A Glimpse into Our Community Writing Assistance Program

Stephanie White has been teaching in CWA since spring 2010.

Stephanie White has been teaching in CWA since spring 2010.

Community Writing Assistance (CWA) is the community outreach branch of the UW-Madison Writing Center. Teaching at seven different locations around Madison, from public libraries to our local Urban League Building to neighborhood community centers, CWA instructors provide free, drop-in help with writing of all kinds to writers from all walks of life. In this post, CWA instructor Stephanie White reflects on what she finds most meaningful about teaching in this program.

Sometimes people ask what a typical CWA shift is like. I’ve found that there’s no such thing. During my shift on Monday afternoons at Madison Public Library’s Central branch, one patron might want to learn more about Microsoft Word, the next might need me to look over her resume for an art professor position, and the last might ask me to explain what a computer is. During my shifts at Pinney this summer, I got a lot of patrons who wanted to set up email accounts, a lot of patrons who wanted to set up job search accounts, and some who wanted to set up Linked In accounts. When I take shifts at Hawthorne or Meadowood or the Urban League, I get many patrons who are committed to learning how to use a computer because they see that their world is changing, and they want to keep up. And I also get many patrons who haven’t had a job interview in months, and who are committed to persisting anyway. Many come faithfully as long as we have space for them, and, through our sessions, they advance their computer skills or find jobs. The point is, wherever I’m working, my patrons keep me on my toes, since I have to be ready to meet them where they are.

But I also have to be on my toes because these patrons are doing an extraordinary thing by coming to our sessions. Sometimes I feel like this is the dirty, nitty-gritty side of writing instruction—the side that forces me to remember that writing and computer skills aren’t just for school assignments, but can contribute to my patrons’ livelihoods. But, through the relationships we build as we work together, I hope my patrons and I also contribute to each other’s lives, by making them fuller.

4 thoughts on “A Glimpse into Our Community Writing Assistance Program

  1. Stephanie, I really enjoyed reading your post, and your points definitely resonate with my own, less extensive, experience working at Meadowood community center this semester.

    You make a great point that it’s nearly impossible to characterize a “typical” CWA shift. Working at Meadowood, I help people on a drop-in basis, meaning that I have no idea how many people—and what range of concerns—will come through the door on any given Wednesday morning.

    Meeting patrons where they are is also an absolutely central part of CWA. And I have to say that, while I’ve always been aware of computer literacy issues for those who haven’t “grown up” with computers or haven’t had access to technology, CWA has put me into very immediate contact with these needs. Setting up email accounts, demonstrating cut and paste features, and navigating online job search engines have been big parts of many of my tutoring sessions.

    I can’t agree more, though, with the mutual contribution you mention between CWA tutors and those looking for job and writing assistance. Every time I work with a patron, I’m reminded of the importance of writing for representing oneself and for managing central aspects of daily life.

    The first day I completed a shift of CWA at Meadowood, I worked with a woman on an email communicating with a potential employee. Varying her word choice, trying out verbs of various tone and heft, she smiled, observing, “I really do sound like I know what I’m talking about.” She really did know, and it was my pleasure to get a chance to act as a sounding board for her writing and rhetorical choices—choices that make an often profound and immediate impact on patrons’ daily lives, and even livelihoods.

    This is just a small example from the short time I’ve been at Meadowood, but these small examples have stuck with me. I think of working with people to construct resumes and cover letters as a chance to help them to tell their stories—the work histories, volunteer experiences, training, certifications, skill sets, and talents that form substantial portions of their lives. While I’m still learning how to help bring out these stories in the most effective ways possible, I feel excited to have the chance to hear people’s stories and to see how writing and rhetoric affects lives every week as a CWA tutor.

  2. I agree, Stephanie: there is no such “typical” CWA shift. Working on the CWA staff last year opened my eyes to the complicated but vital roles literacy plays in the lives of so many people in the greater Madison community. Leaving campus and working with community members was as unpredictable as it was rewarding–two sides of the same coin, really.

    Thanks to those who are making CWA possible, both sponsors and patrons. It’s a great example of the Wisconsin Idea in action!

  3. CWA work is so important. I’ve learned so much and made some very close relationships in this work. In fall 2007, I was lucky to collaborate with three family members — mom and two sons (in middle and high school) — for several weeks. . . Each had their own writing projects, and the middle schooler, I remember, worked for weeks on writing a strong proposal for why the school should extend lunch period. When I’m stuck with my own writing, I’m motivated thinking about his determination to make change!

  4. I so miss working in CWA. It’s interesting the kind of lasting impact off-campus writing center work can have–I suspect my dissertation may have actually been born in one particular CWA shift. And I was certainly a changed instructor after this work–more flexible and open-minded about what “writing” means, more able to connect as an instructor with disparate interests, languages, and genres. It’s certainly a site, as Stephanie notes through reflection, for some of the writing center’s most interesting and unpredictable work.

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