A Tale of Two Hats: Teachers Become Writers

By Jessie Reeder.

Jessie was an instructor in the UW-Madison Writing Center from 2010-2013. Last year (2012-2013) she served as TA Assistant Director. She can’t wait to return to work in the Writing Center soon, but this semester she’s fortunate to be on a research fellowship as she finishes her dissertation (!!!).

This is not what our staff meetings typically look like.

Andrew Kay, Dominique Bourg Hacker, and lots of other Writing Center TAs at our staff meeting in April 2103.

Andrew Kay, Dominique Bourg Hacker, and other Writing Center TAs huddle over their writing projects at our April 2013 staff meeting.

In this photo our Writing Center tutors (all Ph.D. students, mostly in English) are huddled over their own writing projects, faces taut with expressions of deep concentration. It’s a Friday afternoon in April. Light pours in from our coveted sixth-floor windows overlooking Lake Mendota, which has finally thawed after a long winter. Can you hear the photo? It’s silent except for the soft clack of laptop keyboards, the occasional shuffle of a chair, and the once-per-minute THOCK of the ancient clock that watches over these writers. This is a staff meeting of the 50+ consultants who work in UW-Madison’s Writing Center. (Our 55 undergraduate Writing Fellows have separate staff meetings, though we do all come together once per year to learn from each other.) I say that this meeting is atypical in part because of the silence (we’re a talkative bunch, by nature) but more so because we’re fully inhabiting our own roles as writers, not just instructors, mentors, tutors, or TAs.

In addition to our regular Ongoing Education sessions and other professional development, the Writing Center staff at UW-Madison meets approximately once per month to deepen our community and develop our practice as tutors. We hear from experts in other disciplines who help us work with writers in philosophy, biology, or social work. We discuss new research on working with differently-abled students. Or we brainstorm ways to handle particularly challenging tutoring sessions. While we can never shake off our own experience as writers that informs these discussions, we are primarily wearing our teacher hats.

So what are we doing in the above photo?

Members of a Saturday morning Writer's Retreat circle up to set goals for the day.

Members of a Saturday morning Writer’s Retreat circle up to set goals for the day.

In short, we’re having a “writer’s retreat.” This is in part to help our staff experience one kind of opportunity the Writing Center regularly offers to UW-Madison students. Three times per semester we offer a four-hour “Writer’s Retreat,” where, guided by some goal-setting and group discussion to begin and end the session, writers essentially come together in solidarity—an effort to ward off solitariness—and put words on the page. These have been immensely popular, and I encourage you to read John Bradley’s blog post about them. The Writing Center has also been running “dissertation boot camps” in the summers, led by Associate Director Nancy Linh Karls. These are designed on a similar model but last for a week or more, and slots in the boot camps are competitive and coveted. (I did one this summer and wrote an entire dissertation chapter in one week!) You should definitely check out Nmachi Nwokeabia’s blog post narrating her own experience as a boot camper.

Writers spread out into various writing spaces, including the Writing Center's computer lab.

Writers spread out into various writing spaces, including the Writing Center’s computer lab.

These kinds of “retreats” or “boot camps” are special: they honor the effort and duration of writing; they motivate the attendees by allowing them to share a typically lonely activity; and they eschew distraction and provide strategies for getting through the labor of writing a long project.

So, in part, we decided to dedicate one of our staff meetings to “retreating” our own writing so that our staff could get to know the ins and outs of one of our most popular and growing student offerings. We wanted them to be able to chat knowledgeably with their own students about the benefits of attending these events.

But it was more than that.

As TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center last year, I was tasked with designing and orchestrating this staff meeting. In the weeks leading up to it, I began circulating information about the meeting—what to expect, what to bring, etc. TAs were startled that we were going to dedicate a two-hour staff meeting to our own writing projects… Startled, and thrilled. Enthusiasm came pouring back to me about the meeting. Sure, it was great to get these two hours to write during the busiest time of the semester. But as became clear in the meeting, it was also exciting to acknowledge the bridge between our teacher-selves and our writer-selves.

People were abuzz as we gathered. By being writerly in a space where we’re usually teacherly, we were using space differently, which can unleash energy and reawaken attention. I asked everyone to set goals for the two-hour session, making concrete plans for how much they could reasonably accomplish. We talked about strategies for getting stuck, agreed to turn off our internet connections, and toured the writing (and  snacking) spaces available. With the following gentle admonition projected over the writers, they hunkered down to work.

