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

10 thoughts on “Bridges That Outlast Their Builders: Creating Ongoing Partnerships through Outreach

  1. I love this post, David! You really capture what makes doing outreach so special–the relationships you’re able to build with faculty members and students from different disciplines. In my outreach work, I’ve so enjoyed learning about disciplinary conventions and genres that I wouldn’t typically have access to.

    I should also note how varied and exciting this work is! I love that I get to teach writing to student organizations that are eager to learn a specific genre, but I also get to work with TAs invested in teaching writing to undergraduates.

    It’s always different, always rewarding!

  2. I love the title of this post, David, and I really appreciate the way you’ve talked about the work we do. This side of the Writing Center is something that not everyone gets to witness or even hear about as much as I’d like, because it helps us understand the multidisciplinarity of our center in a new way. Thanks for sharing.

  3. David this is a fantastic post, and like Rachel, one of the reasons that I love to work for outreach is because I get to meet students and instructors from other schools and programs and learn about the work they do. For instance I worked with the School of Education for an admission essay outreach, and I learned a lot about the kind of work education students are expected to do. This information and connection was not only helpful during my outreach, but has helped see the education students that I help in the writing center in a new light.

  4. David, you start this post with your exposure to the elements as you made your way to this outreach meeting, and it makes for such a great vivid opening to your post, but I also can’t help thinking about it as a wonderful (and probably intentional) metaphor for this work, too. It gets us outside our own insulated routines as instructors and as a center as a whole. Metaphorically speaking, it’s easy to get outside on beautiful days like today, but your image makes clear that’s not always the case.

    Working in outreach was and is always such a powerful learning and professional growth experience for me because of the challenges involved. Establishing the relationships you describe is demanding work, and exceeding expectations when we enter someone else’s classroom, which is always our goal, is no small task.

    Fortunately, your opening image contains the pay-off, too, for those times that outreach teaching takes us out of our comfort zone. The warm reception, the invigorating exchange, and the mutual benefit–these things make stepping outside worth it every time.

    Thanks for such a fantastic post on outreach!

  5. David, I loved reading your post! I definitely agree that one of the most exciting parts of outreach is the chance to meet new people all across campus and to engage in really great, lively, insightful, and productive conversations about writing. And it’s especially rewarding to return to specific departments and organizations year after year, working collaboratively with others to continually enhance our activities and approaches.

    Several years ago, I was invited to do some co-teaching in a grad seminar in the School of Veterinary Medicine. That initial session has since evolved into an annual three-session writing workshop, which the two faculty members and I co-teach. We contribute equally, though in different ways, to the sessions by sharing insights and materials from our respective fields. The students report that they find these collaborative sessions incredibly useful, and I know that we as instructors do as well.

    Thanks, David, for putting the spotlight on outreach and its potential to affect so many people in such deep and meaningful ways!

  6. This is a thought-provoking post, David. I just passed it along to my Outreach Coordinator. Thanks for your insights.

  7. Thanks for this post, David! I think you’ve really articulated well what is so exciting about doing Outreach – the collaboration and opportunities for professional development with scholars and teachers in other fields. When I was on the Outreach staff and coordinating outreaches, I really enjoyed developing relationships outside of the department (I also really loved getting to see so many different parts of campus!). Outreach is a great way to publicize the WC and offer writing help to a broad campus audience, and one of the most fulfilling things for me was to see how much our work is appreciated by other instructors, including senior faculty. To be able to go into a classroom totally not in our field, yet still be able to offer applicable writing advice that serves students well has shown me the unending possibilities for writing center work. And, personally, learning how to negotiate with other instructors, manage expectations, and plan successful sessions while on the Outreach staff has made me much more comfortable in my current role in the WC at contacting others and setting up new partnerships across campus, so I also really appreciate how much practice I got from Outreach at just learning how to work well with others. Your post really highlights all of the great possibilities that come with working on Outreach, so it was a great reminder of how important that work is. Thanks again, David!

  8. David, nice post, and it offers me an insight of outreach visits building the relationship across discrete university communities. The spirit of collaboration has been expanded from one-on-one tutoring to community-on-community partnering. The partnership that communities build has to be formed through the back and forth conversation that outreach members have with students, faculty, staff, and campus leaders. Bruffee would be surprised to see that the collaborative learning not only takes place between people but also among communities. While I agree with the importance as well as influence that the rapport built between communities brings in writing center work and David’s emphasis on passing on the spirit of the partnerships to other (future)outreach members, I am concerned about how the sustainability of the partnerships can be kept. The sustainability of the built strong relationship seems to challenge the fluid nature of higher education people coming and going.

  9. Pingback: New(s) from the UW-Madison Writing Center!

  10. Pingback: Paneling: A Communal Approach to Writing Center Outreach

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