Teaming Up: A Collaboration between the Writing Center and the Library

By Nancy Linh Karls and Barbara Sisolak

Nancy Linh Karls is a senior instructor in the UW-Madison Writing Center, where she serves as its science-writing specialist. She also leads and teaches the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps and coordinates the community-based Madison Writing Assistance program. Barbara Sisolak is a senior academic librarian with Steenbock Library, where she provides reference and instruction to library patrons. As Instruction Coordinator, she manages Steenbock Library’s information literacy instruction program in alignment with the UW Libraries Teaching and Learning Programs office.

Barbara Sisolak

Barbara Sisolak

Nancy Linh Karls

Nancy Linh Karls

In this post, we share our experience of coming together to design a workshop for graduate students, addressing how our collaboration came to be; how we developed our focus, approach, and materials; how the workshop was received by participants; and what we learned in the process.

Drawing on a Strong History of Workshops

The instructional workshop–with its focus on guided, active learning in a group format–can be an especially effective mode of instruction, and many writing centers offer various workshops for their students. At UW-Madison, both the Writing Center and the university’s Libraries have been offering impressive arrays of workshops for decades.

During any given week in the semester, the UW-Madison Writing Center offers several workshops on a wide range of academic writing topics. These short-term, non-credit workshops are taught by members of the Writing Center’s senior staff and represent terrific opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff to learn more about a particular aspect of writing. Approximately 60 workshops are offered each semester, with recent workshop topics including the following: writing essay exams, writing about literature, senior-thesis writing groups, graduate writing groups, graduate research proposals, literature reviews, improving style, APA documentation, punctuation, application essays, academic cover letters and CVs, research posters, communicating with PowerPoint, presenting with Prezi, cultivating a professional online identity, and writing with Scrivener–to name just a few. (For more information about the UW-Madison Writing Center’s workshops, please see Zach Marshall’s recent blog post as well as our current workshop listings.)

UW-Madison’s Steenbock Library also has a very active instruction program, reaching students through timetable course-integrated library sessions, individual consultations, and workshops. Course-integrated library sessions tend to focus on the discovery and use of information in the context of a particular assignment or requirement of a for-credit class and are designed in partnership with the course instructor. Steenbock Library teaches approximately 150 course-integrated library sessions per semester. Workshops, however, are instruction sessions designed around library and information management topics germane to academic populations. Offerings include Introduction to Citation Management and specific citation manager tools such as EndNote and Zotero; Keeping Current with the Literature; and Impact Factors and Bibliometrics. Steenbock regularly offers eight to ten workshops per semester, many of which are targeted to graduate students through a branded Library series called the Graduate Support Series.

Identifying an Opportunity

The Writing Center and the Libraries have been very supportive of one another’s instructional programs, including their respective workshop series, with instructors frequently sharing information about particular offerings and encouraging students to take advantage of them. At the same time, we were also aware that some of the workshops offered by the Writing Center and the Library focused on similar kinds of topics, although we tended to approach those workshops from somewhat different perspectives. 

For example, the Writing Center has been offering for many years a graduate-level workshop called “Writing a Literature Review of Published Research,” which focuses on the literature review as a genre and on rhetorical strategies for conceptualizing, drafting, and revising one’s own review. Writing Center staff usually teach three sections of this workshop a semester, and it always draws a significant number of students. While the workshop consistently receives favorable reviews in student evaluations, some students occasionally request additional guidance and instruction on how to search effectively for appropriate sources for their reviews. Instructors for this workshop would frequently address those concerns by referring students to library staff, recommending that students seek more tailored assistance from their subject librarians as needed.

Meanwhile, prior to Fall 2014, the Libraries offered a standalone workshop on library tools for literature review research in the sciences. This workshop focused on the available literature discovery tools and database search techniques and was offered as part of the Graduate Support Series. Attendance at this workshop was generally good and drew enthusiastic reviews. Invariably, there were questions and comments from the students concerning the actual writing process–rhetoric, mechanics, and style. Workshop instructors made attempts to respond to this by making sure the Library workshop was scheduled prior to the Writing Center workshops, and referring students to those workshops as well.  

