Physician, Heal Thyself!

Kevin Mullen

Kevin Mullen

By Kevin Mullen. Kevin Mullen is a dissertator in Literary Studies, with a minor in Composition and Rhetoric, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  This is his third year working at the Writing Center.

There is a particular kind of shame that forms when you come face-to-face with the fact that you are not practicing what you preach.  It usually surfaces when you are alone, probably at night, thinking back on all you did and said during the day.  Suddenly, it’s there, looking back at you—the fact that the very thing you encourage in others is not something you yourself do.

The importance of collaboration in writing: it’s one of those core beliefs that I feel evangelical about, that I imagine at the heart of what I do, and of who I am, as a teacher.  When I was a fellow in Turkey and had 180 students a semester I still managed to meet with each one individually in order to work on their writing; I think I broke the record for conferences in the Intermediate Writing course here at UW-Madison (every other week, all semester long); I convinced a very skeptical board of directors, as well as a group of reluctant teachers, at a local college to require two conferences a semester for their composition course; and, this last August, I led a workshop for almost 70 TA’s teaching writing-intensive courses all over campus that explored how, and why, to include conferences.

So why, why did it take me so long to actually come to the Writing Center as a student?  Through all the years of course work, the dissertation proposal, conference proposals, fellowship applications, job applications, and now the dissertation, I have been wrestling alligators late into the night all by my lonesome—and with middling results.  So if I have known better this whole time, why have I not taken part in a process that I believe in when it comes to my own work?

While I am sure that there are many anxieties at work here, the one that seems to be at the base of them all is a fear of visibility.  One of the most fundamental (and, for some, painful) transitions that we work through in graduate school is making our own ideas more publically visible, even while we are in the midst of developing these ideas.  We are here to practice, to stand in front of a group of people and read a paper even though we are still struggling to understand what a good paper sounds like.  We are told that we are joining the academic community, yet it takes a long time to really believe that we belong.

Or, at least, it took me a long time.  In those first couple years, I felt slightly like a fraud who had somehow snuck in through the back door and now could not let anyone discover how unqualified he was.  So I toiled, silently in my apartment, and turned in papers that I couldn’t bear to look at for months, hoping that I would just slip by unnoticed.  Invisible.

That feeling has long since faded, but the fact remained: for all my talk of collaboration, I had never brought my own work to the Writing Center and it was starting to bother me.  So when the opportunity to write this post came up, it sounded like a great chance to both finally break the seal and explore how the process looks, and feels, from the other side.  Plus, I had to write two single-spaced, single-page essays for a fellowship application.  So I made two appointments—one for 30 minutes, which just so happened to be with an instructor who has been a close friend of mine since I first moved to Madison (Theresa Nguyen), and one for 60 minutes, with a new instructor I had just met once a couple weeks before (Anna Floch).  They were not selected purposefully; they were just the next two availabilities.

Theresa Nguyen

Theresa Nguyen

Anna Floch

Anna Floch

Here’s what I learned:

  • Reading the essay out loud, while initially uncomfortable, is incredibly important for setting up the balanced dynamic of collaboration.  This dynamic starts out weighted heavily towards the instructor—after all, the student usually comes in seeking help from someone who is considered, to some extent, an expert.  But when I read those essays out loud, I could feel what sentences needed to be adjusted, usually by a sudden blush; even if the meeting had ended there, I would have still left with a better understanding of what to do next.  And I couldn’t have attained this same perspective by reading out loud to myself; I needed someone smart and engaged to sit next to me and listen.  Then, suddenly, I could hear what needed to be changed.
  • Though I knew the question was coming, I still balked (internally) when I was asked, just after I finished reading it out loud, what my own reaction was to my essay.  It felt vaguely like being asked by a psychiatrist, after an especially sensitive admission, “And how did that make you feel?” I knew that it was just a necessary first step into the conversation, but this knee-jerk reaction showed me how frustrating that first question can feel to the student.  Though this insight won’t change how I begin my conferences as an instructor, I will now be more aware of the fact that the student sitting next to me might bristle; if she or he does, I’ll quickly mention a few things that I really liked in order to ease into the conversation a bit more smoothly.
  • One practice that made me feel the real potential of collaboration was when the instructor began to take notes as I was talking.  Again, it helped to balance the conversation—I was no longer a writer with a flawed text who came to an expert for help, but instead one half of a team working to make the writing better.  The focus was not on me, but on the text itself, and here I had a co-conspirator who was equally as engaged with the revision process as I was.
Collaborative writing

Collaborative writing

  • I have always known this abstractly, but these two sessions really highlighted the fact that positive feedback is just as important as locating the parts that need to be changed.  I left both sessions with a much better understanding of what was going well, which I could then use to shape the next draft around.  This aspect emphasized how little I could actually see in my own writing, and how much I needed a responsive reader.
  • These experiences also underlined the importance of quickly putting in a 10-15 minute writing session directly after the conference.  The ideas that I had explored with my tutors disappeared with alarming speed, and those hastily scribbled notes would become indecipherable if I let a few days pass.  This is something that I am now going to make sure I mention to my Writing Center students at the very end of the session, just after going over what we covered and their plans for revision.

Now, I know that none of this is really news to many Writing Center instructors, but what was so interesting to me was how this view from the other side of the conversation brought my own work into such sharp focus.  I could see, and feel, what works—and it really did work.  I completely revamped one introduction, split one paragraph into two, got rid of one paragraph entirely, re-framed the main idea of both essays, and changed pretty much every sentence.  And these were essays I had thought were done and ready to submit.

So with a clearer view of my work, two polished essays, and having finally rid myself of that nagging sense of hypocrisy, I’ll now turn my own question back to all the Writing Center instructors out there who have yet to use their own resource: what’s taking you so long?

