When the Thunderheads Gather: Ethics and Sophistry in the Writing Center

By Ryan Holley

Ryan Holley is a graduate student in the Department of English at UW-Madison, and has taught in the Writing Center since 2016. His research focuses on the confluence of heroic frontier imaginaries and modernity, although he has outside interests in philosophy and classical literature.   

Ryan Holley, on Lake Superior

“How pleasant it is to know these clever new inventions and to be able to defy the established laws! When I thought only about horses, I was not able to string three words together without a mistake, but now that the master has altered and improved me and I live in this world of subtle thought, of reasoning and of meditation, I count on being able to prove satisfactorily that I have done well to thrash my father.” —Phidippides [1]

Any tutor who works in a writing center long enough will eventually encounter papers that he or she finds morally disagreeable. The term “disagreeable” here stands for a range of rational and affective responses on the part of the tutor: on one end of the spectrum we might experience a mild dissatisfaction with the conclusions that a writer expresses on a subject, while on the other we might harbor the kind of ethical reservations about an essay that result in a churning stomach and gnashing teeth. While the former kind of response is more typical (at least in my own experience) and can often be put to rest with a deep breath and a thoughtful comment or two, the second can be one of the most challenging positions in which a tutor might be caught. Often it seems that there are no good responses, as we are caught between the Scylla of our obligations to work with the student’s writing and the Charybdis of helping to strengthen an argument that we find repugnant. So what are we to do when faced with writing that we find opprobrious or potentially harmful to the ethical principles we support?

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Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center

By Emily L. Loney

Emily Loney is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at UW-Madison and has taught at the Writing Center since 2015. Her research focuses on time and revision in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature.

“I may correct an accidental slip (I am full of them, since I run on regardless) but it would be an act of treachery to remove such imperfections as are commonly and always in me.” [1]

Emily Loney. Photo credit: Jane Loney.

In 1588, Michel de Montaigne told readers that, although he was revising his Essays, he would not be “fixing” his book. Montaigne was in the process of publishing a massively revised edition of the book that he had first published eight years before. (This book of “essays,” incidentally, would give us our word for those papers that we see so often in the Writing Center.) In his 1588 revision of the Essays, Montaigne was willing to correct typos or factual inaccuracies, but he was not going to remove arguments or perspectives that, eight years after their first publication in 1580, he no longer supported. To do this would be, he says “an act of treachery.” Montaigne is not interested in using revision to show a perfect, final product—the state of his thoughts at a single moment in time. Instead he shows his changeable, mutable self through his writing—what one scholar has called the “record of his thoughts in movement.” [2] Montaigne uses his revisions to show the open-ended nature of his writing process: rather than closing off possibilities, he shows his branching ideas and the evolution of his thoughts. He shows false starts, imperfections, and change.

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Where Are They Now? Writing Fellows Alumni Edition

By Calley Marotta

Calley Marotta is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric in the English Department and a TA Assistant Director in the Writing Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Calley Marotta

Although I participated in the UW Writing Fellows program from 2004-2006, it wasn’t until a decade later that I realized how the undergraduate peer tutoring program had shaped my career choices. At the time, I was moving from a career in elementary special education to college composition and a kind mentor suggested I look into Writing Studies. Only then did I realize Writing Studies was a field I had begun to study in our Writing Fellows tutor training seminar. And it was only then that I realized how and why I still valued a key component of the program–peer collaboration, with students ranging from 3rd grade to college. Today, I am privileged enough to be back at my alma mater studying Composition and Rhetoric while mentoring and learning from a new generation of Writing Fellows.

I have always been interested in how the undergraduate tutoring affects students after they graduate. How are they able to transfer the skills and philosophies that they learn in the program as they move to other fields and disciplines? As an undergraduate in the tutor training seminar, my original research paper asked those exact questions. And, in fact, my dissertation research still examines the way that adults, this time university custodial staff, utilize their literacies on the job. But alumni don’t have to be working in Writing Studies to use their Writing Fellows experience. As many of the alumni below demonstrate, they find that their time as an undergraduate peer writing tutor has influenced their work in variety of fields from law to education and administration. They value not only the perspectives they learned about writing across the curriculum but the invaluable friendships they made with their peers along the way. It was my pleasure to catch up with these alumni who generously detailed what they have been doing professionally since they were Fellows. I thank them for sharing and helping us think about how undergraduate peer tutoring continues to impact alumni lives. I look forward to sharing their experiences with current Fellows preparing to graduate.

