The Importance of Being Interested

By Michelle Niemann

Michelle Niemann is the assistant director of the writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 2013-2014. Her first tutoring experience was in the writing center at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, in 2003 and 2004. She recently defended her dissertation and will receive her PhD in English literature from UW-Madison in May. 

The author on a bird-watching walk at Horicon March.

Michelle bird-watching at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. Photo by Liz Vine.

Tutoring in the writing center at University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2009 has given me a great gift: it has shown me the power of being interested. In anything, or anyone. In the next student signed up to meet with me and whatever project they’re working on. At the same time, as a graduate student in English literature at UW-Madison, I’ve also learned a lot about the corresponding power of being interesting.

Being interesting is, quite rightly, the coin of the realm in advanced scholarship. And I’ve absolutely, nerdily loved the opportunity to pursue my interests in poetic form and sustainable farming by writing a dissertation about organic metaphors in both fields. But I’m also grateful that I’ve been working in the Writing Center, because tutoring constantly reminds me, and indeed requires me, to look up and notice at least some of the other interesting things going on around me. (more…)

The Psychosociocultural Perspective: Academic Families and Student Mentoring

Professor Alberta Gloria, flanked by the Writing Center's John Anderson and Rachel Carrales

Professor Alberta Gloria, flanked by the Writing Center's John Anderson and Rachel Carrales

On Friday, February 11 we had our monthly staff meeting, which, as we usually do in the spring semester, addressed social justice in Writing Center work.  UW-Madison Professor Alberta Gloria, an award-winning researcher, teacher and mentor from the department of Counseling Psychology, spoke with us at length.  Her presentation was entitled “Research and Practice Implications of a Psychosociocultural Perspective: Latin@s in Higher Education.”  The title may seem somewhat daunting; Prof. Gloria’s impassioned lecture was anything but.  She spoke eloquently about a holistic process of mentoring, and while her talk was directly about our goals as teachers, her ideas resonate strongly with larger questions of writing and writing center practice.

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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