Nancy Reddy is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include composition pedagogy, literacy studies, and extracurricular writing groups. This is her first year with the UW-Madison Writing Center.
In one of my first shifts as a new writing instructor tutor this past fall, I found myself sitting across from a pair of graduate students from UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. As Suzanne and Caitlin described their research – a two-year, multi-site, multi-state study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control, concerning public health initiatives ranging from tobacco cessation to obesity prevention – I had two conflicting reactions: awe at the incredible amount of expertise they brought to bear on their topic, and a creeping anxiety about what I could contribute to their work.
It’s something of a cliché to speak of writing center work as collaborative. In the short time I’ve been on staff, I’ve come to deeply value the experience working in concert with students to refine ideas, argument, organization. My relationship with Suzanne and Caitlin, however, introduced an additional level of collaboration, as the three of us worked together to write, revise, and submit for publication two articles based on their research. My work with them reinforced for me both the value of collaboration and the value of ongoing appointments with the same instructor. It also helped me to think more carefully about the role of the generalist writing instructor, especially when working with graduate students with a high level of expertise in their field.
Students come in to the writing center with detailed content knowledge about a wide array of topics. While I love learning about the specialized, sometimes esoteric research happening across the university (citizen-scientists in environmental science, pre-natal vitamin D deficiency, the complex relationships between NGOs and IGOs, to name just a few topics about which I am now slightly less ignorant), I also sometimes feel intimidated by the depth of knowledge students present.
My initial writing center training introduced me to a handy trick that I quickly came to rely on when I felt the content of a paper or project getting out of my depth. Reading, say, a research proposal for a student in automotive engineering, I’d say something like this: “I can give you a writing teacher’s perspective. I think you’ll also want to get the opinion of an expert in your field. Do you have an advisor or a mentor you can ask for additional feedback?” I really wasn’t trying to shirk my responsibilities in terms of responding to difficult texts, and I would give careful feedback and ask questions to help me understand the research and the text more thoroughly. But it always felt like something of a relief to know there was another reader, an “expert” somewhere whose voice would either confirm or modify my suggestions. Writing center tutors can help in any number of ways, from clarifying an argument to rethinking structure to helping the writer refine his or her process. Tutors can help develop writers’ knowledge of discipline-specific genre conventions, and I believe that we’re also all responsible for developing some of that knowledge ourselves. Ultimately, though, we can’t be content experts in every one of the specialized fields our writers work in.
Working with Caitlin and Suzanne, we had an expert present in the appointment. And so I was able to be a part of the expert-generalist feedback loop in real time. Caitlin, whose background is in communications, cares deeply about expressing the goals and outcomes of their work in language accessible to academic and non-academic audiences. As a result, she pushed to eliminate jargon and clarify terminology. Suzanne, with more years of experience, was deeply rooted in the conversations and concerns of the field. She brought in relevant articles and current debate to help them consider how to frame their work with respect to various audiences. She was able to perform a sophisticated academic pivot, explaining how to frame the research for one journal versus another based on audience, genre, and leading experts in that subset of the field.
Their expertise also pushed me to think about expertise I could provide. Because I didn’t know their research in depth, I was able to point out places where a reader would need more connections between topics or more framing of the evidence provided. I could ask questions about the context for their study and what background their readers would have. I think it also helped to have a regular appointment with someone with whom they set goals; even though a writing center instructor has no formal power over students, of course, a regular appointment can help establish and maintain a regular writing practice.
Writing can be a solitary, lonely process. For me, one of the major values of the writing center is in alleviating some of that isolation. I’ve frequently seen other instructors’ ongoing students come in looking a little downtrodden, perhaps frustrated with their perceived lack of progress or perhaps distressed at feedback from their dissertation chair; those same students almost always leave their appointments looking cheerier and ready to get back to the hard work of drafting and revising. I’ve become a firm believer in a writing center truism, that talking about writing is incredibly valuable. And I think it’s even more powerful when your partner in talk has seen your project develop over a period of time.
I was fortunate in working with Suzanne and Caitlin to see the process of writing cracked open by a deep and ongoing collaboration. They drafted in google docs, so while one was always the primary owner and lead author of an article, the text itself was open to comments and changes by both. Because they both had in-depth knowledge of the research itself, they were able to remind each other of relevant data points or anecdotes to include. As co-researchers and close friends, they were unflinching in giving both positive and constructive feedback.
Though Suzanne and Caitlin are back to more individual projects this semester (Suzanne’s finishing her dissertation, and Caitlin’s beginning her PhD), I think their collaboration made them both stronger writers and researchers. And as someone studying in a field where scholarly collaboration is much less common, working with them has helped me begin to think about opportunities for collaboration in my own work.