Now is The Writing Center Website of Our Discontent, Made Glorious Summer by This Sum of Our Work

By Christopher J. Syrnyk, Assistant Professor of Communication, and Faculty Liaison, Advance Credit Program for Communication Courses, Oregon Tech

Christopher Syrnyk, former UW-Madison Writing Center TA, current Assistant Professor at Oregon Tech

Christopher Syrnyk, Assistant Professor of Communication, 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:

  1. What we can do for you (about 1/3 of the original page)
  2. What we cannot do for you (along with the next section, 2/3 of the original page)
  3. About Proofreading and Editing
The previous Individual Help with Writing page

The previous Individual Help with Writing page

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.

Layout

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.

BEFORE

Original three-column chart for revised page

Original three-column chart for revised page

AFTER

What changed?

Prototype version of two-column chart

Prototype two-column chart for revised page

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.

You-Attitude

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.

5 thoughts on “Now is The Writing Center Website of Our Discontent, Made Glorious Summer by This Sum of Our Work

  1. Christopher (and team), it is wonderful to think about the effect these revisions will have on how students and readers think about the Writing Center, but I’m also excited to see how your revision of the website’s language can change us as instructors.

    I’ve seen that phrase “What we cannot do for you” in 18-point Verdana almost every day this fall, and each time I see it I feel a little less warm and less sure. Simply by reframing our work so that words like “cannot” disappear from the page you encourage the rest of us to think about how much we can, and do, help students who may show up with one of those rare “cannot” drafts, and you make it easier for us to see ourselves primarily as teachers and peers focused on working with students rather than as Writing Center Police who are watching carefully to make sure our students don’t violate the Writing Center Rules.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. As an assistant director at the University of Louisville Writing Center, I’m working as part of a group to help create content for a new website we’re going to put up when UofL puts out its new web software. We’ve been looking at Writing Center sites from across the country gathering ideas about what we can do, and thinking about how to present information.

    I especially like how even though you added more sections, the design of them was more visually accessible. We’re hoping also to help students both in the physical space and online by offering feedback on common writing situations.

    I’m eager to incorporate your post and Harris’s article into my thinking as we move forward on this project. And until we get the new site up, you might check at our blog at uoflwritingcenter.wordpress.com. Thanks again.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this case study and the approach that you took when analyzing your reading audience. Seeing the visual “before and after” layouts was a bonus for me.

    The visual aspect of a web page and how the content is organized is important for keeping people involved with what you have so diligently spent time creating. Bravo on your efforts, and thank you for sharing this openly.

    This article/blog post will inspire many, I’m sure, as it has already inspired me. Thanks!

  4. Thanks so much for this post, Chris! The last section on the new page, “4 Things You Need to Know…” is the result of a great deal of debate and discussion. And it’s my favorite, not because I got my way (I didn’t!) but because I think it represents the goals of our project really well. We were still able to incorporate the “you” focus and keep the language positive, and I think it’s clear and informative without the “cannots.”
    Although I was committed to creating inviting language for this page, this section was tricky. In earlier versions I worried that by not being straightforward about our limitations, we might confuse our audience. I was also concerned that we could even put more emphasis on our limitations if we didn’t cut to the chase about which courses we don’t work with, proofreading, etc. This was me trying to think like a student. My intentions were good, but in retrospect, I wonder if I was too quick to focus only on aspects of our services where I imagined a student’s expectations would clash with my own, instead of the bigger picture.
    I still think it’s extremely important to be clear about what we do and what we don’t do, but I think Mike has a great point about not wanting to sound like the Writing Center Police in our language – ideally, we can manage expectations and be up front about what students can expect while remaining teachers first and foremost.
    This project has impacted the way I view our writing center and my role in so many ways – I can’t think of a better project for ongoing education or for teaching reflection.

  5. Apart from this post offering some wonderfully practical advice about recasting the language on the website, it seems to capture one of the most fascinating elements of writing center work–that the core values of our pedagogy can and should permeate every element of our work with students. Empowering the writer can begin happening at the very first point of contact–in this case, the student’s landing on a Writing Center webpage. I love that what you’ve shown here, Christopher, is that even our promotional materials can function as an EXPRESSION of our pedagogy and not just a description of it. The “you-attitude” that guided some of your revision decisions seems to me to be the most important factor in orienting students to the work they’re about to do in their visits to the Writing Center.

    Thank you, Christopher!

    Matthew Capdevielle
    Director of the University Writing Center
    University of Notre Dame

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