on cover letters for biology students

Chamberlin Hall, site of an Outreach session on cover letters for biology students

Engineering Hall, where I led a workshop on literature reviews last year

Engineering Hall, where I led a workshop on literature reviews last year

Why strong partnerships matter

Why strong partnerships matter

Outreach, to me, is a form of collaborative bridge building. I have been on staff for two years, and I now coordinate the Outreach program. What I love most about the work we do is the collaborative, back and forth conversations that I enjoy with faculty and leaders of campus groups. As I readily share Writing Center practices with our campus partners, by working closely with these faculty, staff, or campus leaders from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, I always learn more than I would have ever expected about writing in their field of expertise.

Partnerships built together with faculty and campus groups become strongest when they become ongoing. In Outreach, we love first-time opportunities to visit courses or campus groups. Without a doubt, first-time visits can offer the students we meet a wonderful introduction to the Writing Center. However, in my own experience, I have found that our instruction-based class visits tend to be most effective when we can co-plan, and when possible, co-teach these sessions with the course instructor. And they tend to be at their very best when we can continue working together, renewing our conversations, and developing our plans for class visits from semester to semester.

Both one-time class visits and partnerships that we continue from semester to semester thrive on the rapport built between s member of the campus community and one of our Outreach staff. In that sense, every relationship we build with students, faculty, staff, and campus leaders becomes eminently personal. This brings us to one of the core challenges of Outreach. As I have continued to work in the program for multiple years, I have been struck by how the partnerships we build as individual members of Outreach so often outlast us.  It is true that many outreaches are led by Brad Hughes, the Director of the Writing Center, or by other senior staff members. However, most of our outreach sessions are led by highly experienced graduate instructors.  Our instructors are all Ph.D. students, which means that they will join the staff for a limited number of years before moving on to other Universities or positions. As an example of this phenomenon, the Sociology professor I mentioned earlier partnered with a different outreach instructor last semester. Since I will eventually step aside to make room for others to lead the program in the future, the next time he requests an outreach session, he may once again work with someone new. Partnerships with ever-changing faces seem to be part and parcel of joint ventures within the University. The gradual, continual change in personnel means that Writing Centers must find creative strategies to encourage sustainable partnerships.

Of course, sustainability means establishing a strong relationship in the first place. It also means continually re-establishing a relationship, once made. Sometimes, course instructors who have worked with us before and would like us to return to the class are surprised when we invite them to meet with us again during the current semester. I know how precious time is at the University, so these invitations are never made flippantly. We never want to assume that what worked for a previous group of students will necessarily work as well for a new group. Instead, we want to design a strong, highly customized session that meets the specific needs of the new students, and that even improves upon the instructional strategies used in previous years. Even more important though, every email, every phone call, every meeting offers another chance to re-forge a strong personal connection with the teacher or campus leader. I especially value re-establishing face-to-face relationships, to chat with a faculty member about students’ writing-based triumphs and challenges since we last met, to become active participants in the course for the new semester.

The most powerful way of sustaining relationships across campus, I suspect, is to continue forwarding the professionalism, approachability, and enthusiasm for others’ writing that has been so well established over the years by our previous Writing Center colleagues. The staff I have worked with in Outreach truly represents the Center’s ethos. Without their daily dedication to representing the highest practices and spirit of the Writing Center, nothing else we do would be possible.

Strong bridges far outlast their builders. I’m thrilled to be the beneficiary of the relationships previous Writing Center instructors formed with faculty and campus leaders across the University, and I hope the partnerships in which I participate also far outlast my tenure.

Learn more about Outreach

If you would like to learn more about the Outreach program, check out our Outreach site. You can also fill out an Outreach request to begin a conversation with an Outreach instructor about visiting your class or group. We would love to talk with you.

Dominique Bourg-Hacker, current staff member

Dominique Bourg-Hacker, current staff member

David Hudson, Outreach Coordinator 2011-2012

David Hudson, Outreach Coordinator 2011-2012

Marshelle, current staff member

Marshelle, current staff member

Michael, recent staff member

Michael, recent staff member

Kristiane Stapleton, current Outreach member

Kristiane Stapleton, current Outreach member

Elisabeth Miller, current Outreach member

Elisabeth Miller, current Outreach member

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