By Rachel Azima
Rachel Azima is the director of the Writing & Media Center at Iowa State University. While completing her Ph.D. in English, she worked for 13 semesters in the UW-Madison Writing Center. Before starting at Iowa State in Fall 2012, she served as Assistant Professor of English at a small private university in the Detroit area, where she helped start a writing center.
The past few years have brought sea changes for me and for the center I direct at Iowa State. During that time, what was the Writing and Media Help Center moved from the English Department to the Dean of Students Office, becoming a joint venture between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs in the process, and I leaped off the tenure track to take a full-time administrative position to direct this center. Since my arrival, we have adopted a new, shorter name—the Writing & Media Center (WMC)—with the “help” removed to avoid those pesky remedial connotations. Our undergraduate staff is transitioning from “peer tutors” to “communication consultants” (terminology we’re still getting used to), and our per semester usage has more than doubled, from 407 tutoring hours in Fall 2011 to 1046 hours in Fall 2013. My graduate assistants and I have thrown ourselves headfirst into outreach efforts: staff members gave 11 presentations total during the year before I arrived, while my graduate assistants and I gave 105 presentations in Fall 2013 alone, allowing us to reach over 3,500 students with information about the WMC.
We also have a new weekly ongoing education program for our consultants, which includes 50-minute sessions for three weeks of the month, and a two-hour all-staff meeting for the remaining week. I never thought I’d end up having monthly Friday afternoon meetings as we did at the UW-Madison Writing Center, but you do what you have to do! (I get it now, Brad, I really do.) With over 800 clubs that students can participate in at Iowa State in addition to demanding class schedules, finding a time when everyone can meet is a challenge, to put it mildly.
I am tremendously proud of our entire staff at the WMC. We strive for a diverse staff of graduate assistants, student assistants (receptionists), and consultants according to every measure we can, including diversity of major. Our consultants’ majors include:
- Apparel, Merchandising, and Design/Marketing
- Pre-Biological/Pre-Medical Illustration
- Chemical Engineering
- Civil Engineering
- Culinary Science
- English Education
- Environmental Engineering
- Marketing/Communication Studies
- Mechanical Engineering/Economics
When thinking about what to write here, I kept asking myself, “what is unusual about our center?” and the wide range of consultant majors kept coming to mind—particularly our large number of engineering majors. Last semester, the number of engineering majors was greater than the number of English and English Education majors combined. The balance has now shifted somewhat, but we still have what I would guess is an atypically high proportion of engineering majors, who make up 4 of our 19 consultants on staff. As Iowa State’s full name is Iowa State University of Science and Technology, this level of representation seems appropriate, but given commonly held preconceptions about engineers, it doesn’t necessarily seem likely either. So, I sat down with Megan Hingtgen, a senior in Chemical Engineering; Kate Krezowski, a senior in Environmental Engineering; Szuyin Leow, a senior in Mechanical Engineering and Economics; and Chloe Ward, a senior in Civil Engineering, to delve into their experiences and ask what brought them to the WMC. While each discussed unique experiences, many similar issues kept coming to the fore.
A Surprising Major
Megan, Kate, Szuyin, and Chloe all stated that their roles in the WMC had generated surprised reactions at one time or another. Within sessions at the WMC, most observed that their major didn’t typically come up until the end. Megan’s response was most amusing and perhaps most telling: a student will ask, “What’s your major?” and, upon hearing “Chemical Engineering,” as she described it, “they get this little look of panic on their face and they’re like, ‘why are you working here?’ ‘Did I just get good advice?’” Szuyin reported similar experiences: “they phrase it like ‘what’s your major? Are you an English major?’ and when I say, ‘Oh, I’m actually Engineering and Economics’ they’re like, ‘oh wow, that’s crazy! How did you get to work here?’” Not surprisingly, the notion that consultants are or should be English majors persists, but all four suggested that this was changing as students recognize and become used to the diversity of our staff.
Conversely, all four pointed out that their majors did not faze their fellow consultants whatsoever. According to Chloe, “If the number of engineering consultants was lower, it’d be a little more surprising,” but since they make up a sizable proportion of our staff, “it’s just accepted,” as she phrased it.
Both Chloe and Kate suggested that majoring in an area outside of English presented challenges at times. “Explaining technical terms for things is sometimes difficult for me,” Chloe said, adding, “I never say ‘oh, this is a comma splice,’ but I can tell them what is wrong with the sentence.” (I would hazard a guess that consultants from many majors share that experience.) Kate reported that working with students bringing work from upper level English courses was sometimes challenging, since she didn’t have personal experience with those classes.