11 thoughts on “Physician, Heal Thyself!

  1. Great post, Kevin! I’m not too comfortable reading my drafts aloud at the Writing Center, but I do agree that it really helps with the dynamic of the meeting and is probably the most helpful part of my meetings. I’m glad you finally got to be a WC student :)

  2. Thanks for this post, Kevin. I think learning to use the Writing Center has been really helpful for understanding my own practice. And, as Dana indicates above, it really made me realize that the reading aloud of the essay is scary but crucial. You mentioned that you kind of knew a particular question was coming… What kind of impact do you think knowledge of the pedagogy has on the effectiveness of the process?

  3. I was in Kevin’s shoes recently (about 30 minutes ago, actually) and felt many of the same anxieties, and much of the same relief. Having an attentive reader also allows you to articulate your thoughts, aloud, in a more specific and academic manner than you can when speaking with someone who isn’t a writing instructor. In terms of practicing what we preach, however, this recalls the oft-heard statement “Well, my mom / roommate / friend read over this and thought it was good.”

    As a teacher, that statement can prompt me to refer someone to the writing center. Of course, then I go home and hypocritically show my own writing to friends for review. I’ve been reminding myself recently that the writing center is a much more efficient and professional source of feedback.

    Although sometimes the friend in question is the author of this blog post, and he gives excellent feedback even when he’s not “on the job.”

  4. Kevin, you remind me that it’s been too long since my last visit to the Writing Center with my own writing. And, Paul, I find myself often similarly falling into the idea that having a group of friends/colleagues close to me reading my work is enough. While those exchanges are essential, a Writing Center conference offers such a unique space for an attentive reader, focused on your work and just on the collaborative, generative talk that we all know so well.

    It’s about time for me to set up another appointment! Thanks for this post, Kevin.

  5. Admirable post, Kevin! I think that, sooner or later, any WC instructor undergoes the “Writing-Center Syndrome”: our capacity to assist others grows inversely proportional to our willingness to practice what we preach. I wholeheartedly agree with your claim that a certain “fear of visibility” deters many of us WC instructors from seeking help with our writing. After all, we all write about things we can’t yet fully grasp (Otherwise, why bother to write?). Nevertheless, and though we know our lesson well that writing is the only way to achieve such an end, many of us shudder to think of what that “behind-the-scenes” look might disclose about ourselves as scholars and thinkers.

    From an instructor’s perspective, I love conferencing with my colleagues precisely because of that look. Whereas I’ve learned a ton by reading some of my colleagues’s finished products (articles, dissertation chapters, etc), I’ve learned all the more by watching them actively think through and struggle with their projects. In your case, I’m sure both Theresa and Anna have taken some valuable lessons from your meetings.

  6. Excellent piece. I appreciated the honesty. I agree with Kevin and the others that reading your own work aloud is a powerful tool. One might assume that, as a public radio journalist, I would embrace the practice. Yet, with my written work, I still resist. Every. Single. Time.

    Regarding Anne’s question, I can say that as someone who, through osmosis, has a decent grasp of the pedagogy, I still balk at reading aloud because it’s tough to admit that my writing needs that much help, just like everyone else’s. When it’s your own writing, pedagogy be damned. But once I clear my throat and go, my work is always better for it.

    So I guess the lesson is that stubborn pride often gets in the way of my best writing. One day, I hope, I’ll no longer struggle to remember that.

    (Full disclosure: This post was not read aloud)

  7. Thanks for your piece Kevin! Given that I was one of the instructors that worked with you, reading this made me more reflective about my own teaching practices –the importance of praise, taking notes, the nervousness induced by asking the ‘what do you think about this’ question etc. I learned a lot through our session based upon the experience you brought as a teacher and it also inspired me to take a similar leap and to push myself to share my writing in the WC as well.

  8. You finally went to the Writing Center! Yay!
    Also: Co-conspirator! Yay!

    The idea of co-conspirators came up when Kevin was planning his workshop for new WID TAs this past August (which was part of a training that I was coordinating)–and I loved it right away. He was so engaging and convincing to new TAs in that workshop, and they came away with a renewed sense of what collaboration can and should be.

    That concept of co-conspirators (which I would argue Kevin practices regularly and fully even without going to the Writing Center!) is one that I want to be thinking about more when I’m in the Writing Center–either as a student or as an instructor. Thanks so much, Kevin!

  9. Get out of my brain, other Kevin! I just started bringing my own dissertation to the WC this semester, and it’s been eye-opening as both an instructor and student. It’s really made me appreciate the role that instructor expectations — in my case, I’m seeing the incomparable Lisa Hollenbach — can have in helping me work toward writing goals. I’ve really benefitted from having somebody else (not me or my adviser) invested in seeing my work, and my output has gone way up (from roughly zero to…well, more than zero). Great post!

  10. Like you, Kevin, I didn’t go to the Writing Center until I’d already started teaching there. There’s something about being in the physical space and seeing revelations happening for students in every shift we work, that powerfully reminds us of what we already know: The Writing Center works.

    I appreciate your willingness to talk about the fear of being there. Your discussion of wanting to be invisible in grad school reminds me that I think most grad students go through something like that, and that perhaps our grad students are more nervous than we realize when they walk through our door.

    It also makes me want to kick myself for not using the Writing Center sooner–not just because of all the improvements I might have made to my writing, but because it would have been my only opportunity to go with a pure student-perspective, unencumbered by my knowledge as a tutor. I think it would be immensely valuable, in terms of empathizing with our first-time students, to have had that experience.

  11. Kevin, your lessons learned will now be required reading in any writing course I teach. Thanks for sharing!

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