By Christopher J. Syrnyk, Assistant Professor of Communication, and Faculty Liaison, Advance Credit Program for Communication Courses, Oregon Tech
At Oregon Tech, where I became an Assistant Professor this fall in the Communication Department, I volunteered during a recent Communication department meeting to take on the role of the department’s Web Content Manager. Volunteering for this role, of course, reminded me that I had promised Brad Hughes to write a blog post for Another Word about a project that four TAs and I undertook to revise part of the UW-Madison Writing Center’s website.
Website Project: Fall 2011-The Review
Last fall, four intrepid TAs and I embarked on one odyssey of an ambitious OGE project: to revise a section of the UW-Madison Writing Center’s website. To see and read about the great colleagues who collaborated on this project, be sure to read my earlier post: Writing Center Websites and Their Discontents. For those readers just discovering the UW-Madison Writing Center and our blog Another Word, an OGE is an Ongoing Education opportunity (often a workshop, or a project), which experienced Writing Center Teaching Assistants participate in so they may advance their writing center and teaching knowledge: locally, we refer to this educational opportunity as an OGE. Our project was to revise our Writing Center’s “Individual Help With Writing” page, the page many writers visit in order to gain a sense of how the Writing Center functions as an institution, and how the Writing Center can assist the many students, and faculty, writing papers all across the university.
My colleagues and I were attempting to revise this page based on our reading and discussion of Professor Muriel “Mickey” Harris’s article titled “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” Harris’s article, published in The Writing Center Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2010), addresses those who perform writing center work at various levels. In her article, Harris speaks to tutors and writing center administrators, but more particularly, to theorists and practitioners: those involved in producing and maintaining a writing center website to consider “how we define ourselves to our institutions and how our institutions define us” (47). As I mentioned in my last blog post, we video conferenced with Mickey, and she gave us all some great advice that challenged us to rethink our initial efforts. Here is what we did.
Website Project: Spring 2012-The Process
The old version of this page on the website had three sections:
- What we can do for you (about 1/3 of the original page)
- What we cannot do for you (along with the next section, 2/3 of the original page)
- About Proofreading and Editing
It should be noted that the original page contained much of what we wanted in the new iteration; however, the message of the old page didn’t come through as positively and easily as we wanted. We needed to reframe this page so that readers could easily access what they wanted and needed to know, and so that the experience of accessing this information could be a positive experience in and of itself.
As a group, we decided to revise, and rethink, this page by challenging ourselves to address some rather ambitious questions and issues, again, based on Mickey’s feedback:
1. We started by asking ourselves how we should address our various audiences: new students to UW-Madison, transfer students and advanced undergraduate students, as well as graduate students, dissertators, and faculty. Further, we wanted to instill in those writers visiting this site, more agency, or “you attitude”: a way to put more power into the hands of the writers so that they could feel a greater sense of ownership in their writing process. As Kim Moreland thoughtfully put it, “We were all committed to helping students find themselves in the language used on our website, but it required such a drastic shift in our approach that we really struggled with it, despite our hard work and good intentions.” (If you can’t wait to see the results, just jump to Individual Help With Writing, right now! But then come back and finish reading my blog.)
2. We considered what metaphors we should employ to describe how we saw the writing instruction we provided: do we help writers, serve writers, work with writers. Such metaphors will tend to frame any interactions between writing center instructors and writers. If fortunate, and as Mickey Harris would argue, if productively “sticky,” these metaphors will promote a long-term positive relationship between the writing center and the writers who use its services, and just as importantly, these metaphors will serve to promote effective long-term relationships between a writing center and its institution.
3. We discussed, often quite pointedly, ways to express all that we could do for writers and the limits on what we could do. Our desire here was to tackle a deep-seated writing center culture myth that writing centers don’t do grammar or teach editing. For many students, unfortunately, the myth is the reality. At UW-Madison, we’ve yearly offered workshops to help students with grammar, our Online Writer’s Handbook provides several resources to help students become self-sufficient editors and proofreaders, and our instructors regularly teach writers one-t0-one how to become their own best readers. And UW’s Writing Center instructors will gladly work with you to help you improve your knowledge on any of these issues, especially if this knowledge will lead to greater rhetorical awareness and confidence as a writer. (For another great post on writing centers and the grammar question, see Emily Hall’s Grammar and its (Dis)Contents.)
4. We also wanted to reduce the overall amount of website text on this page. As it was, this page rewarded those readers who would read a document from start to finish. Our goal was to produce an informative page that could be effectively scanned and searched.
