(Under) Graduate: Reflections on the Joint Writing Center-Writing Fellow Staff Meeting

mertzjenna1By Jenna Mertz, Undergraduate Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program.  Jenna is a senior majoring in English, Spanish and Environmental Studies.  She has been a Writing Fellow for six semesters.

Last Friday, undergraduate Writing Fellows and Writing Center instructors convened to mingle, share, and engage with each other at the annual joint staff meeting highlighting the original research of seven Writing Fellows. Attendees shuffled from room to room to listen to presentations featuring discussions about power dynamics, body language, and agenda setting during the writing conference; to explorations of identity, rhetoric, and multilingual tutors.

As my fellow Undergraduate Assistant Director, Logan, and I watched our peers present and grad students listen and scribble in what seemed to be shake-up of roles, we got a little existential. We got to thinking about ourselves. We got to thinking about undergraduates, and what it means to be us.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its infinite wisdom, provided us with three bits of insight.

The first, and fairest: “A student in a university who has not yet taken a degree, and thus is still below the academical standing of a graduate.”

The second, slightly more biting: “One imperfectly instructed, or as yet inexpert (in something).”

And, in its cruel adjectival form, we have the stab, salt, and twist: “Of lower degree; of inferior importance.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, in all its infinite wisdom, seemed echo the impressions that many undergraduates have of themselves (and others have of them) as the low rungs on the ladder beneath their distant grad student kin.

After all, graduate students can be rather frightening people. Perched in the corner of some undergraduate seminar, laughing at the professor’s jokes, quoting Foucault and Fish and holding that yellow legal pad all of them seem to have, graduate students appear to be the ultimate Knowers of All Things and Speakers of Truth. And for undergraduates, it’s easy to feel “of lower degree” or of “inferior importance.”  It’s easy to feel, well, like under graduates.

Writing Center instructors chat with Niru Sivanushanthan and Alex Sherman after their panel on communication in conferences.

Writing Center instructors chat with Niru Sivanushanthan and Alex Sherman after their panel on communication in conferences.

Our intellectual endeavors are often relegated to our own spaces, which are defined by our status on the academic totem pole. For example, there’s the Undergraduate Symposium, the Undergraduate Research Scholars program, the Journal of Undergraduate International Studies. Our work, it seems, inhabits a strictly undergraduate world.

And this isn’t to say that such separation is intended to demean undergraduate work—hardly! These forums rightly celebrate the already impressive achievements of young people at the beginning of their academic careers.  But the term “undergraduate” does carry some baggage with it. It sets our work apart from that of our graduate student friends or faculty. Undergraduates are perceived as different. Our research is perceived as different. The term invites others to brand our contributions to academia as different, as that of greenhorns, novices, or fledglings. The word highlights our “under-ness.”

And for those undergraduates already insecure about their ability to genuinely enrich or add to scholarly conversations, it’s easy to become cowed. To second-guess. To slip into silence.

It is for these reasons that the Writing Center/Writing Fellows Joint Staff Meeting feels especially important, uplifting, and validating for Fellows. In this forum, our research is taken seriously with the expectation that it will shape and change the practices of our peers and Writing Center instructors. Fellows eloquently field questions from grad students who have studied much more Foucault and read much more Fish than they have. They delve into things as seemingly disparate as LGBTQ and Christian discourse, and discuss the ways—how meta is this— peer tutors can trade expertise, knowledge, and power in the writing conference. Their insightful research has tangible impacts upon people who have been doing this work much longer than they have.

Chris Earle moderates a talk given by Carla Oppenheimer on sharing expertise in conferences.

Chris Earle moderates a talk given by Carla Oppenheimer on sharing expertise in conferences.

To give readers an idea of how impactful Fellow research was at this year’s meeting, here are a few insights from some Writing Center instructors:

“Carla wonderfully disrupted binaries (expert tutor/novice writer, writing/content), opening space for writing tutors and instructors to rethink some of our core assumptions about teaching.”

