Déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu at the UWMC Writing Center

By Andy Karr

Andy1Andy Karr is Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center and Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Andy worked from 2008-2010 in the UW-Madison Writing Center. He is completing a dissertation on writing and thinking in general education.

The University of Wisconsin-Marathon County is one of the thirteen two-year UW-College campuses. About 1400 students attend UWMC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Many UWMC students transfer to Madison, but, at the same time, all UW Colleges have a policy of admitting all qualified applicants. This makes for a broad range of services our writing center aims to provide. Not all UW College campuses have a writing center that operates in the same way that UWMC’s does.

Nearing the midway point of my second year in the Wausau Homes Learning Center at UW-Marathon County, I have found two major elements that are very different from what I had experienced at UW-Madison or the writing center literature I am familiar with. I love the writing center here and really can’t imagine working anywhere else, but before taking this job I was not prepared for a writing center staff of all sophomores serving one-year tenures, or a composition tutorial course led by instructional academic staff.


The marker board in my office that tutors contribute their best doodles to.

The marker board in my office that tutors contribute their best doodles to. All photos by Brian Becker.

Having academically inexperienced student-tutors makes training them efficiently as well as thoroughly more important than usual. They will only work in the writing center for a year, or two at most. Starting this spring, tutor training will take place in English 291, a writing tutor seminar, a course I developed with my colleague Joanne Giordano. It is my hope that some of the tutors will continue working in a writing center or academic support center at the four-year UW school of their choice. It is bittersweet to train the tutors for a semester and then watch them leave after using their training for only a year in your center. Happily though, so far another group of eager freshmen replaced the last group.

There is no standard path that students take through their time at the writing center. Tutors transfer between semesters, and a couple tutors have worked at the center for three or even four semesters, usually because of the need to stick around for one more class. I’m very lucky to have the experience of three juniors on the staff right now. I haven’t been around long enough to know whether or not this will be a common occurrence, but it has provided unexpected continuity from year to year.


Student-tutor Valerie Bastian works with a student on a new assignment.

Student-tutor Valerie Bastian works with a student on a new assignment.

The student-tutors provide many of the same services that graduate student-tutors provided at UW-Madison, where I worked as a grad student. While the tutors at UWMC are generally only sophomores, there are some advantages to their undergraduate status. The tutors may have taken the course they’re tutoring in, or on occasion be in that course at the time. Some students see this as a benefit, as the tutors tend to be high-achieving students.

Drop-in tutoring is provided more than 40 hours a week. Meetings by appointment are the exception, not the rule. The tutors have helped students with papers from many departments around campus, including biology, education, history, and psychology, among others. This is the standard service our writing center provides.

Because our staff is so small, the tutors have often found additional roles to fill, usually when they are not occupied at the drop-in desk. Tutors also visit classrooms where writing is assigned to pitch our services. To supplement the official signs made by campus graphic designer Rose Brust, one of the tutors has made several signs to raise awareness of the writing center, including one to garner likes on our Facebook page. (Give us a like!) She also created the Facebook page and updates it regularly. A former tutor launched a Sunday-night satellite location in Marathon Hall, the dorm on campus.

We have paired off tutors with courses in biology, composition, creative writing, history, and psychology, to hold conferences with these specific groups of students, and one tutor standardized last year’s tutor conference records and created the improved form for this semester’s records.

We hope to connect with more faculty who wish to have writing-center services more thoroughly integrated into their courses. Of course, this is a common goal of any writing center director at the beginning of building anything like a WAC program. We would also like more faculty to see that the writing center is not remedial. We’ve got a start with the faculty, but already see a deeper understanding of what the writing center can provide in the students we work with. For every student coming to us for help with “Grammar,” it seems another student will ask about a higher-order concern or to test out an idea. It is reassuring to see at least some students understanding the depth of collaborative learning the writing center provides.


A fairly light morning in the writing center as a whole. At times, three or four 099 groups will be going at once.

A fairly light morning in the writing center as a whole. At times, three or four 099 groups will be going at once.

The other side of the writing center is English 099: Composition Tutorial. It is our less standard, but more utilized, side.

English 099 works differently on different UW College campuses. At UWMC, English 099 is taught in the writing center by Instructional Academic Staff who all have an MA, MFA, or PhD.

