Here at the UW-Madison Writing Center, we have been thrilled to have Katrin Girgensohn spend the year with us as our visiting scholar from the Writing Center at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. And here on this blog you’ve gotten to see a little of her, too. I’m privileged to get to share an office with Katrin, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about writing centers and about her work. We wanted you to have a chance to sit in on a conversation with us about what it means to be a visiting scholar at a writing center, what Katrin has learned this year, and what she plans to do with the research she’s completed. Katrin’s kindness, enthusiasm, and straightforwardness shine through when you talk with her, and her intelligence about the work she does make her a pleasure to talk to about writing center work. Thanks for joining our conversation!
Stephanie: Thanks so much for talking with me for this blog post, Katrin. Let’s get started. I’d love to hear what the most exciting thing is about what you’re doing this year.
Katrin: Besides being in the writing center, it’s the first time for me that I spend a long time in another country. I never had this experience before—to move to another country and actually live there, and not only be a tourist. But also, it’s exciting just to see how things work here, how the writing center works, how other centers work. There’s really so much to learn. I mean, I spent the first semester here just participating in everything. Just observing, participating in all the workshops and team meetings, mentoring sessions, videotaping sessions. So really the everyday writing center work that was going on—I could just be a part of it and enjoy it without having the responsibility to move it forward or to lead it. I really could enjoy writing center work! And of course, I also have my own appointments with my writing center consultant, Elisabeth. So it’s really a learning opportunity. And it’s a great—it’s like a great present for me that I’m able to do that.
S: Wow. So why is it such a great present? Tell me more about it.
K: I’ve got a million, trillion, gazillion new ideas! It really, really made me reflect about my own work that I do at home. So I have a journal, where I keep notes from of all the things that are going on. My notes in the front were just notes—I was taking notes when I was in a workshop, in a team meeting, where I was just trying to take notes about what was going on, how do they conduct this workshop, what are parts of the workshop. And then I also started it from the back to put in ideas that I developed just through being here and observing, that I thought, oh maybe we could do that in Frankfurt. And so I thought this would be one page at the back of my book, but it was so much that they met in the middle! And, I mean, it’s just so good to see how others do it. It’s another thing to see it than just talking about it or reading about it. It’s a completely different experience.
And now I’ve started to visit more writing centers. These are shorter visits—I always stay a few days. And, for example, I knew in theory from reading it, and also it’s something that Brad always says, that every writing center has to fit its context. But it’s one thing to know this, and another thing to be there, see the context, and then see that this is really true! So for example, that you have a writing center at a small college that values personal atmosphere, it has a completely different setting in the writing center than one at a big research university. Or there was a writing center in a university that really values literature and creative writing, and then they have creative writing groups in the writing center going on, and they publish creative writing in a writing center newsletter that they send out. And so this really makes sense, and you see it in practice. It’s not just theory.
S: So what else have you learned from visiting other writing centers?
K: So far, I can really say that all the centers I’ve visited are doing an amazing job. They’re really so great, and it really reinforced for me that writing centers are such valuable places within universities. You can never stress that enough, I think! I’ve talked to so many tutors from so different majors, and different undergraduates and graduates, and I think they are great, and it’s great that they have writing centers where they can work and then develop in the way they do. They get all these insights into other people’s thoughts and works, and the get the experience of having so many different conversations, but also taking responsibility. You’re not being just a student who learns from others, but you have responsibility for this institution of the writing center, to push this forward, be a part of this. You feel yourself to be a representative of this very valuable institution. It’s a kind of identity within the university. It’s something that is different than just being a small little student, if you know what I mean.
S: For sure. That’s so interesting!
Okay, let’s switch gears a little. Tell me how all this came about. How did you get here? And how did you develop this desire to come here?
K: One thing was that my daughters both did a year abroad—one already had, and one was planning to. They had this high school exchange year. And we had a guest daughter from Romania staying with us for one year. And this made me think that I wanted to have this experience, too, to live somewhere else for a longer period. And then the other thing was that I was the founder of our writing center, and it was really a huge responsibility, and I had so much work for several years. I was leading and directing all the time, and I had the wish that I want to be a learner again—I really longed for time for me to learn more instead of directing and leading and having responsibility for others. And I felt that there was much more to learn about writing centers than I knew, and so I thought about what could help me to learn more about writing centers in practice, not only in theory.
