Writing Center Tutors: What Kind of Students Are We?

Recently, I conducted a quick poll of our 53 graduate student tutors. Of the 36 who responded to my informal e-mail, 25 said they visit the Writing Center as students. 23 of those come sporadically, while two visit regularly. Of the 11 who said they don’t use the Center, three expressed shame at this fact (as they should).

I open with these numbers because they provide a glimpse into the opportunities a Writing Center provides for its own student tutors. As the T.A. Assistant Director, I’ve made it my priority to understand the many different ways Writing Center tutors can learn and develop from their experiences. At our staff meeting in September, I half-jokingly put forth my guiding philosophy for the year: “What’s in it for me?” I’m pushing all our tutors to look more closely at the work they do and the service they provide, to look for moments of professional and personal development. I want them to gain something from all this work, and to actively consider what those things are.

Along these lines, one question that has occupied my mind is the role of the Writing Center tutor as Writing Center student. As someone who has worked here for four years and been visiting as a student regularly, I’m coming more and more to reflect on the kind of student I am in a conference. Given that I know our underlying philosophy, as well as most of the tricks of the trade, does that affect how I approach my own text with another? Do I practice what I preach? Do my concerns as a student mirror what I do to address the concerns of my own students?

In some ways, I’m an excellent student: I almost always have a clear agenda in mind. I think about the strengths and weaknesses of my work ahead of time, and try to lay those out clearly to my tutor. I know how much we can expect to get through in one session, and how to set goals for the future. I try to always be responsive to help.

In other ways, I’m a truly awful student: I repeatedly ask for directive tutoring, and am actively looking for my tutor to tell me what’s “wrong” with my work that needs to be “fixed.” I almost never write anything new during the conference, instead making obscure notes to myself for the future, and then moving quickly on. I often expect the kind of content-focused critique that I as a tutor tend to shy away from, because I know my tutor is in my field. And as an “insider” into our practice, I always have a sense that my conferences will be “different” than “normal” sessions.

I know I’m not alone in these concerns, either. One tutor told me that, while she thought tutors made good students, we might also be more demanding of our peers, or that we might come in with higher expectations. Another told me that he often tells himself he’s “going to be the worst writing center student possible,” because he’s unfocused or has unreal expectations.

Given that so many tutors make use of the centers where they work, I wonder to what extent the unsettlement of being a student can be productive. When we enter into conferences as students, we inherently take on the anxieties that our own students face, no matter how well we know the score. “In thinking that I’m the worst writing center student ever,” the above tutor continued, “I think I’m probably pretty typical.” In the most basic sense, when we bring our work in, we can better understand the students we meet ourselves.

In this regard, I’d challenge our tutors (myself included, obviously) to see sessions not just as places for developing our writing, but places that can help develop our own practice as tutors. I’d point out these sessions as sites of unfamiliarity, a productive unsettlement. We are, in the words of one colleague, “negotiating a new relationship with someone [we] know.” We are taking on a different power dynamic. We’re seeing methods that may radically differ from our own, and learning to participate in a conversation that we can only partially control. We may even be sitting in a different space entirely. (As a tutor, I always sit to the right. As a student, I’m more often than not on the left. It’s weird.)

So to wrap up this longish post, I invite my colleagues to look more closely at themselves as students, in order to better understand their roles as tutors. How do you approach a conference about your work? Who do you choose to work with, and why? What questions of power, or familiarity, are involved with your choice? And how can you keep a focus on both sides of the table, so that these sessions can be productive for you, regardless of which role you’re inhabiting today?

-Brian Williams, T.A. Assistant Director

Into the semester we go . . .

It’s week four of the semester in the Writing Center, the week in which I usually exhale a sigh of relief. There are so many moving pieces in this large and busy place, so much to do to “get the show up and running,” to quote our wonderful program assistant Terry Maggio. By week four, the foundations have started to settle: the TA schedules are set, our many satellites and Online Writing Center are up and running, our first classes have come and gone. This is the time I allow myself to look around and ask where we are now, to see who or what needs a little extra attention. This is also the time when I feel extra proud of the work I’m privileged to do: along with Brad, Nancy, Terry, Emily and over 100 talented undergrad and graduate student instructors, I’m part of a unit whose mission is to support a strong culture of writing at UW-Madison. Together we help make this university a better place, one student writer at a time.

May your fall 2010 be filled with rewarding work, frequent moments of joy, and words on the page!

Melissa Tedrowe
Associate Director
The UW-Madison Writing Center

Welcome to a New Writing Center Year!

