By Kristiane Stapleton
Kristiane Stapleton is the 2012-2013 TA Coordinator of Writing Center Outreach. She is also writing her dissertation in Literary Studies, working on early modern women writers and the visual rhetorics for authorship they construct.
Before I really get going, I’d like to offer a little bit of background on the Outreach program at the UW-Madison Writing Center. We work with faculty, student groups, and departments across the university, at their request, to help them to integrate writing instruction at both the graduate and undergraduate level. We also make targeted visits to classrooms and groups to provide information about the Writing Center services that are available and the ways that the Writing Center can help students with their writing.
We offer brief introductions to the Writing Center and its services, co-teaches where we work with the instructor to tailor writing instruction for their particular classroom and students, and solo-teaches where we offer presentations and workshops. Outreaches can be requested through this form on our website.
Our Outreach program is quite extensive. This year, we have a staff of eight, in addition to my role as coordinator. We have fulfilled close to 100 outreach requests this semester, ranging from brief introductions to longer sessions on peer review, research proposals, group writing projects, and any other kind of writing instruction you could imagine. We have worked with Students for Equal Access to Law School, the School of Nursing, graduate seminars in linguistics, introductory folklore classes, the BioMedical Engineering Society, International Student Services, and so many more!
Not So Simple
Before I began doing outreach work at the Writing Center, I thought of it as a simple process. A request comes in, a Writing Center instructor goes out, and students—full of newfound zeal for writing instruction, of course—come to the Writing Center in eager droves. Working as a staff member last year and as coordinator this year has confirmed how very wrong I was. Outreach work isn’t linear or positivist.
My Writing Center work as a tutor requires a wide range of possible approaches, almost instantaneous adjustments, and a constant recognition that, unlike in my own classroom, I am not always familiar with or in control of the rhetorical situation. Whenever I get too stuck on one particular approach—to a set of metaphors to describe structuring a paper, to a doodle representing connective transitions, or whatever my latest, favorite way to teach a concept might be—I encounter a student for whom that approach does not connect. The constant toggling from approach to approach, tailored to the individual students I work with, stretches me as a teacher and keeps me interested and engaged in the instruction I provide. For a pedagogical approach to align with the reality of the work that we do every day, it needs to take into account the differences of approach required from session to session and student to student. Outreach work requires that same flexibility on a grander scale.
The straightforward and simplistic exchange that I had originally imagined is often referred to as the inoculation model. A quick shot in the arm via a visit from an outside instructor and students’ writing magically and immediately improves. All they needed was someone to tell them about good writing practices! Or the miracle of a regular Writing Center appointment! As a Writing Center evangelist and a new outreach staff member, I was convinced that every outreach event, every meticulously tailored power point and earnest exhortation to come see us, was going to change lives.
There are students who, when made aware of the writing resources available to them and given some guidelines for how best to use them, come in immediately, and they get a lot out of their appointments. In the spirit of the flexibility that I think Writing Center teaching demands, I’ll admit that there are instances where a straight forward presentation and a power point can do a world of good. I have used power points to great effect in presentations on properly quoting, acknowledging, and paraphrasing sources, for example, or in workshops on writing personal statements and scholarship essays.
I’m not trying to devalue this model when it comes to delivering information and a brief introduction to writing center services, but I think that it’s problematic when it comes to integrating writing instruction into the classroom and empowering students to be writers. Outreach work is complex and varied, and requires the same pivoting that tutors perform effortlessly from student to student– only with groups rather than individuals.
Although I think these presentations and workshops have their place and that the outreach staff and I do, in fact, have writing knowledge that can be very helpful to students and courses as Writing Center tutors, I’m not sure that these events, positioning the outreach staff member as a writing authority outside of the classroom, have the best long term effects. More and more I’m incorporating student involvement in these presentations: giving them time to work through examples, soliciting their feedback on good writing habits rather than presenting them with a finished slide and a bullet point list to emulate, and working together to help set some of the terms for what makes a thesis effective, for example.