Steenbock Memorial Library

Steenbock Memorial Library, which regularly hosts the “Researching and Writing Literature Reviews in the Sciences” workshop

During the Spring of 2014, Brad Hughes, Director of the Writing Center, and members of the Libraries’ administrative staff discussed the possibility of partnering together to co-develop a workshop that would be jointly taught by both Writing Center and Library instructors. During these conversations, it was suggested that a workshop focused on literature reviews for graduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields might be a productive place to start. 

Joining Forces in a Combined Approach

Once we received the green light for co-developing this workshop, the two of us–along with Diana Wheeler, then a librarian at Wendt Commons, began gathering for a series of meetings at our various departmental homes, as well as at the Memorial Union and over Skype, to chat about our ideas for this new workshop. Both the Writing Center and various libraries had been offering somewhat related workshops, but none of us had yet offered a workshop that specifically addressed all stages of the literature review process. We were therefore especially excited to pool each other’s expertise and work together in a more collaborative way.

As we got to know one another, we debated answers to questions such as these: Will students want to come to a jointly-led workshop? If so, what will they want to know? How will they  want to spend their time? What will we want them to come away with? We also had questions regarding more logistical issues, such as location, days/times, publicity, registration, and assessment.

Although it was relatively easy for us to come to an agreement that dividing the workshop into roughly two parts (researching and writing) made sense, one of our biggest questions and discussions centered on whether it made more sense to lead with the “researching” focus or the “writing” focus. Indeed, we could see either approach working well. Ultimately, we decided that it would likely be more helpful for students to obtain an overview of the genre they’d be expected to produce–so that they’d know their “final destination,” so to speak–before digging more deeply into searching strategies, and we structured the session accordingly.

Using our previous, individual experiences teaching workshops on the subject matter as reference points, we co-developed a workshop lesson plan. In this plan (stored in Google Docs so we could all have access and share, co-author, and revise accordingly), we determined what we wanted to focus on, how the session should be organized, what amounts of time would be devoted to the various topics, and who would present on each of these topics. We also freely shared our existing materials and negotiated how we might adapt some of them to our new target audience of STEM graduate students.

Screenshot from a workshop search using PubMed

Screenshot from a PubMed search

Screenshot from a workshop search using Web of Science

Screenshot from a Web of Science search

We then had to determine when and where to offer the workshop. We decided to begin by piloting two sections of the workshop in Fall 2014. As part of our discussions and decision-making process regarding location, we understood that any efforts to increase the Writing Center’s presence across campus would be beneficial. We thus scheduled these workshops at two locations–Steenbock Library and Wendt Commons–that we hoped would increase our chances of attracting graduate students from the biological and physical sciences. These locations also featured classrooms with computers available for students’ use, which was essential for the workshop we were developing.

We knew it was crucial to cross-publicize these workshops in an effort to help spread the word. As a result, both the Writing Center and the Libraries included the workshop in their online and print listings of their semester’s workshops. We titled the workshop “Researching and Writing Literature Reviews in the Sciences,” and drafted this description: “If you need to write a review that brings together many different research publications, this workshop is for you! Join the Writing Center and the Libraries as we discuss strategies for focusing your topic, searching for papers and publications, reading critically, developing themes and organizing your material.”

Co-Teaching the Workshop

After much discussion and careful consideration, we decided that it would be most strategic for us to jointly offer a 90-minute workshop that focused on two aspects of the literature review writing process: the kinds of background research and search strategies necessary to write a literature review as well as the rhetorical issues to consider when studying and composing the literature review as a genre. In addition, we found it necessary to condense or otherwise modify our original, separate workshop material to make way for greater integration of content between our two programs. We ultimately structured the workshop in this way (times are approximate):

  • Introductions (5 minutes; all)
  • Literature review as genre; writing & rhetorical strategies; drafting exercise (30 minutes; Writing Center)
  • Review of published sample (10 minutes; all)
  • Research questions & search strategies (30 minutes; Library)
  • Questions & discussion; individual online searches (15 minutes; all)

The graduate students who participated in the workshop appeared to be highly engaged, and most seemed to come away with a much stronger sense of not only what a literature review requires but also a clearer understanding of how they would approach their own review. We asked all participants to complete evaluation forms immediately after the workshop, and the vast majority rated their overall satisfaction with the workshop as either “satisfied” or “extremely satisfied.” In addition, nearly everyone chose “agree” or “strongly agree” to indicate their likelihood of using the information provided in the session. Several students also expressed that they appreciated our smooth integration of content within the workshop.

