Writing Doesn’t Need to Feel Like A Near-Death Experience

Edited by Annika Konrad with contributions by Emily Hall, Laura Strickland, Mike Passint, and Julia Boles

a headshot of a woman with blonde hair and white skin

Annika Konrad

Annika Konrad is a Ph.D. Candidate in Composition and Rhetoric and Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I learned that writing doesn’t need to feel like a near-death experience. I’ve come to actually enjoy it more. By workshopping a vast diversity of papers, I’ve acquired new skills that help me better isolate issues within my own writing.”

This is a comment that a student left on their course evaluation for UW-Madison’s Spring 2016 Rose Pathways Writing Workshop (RPWW). RPWW (which has previously been written about on this blog here) is a one-credit peer-facilitated writing workshop hosted each spring in partnership between the UW-Madison Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program and Chadbourne Residential Co llege. UW-Madison’s Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program prepares selected undergraduates to serve as peer tutors in writing-intensive courses across disciplines, providing extensive written comments on drafts of student papers and holding individual conferences with those student writers. Chadbourne Residential College is a residential learning community on campus where the UW-Madison Writing Center has hosted a satellite location for individual consultations since it became a learning community in the 1990s.

a dorm building with a sculpture on the right and a tree with no leaves on the left in front of it

Chadbourne Residential College on UW-Madison’s campus

RPWW is a collaboration between Chadbourne Residential College and the Writing Fellows Program, driven by our shared belief that tremendous learning happens when a community of peers engage in challenging, dynamic, and respectful dialogue. In the workshop, which is facilitated by two experienced Writing Fellows, students participate in a community of writers. Over a shared meal once a week, students learn how to give and receive extensive written and oral feedback on writing, they share the writing they are working on for other courses, and they practice elements of the writing process like drafting and revising.

a group of nine students stand in a two rows in front of windows looking out onto a busy street, the students are smiling

Eight students are currently enrolled in the spring 2017 Rose Pathways Writing Workshop, which meets once a week over a shared meal in Chadbourne Residential College

This semester, eight students are enrolled in the course. During the first three weeks of the semester, the two Writing Fellow facilitators, Julia Boles and Mike Passint (whose reflections are shared below) led the group in discussions about the writing process, personal barriers to writing, revision strategies, and how to give oral and written feedback. They read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” excerpts from Paul Silvia’s How to Write A Lot, Donald Murray’s “The Maker’s Eye” and Nancy Sommers’s “On Revision Strategies.” In the fourth week of the semester, students began sharing drafts of writing they are completing for courses they are currently enrolled in like Classics, English, Sociology, Education Psychology, Human Development and Family Studies, and Communication Arts, as well as a few cover letters and application essays. Each week all students write marginal comments and end notes on the two papers that are being workshopped and in class they participate in an oral workshop led by the two Writing Fellow facilitators. In addition to guiding the workshops, the Writing Fellow facilitators provide feedback on the students’ feedback.

After serving as a mentor for the Rose Pathways/Writing Fellow facilitators for two semesters, I continue to be amazed by the community that forms–I’ve seen two groups transform from hesitant and reserved to dynamic, challenging, and inviting communities that care about each other’s ideas and written work. I also have the privilege of watching the two facilitators learn how to lead a group discussion that is equitable, inviting, and highly productive for writers.

In the rest of this post, you’ll learn more about the history of the workshop, how the workshop fulfills the mission of Chadbourne Residential College, what it’s like to facilitate the workshop as an undergraduate Writing Fellow, and what it’s like to be a student in the workshop. You’ll learn how creating a space where peers lead each other in challenging, respectful, and productive dialogue helps make college writing feel much less like a near-death experience. In fact, another student left the following comment on their course evaluation:

“I’ve easily felt ten times more confident going into my next draft of my revising process after receiving feedback during Rose Pathways workshops.”

How did the workshop begin?

Emily Hall, Ph.D., Director of the UW-Madison Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program

a woman with blonde hair and white skin wearing a scarf standing in front of trees on grass

Emily Hall

The Rose Pathways Writing Workshop was first conceived by former Writing Fellows assistant director John Tiedemann (now teaching at the University of Denver). John suggested that the Writing Fellows Program could collaborate with other like-minded academic programs on campus to further the fundamental Writing Fellow goals of peer collaboration and meaningful revision. John speculated that if we created drafting groups, facilitated by Writing Fellows, in places like Chadbourne Residential College, lots of students could receive the benefits of working with Writing Fellows, even if they weren’t enrolled in a Writing Fellows course. The concept was developed and refined and, in 2008, Karen and Ron Rose made a generous donation to establish the Rose Pathways Writing Workshop (originally called the Rose Writing Workshop). The program piloted in Spring 2009 with two wonderful Writing Fellows, Annika Konrad and Anna Moreland, and has continued to assist writers since.

Why do Rose Pathways Writing Workshop and Chadbourne Residential College fit together?

Laura Strickland, UW-Madison Senior, Majors: Gender and Women’s Studies and History, Writing Fellow, Chadbourne Residential College House Fellow

Originally an all female residence hall named after a man who actively argued against women’s position in higher education, Chadbourne Residential College was founded in a desire to make a statement, and to facilitate its residents to do the same. Now as a learning community, Chadbourne Residential College’s mission seeks to create an inclusive community centering around interdisciplinary growth that helps students navigate their first year experience and articulate the value of a liberal arts education. Chadbourne Residential College is fundamentally dedicated to creating spaces for their students to be challenged and grow academically, professionally and personally in a community based setting. Given that Chadbourne Residential College strives to use community as a tool for growth, RPWW fits easily into this by functioning as a space dedicated to peer learning in a setting designed to challenge and support its students.

