It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Writing Center Satellite Location!

satellite1I have absolutely no idea how satellites work.  The most technical guess I can give is that they are some kind of spacebird that knows how to speak fluent Google. But that doesn’t seem right. “Scientists” allege that they are a complex network of machines that beam invisible information around the world all while balancing between the force of their own implicit energy and the gravity of a planet. Frankly, that also seems improbable because, well, I can’t stand on one foot and tie my shoe. However, satellites do work, and every day they maintain their improbable balance to make my life easier. Some put the world in bigger contexts (The Hubble Telescope). Others give a new perspective on how the world around me is arranged (GoogleMaps). Some help me to get where I need to go (GPS). And one satellite does all of these things…the Writing Center Satellite Location (insert sighs).

As I head into my second semester tutoring at Memorial Library here at the University of Wisconsin, I am no less dumbfounded by what a miraculous concept the satellite location is. To give a little background, in addition to our main location, the UW-Madison writing center has seven other satellite locations around campus (in libraries, multicultural student centers, and in residence halls), as well as one in a branch of the Madison public library. My typical shift begins at 7:00 PM in one of the main corridors of UW-Madison’s largest library. I am greeted there by anywhere from a handful to a small army of well—caffeinated students waiting to sign up for one of the six 30 minute slots. Availability is on a first come first served basis, though the excess students often manage to find a place to get help at one of the other 7 satellite locations on campus. Sessions vary greatly. In a night I might have a sophomore looking for help on a business school application essay due in several hours followed by a doctoral candidate in paleo-entomology wanting to outline the earliest stages of a research proposal.

As I sit in a large wooden booth with these students I am often reminded of what Peter Carino[i] once called the “three C’s of writing centers—coffee, cookies, and couches—as developing the giant-cup-of-coffee2“safehouse” feel of writing centers. This is not quite an accurate description of the library’s feel. As the student at the table to my left guzzles down what can only be described as a “bucket” of coffee (I believe Starbucks calls this a medium), and the student to my right confers with a bio-chem study group, while finishing off some calculus homework, while listening in one ear to a recorded history lecture, while making sure that everyone on Facebook is alright, it occurs to me that meeting student’s “on their turf” means recognizing that for many (myself included), academic life is immediate, fragmented, and conducted at a break-neck pace. Ultimately, I suspect this tone finds its way into their writing processes.

Put another way, I realized quickly that students’ “turf” means much more than just the physical removal from the main Writing Center, but meeting them en medias process. At times, these sessions are positioned in that small space between the proverbial rocks and metaphorical hard places that arise during the course of a project where writers are stuck, too close to their own thoughts, demanding perfection, just plain out of time, and/or frustrated because they typically “don’t have this much trouble with writing (at the last minute).” Yet, it is in this frenetic setting where students can drop in unannounced, at the end of their day (or, for some, just the beginning), in a space buzzing with energetic studying that writers are often just unprepared and exhausted enough to be truly honest with themselves about their writing’s “lived processes.” And this is what I love about satellite locations, I get to talk candidly about the random, non-ideal, impreciseness of actually living through the act of writing.

Now, what do I mean when I say “lived processes?” Typically, when I think about the “process” I talk about in my classroom it is in an ideal form. It typically involves discussing concepts like amassing sources, developing space in a conversation for an argument, organizing by paragraph, and connecting multiple “moves.” What I don’t talk about is when/how to take breaks, how to work when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, what to do when you can only fit writing in for 30 minutes in between classes, how to stay calm when a deadline is looming, that it’s okay for the words not to come easily or on the first try. But this is exactly what working in Memorial Library has opened up for me as a tutor, teacher, and writer—just how useful it is to talk about the experience of creating and completing a writing project. In the end, I find myself saying a lot of unexpected sentences:

“rather than taking a break to look at Facebook when you get stuck, try opening a new document and freewriting the sentence/idea that you’re stuck on,”

“you know I also thought I did my best work at the last minute, as it turns out, I was just underestimating myself…have you considered committing to writing a little your assignment everyday?”

“Well, no, I don’t think the point of the assignment was to ruin your life…but it is good to think about how you are working through what is being asked of you.”

I also end up having some really great conversations about writing and, sometimes, life. However, I’ll conclude with two questions:

What are your “lived processes” when writing?

How can we bring in the lived experience of writing to our sessions to help students think differently about their own processes?

Thanks for reading my post,


[i] Carino, Peter.  “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring.”  The Center Will Hold:  Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship.  Ed. Michael A. Pemberton and Joyce Kinkead.  Logan:  Utah State UP, 2003.  96-113.

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