Did you know that approximately a third of the UW-Madison Writing Center’s visitors are graduate students? These writers come to the Center for assistance with course assignments, Master’s projects and theses, prelims, proposals, presentations, dissertations, publications, job application materials, and more! This week we’re turning the spotlight on two graduate students and asking them to tell us about their Writing Center experiences.
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.
By Rebecca Lorimer. A course coordinator in Biology was explaining to me that her students were having trouble in their discussion sections. I nodded as I mentally sifted through my grab bag of discussion-leading strategies. When she asked, “do you have any ideas for our TAs?” I was ready.
By Molly Rentscher. As my first semester in the Writing Fellows program reaches a half-way point, I find myself reflecting on the rewards and challenges of being a Writing Fellow. I am thrilled by the overwhelmingly positive experiences the program has provided me and quite frankly, how much fun I am having. The course for which I fellow is a First-Year Interest group (FIG): a “learning community” of about 20 students who are enrolled in a cluster of three classes that are linked by a common theme. As a new Writing Fellow in a Literature in Translation FIG course, I feel as though I have not only been initiated into a peer mentoring program, but a unique writing community of first-year students.
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.
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
This past Friday, the Writing Fellows program held its first Ongoing Education (OGE) session of the semester, on the topic of “professional writing and writing professions.”
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!
The UW-Madison Writing Center
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.
We’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.