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Finding the Fit Between Pedagogical Values and Interactional Practices

By Mike Haen

Mike Haen is an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center and a third-year PhD student in the Composition and Rhetoric program. He currently works as the Assistant Director for the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program and has previously worked as a writing center tutor at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.

the author, Mike

Earlier this month, an interview published in The Chronicle of Higher Education revived a long-standing debate in the writing center community about non-directive and directive tutoring approaches. The Chronicle’s interview featured writing center director Lori Salem and her award-winning research, which aimed to better understand students’ decisions to use, or not use, the writing center. By conducting quantitative analyses of correlations between [1] writing center use and [2] individual variables (e.g., parents’ educational attainment; SAT scores) in Temple University’s 2009 incoming class, Salem found that “women, students of color, English language learners, and students with less ‘inherited merit’” were most likely to decide to use Temple’s center (p. 160).

Because these “less socially privileged” students (p. 158) use the center more often and because education research has shown that non-directive instruction—a hallmark of orthodox writing center pedagogy—is often most effective for “students with privilege and high academic standing” (p. 162), Salem suggests that we ought to rethink teaching practices that might miss the mark for less social privileged writers. In the Chronicle interview, Salem levels a similar critique against non-directive approaches, claiming that these approaches can be counterproductive for many students. In a subsequent letter to the editor, Salem criticized the Chronicle’s portrayal of her research and correctly explains how she is not the first scholar to call attention to problematic aspects of orthodox writing center teaching, especially being non-directive.

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book covers of recent publications on reading in higher ed

Reading in the Writing Center, Beyond the One-on-One Session

By Angela J. Zito

author picture

the author, Angela

Angela is a PhD Candidate in English and currently serves as the Writing Center Outreach Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

With recent publications like the NCTE’s Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom (2018), What is College Reading? of the WAC Clearing House (2017), and Indiana UP’s Critical Reading in Higher Education (2015), it seems that reading in colleges and universities is gaining a good deal of new critical attention.

Good thing. While each of these publications takes a slightly different approach to investigating the teaching and learning of reading in higher education, they all sound the alarm: The teaching and learning of critical reading is not happening very effectively across North American institutions, and there is little scholarship out there to help address that problem.

In her chapter in Deep Reading, “Writing Centers Are Also Reading Centers: How Could They Not Be?”, Muriel Harris sounds off from the realm of writing centers and writing center research, calling for more attention to reading instruction “in the form of scholarship and tutor training methods” to help tutors and student writers better realize the depth of the reading-writing connection (228). “If tutors focus on discussing students’ writing skills without being aware of underlying reading problems,” Harris writes, “tutors are tending to only part of what the students need to learn” (229).

In this post, I want to reflect on a few of Harris’s observations about the kinds of reading instruction that can and should be taking place in our writing centers, and I hope to do so in a way that extends her observations into sites of instruction beyond the one-on-one session and that raises some questions about the challenges of tutoring reading in the writing center. Continue reading

Behind the Scenes at the UW-Madison Writing Center’s Online Writer’s Handbook

By Bradley Hughes

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Brad Hughes has been the Director of the Writing Center since 1984 and the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum since 1990. He has been the editor of this blog, Another Word, since its debut in 2009.

Brad, about 10 years ago.

I always think that strong writing centers have core principles and commitments and passions at (and in) their hearts. Our Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, is all about a few core ideas, values, and commitments–we’re about supporting high-level writing across all academic disciplines, writing which is absolutely central to learning and to research across the university and in the professional and civic and non-profit worlds our graduates will enter (I always say that research universities really do run on writing); we’re about supporting ALL student-writers, from undergraduates through advanced doctoral students, from every discipline, from all kinds of backgrounds; we’re about dialogue–or talk–about writing in progress–smart, sustained, patient, slow talk and listening; we’re about social justice; we’re about creating a learning culture, not only for students but for our tutoring staff; we’re about programs and pedagogy influenced by the latest theory and research in composition and rhetoric and in writing center studies; we’re about flexibility and experimentation; and we’re about collaboration, about building and sustaining partnerships with students, faculty, staff, and programs across our university, in our city and state, and with with other universities around the world. Although this post focuses on The Writer’s Handbook in our online writing center, it’s really about these larger goals and values and commitments.

As my colleague Maggie Hamper argued powerfully in a post on our blog last week, our online writing center helps in crucial ways as we try to support ALL writers and faculty. And as I explained in a history of our online writing center, I’m a big believer in convergence–seeing online instruction as integral to and completely inter-woven with our in-person instruction. In this post, I’d like to focus on a particular part of our online writing center–our large Writer’s Handbook–which features hundreds of pages of reference materials about academic and professional writing. All of these materials have been developed by members of the Writing Center’s staff here, over the course of decades (our online writing center is over 20 years old, and our center is nearing its 50th anniversary). The reference materials in that handbook are used by hundreds of thousands of students around the US and around the world **each month,** and you might not believe how many faculty, teaching assistants, teachers, and librarians link their students to and endorse those reference materials from across our university and from all around the world.