5. We also needed to clarify those sections of our revised page that would otherwise be COIK (clear only if known) unless you were a WC theorist or English major. Mickey Harris at one point during our video conference asked us quite deliberately, “Who are you writing this for?” As I mentioned in the previous post, my colleagues and I spent a great deal of time back at the proverbial drawing board.
Website Project: Spring 2012-The Results
In this section, I’ll simply highlight a few changes that went a long way to improve this page.
Based on these points listed above, and Mickey’s feedback, we took the original three sections and turned them into five slightly expanded sections that students could navigate via embedded hyperlinks.
Get feedback on your writing
Make the most of your visits
Find a Writing Center near you
Meet your very own Writing Center Instructors
…and 4 things you need to know about the WC
The original page relied on a reader’s willingness to scroll. Like much web content still onscreen today, our page was composed with a paper text/hardcopy sensibility. Breaking up the text into accessible sections gives readers more options to construct an information gathering experience based on their own particular needs. Making the text more accessible and friendly to readers led to the next point.
In order to show (yes, rather than tell) students examples of what kinds of writing they could bring to an appointment, we provided a chart for them. Originally, we came up with three columns, but after much lively discussion and debate we condensed it to two columns.
You can scan back and forth across two columns rather than across three columns with greater ease. We also felt that turning three into two columns allowed us to help the writers see their writing objectives based on their own perceptions of themselves as writers. In other words, we wanted to reflect what kinds of assignments might be useful to show depending on a writer’s level. You will also notice a fair amount of indirect overlap across the columns. Whereas an undergraduate student might think in terms of “Planning for writing longer research papers,” a graduate student might be more broadly interested in “Planning long-term projects.” The left column reflects more genres of writing assignments undergraduates regularly encounter, and the right column depicts the more specialized kinds of writing typically expected of graduate student writers.
My colleagues and I worked diligently to convert what we, of the Writing Center, could do for you, the writers, into a language that reflected what the writers could do for themselves. Said otherwise, our team worked to create information with more engaging you-attitude. As a reminder, composing a web page with appropriate you-attitude puts the agency with the writer. Whereas the old version of this page suggested what we can and cannot do for you (with an approximate ratio of 1/3 for the can do and 2/3 for the cannot do), the new page tells writers all that they can do for themselves (new ration of 3/3 can do!). This shift in writer-agency represents an important realization: as a teaching institution, we at the UW-Madison Writing Center want all students to grow as writers, and a fundamental aspect of such growth is the nurturing of this capacity in students so that they can realize their own independent abilities as writers.
In other words, we wanted to promote a you-attitude that was grounded on a significant you-can-do-it for yourself understanding, and we’ll show you how to do it. Here, however, is where you-attitude can become problematic. In every instance of promoting you-attitude, we were keenly aware that we needed to temper this you-attitude so as to avoid the opposite effect: recall Agent Smith from The Matrix Reloaded (2003), Me…me…me… In order to keep the focus of our mutual efforts on student learning, we were guided by an understanding that specific examples and clear guidelines for writers would promote a you-attitude founded not on a sense of entitlement, but founded on a sense of educational expectations and opportunities.
FAQs versus “4 things you need to know about the Writing Center”
(and the grammar question)
Many websites employ a well-known catch-all section: FAQs. FAQ sections provide many useful pieces of information, sometimes, too many. Rather than opt to go with the flow, we crafted a precise vision for our UW-Writing Center students based on four popular points and common questions. In this section, we outline the courses we work with, a little about technology, and appointments, and a point that greatly challenged the collective efforts of our group: how to explain the nature of our work as a teaching institution with respect to grammar, proofreading, and editing.
As a part of UW-Madison, the Writing Center’s mission is to teach writers about all aspects of writing, at every point in the writing process. As such, we want students to know that we can teach them about grammar, we can teach them how to edit and proofread their own work, and most importantly that we value this kind of teaching and appreciate every student’s desire to improve as a writer. All of us had a say in this section, and I believe the results will go a long way to promote a more positive experience for any writer who has ever wondered about the nature of commas or how to make a paper flow, and what exactly their writing center can do to help them.
Website Project: Fall 2012-The Lesson
If you ask each of the TAs who worked on this project what they learned, I’m sure our individual lists would share many valuable, insightful points. What I will use here at Oregon Tech is one great lesson. Although the members of an institution may be the primary readers of their website, the value of a well-articulated website is two-fold. First, if the members of a writing center, or department, or institution can see for themselves a clearly expressed educational philosophy in action on their own website, then they can more readily promote this philosophy in their own teaching and service. Second, it’s worth whatever it takes for the members of a writing center, or department, or institution to clearly express an educational philosophy that they can put into action, one that they can show and tell, so that everyone can be on the same webpage.