And then I tried to find out what kind of funding there was for going abroad for research projects, and I found that the major research body in Germany, the German Research Foundation, they have a program for scholars to go abroad for three months to three years. And you have to apply with a carefully designed research project, and then they have a double-blind peer-review procedure. And it’s really a lot of work, so if you want to do that, you must really be sure, because you have to put in a lot of work.
And of course you need an invitation from another university! I was very grateful for my connection to Brad. I had met Brad when I was a leader in the IWCA Summer Institute in 2009. And so I wrote him an email asking carefully if he might be able to help me, and within 30 minutes I had an enthusiastic email from him inviting me to come to Madison, and supporting me if I wanted to get in touch with more writing centers and get more invitations. And this was really great—without that, I wouldn’t be here.
S: So what was your proposed research project?
K: First of all, I had to explain what writing centers are and what writing center research is, because this is not common in Europe or in Germany. And then I said that I wished to develop writing center work further, and therefore would like to learn from experienced writing center directors about how they direct and lead their writing centers.
S: And how has this project played out? Basically, what have you been up to since you stopped being a participant observer and moved more into your formal research?
K: I travel around and visit different writing centers around the country. I stay there for a couple of days and observe what’s going on, talk to tutors, and then conduct expert interviews with writing center directors. And then, I have to transcribe them and analyze them. And I hope to find some patterns so that maybe I can explore some knowledge that will be valuable for the European writing centers community, to help them to develop their writing centers.
S: What are your initial thoughts about what you’ve learned that could help European writing centers?
K: Well one thing is that I experienced that all writing center directors face challenges. When you see what’s going on here from a European perspective, you get the impression that writing centers are very well established, that it’s very normal to have writing centers, and that you don’t have to explain anymore what writing centers are and why it’s good to have them and why we need them. But when you are here, you experience that it’s normal to have challenges in the work, that you have to explain what a writing center does, that not everyone knows about writing centers here, although universities have them normally. I think this helps to embrace it just as part of the writing center work, instead of hoping for a future where this won’t be necessary anymore.
Another thing is the importance of networking. I have the impression that the writing centers I visited are connected to others. They go to conferences, they read the Writing Center journals, and in general they learn from each other. And this is something that we do in Europe, too, and I personally am very dedicated to that. I put a lot of effort in building communities with colleagues in Germany, and I’m also serving the European Writing Centers Association, and my experiences here reinforce this. It just tells me that it’s right to do that, to put work into that. I mean it’s enough work to do in our own writing center and all the networking things are additional, but I think they are really important.
S: What do you think North American writing centers can learn from European writing centers?
K: I think we all can learn from each other in writing centers. But in Europe we all have these different languages. So if we meet at our writing center conference, our conference language is English, because we have to talk to each other, but we all come with different backgrounds and different mother languages. So this helps because we are forced to use English as our lingua franca in our European community, and I struggle with that, and so this helps me develop a feeling for those students that come to our university and have to study in German, and this is helpful for our writing center work. When we work with them, I know how they feel.
S: And you’ve brought us so many things. I’ve learned so much from you—from your questions, to your insights, to your sense of taking seriously the work we do in writing centers, but also the way you keep perspective through your sense of humor and your amazing creativity. And you always bring an attitude of excitement and willingness to try something new. Like, you’ve brought to the U.S. incredible ideas, like the Long Night against Procrastination. So we’re so thankful to you!
Do you have anything else to tell our eavesdroppers?
K: Well, I would highly encourage writing center people to take every opportunity to go out to other countries—and it doesn’t even have to be other countries, but to visit other writing centers in your own country, to visit colleagues and see how they do things. A future dream for me would be the possibility to give writing tutors this opportunity, to have a real network of universities worldwide collaborating to give tutors the possibility to stay abroad at another writing center for some time. And I think we have to be creative to make this true, because of language barriers, but they should not hinder us from this. We are creative in writing centers, so we can figure out ways!
S: Thanks so much, Katrin! I hope others will now join this conversation and share what they’ve learned from you.