The time flew by. When we reconvened with fifteen minutes left for wrap-up discussion, this was on everyone’s lips. It went so fast! Who knew you could lose yourself in writing for two whole, uninterrupted hours??

In closing conversation we talked about why these retreat formats are so effective. This is, I think, the question that links our writerly and teacherly selves–it gets after the process of writing. To have an answer to this question is to be able to speak to our students as a fellow-writer from the trenches.

The answers were immediate, blurted out in excited tones:

  1. Being around other writers, who are sitting at the work of writing, matters. There’s a potent mixture of shame (they’re writing–I should, too!) and energy (it’s like everyone is cheering me on!) arising in a room that, to an outside observer, looks like a quiet study space. Think about all those students packed into study rooms in the library. They’ve got the magic of shared space figured out.
  2. Goal sheets we pass out at Writer's Retreats, Boot Camps, and this staff meeting.

    One set of questions on the goal-setting sheets we pass out at Writer’s Retreats, Boot Camps, and this staff meeting.

    Setting concrete goals for a writing session makes a big difference. Our writers filled out hand-written goal sheets about what they wanted to accomplish in that session, on that day. (I will write three pagesI will finish outlining my chapter. I will make it through the first four critics in my lit review.) They said that these concrete goals pushed them to keep going when ordinarily they might just call it quits at any particular moment. They wanted to meet those goals, because they knew there would be a feeling of accomplishment in it.

  3. You can write more than you think you can. (Especially when you turn off the internet.) Almost everyone in the room was amazed at how much they got done when they actually put fingers to the keyboard for two uninterrupted hours. They were jazzed about future writing sessions, too–knowing what’s possible in two hours makes it more fun to get down to the business of writing. It helps push aside that sense of ennui that comes from feeling like all you’re doing is pushing a rock up a hill where you can’t see the top and the scenery never changes.
  4. Writing a lot affects more than just your project. Like the attendees at our retreats and boot camps, our staff left at 5pm that Friday ready to cook dinner, sit by the lake, turn on the television, or open a beer with a guilt-free conscience. Meeting goals–even modest ones–is a powerful way to improve the way you feel about the the things you do in the rest of your time.
Some of our staff preferred a windowless room for less distraction. And some preferred the floor. From left to right: Jessie Gurd, Antonio Tang, and Leah Misemer.

Some of our staff preferred a windowless room for less distraction. And some preferred the floor. Almost everyone said yes to snacks. From left to right: Jessie Gurd, Antonio Tang, and Leah Misemer.

This meeting also resonated with the arguments Paul Silvia makes in his book, How to Write a Lot, which he came to talk with us about last spring. Silvia points out that you can write “a lot” no matter how much time you have, as long as you work every day, in the little spaces you can find. But he also stresses the necessity of setting aside writing time, and protecting it like a mama bear. Writing is our job, after all!

So this was a chance to take Silvia’s motivating words and put them into action. Not only did the TAs leave excited to make their own writing processes more rigorous, but they felt they had concrete ideas to motivate their students–and that they could talk from experience about why they work.

I have to say, though, my favorite part of this staff meeting was breaking down the barriers that separate our teaching from our writing, and that separate each writer from her fellows. Our work in the Writing Center is by its nature collaborative, whether we’re talking with a student about their writing, or meeting with each other to sharpen our pedagogy. The Writing Center is always humming with talk, and I love that. But as a writer, I often feel terribly isolated. What better space than the Writing Center to fix that?

We at UW-Madison are very aware that other Writing Centers structure their staff meetings differently, invite more writing and sharing of writing amongst staff, and already offer similar writer’s retreats. We’d love to hear about how you incorporate your writerly and teacherly identities, so leave a comment!!

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Hats: Teachers Become Writers

  1. This was a transformative experience, Jessie, and in this post you evoke the way feeling yourself as one of a pack of writers can change the way we think about research writing and how to help our students reframe the way they see it. I’ve never been to a group yoga class, but I’ve always heard that being one of many people doing something that seems crazy helps to normalize it. This meeting helped me see myself as a normal researcher contributing to the normal work of the university, rather than as a lone, crazed writer typing nonsense at midnight in my garret. Thank you for organizing this meeting, and for publicizing its effects!

    Mike Shapiro
    (TA) Coordinator, UW–Madison Writing Center

  2. This seems like a fantastic staff meeting. I remember seeing similar reactions back when I helped out with the first boot camp, and I’m glad that the center has allowed its own instructors to try this out. I will say, once you’re faculty the opportunity for this kind of group writing becomes almost impossible, so I really envy you this chance. (I’m in a writing group with several of my colleagues, and it’s nigh impossible just to find one hour a week we can meet to talk about someone’s work, let alone schedule time to write together.)