RPWW is one of several Chadbourne Residential College classes that eases the transition from high school to college by giving students an opportunity to be both challenged and supported in developing their own writing skills and learning from others at a similar writing level. While several of the classes in Chadbourne Residential College exist to challenge residents to think about the world in a more global and interdisciplinary context, RPWW helps residents find how to articulate their thoughts and ideas in a meaningful way. By reading one another’s papers and coming together to discuss their strengths and weaknesses, RPWW empowers students to develop their own voices as well as better understand others, another crucial element of the Chadbourne Residential College mission. While Chadbourne Residential College gives RPWW a physical space to hold class, in return its residents can become better communicators and listeners, making them even better community members.

What is it like for a Writing Fellow to facilitate the workshop?

Mike Passint, UW-Madison Senior, Majors: English and History, Writing Fellow, RPWW facilitator

a man with light brown hair and white skin standing in front of trees

Mike Passint

From the time that I’ve spent as a Writing Fellow to when I began my work with RPWW, I had viewed student writing as something special in the college experience, like a unique and fragile item that sits in the corner of the campus. For most students, college is a time when they get to explore and freely express their ideas in ways they have never done before and to be challenged to think for themselves. Often, writing is at the center of this experience. Enabling this experience has been one of the most rewarding activities for me. Every time I get to work with a student on their writing I feel rewarded in my ability to help them build their ideas, learn to communicate them clearly, and make them feel just a little bit more confident in their ability to do so.

I’ve been surprised to learn how each student in the RPWW approaches writing in their own unique way. One student is a Personal Finance major, whose job in the future will be to direct people on how to best control their money. Another student hopes to someday get her PhD in Food Science, and is fascinated by the way chemistry, biology, and physics interacts with our daily lives. Many students are totally unsure what their majors will be. But I assume that few students would label themselves “writers.” Most of the students that signed up for this course did so because they either struggled with writing, were nervous about writing papers in college, or generally wanted to improve as a writer. Part of what drew me to facilitate this class was the chance to work closely with people who had little to no college writing experience, because then I could hopefully have a big impact on the rest of their college experience.

Now my motivation is drive by the times when students show leaps of progress from only the week prior. I’ve steadily watched their end notes go from two to three sentences to upwards of three hundred words of thoughtful and well-phrased feedback. I get to watch students’ voices literally grow on the page, and can sense just a little more confidence in workshop that week. Getting to observe these changes firsthand has been a thrill for me and has given me stronger faith in each student’s ability to learn and grow, no matter their experience.

What is it like to be a student in the workshop, and then later a Writing Fellow facilitator?

a woman with brown hair and white skin smiling

Julia Boles

Julia Boles, Senior, Majors: Genetics and Philosophy, Writing Fellow, RPWW facilitator

My involvement with RPWW began my freshman year when I took the course as a Chadbourne Residential College resident. I signed up for the course because I wanted to improve my writing, but found that RPWW did more than improve my course papers—it taught me how to think constructively about the writing process overall. Additionally, RPWW fostered a unique community where students could freely share their opinions about a piece of writing and engage in conversations about the ideas in the papers. One of the most important lessons I took away from Rose Pathways as a student was that every reader’s opinion is valuable, even though no two readers ever give identical comments. Now that I am facilitating the course, I still think this is one of the most important lessons students will learn because by knowing that multiple perspectives are valuable, you become comfortable sharing your unique perspective and discussing how your interpretation differed from other readers in the course.

RPWW inspired me to apply to the UW-Madison Writing Fellows program, and now that I am back in RPWW as a facilitator, I have realized just how much taking RPWW shaped my philosophy as a Writing Fellow. Moving from the group setting of RPWW to the one-on-one setting of peer tutoring, I was very aware that my comments as a Writing Fellow represented just one of the many perspectives that had been present in RPWW. With this in mind, I often preface my feedback by saying “as a reader, I felt___” to acknowledge that this is just one interpretation of the student’s paper. Additionally, I try to offer multiple ways that an idea could be interpreted to show that my comments are not necessarily “right.” While the Writing Fellows program teaches this concept, RPWW allows students to actively hear and engage with many different perspectives on a single written work.

Experiencing different reader perspectives has also shaped my genetics and philosophy coursework. In both disciplines, you are encouraged to challenge others’ ideas in order to maintain the rigor of the field. Participating in discussions during RPWW is great practice because I get to share my ideas, have them challenged, and work through the disagreements in a setting that encourages different perspectives to co-exist. Even as a facilitator of the course, my comments are not “right” and I get to hear students’ perspectives that have helped me see writing in different ways. In the future, I hope to work in bioethics or science policy, which involves finding policies that multiple groups can agree on. The lessons I’ve learned in RPWW about how to have productive discussions with people who have different perspectives will be invaluable for a career in bioethics.

Final Thoughts

RPWW is one example of how writing centers can collaborate with like-minded programs across campus. By partnering with a residential college that also deeply values peer learning, we are able to further expand a culture of writing on campus that places undergraduates in leadership roles and demonstrates the possibilities of peer learning. We are curious–what programs have you developed that are similar to RPWW? Have you developed writing programs in partnership with other groups on campus? Have you developed peer-facilitated writing workshops? We’d love to hear about your experiences as we continue to strengthen the Rose Pathways Writing Workshop.

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