By Anna T. Floch
Anna Floch is a third year PhD student in Composition & Rhetoric and an instructor of intermediate composition here at UW- Madison. Her research interests include the intersection of identity and literacy, collaboration, and examining affect and emotion in the writing process. She started as a writing center instructor at UW in the Fall of 2012.
I recently overheard a friend and colleague as he began his first shift as a writing center tutor. Before the shift began I had spoken with him about his first appointment and he mentioned he was expectant, nervous, and excited – all very valid emotions to feel when one is stepping into a new role as a consultant in the writing center. Overhearing this moment and talking with him about it beforehand offered me a chance to reflect on my own journey as a writing center instructor (note: I will use the terms “writing center instructor” and “writing center tutor” interchangeably in this post). Up until the point when I began my role as an instructor in our writing center I had tutored in community writing programs, taught my own introduction and intermediate composition classes, and worked in a number of non-traditional educational settings, but I had never stepped foot in a writing center. I came to UW-Madison from a large private university and I (sheepishly) admit that I never utilized the writing center during my undergraduate or masters experience. Though writing centers’ core tenets of talk, collaboration, and relationship building fit deeply into my own personal pedagogy and identity as a classroom teacher, I was concerned with my own ability to navigate the challenges and demands of writing center instruction.
Needless to say, when I started in the writing center last fall, I felt as though I was peering into a big deep canyon (see above): it loomed large, felt thrilling, and was a little bit terrifying. The last year has been a lesson for me in what happens when we close the gap between instructor and student, when we discuss disciplines we do not immediately understand, when we interface with new students from around the campus on a daily basis, and when we take time to really listen to the needs of the writers we work with. In short, my experience in the writing center has made me a better writer, student, and teacher. In that spirit, and as many students and tutors across the country are returning to their work in the writing center, I want to take time to reflect on the key lessons that I have learned over the last year which I hope are useful to both new and returning writing center tutors.
Embrace the chance to work with writers at every stage in the writing process. This might seem like obvious advice but in looking back over the last year I recognize that a lot of my growth as a teacher has come from working with writers at every stage in the writing process. I have grown from working with the 7th year dissertator who is about to go on the job market, and from working with the freshman writing their first college paper. Last week I worked with a senior in an English class who had never engaged in a close reading of poetry. We spent most of our session working on close-reading a section of the poem, and then discussing how to translate some of what we found into writing. This week I worked with a master’s student from China who was writing her first response paper in English for an education class. Our session was spent discussing the construction of argumentative essays, thesis statements, topic sentences, and conclusions. This might seem like simple work but having to communicate these skills clearly to a graduate multilingual writer committed to learning and growing in her English abilities was a challenge to my teaching practice. Similarly, most of the ongoing students that I am working this semester are graduate students in the later stages of their dissertation-writing process. Each time we meet I have the goal of pushing these writers to consider their argument more deeply and keeping them on track with their deadlines and writing goals. Working with writers at every stage in the writing process has helped me to better understand the vast ecosystem of writing, and has forced me to hone my skills as a teacher of writing.
Look for opportunities to listen and learn. One of the common insecurities experienced by writing center tutors is the desire to know it all. To know all genres of writing, to be able to spot (and explain) all grammar errors, to know all the writing rules and be able to state them at a moment’s notice. The reality is we can’t know it all, and we shouldn’t have to. I have found that most of my growth as a writing center instructor has come when I take time to listen to my students and learn from them during a session – in addition I believe a lot of growth happens when we admit we do not know something. I recently worked with an ongoing student writing his dissertation in Scandinavian studies and he asked me a grammar question that really stumped me. I told him that I would get back to him with the answer the next time we met. Throughout the course of the week I consulted with other colleagues, looked up grammar rules online, and glanced at a few grammar books. I found a way to explain it to him that fit with my own knowledge and understanding, and I resisted the urge in the moment to tell him an answer that was wrong just to appear as though I knew everything. When I am asked other stupefying questions by students that I might not have the chance to work with again, I make a point to look up the answer with them, to show them that even instructors need to consult the rules at times. As much as we want to know all of the things, we can’t. So it is important to look for opportunities to grow and learn as instructors, to listen to our students and see what they can teach us.
Try on many different hats. Since beginning in the writing center last year, I have had the opportunity to come to the writing center as a student, to work on the outreach team, to serve as a commenting mentor with writing fellows, to work on email instruction, to teach in College Library, and to work in the writing center during the summer. Each of these roles has offered me a new perspective on the work of the writing center here at UW. In my current role on the outreach team I have had the opportunity to present to different student interest groups around campus and to co-teach in various disciplines. This has offered me insight into the amazing network that the writing center has created around the UW campus and to connect to wonderful campus groups that I wouldn’t have the chance to meet. I get to hear returning students and staff talk about how much they love the writing center, and I have the chance to speak to new undergraduate students about how we can support their transition to campus. I have run into former students who ask me if I still work there and if they can stop by to see me. I have been reminded of the immense community that the writing center offers students and the amazing reach of the writing center across campus. In addition, stepping into the writing center in the role of student (not just instructor) has humbled me and reminded me of the tremendous leap (and vulnerability) that students undertake when they share their writing with us. Email instruction has reinforced the importance of clear, directive feedback that is easily actionable. In short, each of these roles have given me a fuller sense of the writing center, and I encourage all tutors (returning and new) to take advantage of the opportunities (and roles) available to them as they expand their work in the writing center.
My work in the writing center this semester has definitely felt less daunting than when I began last year, but I still feel challenged and excited by the students I work with each week. As I reflect back on my growth over the last year, I am reminded of how much the writing center has shaped my own work as a teacher, researcher, and student, and of how much the lessons of the writing center travel with me as I move into new spaces to both teach and learn. The writing center is a space for constant negotiation, for expanding new insights and horizons in our teaching, and for reminding ourselves as writers and students that we are always evolving