Each section appointment means working 8 hours in the writing center teaching ENG 099 or LEA 120: Intermediate Composition Tutorial, meeting four students an hour. The entirety of the course, and it is a course, takes place in the writing center, working with students from composition courses or other writing-intensive courses.

More of my time is devoted to English 099 because I oversee it and participate heavily in it. I do see drop-in writing center visitors when no tutor is available, but, depending on the semester, up to 40% of my appointment is in ENG 099.

As ENG 099 was developed and introduced, the UW Colleges Developmental Reading Coordinator Joanne Giordano and other members of the English department presented to faculty and administrators assessment data demonstrating that students taking ENG 099 performed better in composition courses than those who did not. It is no surprise that what amounts to a weekly ongoing session with a student results in higher persistence in composition courses and less time to fulfilling the transfer requirement. The question that intrigues me about this tutorial course, the one that makes up half of the services provided by the writing center I now work at, was not “if” but “how”, not if the course should be taught but how it might best be taught.

Between the eight of us who have taught ENG 099 over the few semesters I’ve been here, different approaches to the course have become evident. Some instructors take advantage of having four students in one hour to do work in small groups. This option is not available when you have four students doing utterly different things in that hour, but there are many times, especially early in the semester, when you are able to find enough overlap in people’s assignments that you can work on them all together. It is often possible for a group of four students and one instructor to workshop the drafts of one or more students in the group, or help a student brainstorm or give feedback to another student’s ideas as they begin a paper. Some instructors organize their students in a group, even if it’s a group of four writing silently, fairly often, while other instructors hardly do at all. In these cases, the four students will not be sitting together, and the instructor will move from one to the next.

The next questions arise about what to do in the individual meetings with students. These meetings all involve the one to one collaborative learning that is the foundation of writing center work. One simple question is whether or not the instructor asks the student writer to read her or his work aloud. Some of us do; some of us don’t. Some of us vary, depending on the situation. Since we meet with the students every week, they will not always have a completed draft to read, so the question is often moot. Since our students come in at many points in the writing process, at times it can seem that the most useful thing to do is to look at work that has already been submitted and graded. Since many students in 099 are also in developmental reading courses, sometimes instructors will quickly skim a student’s reading assignment in order to be able to talk to them and help them understand it.


Wrap-up discussion in composition tutorial.

Wrap-up discussion in composition tutorial.

One question that has held my interest since I’ve been teaching 099 is the question of tutor talk. I remember it being suggested in my training, and I reiterate it to the tutors I train, that the student writer should talk just as much as the tutor in a conference. My writing center background has led me to believe this to be important for both an effective outcome and the collaborative ethos of the writing center. But what if this is not so in the case of English 099?

Many of the students taking the course are in English 098, two courses below transfer level, and also in developmental reading courses. What if having an equal conversation with these student writers, while easily possible, is not the thing that will make them better writers? What if it will not make them better writers in the span of the three semesters they have to meet the transfer requirement?

All this is to say I’ve noticed many of the other instructors in English 099 talk a lot more to their students than I do. It’s possible that these other instructors, as they talk their students through their assignments, will more effectively move their students through their courses in the time they have. It’s not as collaborative as I try to be, but maybe these students will have time for the collaborative approach in English 101 and 102. Or perhaps that’s unfair to these students, and they actually will learn from collaboration from the beginning. This seems to me an unanswered question, and research and rigorous assessment are difficult in a course like 099.

English 099 is designed to assist students in lower-level composition courses, and does not have much in the way of its own outcomes, so we would be assessing the effect of the course on other courses, further complicating matters. Teaching English 099 is time-intensive, but I find myself wondering about questions of pedagogy and assessment more with this course than with the things that typically go with the writing center drop-ins or other services. Is equivalent tutor talk necessary in all situations or can another model also be effective? These are questions I look forward to exploring.

Much of my work at the UWMC writing center is overseeing familiar elements, if accelerated due to the short time with each class of tutors. One of the interesting and different things I have latched onto is the questions of writing center pedagogy that English 099 raises. Right now, these questions seem like practical ones to be explored and implemented on a daily basis, but also perhaps the subject of larger future inquiry.

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