FOUR YEARS AGO: The [Writing Center tutor] plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious [Rheta’s] like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. No. Wait. That’s Jason Bourne’s story. My story is tamer. I was walking through the beautiful campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison to my first Writing Center shift at Chadbourne Residential College (CRC). I confess, though, that I was not familiar with the idea of a residential college. As a newly minted Writing Center tutor, I was somewhat skeptical, and in fear, of the whole idea of the residential college. I thought I was simply working at a Writing Center satellite location in a residential hall where we offer one-to-one instruction from 6:30PM to 9:30PM, Sunday through Wednesday, in the chic dining facility known as Rheta’s.
I had tutored for a semester in the main Writing Center at 6171 Helen C. White Hall. Now, I was branching out to work at one of the Writing Center’s nine satellite locations, Chadbourne Residential College, but how could I make a meaningful contribution to a residential college? I knew there were numerous ways that writing helped to shape the academic life across UW-Madison, and that the Writing Center participated in the campus culture of writing, but I didn’t know how working at the CRC would change my life. Yes…change my life, well, ok, as a Writing Center tutor, but also as a teacher and a person!
The name CRC, as I discovered, was merely the tip of a Hemingway-sized iceberg of academic life and meaningful programming. I heard from my own students about the various Residential Learning Communities, like the Bradley Learning Community, known affectionately as the “neighborhoods of UW-Madison.” Even before that first shift, come to think, I received an email from the former Assistant Director of the CRC informing me about this special institution known as a residential college. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the CRC discovered me. The email explained that CRC provides its students with a mission to become “responsible, invested citizens,” and that the CRC has partnered with the Writing Center since the beginning of the CRC. The CRC offers classes, in house, so to speak, to their residents, advising, and at the core of these activities, I could see how writing and learning defined the ways the students approach life at CRC and how the CRC, in turn, defined the students.
Then came the invitations.
Invitations you say?
Yes, I say, invitations: to Monthly Teas, to a CRC Common Read Dinner, to book discussions, films, and to a series of talks titled What Matters to Me & Why. Then came the “CRC Connect,” E-news from the Chadbourne Residential College (CRC) for our Faculty, Staff, and Community Partners—offering more ways to participate in the community of students known as CRC. Soon enough, I responded to a CRC invitation. I came to a Monthly Tea. I saw students engaged in meaningful discussions. And the CRC students helped me to conquer my fear by welcoming me into their community.
ONE YEAR AGO: As a Writing Center tutor at the CRC, I’ve been invited to attend many book discussions. Last year, we discussed Economics Professor Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. I joined a table with the current Assistant Director of CRC, Tonya Trabant, and a small group of engaging students. The students had read this text in addition to their other coursework, an economics book no less, and while discussing Ariely’s ideas, they were considering ways to apply the ideas from Predictably Irrational to their other courses. In keeping with the Wisconsin Experience, they were also looking at the decisions they make in their lives through the lens made possible by Ariely’s work. One aspect of the students I’ve come to deeply appreciate is their consistent ability to connect what they are currently discussing with other areas of their academic and personal life.
ABOUT A SEMESTER AGO: Tonya Trabant approached me about teaching one of their Integrated Liberal Studies seminars, ILS 138, “CRC First-Year Seminar: Exploring the Foundations of Liberal Education,” which explores the academic philosophy and social culture at a research university—of course I agreed. (Wow, I’m luckier than Jason Bourne bounding over the gritty rooftops of Morocco…yeah, something like that.) This semester, in ILS 138, we’ve been discussing how a liberal education can connect us to the events beyond the UW-Madison community, for example, to New Orleans. For ILS 138, we’ve been working through A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (2010 CRC Common Read).
Josh also came to CRC and gave an excellent, informative behind-the-scenes talk about his writing of A.D. and what happens when journalism meets graphic art.
I’ve enjoyed many Writing Center shifts at CRC—because of the great academic staff, but mostly because of the great students. I’ve collaborated with students on revising medical school essays, discussed strategies for organizing research data on emergent forms of new media, helped outline application essays to study abroad, and considered possibilities for essays to work for Teach for America. To that, add an impressive array of writing projects from across the disciplines. Likewise, I’ve assisted several CRC students with Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fellowships and Holstrom Environmental Scholarships—I didn’t know how fascinating worms could be as a research subject. When I recall the many students I’ve seen at the CRC Writing Center, I always remember the quality of their writing, how handily they collaborate on revision strategies, and the rigorous way they pursue their ideas in their own research.
ONE MONDAY AGO: While at my Writing Center shift at CRC, I met with six thoughtful students, for six half-hour appointments, and had six great conversations, either about The Great Gatsby or Six Degrees of Separation. At this point, I’m just as impressed with the high quality writing the students bring to discuss during a shift at the CRC—but now I’m used to the high quality writing. That night, I learned more about Gatsby and Six Degrees of Separation, and because of the student writing I saw important connections between the two that I hadn’t previously considered. I’m thankful for the partnerships the UW Writing Center enjoys with the CRC, the other satellites, and the other learning communities across campus: uniting the campus through writing works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Shift after shift, I’ve become convinced of the importance of writing centers partnering with residential colleges and with residence halls more generally. Whenever I, as a Writing Center tutor, can affect a 1:1 writer-tutor ratio, I know I can make this big institution all the more of a personal experience. As a future faculty, I know, too, that I will advocate for these ways of connecting the students with the life of the university, in order to create a meaningful First-Year Experience, and to support students as they continue to grow as writers and as people, and in order to instill in students the need to see learning as a lifelong endeavor. The Chadbourne Residential College represents a meaningful contribution to the culture of writing and learning at the UW-Madison, and thanks to the CRC staff and students, I believe I’m a better teacher and person, and I believe in the idea of a residential college.
—Christopher Syrnyk, Writing Center Tutor, Lifelong CRC Fan