WAC workshop for writing-intensive TAs

WAC workshop for TAs teaching writing-intensive courses

From all of us in the UW-Madison Writing Center programs, welcome to a new academic year!  We’re off and running on an exciting new year.

(more…)

New Podcast Interviews with Neal Lerner

lerner_idea_writinglaboratory_coverWe’re delighted to share three new podcasts from our research and professional series, featuring Neal Lerner, who is the director of training in communication instruction for the program in writing and humanistic studies at MIT.  Neal is a long-time writing center director and tutor, a former co-editor of The Writing Center Journal, an award-winning scholar and researcher, and the author of The Idea of a Writing Laboratory (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009). These interviews were recorded during the March 2010 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Louisville, KY.

If you’re interested in writing center history, in the history of science education, in the history of educational reform, or in archival research, you’ll really enjoy hearing Neal Lerner talk about his research.

(more…)

Yes, we’re open!

Come on in!If you’ve braved the humidity early this past week and found a way through the dust balls of construction lining Park and University to Helen C White, you may have noticed that YES! The Writing Center IS open for the summer. Actually, we have already finished our first, and surprisingly busy, week of appointments. Personal statements, cover letters and resumes have been filling up our half hours, while new and returning ongoing dissertators and thesis writers have been establishing relationships with instructors they will be spending a quality hour with for the next eleven weeks (or more…).

After a week of swiveling around in my chair at the desk, I’ve already started to notice a couple of things that I really enjoy about working in the summer. First, escaping the humidity for a couple glorious hours of air conditioning has been nice  – as a reminder, our computer lab is open whenever we are open this summer if you need a cool and quiet place to get some work done.

(more…)

An Open Letter to the New Writing Fellows

It’s been busy for the Writing Fellows Program, and I’m pleased that our annual recruiting of new Fellows has come to a satisfying end.  We received 70 applications and at the end of last week—after a round of face-to-face interviews—our director, Emily Hall, sent congratulatory emails to the 28 undergraduates who will join the program in the fall.

The process of reading applications and interviewing candidates has been bittersweet for me, since I’m graduating and leaving the program this semester.  I’m very excited for the new Fellows and the adventures that await them, but disappointed that I won’t get to know them. Since I can’t resist offering a few last gems of Assistant Director didacticism, the letter that follows is meant to caution, but uplift.  I hope it’s useful to its intended audience. (more…)

Reaching Out Across the Campus & the Curriculum: A Brief Introduction To Writing Center Outreach

Hi everyone. In this post I wanted to give a brief overview of Outreach for instructors, students, and teachings assistants working in the Writing Center (WC) as well as others interested in Writing Center teaching. My hope is that my post will interest all these audiences, be it by helping an instructor learn more about us and how to contact us to arrange an outreach or to inspire TAs in our own writing center to become a member of our Outreach staff.

In a nutshell, Outreach plays a small, but important, role in Writing Center’s mission to help undergraduate and graduate students in all disciplines become more effective, more confident writers by visiting classes and organizations across campus. Below I’ll list the fundamental ideas about writing we discuss during an outreach visit (no matter the topic) and then give an overview of our different Outreach options. But, I first want to list a few of our “co-teaches” from this semester—quite a variety and the most exciting part of our work in my mind!

(more…)

Cultivating Potentials for Social Change Through Writing Center Talk

image002 This week I invite you to join in a discussion I’m facilitating through the Madison Area Writing Center Colloquium. On Tuesday, April 6th (5:30-7:00pm, Helen C. White Hall 6176, the University of Wisconsin-Madison), I’ll be facilitating a workshop titled “Cultivating Potentials for Social Change,” and throughout the week, I’ll be responding to and inviting readers to discuss these questions:
arrowPoint Why do you value writing center conferencing, and what do you see as exciting possibilities in this talk?
arrowPoint What might “social change” look like in a writing conference?
arrowPoint Have you, for example, through writing center conferencing, built a cross-racial relationship, come to better understand and redistribute power, come to think more critically or with commitment about issues of injustice and equity?

(more…)

The Future of Writing Centers

Each semester, instructors at the UW-Madison Writing Center sign up to participate in one of several “ongoing education” meetings on a topic they find interesting or pertinent to their professional development. As an extension of Katie’s ongoing education last semester on the history of writing centers, Melissa and I recently co-facilitated an ongoing education on (cue scary music) the future of writing centers (cue menacing laughter). The topic—and parenthetical remarks—were inspired by Terrance Riley’s (1994) “The Unpromising Future of Writing Centers,” which we read along with Christina Murphy’s (2006) “On Not ‘Bowling Alone’ in the Writing Center, or Why Peer Tutoring Is an Essential Community for Writers and for Higher Education.”

(more…)