    I’d be curious, too, as to ways to bring this into the classroom more. I know I’ve tried to schedule group writing days in my comp classes particularly, but it’s a constant struggle to get the students to come in prepared, and make them actually write for the entire time (shutting down the internet is a big problem, since most of them keep all their research itself online). Were there any practical ideas discussed as to how to get our students involved in this sort of collective write-in?

  3. One of my comp classes this semester meets in a somewhat off-putting technology room–2 long rows of big black monitors that block my view of the students, and their view of me. I’m trying to figure out how to make it work; this post has given me some hope that maybe I can put the computers to work in creating a collegial environment (even though they seem kind of like an obstacle right now).

  4. I went to lots of the writer’s retreats last year (they’re a good part of what helped me get my essays for prelims done, especially in a busy semester!) and I especially loved having this “retreat” alongside writing center staff. It was really nice to get to share, as you note, that writing space/writing self with other instructors.

  5. This staff meeting was one of the most memorable for me in my 3+ years of teaching in the Writing Center here at UW–Madison. And it’s been a game changer for not only my writing, but my entire approach to my work! I’ve been using those goal-setting questions for writing—and also other tasks—ever since, and I even used them on a macro level to help me with my summer goals this year.

    Writing together as a staff in this was was also instrumental in reminding us of our goals as a team. I’m so thankful to you for that, Jessie. :)

  6. Great post, Jessie! Last year, I often found myself looking longingly at the various writers retreats and bootcamps, thinking about how great an activity that was and how much people got done. So it was fantastic to finally be able to be a part of that process.

    Personally, to echo what you say above, I found the community setting really invigorating. It provides that perfect balance between mutual support (“Hey, we’re all working towards the same thing!”) and social pressure (“Hey, everybody else is writing, so I better get in gear!”) that we so often miss as researchers and writers. Thanks so much for both organizing the meeting and writing this up!

  7. I think the key for me in terms of what makes the “retreat” or the “bootcamp” so transformative is exactly what you pinpoint in this note: it makes the writing process less lonely. It’s amazing that even though we teach to rooms full of people, our actual process for lesson planning, writing, etc, is so isolating. As usual, I love reading anything that you write for you so effectively incorporate the visual into the textual. Which, of course, makes me very happy. Great post.

  8. I love this post because this is in part what I study: how objects and environments–as well as donning the hat of the writer-self–impact the writing process (and productivity). This post also resonates with me because practicing what we know is one of the most effective ways of really learning what we know. We tell students to turn off the Internet while they write, but how often do we follow through with that ourselves? And many of us write in public with friends, or write in public with strangers, but how often do we get to write in public with colleagues whom we don’t know well, but whose practices have a lot to teach us? Isn’t there a special power in collective writing on this scale? Thanks for posting about this awesome meeting–I am jealous of the experience! Also–I’ve been obsessed with How to Write a Lot since I first read the book a couple of years ago, and I can’t believe I missed him coming to speak. Too bad I couldn’t remain a UW-Madison WC employee forever :)

  9. Thanks for this post, Jessie, and for a report on what sounds like an amazing WC staff meeting / writing retreat! I remember being part of a planning conversation when the idea of this style of staff meeting was floated (just as we were realizing what a hit the retreats were turning out to be), and I remember being curious (and at least a little nervous) about how it would be received by the staff. I’m so glad that it turned out this well.

    It’s inspiring me to think about how to make something like this work here at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio. The big difference is that we’d have to make it a much shorter retreat (we meet weekly for an hour, rather than your longer monthly meetings), but that could still be productive, right?

  10. Great post, Jessie! It occurred to me as I was reading this that it’s especially fitting for me that you wrote on this topic, since I remember sitting in a classroom or conference room with you and a few other people maybe six years ago, furiously writing papers at the end of the term. I was always the one who wouldn’t be quiet. (Sorry!) “There are all these people around,” I thought. “Why would I be quiet?” It wasn’t a conscious plan, but more like a social impulse I couldn’t resist. “I’ll write when I’m alone and there’s no one to talk to.” After a year of trying though, I realize it’s not always easy to write when there’s no one else around either. I think I’ll try to find a middle ground and be “writerly in a space where [I'm] usually teacherly” or tutorly or administratorly. I’ll see if I can resist that social impulse now, or at least plan around it.

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