Conversations Near and Far

Julie Nelson Christoph, Director of the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching at the University of Puget Sound

Julie Nelson Christoph, Director of the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching at the University of Puget Sound

I’ve considered myself a “writing center person” for over twenty years now, ever since I anxiously took my first college paper to my undergraduate writing center and left with a few concrete ideas for revision and the sense that I might actually be able to do the whole college thing. I eventually became a writing tutor in that same center, and then later went on to teach in the writing center at Madison. And, in January of this year, I became the director of our writing center at the University of Puget Sound. I’ve always loved the community in writing centers, the chance to break down hierarchies and have real conversations about writing. But those interim years as a full-time English professor—in charge of my own classrooms, teaching writing through assignments I’d designed and working with students whose work I’d be grading—had led me away from the core principles of writing centers. And I knew it.

Writing Center at the University of Education, Freiburg

Writing Center at the University of Education, Freiburg

Travel always has a way of grounding me and helping me to discern what’s really important, and this past summer, I went on an informal tour of writing centers in Germany, thanks to the generous support of a faculty exchange program through Puget Sound. I was inspired by hearing about Katrin Girgensohn’s work at Madison this past year and participating in her Long Night Against Procrastination. I didn’t really know what I was looking to find, but I knew that there is some exciting work going on in Germany that I wanted to see for myself.

The trip was every bit as energizing as I’d hoped it would be. As Katrin and others have explained, the context for writing in Germany is different in many ways than that in the US. Writing centers there are very new—the first was started in 1993, several years after my first undergraduate writing center encounter. And the context for academic writing is quite different. Writing assignments in Germany have for many years consisted mainly of long, self-directed research projects called Hausarbeit or “work done at home.” Though shorter writing assignments are starting to be more common as a result of attempts to standardize education across the European Union, the norm is still the single, high-stakes long essay.

Writing Center at the Technical University of Darmstadt

Writing Center at the Technical University of Darmstadt

But, despite the differences in context, I felt in visiting the writing centers like I was coming home—in no small part because my hosts confirmed that writing center people really are the nicest people anywhere. I had a wonderful time visiting Sandra Ballweg at the Technical University of Darmstadt; Gerd Bräuer at the Writing Center at the University of Education, Freiburg; and Stephanie Dreyfürst and Nadja Sennewald at the Academic Writing Center at Frankfurt’s Goethe University. But I also was able to see familiar writing center values in action, in new ways.

Visiting as I did during the final weeks of the semester, I was initially surprised by how tranquil the writing centers I visited were. At that time of semester, American writing centers are always buzzing with activity—much of which is focused around papers due in the next day or so. These papers are too often perceived as tokens to be used in competitive games of one-upmanship about who has the most papers to write/grade in the next week. But what I saw in Germany was conversation, sometimes focused around a complete draft, but often about partial drafts and ideas that students had been developing over many weeksone of the real benefits of the single long research project. Without the constant press of small assignments and frequent deadlines, the task at hand really was to talk about the paper as one piece in a much larger process and not as an end in itself. The conferences I saw fulfilled the aim to “produce better writers, not better writing.”

Some of the best conversations I heard were between writing center team members. Tutors at each of the centers I visited had been through several months of unpaid, intensive training on such topics as the nondirective approach to tutoring, working with different learning styles, writer’s block, and writing and cognition. Coming out of this training, the tutors engaged with each other as peers and professionals on a very high level before their first “live” writing conference. As I sat in on team meetings, I heard peer tutors leading conversations with each other, debriefing after a recent workshop on citations, or devising strategies for working with students who needed to make conceptual changes to their Hausarbeit late in the semester. As in my own center, the writing tutors were smart students with good ideas about the work they were doing, but it got me to thinking about how much more leadership initiative I could be asking my tutors to take.

mobile writing center at the Academic Writing Center at Frankfurt's Goethe University

mobile writing center at the Academic Writing Center at Frankfurt's Goethe University

While visiting, I was reminded of the need for writing centers to adapt global (literally) writing center philosophy to the local physical space and institutional history. Freiburg’s and Darmstadt’s writing centers are relatively well established as peer writing centers—Freiburg’s as the first writing center in Germany with peer tutors. Goethe University’s center, in contrast, is just over a year old and is currently housed in an office that isn’t large enough for both administrative work and writing conferences. I happened to visit right when the peer tutors were just about to start working with their first students. In answer to the space limitations, the tutors have their own mobile writing centers in cool black messenger bags emblazoned with Studentische Schreibberatung (Student Writing Advice). The peer tutors had packed the bags with all the necessities: chocolates, breath mints, tissues, pencils, paper, and more. Though the hope is that oneday the center will have more space, the attitude is that the conversation is the most important thing, and that a way can be found. The peer tutor I talked with was quite excited about the bag and—as importantly—about having worked with fellow peer tutors to decide what tools would be needed most to meet the needs of varied writing conferences out in the field.

Visiting these centers stretched me at times as I tried to understand the context of the German university system—and to get somewhat up to speed in conversational German. But being in a foreign but familiar context has helped me to think about what I want to do in this first full year as a writing center director, and in the years to come.

One thing I want to do is to remember that, aside from the hopes of writing centers everywhere to upgrade the physical environment of the writing center, what’s really at the heart of writing center work is the people and the portable conversations—often about writing, but sometimes about seemingly unimportant topics like whether chocolate is or is not a necessity. Everyone I know is so busy all the time, but the writing center can provide a reprieve from that; it can be a place for small and unplanned conversations, as well as for weightier ones. But writing center work is countercultural; my trip to Germany reminded me that it takes ongoing training and reflection to resist the urge toward busyness. I’m looking for ways to find more time for ongoing learning for my peer tutors and myself, through conversations both within and beyond our campus. I’m hoping to facilitate Skype conversations between the writing advisors at Puget Sound and at other universities—in events like the Long Night, practice sessions for the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, or virtual versions of Madison’s successful Colloquium events. There’s so much to learn, and so many wonderful people everywhere from whom we can learn. I’m looking forward to a year of writing center conversations with writers near and far.

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