By Danielle Warthen. As a writing instructor who’s also been a writing tutor in the UW-Madison Writing Center for the past five years, I’d say that, hands down, the most common comment I hear from students new to the Writing Center when we begin our sessions is: “I’m a bad writer.” It’s often said in an apologetic tone, as if the student has already decided that this session will be yet another disappointing illustration of being “bad at writing,” and I should prepare myself for some sort of intellectual letdown. These words are often meant as a benevolent warning to me, I suppose as a way to help me manage my expectations. The student is telling me not to expect a “good writer” who’s going to be a breeze to collaborate with–this is going to be hard work for both of us, with questionable returns, because . . . well, they’re bad at it.
If you’ve ever staffed a writing center or tutoring center in an evening, you’ve probably seen your fill of pure, visceral panic. I’m in my third semester as a Writing Center instructor now, and I’ve been in the trenches. Most times, you can see the warning signs a long way off: the wide, intense eyes; the shallow breathing; the kung-fu grip on a partial draft or outline of an assignment; even the hunched, tense shoulders typically found in fugitives and air traffic controllers. The assignment is due tomorrow, and so much hinges on it: a passing grade in the course, a place in a competitive program, the respect of a professor. It’s just too much. And, dear god, it’s already 6:00 PM. If I was a bartender, I’d pour the student a stiff drink; if I was a doctor, I’d prescribe a mild sedative; but since I’m a Writing Center instructor, I go with a different tool. “Oh, yeah,” I say, nodding knowingly. “I’ve been there before. So let’s see what we can do.” Continue reading
Madison residents and UW students know that Halloween can be a big deal. In fact, as a Wisconsin alum, some of my fondest memories of my time in Madison are of Halloween-related activities. So perhaps it is only natural that my love of this funny, freakish holiday followed me to my new home in suburban Atlanta and Kennesaw State University. And while today my writing center at KSU hosts its biggest and most successful student event on Halloween, I can’t take much credit for it. Why, you ask? That, like the lesson of the Great Pumpkin, is the story about what Halloween taught me about the value of trust and a little blind faith – writing center style.
By Rachel Carrales.
The summer before last, I spent a month traveling through France, Italy, and Spain. It was a whirlwind trip, and I was only able to spend a day or two in each city I visited. It was so fast, in fact, that I find myself remembering only snippets of things: the fat, cuddly pigeons in Florence, the combination of 14th century architecture and graffiti in Toledo, and the palm trees in Rome. One of the things that stands out in particular, though, is my trip to the Louvre. I was finally able to see all of those paintings that I’d studied on slides in dark, crowded lecture halls as an undergrad, and while there was something thrilling about that, seeing brush strokes and colors up close, feeling intimately connected to a painting, my favorite moment was seeing a statue of the Goddess of writing.
By David Aitchison. Hear David read this blog post with his wonderful accent. A few weeks ago, I had an appointment in our Main Writing Center with a sophomore, Amanda, who was working on her application essays for the Business School. With just a thirty-minute slot to look at three 250-word essays we had little time to waste. I remember three things in particular. First, it was fun – one of those sessions that gallop by because it’s late in the day and the two of you have the sillies, though that doesn’t stop you from thinking sensibly and strategically. Second, it was easy – Amanda was the kind of student who, even if she didn’t know it herself at first, was bursting with all the right ideas that, as I saw it, were exactly what her essays needed. Third, as we were wrapping up, she confessed that, much to her relief, coming to the Writing Center was nothing like she’d expected. “You know,” she said, with a bit of a blush, “how everyone’s ALWAYS nervous about coming to the Writing Center for the first time. It’s daunting.”
By John Stafford Anderson. Saturday, at a party we had celebrating her upcoming dissertation defense, a friend of mine tearfully took me aside. She wanted to know if I would be available next week to help her with some writing points on her dissertation. Of course, I agreed to help, but I wanted to know why she was so tearful at this amazing South African-themed braai being held in her honor. My friend is not prone to drama or gossip; she is quite practical. Since she arrived in Madison, she has maintained course in some particularly ugly storms without needing tissues. The tears were definitely out of place. She pulled me aside, away from the music, out of earshot from others, and dropped the bomb: “my advisor,” she said, “said my writing is awful: he said I write like a foreigner.” Well, my friend is a foreigner who is fluent in three languages besides English. How else should she write, I wondered? “He said I should write like an American,” she explained.