Both Megan and Szuyin, however, cited the difference between what they do at the WMC and within their curricula as an asset and something that attracted them to the position. When I asked why she had applied to work at the WMC, Megan told me, “I was looking for something different from what I usually do,” adding that “it was the perfect combination of something a little less concrete, and something where I get to work with people and interact with people.” When I asked Szuyin the same question, she replied, “[writing] is something I’ve always loved to do, and I’ve always enjoyed helping other people with their writing, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to tap into that area which I hadn’t had the chance to do in the classroom as much.” Their comments all supported the notion that writing center work supplies opportunities for well-rounded experiences that may not be possible otherwise, particularly within majors geared toward a high degree of specialization.
Technical Knowledge in the Center
I asked these consultants whether they had been able to make use of their technical expertise during sessions, and most reported that they had. Szuyin was aware that some fellow engineering majors had signed up with her specifically because of her academic background: as she put it, “for the people who come in knowing that I’m an engineering student, they like that I might be able to bring a different audience viewpoint.” She also cited having been “trained about how to write technically to technical audiences and to non-technical audiences” as a strength when working with students.
Both Szuyin and Kate discussed fairly specific applications of content or genre knowledge in sessions. Kate described a particular instance of working with a group of engineering majors revising a PowerPoint presentation, when she was able to invoke some disciplinary knowledge: “I was able to understand what they were talking about a little bit more and offer a little more advice, like ‘hey, have you thought about, there might be this potential effect?’”
Megan’s response, on the other hand, suggested that engineering majors’ contributions extend beyond just disciplinary expertise: “even on people’s essays that they bring in for English classes . . . I think the way that I think about papers is a little different,” she explained, adding, “I look at them a lot more methodically, and organization bothers me a lot more.” Megan identified outlining and ensuring a logical progression of ideas as some of her strengths.
All four were enthusiastic about having diverse majors represented at the WMC. “I like the diversity of the tutors we do have, that we have all different majors and years,” Chloe said, going on to describe how she also enjoys the diversity of students who visit. Most discussed either sharing their own expertise with other consultants or drawing on that of their colleagues: as Megan put it, “we all kind of stop and ask each other questions in the middle if we’re not sure about things,” adding, “I really like that about it.”
Similarly, Szuyin described having frequently co-tutored with Rachel Graff, an English Education major: “if I have someone that comes in and that is an English Education major, I’ll just call her over and she can give her input, and then we continue to work together with the student. She does the same thing if she has a lab report or any type of technical writing piece come in.” According to Szuyin, the benefits of such collaboration are not lost on students: “the students really appreciate that, because they see that either consultant can bring valuable feedback.”
Kate described taking this to the extreme of trading appointments altogether on occasion, but also described the willingness of all consultants to pitch in and offer support: “we’ll overhear each other’s tutoring sessions, and sometimes jump in on them,” she said. Overall, their comments suggested that WMC consultants tend to feel comfortable both offering and accepting advice from one another, particularly when it comes to areas of disciplinary familiarity.
Advantages for Future Careers
All four were adamant about the benefits of improving their own and others’ communication abilities for future careers in engineering. Chloe summarized the situation effectively: “a lot of students still underestimate the need for really strong communication skills in engineering and other STEM fields, and I think that in our curriculum it’s told to us that it is important,” but, as she pointed out, it is not until “[Engineering students] have their first internship or ‘til they graduate and get into their professional lives that they realize how much more time they’re spending communicating with other people than doing just engineering work at their desk.” The necessity of strong communication skills for engineering careers is a refrain I have heard again and again, both at this university and my previous institution—but, as Chloe indicates, the problem is not that engineering students don’t hear this message, but that many discount it.
Kate, for instance, said that many of her engineering friends “complain about it a lot when they get English assignments,” saying “‘we’re engineers! We shouldn’t have to do this.’” (I truly cannot tell you how many times I heard this in my previous teaching life.) She is well aware, however, of how crucial it is to push against this idea in order to be successful: as she explained, “there’s always that stereotype that engineers are bad at English and bad at spelling, which might be true, but you always need to. . . forget that stereotype, because there are different types of engineers, and if you look at the professional ones, you have to actually be good at English if you want to . . . move up in your career.”
When talking about an internship she’d had the previous summer, Megan also stressed the necessity of communication in engineering, as well as the value of her WMC experience as preparation: “I expected a lot of being out on the production floor,” she said, then explained, “to make a production facility operate, there’s so many people, and so you have to talk to people all the time, and . . . gauge how they feel about what you’re telling them . . . and you have to definitely be positive, and be critical in a constructive way. Working here has really helped me with that.”
Similarly, Szuyin described how her writing-center-sharpened skills would play into her future career as a technology consultant: “learning more to focus on audience has helped a lot because as a consultant, your main, primary goal is helping that audience and helping your client, and so knowing how to present ideas to them and speak directly to their needs” will be “hugely helpful,” in her words. All four demonstrated a clear understanding that their future careers would include more than just calculations, and Megan and Szuyin made it particularly evident that writing center work has helped them prepare for the situations and kinds of communication they will need to navigate.