Barbara leading a recent workshop

Barbara leading a recent session of the workshop

As with any kind of teaching, we did encounter a few challenges. For example, identifying a published literature review that we could use as a sample and refer to within the workshop proved to be a bit challenging. The graduate students who registered and participated in the workshop represented a wide range of disciplines, and we were hoping to find a sample that most would find at least somewhat relevant. Barbara and Diana were able to find a recent literature review published in an environmental science and biotechnology journal, and it seemed to us that most participants in the workshop would be likely to find a point of connection to this review. And as we predicted, a couple of students suggested in their evaluations that the workshop be separated into two distinct parts: one focused on research and the other focused on writing. Overall, though, we’ve been very pleased with the workshop’s reception thus far.

Reflecting on Our Experience

We’ve now offered the workshop several times, with an impressive number of participants for each session. Moreover, we’ve been happy with many other aspects of this collaborative workshop structure and experience as well:

  • Increased awareness of colleagues’ terrific work in other departments and programs
  • Ability to see our own programs through others’ eyes
  • Opportunity to learn from one another and draw on each other’s strengths
  • Occasions to clarify what we do as well as how and why we do it
  • Opportunity to hone our workshop offerings for greater student benefit
  • Students’ abilities to witness programs not only referring to one another, but also explicitly working together
  • Increased creativity as well as increased openness to other potential collaborations

Based on the positive responses we’ve received, we plan to continue offering our joint workshop at least once or twice a semester, with our next one scheduled for March 15, 2016, in Steenbock Library. (To join us, click here to register!) And as we teach additional sections of the workshop, we’ll continue to use participants’ evaluations and suggestions to help us adapt the workshop content and approach as needed.

We’ve also discussed the possibility of expanding this workshop into a two-part series. While the first session would likely remain similar to what we’ve been offering, the second session would build on the knowledge and strategies presented in the first session. Specifically, we envision students taking what they’ve learned in the first session to prepare drafts of their literature reviews, which they would bring to to the second session, discuss with the group, and receive additional feedback that they could use toward revision. 

Beyond the workshop’s benefits for students, we’ve found our experience of co-developing and co-teaching this workshop to be extremely rewarding on multiple levels, and we’re very eager to continue partnering with each other. In fact, we’re planning to collaborate on a proposal for an upcoming conference that focuses on our recent work together.

And as we hope our experience has illustrated, collaborating with colleagues from other programs may initially require a bit more time and effort, yet we’ve found that investment to be well worthwhile. Such partnerships provide us with valuable opportunities to teach and learn from each other as we are prompted to articulate what we do and why we do it, as well as to test our ideas and get feedback from one another before we enter a classroom full of students. On a broader level, such partnerships can also deepen our connections across a sometimes vast campus, enabling us to develop clearer, deeper understandings of each other’s mission, philosophies, services, and approaches. This kind of cooperative work reminds us that no campus entity exists within a vacuum, and just as our students continually traverse between and among our various programs, it can serve us well as instructors to do the same.

We appreciate your interest in our post, and we eagerly welcome your responses! We’d especially love to hear about any kinds of collaborations you’ve pursued at your own institutions. Whether you have ideas, suggestions, or cautionary tales, we hope you’ll share them in the comments section below. Thanks so much and we look forward to hearing from you!


* Featured photo: the Microbial Sciences Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ©UW-Madison University Communications. Photo by Jeff Miller. Used with permission.

One thought on “Teaming Up: A Collaboration between the Writing Center and the Library

  1. Pingback: Where the Humanities Meet the Sciences: The Impact of Writing Center Instruction on Students in the Sciences and Their Careers | Another Word

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