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The Online Writing Center Is about Equity for Students (and You Too)

By Maggie Bertucci Hamper

A picture of me--brown hair, glasses, and a weird smile (classic nerd) with a literacy poster in the back

I’m a PhD Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison studying the intersections of working-class students’ literacies and their broader sociomaterial lives. I am currently serving as the coordinator of UW-Madison’s Online Writing Center and am grateful to have been able to work as a Writing Center tutor both in-person and online.

Are you one of the many students who lives kinda far (or really, really far) from campus? Are you a primary caretaker? Do you work full-time? Go to school part-time? Perhaps you have a physical disability that makes coming to campus–or talking and reading with a Writing Center tutor–really tough, even impossible. Or, perhaps you have a psychiatric disability that can make coming to campus feel impossible. Or, maybe you just learn better working with tutors online.


The Online Writing Center is for you.


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Honoring Professor Ednah Shepard Thomas

By David Stock

David Stock, a proud and grateful graduate from UW-Madison’s Composition & Rhetoric program, coordinates the writing center at Brigham Young University (Provo, UT), where he is Assistant Professor of English.

The author, trying to look professorial. Courtesy of Brigham Young University Photo.

If you’re an avid reader of Another Word, you may recall a blog post by Brad Hughes—the Director of the Writing Center and the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison— honoring Professor Joyce Steward, founding director of the UW-Madison Writing Center in 1969 (then called the Writing Laboratory). In this post, I’d like to continue that tradition by honoring one of Joyce Steward’s mentors and colleagues in the UW-Madison English department: Professor Ednah Shepard Thomas, a pioneering writing program administrator who helped develop and direct UW-Madison’s Freshman English program from 1947-1970 and who contributed to the development of the Writing Laboratory.

Mrs. Thomas in the yard of her home, 1940s. Photo courtesy of William Thomas.

I first learned about “Mrs. Thomas,” as Steward and most everyone called her, when I was a PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s Composition & Rhetoric program. In 2010, Brad invited interested students to contact him about collaborating on the publication of a memoir by a former UW-Madison faculty member. At this point, I had conducted initial dissertation research on the history of rhetorical education at UW-Madison. After meeting with Brad to discuss the project, I was excited to learn more about that history from a primary, and previously unavailable, document.

And what a primary document it was: over 400 typed (i.e., on a typewriter) manuscript pages, a tome of personal and professional history that described Thomas’s early life and schooling in the New England area; her coursework and teaching in UW-Madison’s English PhD program; her marriage and child-rearing in nearby Monona, WI, followed by an unexpected divorce and the challenge of raising three young children alone; her fortuitous return to teaching at UW-Madison, successfully administering Freshman English, and eventually earning—at age 65!—the title of Full Professor.

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Teaching in an Emergency: Writing Centers, Wildfires, and What We Take With Us

By Leigh Elion

Leigh Elion has been a lecturer in the Writing Program at UC-Santa Barbara since Fall 2017. Before then, she was a doctoral student in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison and worked in the Writing Center from 2010-17, where she served as TA Coordinator, Coordinator of Multicultural Initiatives, Summer Outreach Coordinator, and Director of the Summer Writing Center.

This blog post was supposed to be published on December 11, 2017. Having just received my PhD from UW-Madison and moved on to my first full-time academic appointment, I’d planned to use this space to reflect on all of the Writing Center teaching I’d done at UW, remember the hundreds of students I’d worked with across various locations and formats, and give them credit for preparing me to work and teach in a new institution and to participate more fully in my new community. I’d planned to consider how working with writers in disciplines from Mechanical Engineering to Pharmacy to Sociology to Theater had given me the opportunity to learn about fields I would have never otherwise had a chance to encounter during my time as a graduate student, and to argue that writing center work helps to achieve all sorts of goals of a liberal education. We talk often about teaching transfer in the Writing Center, about how to help students develop rhetorical skills and efficacy to work across new situations, but less often about teaching transfer – about how teaching skills and knowledge gained in one setting prepare us for new and different settings.

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Cultivating a Growth Mindset: Changing Students’ Beliefs About Learning

By Rick Ness

Rick is the TA Co-coordinator of the Writing Center at UW-Madison and a PhD Candidate in the Literary Studies program.

I’ll start this essay with some “fun” facts: Charles Darwin was an ordinary student whose father told him he wouldn’t amount to anything; John Stuart Mill was thought by his father to be of mediocre intelligence; Tolstoy was considered very dull, William James unexceptional. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team (Dweck 38). You get the point: these “mediocre” talents all turned out to be geniuses in their field. And we celebrate them for their genius. But we don’t really celebrate them for their hard work. Why? I suppose because genius is sexy and hard work isn’t sexy. Of course, we respect hard work, but we don’t glorify it. We value talent, brilliance, and genius more—whatever those terms mean. We even have a pejorative term for hard working students who achieve success through hard work rather than natural intelligence: we call them grinds.

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