“[Chelsea’s] project made me think in new and expansive ways about what it means to borrow a different discourse to express your argument, and how that can be used as a persuasive rhetorical technique. She sparked a sophisticated Q&A about discourse and reconciliation, and she got a lot of people talking about the persuasive aspects of writing.”

“I learned a lot from [Elise’s] presentation on first-generation college students’ interactions with the Writing Center… This presentation reminded me once again of the importance of empathy and flexibility in my Writing Center work, because I can never know all the factors that bear invisibly on my interactions with students.”

“Joslyn’s presentation got me thinking about how the first question of the conference has the greatest amount of leverage when it comes to establishing whether that conversation will be a success. Thinking, then, about Carla’s discussion of expertise-sharing, I have begun wondering how I can use the first question to get the writer to start teaching me, so that remains the major dynamic of our interaction.”

“I have been thinking about the power dynamics of hand gestures all weekend and am eager to watch myself during my next sessions and reflect on what I do in practice.”

Jessie Reeder and Chelsea Cornelius

r TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center Jessie Reeder and Writing Fellow Chelsea Cornelius

Fellows had equally glowing things to say of their peers and how the presentations inspired, expanded upon, and shaped their thinking:

“I was pleasantly surprised by how creative and diverse the presentation topics were. The presenters made me re-evaluate my conception of traditional ‘research.’”

“…It stuck out to me how Alex was able to generate practical advice from his research regarding gestures within the conference. His presentation in combination with Niru’s presentation on language made me aware again of the importance of being conscientious in the conference setting over more than just the writing techniques introduced to us in English 316.”

“I especially enjoyed Carla’s proposal to put the paper itself aside during the conference and simply engage in a conversation that allows the fellow to learn from the writer, thereby better understanding the class and reinforcing the writer’s sense of confidence.”

“I liked the way [Carla’s] talk drew out a range of experience from Fellows and WC instructors alike, and really engaged the entire room on a common issue, despite the age and experience gaps of the people present.”

Writing Center instructor Nmachi Nwokeabia and Writing Fellow Elise Swanson

Presenters also expressed how valuable the opportunity was for them:

“This research is important to me, so I was thrilled to share what I find significant in the topic with a larger audience. I was especially pleased with the encouraging feedback I received from the Writing Center staff–feedback I will be able to implement in further research on the topic.”

“One of the things I liked best about the presentations was the audience interaction. They had really thoughtful questions, and came up to talk to [the presenters] afterwards as well. It really made me feel validated!”

It is our hope that this validation—as a student, as a scholar, as a respected voice in the “conversation of mankind”— gives Fellows the confidence to realize that their work is not only significant in the undergraduate world, but also in the wider writing world. Fellows, you can publish! You can present at national conferences! This experience is a springboard to bigger stages, and as Fellows who have accomplished both those things, we hope that our peers have the confidence to pursue these opportunities. Your work isn’t “under” anything.

12 thoughts on “(Under) Graduate: Reflections on the Joint Writing Center-Writing Fellow Staff Meeting

  1. Thank you for crafting this funny, savvy post, Jenna! As a Writing Center instructor, I feel so lucky to get the chance to have Writing Fellows help me step back and think more carefully about the decisions I make (or fail to make) during every conference.

    All three of the talks I got to hear this time—Elise’s, Carla’s, and Joslyn’s—changed my way of thinking about writers who resist setting the agenda for our conference, which is just one example of how Writing Fellows have made more of a difference in my life than anything I’ve ever read by Foucault or Fish!

  2. Great article, Jenna!

    This is a very accurate summation of how the Writing Center/Writing Fellows Joint Staff Meeting gave me much more confidence in my role at the university, not only as a Writing Fellow, but as an undergraduate student!

  3. I have no idea who this Fish guy is, but I wholeheartedly agree with every part of this post. As an undergraduate in two graduate-heavy departments (Comparative Literature and Classics), I often feel like my identity is defined by what I am not yet; it’s easy to get the impression that being an undergraduate is a temporary and undesirable substitue to either being a Real Graduate or having a job in the Outside World. As undergraduate students in the Writing Center, however, Writing Fellows are recognized as having a unique perspective on peer tutoring that lends itself to contributions to Writing Center scholarship no less significant than that of graduate students or professors, and this staff meeting is a celebration of that. I was so impressed by the fascinating research on display at this meeting, and the warm responses from graduate students and faculty alike made me feel like I’d stumbled into a utopian community where the undergraduate perspective is recognized as different, but not lesser.