I’m making these moves because I realized that I didn’t have an answer to a central question: what happens after we, the outside experts, leave?
What kinds of rhetorical situations do we leave behind? And how does an outreach event construct authority and knowledge in relation to writing instruction?
Writing instruction shouldn’t be outsourced from the normal activity of the classroom and treated as a one-time thing, yet that’s exactly what outreach most simplistically provides and it’s often what faculty and groups are initially looking for: a one-time visit from an external authority on writing. The job of Outreach Coordinator is really about resisting this model and creating enduring relationships, as David Hudson, last year’s coordinator, writes about beautifully in his post on ongoing partnerships in Outreach.
Much of my Email correspondence consists of me suggesting that an event include follow-ups, that a solo-teach become a co-teach, or that students participate in the production of guidelines and the discussion of examples. I negotiate constantly for more involvement and incorporation, not because instructors aren’t interested, but because they don’t know it’s an option available to them.
That’s really what this post is about: exploring other options and thinking creatively about involving writers in Outreach.
I no longer think of outreach as a model where knowledge goes out and the students come in. Instead, I want to think about outreach as a bridge, to use the common metaphor, but not as a bridge between the Writing Center and writing that happens outside of the center across the curriculum: a bridge between the knowledge that writers already have and the additional knowledge and support that they need to continue to grow, not just through increased contact with the Writing Center, but in the program, classroom, group, or situation that they find themselves.
Building Writing Communities Through Outreach
One recent outreach event in particular has motivated me to continue to think about writing instruction communally. Earlier this month I worked with a graduate student in the History department and one of our dissertation bootcamp graduates, Lacy Ferrell, to set up a workshop on a “broad question relating to historical knowledge and method” as part of her Sandoway Fellowship. Lacy wanted to tackle the question of style in historical writing, or as she eventually titled the workshop, “How do we show how we know what we know?”
Originally, I felt a little bit stymied. I’ve worked with advanced undergraduate history courses and in ongoing one on one appointments with dissertation writers in the history department, but I wouldn’t have marketed myself as any great expert on historical style, particularly at such an advanced level. I felt like the topic was important and the workshop was a powerful forum for talking about the ways that the Writing Center could help dissertators to polish their prose and use style to direct their readers, but I was stuck on where to start in crafting a presentation on style or what examples to draw from. In preparation for my first meeting with Lacy I brought in the big guns: I talked to our Writing Center Director, Brad Hughes, about it.
As we talked I realized that I had been thinking about the event from the wrong direction. I had only been worrying about what I could bring to the event, rather than thinking about what Lacy and I could produce together or what her own experience and other members of the history department could provide. Brad suggested setting up a panel of speakers, and as soon as he suggested it I felt an outreach epiphany coming on.
Lacy loved the idea of a panel as well. We met in person a few times and she recruited another history dissertator who had participated in the dissertation writing camps over the summer, Eric, to be on a panel with us. She talked to other students writing their dissertations and faculty members in her department and came up with a plan: she wanted to talk about introductions, transitions, and incorporating quotes using concrete examples of dissertation writing in process. Bravely, she and Eric provided examples from their own writing.
Graduate students from various stages in the history department, from those finishing their dissertations to those beginning their course work, came to the event. We began with a brief discussion of what characterized historical style, things we see often in historical writing, and stylistic decisions both good and bad before moving on to our specific writing examples. Everyone had an opinion– particularly about rhetorical questions (who knew?) and the importance and scope of an opening anecdote.
It was a fascinating conversation, but the best part of the event for me was when I realized that I had become unnecessary. I answered the occasional question, but as we went through Lacy and Eric’s examples paragraph by paragraph it became clear that there was not one writing authority in the room, there were fifteen. The authority had been diffused to all of the participants, and we were all engrossed in a wide-ranging discussion about historical style, structure, and argumentation that managed to be both grounded in specific examples and applicable to historical writing more generally.