This week my shift at the writing center will be bitter sweet. I’m finishing
my work on two dissertations and a master’s thesis. In my work at the
writing center, I’m a bit of a graduate student junkie. In fact I probably
spend way too much writing center time with graduate students and not nearly
enough slogging away in the trenches of business school applications and
literary analysis papers. However, when I started working at the writing
center the last thing that I wanted was to work with a graduate student. I
didn’t want to constantly deal with my intellectual insecurities and risk
highlighting all of the things that I didn’t know that I thought I should.
How was I supposed to help someone finish a dissertation when I was so far
from the thinker and writer I wanted to be?
In my mind working with graduate
students, particularly ones finishing their dissertations, could only result
in them not getting the help they wanted and me getting a bruised or
battered ego in the process. I was pretty certain that I made it as far as
I did in graduate school on my fast-talking, wily distraction tactics, and
lots of nodding, so I was ill equipped to help others. By avoiding
dissertators and hiding myself in conferences with the comfortable security
of several kinds of power disparities on my side I could protect myself, and
those I was helping, from facing all the things I didn’t know. That is until
Melissa found out. Continue reading
It’s been loud in Madison these past two weeks. Tens of thousands of people have gathered each day in our city, collectively and individually giving voice to their concerns about a piece of legislation which impacts every member of our state and beyond. Demonstrators on both sides of the debate have shouted, sung and discussed themselves hoarse. The Capitol building, day and night, has been filled with bodies, but also writing—signs, notes, posters, fliers. Whatever positions the throngs of visitors to our Capitol hold, they’ve come to exercise their voices, and the impact of these weeks has been to demonstrate that a voice of the people exists.
“Voice” is one of those concepts in writing that can mean any number of things, so many that it often dissolves into something so vague it may cease to seem useful. But like the concept of “rights” which has been occupying Madison in particular these past two weeks, the weakness of the concept—and by “weakness” I mean the difficulty in fixing its definition—is one of its strengths. It can be variably invested with meaning, mapped onto or found to underlie so many other aspects of writing: it plays a part in every point of the rhetorical triangle and acts as a sort of cognate for tone, style, point of view, personality, purpose. In creative and critical writing a long-term goal is to “find your voice.” In red-pen in the margins of one of your essays you may see its various incarnations—at one moment in that more figurative sense, “you have developed a compelling voice here,” and at another its more practical, grammatical cousin, “avoid the passive voice!”
I have absolutely no idea how satellites work. The most technical guess I can give is that they are some kind of spacebird that knows how to speak fluent Google. But that doesn’t seem right. “Scientists” allege that they are a complex network of machines that beam invisible information around the world all while balancing between the force of their own implicit energy and the gravity of a planet. Frankly, that also seems improbable because, well, I can’t stand on one foot and tie my shoe. However, satellites do work, and every day they maintain their improbable balance to make my life easier. Some put the world in bigger contexts (The Hubble Telescope). Others give a new perspective on how the world around me is arranged (GoogleMaps). Some help me to get where I need to go (GPS). And one satellite does all of these things…the Writing Center Satellite Location (insert sighs).
As I head into my second semester tutoring at Memorial Library here at the University of Wisconsin, I am no less dumbfounded by what a miraculous concept the satellite location is. To give a little background, in addition to our main location, the UW-Madison writing center has seven other satellite locations around campus (in libraries, multicultural student centers, and in residence halls), as well as one in a branch of the Madison public library. My typical shift begins at 7:00 PM in one of the main corridors of UW-Madison’s largest library. I am greeted there by anywhere from a handful to a small army of well—caffeinated students waiting to sign up for one of the six 30 minute slots. Availability is on a first come first served basis, though the excess students often manage to find a place to get help at one of the other 7 satellite locations on campus. Sessions vary greatly. In a night I might have a sophomore looking for help on a business school application essay due in several hours followed by a doctoral candidate in paleo-entomology wanting to outline the earliest stages of a research proposal.
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.