    Thanks, Jenna, for this apt description of the staff meeting and elegant exploration of what it means to be an undergraduate student. You’ve lent words to a tension and secret shame that I’ve felt for my entire undergraduate career, and I’m so thankful to be a part of a community which recognizes and relishes the unique contributions undergraduates can make to a field.

  4. What an enlightening post! I was so inspired by the work of the Writing Fellows that I tried to convince someone I know to apply to the program next year. You guys are amazing, and definitely not “under” anything. Thanks for all your great work!

  5. Great post! It’s wonderful to hear from the Fellows both on the blog and especially in last week’s meeting. I wholeheartedly support your conclusion that your insights are anything but “under” or lower! On the contrary, Fellows have such a rich body of knowledge and experience to bring to discussions of writing centers, tutoring writing, and writing in broad terms.
    After all, by the time grad students hone their skills perching in classroom corners, scribbling in those ubiquitous yellow legal pads, and quoting theorists, we’re all writing deeply in one discipline, or–more likely–very narrow subsets of disciplines. Undergraduate writing fellows are in the midst of writing across all the disciplines that make up a full undergraduate degree (often in multiple majors!) It’s enlightening to hear from the Fellows, and I hope you all would even consider doing more posts on this very blog! Thanks again!

  6. This article makes me wish I would have been able to attend! It sounds like an enlightening evening, to say the least. I’m sad I missed out on the mingling. However, I am fortunate to have been able to hear about Chelsea and Carla’s research last semester, and both were as fascinating and useful as any research being done by non-undergraduates — in my humble, undergraduate opinion.

    Well done all around. Ya’ll Fellows me proud to be a Fellow.

  7. Per our previous conversations, Jenna, what I like most about this post is how it articulates what I imagine lots of fellow Fellows—and undergraduates on the whole—feel, especially whenever they’re introduced at information sessions, presentations, or meetings. The “undergraduate” tag is really foregrounded whenever undergrads are given the opportunity to excel or participate in other “real world” activities. So as others have said above, thank you for giving voice to this sentiment.

    I’m curious to pick your brain a little—what sorts of spaces do you envision as being truly collaborative spaces between undergrads and grad students, whether Writing Center-related or not, and how might they operate?

  8. This experience has definitely been liberating for me in terms of my place as an undergraduate in the larger academic community here, and I think your post does an eloquent job of exploring that.

    Nice work, Jenna!

  9. Thank you for your wonderful insights, Jenna! It was a truly empowering experience to share my findings with the Writing Center community. I loved the discussions that my presentation generated in the Q & A sessions. The graduate students were supportive and engaged, and it was very exciting to be interacting with my former TAs and instructors as colleagues. I agree that this is a really valuable opportunity for undergraduates. So much of the time, it feels like everything we do is for a grade, or a job. It’s nice to get the chance to do something because it matters.

  10. I am reading this insightful post while sitting in a convention center housing one of the flagship composition conferences, and I can say without doubt that the Fellows’ voices would be wonderful (and important) additions to the conversations happening here!

  11. Well wrought, Ms. Mertz. It’s about time someone deconstructed this educational binary between under/graduates.

  12. Would it help to know that most graduate students don’t feel nearly as cool as their undergraduate counterparts, and that most of us are in awe of the education you all get at UW-Madison, compared to wherever we come from? I didn’t hear about this Foucault guy until graduate school, and by then I felt like I’d do best to pretend that I had!

    On a more relevant note, I just have to echo all of the praise in these comments for the Fellows and their research. A great many of us who work in the Writing Center have never done any research on tutoring at all, so you genuinely awe us with your work and bring new perspectives to our practice. I’m very grateful that you come and share your findings with us.

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