Growth as Writers and in their Understanding of Writing
Although I did not ask this question directly, several consultants talked specifically about ways they had grown as writers themselves, sometimes in relation to their experiences as Engineering majors. “I’ve learned a lot about my writing by helping people with their writing,” Kate said, offering learning different ways of making transitions as a concrete example. According to Megan, Chemical Engineering students do “very little individual writing,” making it hard to “develop your own style.” She called attention to the flattening that goes on in group report writing, where the product is expected to have a single voice, summing up the costs of this process vividly: “you just kind of demolish everything that sounds like somebody else’s voice.” The WMC provides a welcome antidote for her: as Megan put it, “it’s cool to see how people think by themselves when they get to use all their own words.”
Szuyin described a number of developments in her own identity as a writer: “When I applied for this job, I didn’t expect it to necessarily influence the work I did in the classroom,” she acknowledged, but added that she has begun thinking more about audience “even in those very standardized lab reports,” asking herself, “‘how can I be more concise in explaining this result?’ or ‘am I actually talking to my technical audience of my professor, or am I trying to maybe communicate to a non-technical audience?’”
Szuyin also pointed out that she herself has become more open to feedback, more willing to share drafts, and “more receptive to the writing process involving multiple people.” In addition to this new understanding of writing as a dialogic process, she also described how she was learning to question what constitutes acceptable writing in an academic context. She was able to trace her own evolution from growing up with Malaysian parents who “wanted to try and have the perfect English and sound American” and a concomitant privileging of Standard American English in her own mind, to a willingness to “push that boundary” and understand that there are “other acceptable ways to express yourself.”
To state the patently obvious, our consultants with engineering majors are an amazing asset to our center, bringing perspectives, approaches, and expertise that would be hard to come by otherwise. Looking back on what emerged in our conversations, I find it striking that Chloe, Kate, Megan, and Szuyin were all already able to recognize the value of their current consulting experiences to their future careers, in ways that parallel Brad Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail’s conclusions in “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” Not surprisingly, internship experiences had brought the actual demands of their future professions into sharp relief, highlighting the utility of an enhanced awareness of audience as well as the ability to facilitate effective communication, including the interpersonal aspects of communication—one of the key abilities that working in one-on-one situations with diverse students can enhance.
Also unsurprisingly, consultants like the ones I interviewed are excellent ambassadors for the value of communication across the curriculum. The university would do well to harness the talents of consultants, particularly those from STEM disciplines, who can talk this compellingly about the payoffs of honing one’s ability to communicate.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t gratifying to see the benefits of our enhanced ongoing education regimen, as several cited the relevance and usefulness of training topics, which have included more than one session on the relationship between writing and identity, particularly which voices often get silenced, and discussions of how to adapt to different learning styles in one-on-one situations. It was exciting to hear them talk about their growing self-awareness as writers themselves.
Without wanting to rehash hoary generalist vs. specialist debates, these consultants’ responses indicate both how perceived expertise remains a concern and how it is, in fact, possible to move fluidly in what is arguably a highly gray area. Given that we are institutionally located outside of any particular academic department, and given my own goal to make the WMC a truly interdisciplinary space, I have tried to situate us in the productive middle ground (the ecotone, if you will—once an ecocritic, always an ecocritic). We recruit from all disciplines, and we make consultants’ majors and areas of interest available online should students want to select a consultant on that basis, but our ongoing education sessions are geared toward preparing all consultants to be able to deal with multiple genres from varying disciplines.
My own takeaway, then, is that it is key not only to continue familiarizing consultants with discipline-specific genres and expectations so they can have a least a minimal comfort level when operating outside their areas of expertise, but also to stress the advantages of being willing to stretch oneself intellectually as part of this process. Working with a student on a subject you know nothing about can be enlightening, and for me, working cross-disciplinarily was one of the highlights of my experience in Madison’s Writing Center: as one example, I always tell my consultants at training about how much I genuinely enjoyed and learned from working with a microbiologist on “Calpain-Mediated Proteolysis of Cortactin” on an ongoing basis. It is evident, however, that consultants view the diversity of their majors as an asset both for themselves and for students who visit, and I will encourage them to continue what they are already doing—taking advantage of each other’s more specialized knowledge and collaborating freely. Put more directly, it would be crazy not to take advantage of the wide spectrum of knowledge represented by our staff, both academically and otherwise.
And now, I want to know about your centers: particularly within centers with undergraduate tutoring/consulting staffs, do you recruit from a variety of disciplines? What is the relationship between engineers and the center, from your point of view?