Two summer experiments

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Warm breezes waft down State Street, students linger on Memorial Terrace, and a thousand construction vehicles purr in the gravel-filled trenches that used to be our roads and sidewalks. It’s August in Madison, and the Writing Center is open.

Many of the Writing Center’s programs continue over the summer—instruction, Fellowing, outreach, and workshops, among others—with a smaller staff and on a smaller scale.

But great summers are about not doing the same things you do during the rest of the year. Summer in the Writing Center is, for us, the perfect time for experimenting with new approaches to supporting student writers. This summer we piloted two exciting instructional programs that really took off.

Writers’ Groups

Leigh Elion

Leigh Elion

By Leigh Elion,
Co-Director of the Summer Writing Center.

Several times per semester, we invite students to our writers’ retreats, workshops where students gather for a four-hour block of structured time dedicated to putting words on the page. After each retreat, when facilitators ask for feedback, students always call for sessions to be offered more frequently.

As we prepared for the 8-week summer session, one of the questions Mike Shapiro, Brad Hughes, and I asked ourselves was, “how can the Writing Center better support UW writers during the summer months?” We realized that writers had, in a way, already answered this for us.

Although the retreats are often quite popular, I did not anticipate how high the demand for a weekly writers’ group would be; within moments of hitting “send” on an e-mail announcement, my inbox was flooded with messages from students looking for support and community over the summer.

I assembled two groups of 13 writers each, comprised of undergraduates and graduates from several disciplines, working on a variety of projects: dissertation chapters, co-authored manuscripts, online course materials, conference presentations, an original screenplay. These writers have met weekly for the past two months on either Mondays, in a group that I led, or on Thursdays, led by the talented and experienced instructor Sarah Groeneveld.

The group’s time is structured into goal announcements, writing, and goal accountability.

Format-wise, the writers’ groups were similar to the retreats. Each meeting began with a goal-setting exercise aimed at helping writers to set small, attainable benchmarks each time they sit down to write (a practice Writing Center instructor Rebecca Steffy-Couch has previously vouched for). Writers share their daily goals with the group and conclude by reporting on their progress. Although Sarah and I made ourselves available for brief individual consultations, the bulk of the three-hour session was devoted to producing writing.

These sessions differed from the retreats, however, in several key ways. In forming these groups, I not only wanted to offer support and structure to writers, but I had two additional goals:

  1. to promote writer accountability and help individuals develop productive habits for themselves
  2. to foster community among a disparate group of students.

Pushing writers to set reasonable goals aims to change how they think about the process of writing, transforming what can feel like an amorphous and open-ended set of anxieties, habits, and hopes into more practical, task-oriented, day-to-day work. Repeating the goal-setting process every week, however, means that others become aware of and invested in a writers’ project. The regularity of meetings, too, seemed helpful—one participant reports realizing that “just showing up” has been crucial to productivity.

Perhaps more importantly, I was pleased to learn that these groups offered a space where the often individual task of text-production became a shared experience, something that can happen only on a limited basis during retreats. In our very first meeting, one writer shared that she was excited to join the group because everyone else who works in her lab was off doing field research for the summer, and she had felt lonely. Another writer reports that she was surprised at how beneficial the group experience was for her—it turns out that many writers, regardless of field or the genre of the project, encountered similar stumbling blocks.

Writers look out over Lake Mendota this August. Photo by Sarah Groeneveld.

Writers look out over Lake Mendota this August. Photo by Sarah Groeneveld.

The groups often brainstormed ways to overcome challenges like balancing academic and family life (whether that meant caring for a newborn or entertaining family visiting from another country), translating advisor or co-author edits into revision, and how to be productive even during short snatches of time. I, for one, am deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to work with these writers on their projects and for their support and openness with the group.

During the last session, participants talked about ways that they could transport their writers’ group experience into their home departments and everyday lives. Even though response to the groups has been positive, I wonder how to make them even more successful. How can the Writing center better foster productivity and community? How can we (or even can we?) support writers who want to form independent groups? What other structures, formats, or climates can we experiment with? What constitutes a successful group? In the coming days, I look forward to continued conversation with summer participants and to making plans for future developments.


Mike (in North Bend, Washington)

Mike in North Bend, Washington.

By Mike A. Shapiro,
Co-Director of the Summer Writing Center. 

This is the first summer we have been able to offer online instruction for students writing away from Madison this summer, whether they’re working on research, coursework, or personal statements. To our usual online offerings of email and Skype instruction we added something new: the screencast.

A screencast is a video that records your voice and whatever’s on your screen. Many writing centers use screencasting, and we have been particularly influenced by our friends at the UW-Oshkosh Writing Center and by Chris Anson’s work in progress.

As an example of what this looks like, here’s a screencast I recorded for a student writing a personal statement:

Shared with the student’s permission.

There is no reason screencasts have to fit this scroll & cajole model: a tutor could launch a blank document and model the process of reverse-outlining an argument, or jump to an explanation of semicolons in an online handbook and then apply that explanation to the student’s draft, or even jump between a video of his face and the student’s text to show the human presence at the other end of the conversation. The possibilities are dizzying.

Even though no student requested a screencast—we’ve sprung them on students who requested email feedback—student responses have been unambiguously positive:

  • I’m a visual learner, so it was nice to see exactly what you were pointing toward as you looked at my essay. This method is much more personal and makes it easier for me to figure out what I need to change.
  • I liked the video because it was great to hear what Sarah was thinking as she looked through my personal statement. Written comments cannot convey the same message.
  • I think it’s very smooth and helpful, compared to simply reading written marginal comments or an end note. I like that she was able to scroll through the document as well, pointing out where in the paper she was referring.

Even as someone who argues that the written comment is personal and powerful, I have to acknowledge the appeal of video feedback.

My colleagues Becca Tarsa and Sarah Groeneveld recorded screencasts for a draft of this post, and receiving that feedback in audio and video shocked me with its depth of critique, immediacy of response, and the vitality of seeing a reader moving fluidly through my words.

Students may feel a similar power: most of them rewatch their screencasts five times or more!

Popularity is no evidence of educational value, of course, and before we can understand the value of screencasting as a tutoring tool we will need to tackle some critical questions:

  • How do screencasts compare to written feedback and live feedback in terms of long-term learning outcomes and substantive draft revisions?
  • What learning situations and audiences are the best fit for screencasting? What situations and audiences are a poor fit?
  • How do students conceptualize the reader and the revision process differently if the tutor is recorded on video rather than writing in the margins or talking in person?
  • What differentiates a strong screencast from a weak one?
  • Could students be persuaded to record their own screencasts introducing their assignment, draft, and concerns? Would doing so create a learning-oriented dialogue?
  • How does the tutor experience of making a screencast differ from the experience of writing feedback or interacting with a student live?

Like those blueberry bushes in the shadow of Mount Si, depicted at the top of this post, these summer screencasts have been fruitful and a delight. Whether they are nutritionally rich enough to support long-term growth remains an important question.

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