Or, as Lacy put it: “I think that the most important point that I’ve taken away from all my Writing Center interactions has been that I have the skills and knowledge to write well, but I need a forum to talk through my work and help with applying that knowledge to my own writing. You’re like Home Depot: I can do it, you can help!”
This is the exact opposite of what someone unfamiliar with Outreach might expect: we’re provided with the forum when an instructor or a student places a request for an event, and then we bring the skills and knowledge with us to provide instruction on writing thesis statements, structuring longer papers, developing research questions, administering peer review, or whatever the writing task on hand might be that day.
What does it mean to reverse this equation? To think of Outreach as an opportunity to provide structure and help with applying skills that writers already have but may not know they have or may not know how to apply to their own writing, for me, offers a more communal approach. It leaves knowledge and resources within that writing community rather than suggesting that the answers lie solely within the Writing Center and its tutors.
Before and After: what happens after we leave?
If we think of Writing Center Outreach as a model heavily invested in before and after, then this approach focuses on the after rather than the before.
It’s easy to get caught up in the before: before an outreach staff member enters a classroom we’ve asked countless questions and spent hours, whether through Emails, phone-calls, or in-person meetings, determining what’s happened before we enter the scene and what should happen while we’re there.
These questions help to establish the rhetorical situation in a classroom or for an event before an outreach staff member steps into it. They lay the groundwork, but they don’t tell me anything about what happens after we leave, and the more I do this work the more I realize that that’s the part I really care about.
I love the panel approach because it leaves behind writing authorities in situ, and it provides a model for continuing conversations about writing. In the best case scenario it even exposes writing knowledge that writers didn’t know they had, creating new authorities. The panels point to the power of community in writing—we all know how miserable it feels to lock yourself away from the outside world with a writing project, embarrassing sugary snack foods, and a looming deadline.
We also know how wonderful it feels to have some one to talk about your writing with, to support you, and to keep you accountable. That’s part of why I bring my dissertation to the Writing Center every week, but I’m also lucky enough to be a part of a community, both professionally and personally, that talks about writing often and well.
I’d like to use Outreach to help foster more of those communities across the university in classrooms, departments, and organizations and for both undergraduate and graduate writers. I see this as part of a larger turn that our Writing Center is making to help support and create writing groups, like Stephanie White and Elisabeth Miller’s wonderful work supporting senior thesis writers, the writer’s retreats that we offer, or the dissertation bootcamps over the summer. I’ve begun ending outreach sessions by promoting some of these events, but also by suggesting that students create their own writing groups, or that classes hold not just peer review sessions but conversations about the guidelines and expectations for those sessions.
So when I received a request last month for a 90 minute solo-teach on writing abstracts and journal articles, optimizing peer review, and writing throughout the dissertation process for an audience consisting of a group of health sciences graduate students from a wide range of fields and at all stages of their graduate work, I didn’t start building the world’s largest and most ineffective power point.
Instead, we’re running a panel this Wednesday—and we’re ending it by talking about how they can create a writing group of their very own.
In the interest of putting my money where my mouth (keyboard?) is, I’d like to open up this discussion and use the comments section to build our own virtual panel.
I’d love to hear more from people who work in outreach at other universities and our own outreach staff (both current and former). What are some approaches or activities you’ve used to draw students in during an outreach event? How do you think about outreach or class visits in relation to your other Writing Center work and what benefits do you think it provides?
Similarly, I’d like to think further about how outreach work is related to the tutoring work we do in the Writing Center or to writing instruction more generally. How could Writing Center tutoring or support programs be further positioned to support writing communities? I’d love to hear from people involved in our newer, communal workshops!
Have you been a student in a classroom during an outreach event? Did it make a difference in the way that you approached your writing for that class or for others? How did the event influence your writing afterwards?
And, finally, I’d love to know if other people obsess about this same question: What happens after a tutoring session or an outreach? What do we leave behind?