By Stephanie Larson
Stephanie Larson is beginning her third year as a Writing Center tutor at UW-Madison, where she has served as a member of the Writing Center Outreach team since fall 2015 and as the co-coordinator for Outreach during summer 2016. She is also the senior assistant director of the English 100 program and a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric.
In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, Jackie Grutsch McKinney makes the argument that writing centers operate under a “grand narrative” that narrowly equates writing center work solely to one-to-one tutoring. “[W]riting center work,” writes Grutsch McKinney, “we’re told, is about tutoring students—and a particular breed of tutoring that takes place in one-to-one sessions of a designated length and of a particular pedagogy that is more about conversations than answers” (58). In particular, outreach instruction demonstrates a useful case study of pedagogy operating outside of the center that doesn’t cleanly fit into the grand narrative Grutsch McKinney sketches. In this shift to outreach instruction, not only does the narrative of one-to-one tutoring dispel, answers and conversations play a different role than they do in tutoring sessions. That is, outreach instructors must cultivate flexibility in our conversations because instructors outside the center seeking our help are looking for answers—answers about teaching writing that will help their students demonstrate success in their own courses. In an interview with former UW-Madison Writing Center instructor Chris Earle, Grutsch McKinney hopefully suggests that it might be possible to hold this “grand narrative” at “an arm’s length,” and in this blog post, I outline how writing center pedagogy changes in the context of outreach instruction. Outreach instructors must adapt, adjust, and alter their approaches based on the rhetorical situation of the moment to meet the needs of instructors and their students.
First, a bit of background about outreach at UW-Madison: The outreach team at UW-Madison is currently coordinated by one lead TA and staffed by eight writing center tutors who, much like the work of a WAC coordinator, also provide writing instruction and consultation to faculty, TAs, and instructional staff primarily part of the UW-Madison community but also to those outside of the university. The UW-Madison Writing Center offers a range of outreach services from brief introductions to the writing center, to co-teaches on brief units of writing, to stand-alone instruction on writing, to even new student orientations, and more. My outreach experiences have introduced me to a wide variety of students writing in diverse genres—from high school students at the Middleton Public Library seeking strategies for writing strong personal statements for college application essays, to international and U.S. undergraduate students studying through the UW-Madison Integrated Biological Sciences-Summer Research Program pursuing design approaches to poster presentations, to even aspiring writing center tutors from Pius XI Catholic High School in Milwaukee, WI wanting tools for effective pedagogy. Among many others, these experiences continue to stretch what I think writing center pedagogy looks like.
To illustrate how outreach disrupts the grand narrative Grutsch McKinney identifies, I draw upon one specific experience I had working with an instructor from the Political Science department here at UW-Madison. The instructor, Emma Frankham, taught a class titled, “U.S. Policing: Context, Approaches, and Challenges,” and together, we co-taught a session on strategies for reflective writing. In what follows, I outline three strategies used in this specific example that serve to expand what writing center pedagogy looks like and the role conversations and answers play in our instruction.
1. Begin Instructional Conversations in the Background: Rethinking the “One-to-One” Session
During my first meeting with Emma, she shared with me what sounded like an exciting and timely course on U.S. policing. She also mentioned that this was her first time teaching this course, so she was designing her assignments and their corresponding assessments for the very first time. Given the complexity of the course theme, she proposed students write a reflective response to a police simulation activity. As a writing instructor, I valued her desire to have students pause, reflect, and write about the density of the theories circulating within their class discussions; however, because of my background as a writing instructor, I also knew how difficult it can be to get students to move beyond the first stage of personal experience and towards the more challenging stage of connecting those experiences to the material of the course. Emma and I worked together to modify her assignment and the assessment tools she used, and as she comments, “working with the writing center also helped clarify my own thought process when creating the assignment” (Emma Frankham, personal communication, August 22, 2016). While these first few conversations on the surface may look similar to the one-to-one tutoring session, the context of her students—the writers receiving instruction—drove how we worked together to design her assignment. In other words, much of my outreach instruction happened in the background with Emma before I even met her students. For outreach instructors, the class session itself can occupy our thinking, yet sometimes our greatest successes lie in conversations we have with the instructor behind the scenes to help them approach teaching writing in a sustained way beyond our one time session in the class.
2. Leave Space for Student Conversations that Lead to Collaborative Answers
During the class session, Emma and I co-taught a lesson that had students view a clip on the policing theory “broken windows,” and then students completed a number of individual and group exercises that encouraged both reflective thinking and reflective writing. As the recent post by UW-Madison Writing Center Director Brad Hughes makes clear, talk about writing is one of the most—if not the most—fundamental components to writing center pedagogy, regardless of where and in what ways instruction takes place. In addition, good teachers scaffold concepts; they move students incrementally from one idea to the next in order to understand a strategy, tool, or concept, while tapping into prior knowledge along the way. Together, Emma and I incorporated both tools—talk about writing and scaffolding writing concepts—into the actual lesson. However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t provide answers; rather, through individual, small, and large group work, students empowered themselves with answers that guided their writing—answers that came from their realizations during class conversations that were then affirmed by us as the instructors. As outreach instructors, we must still provide many opportunities for conversation—for talk about writing—but the way writers come to realizations of writing through conversation looks different than it does during tutoring sessions.
3. Negotiate and Share Responsibility: Offering Answers through Tailored Instruction
When I meet with an instructor for the first time, I’m listening for a number of things. I’m listening for the student demographics, the context of the course or program, and perhaps most importantly, the writing strategies students are most in need of development. While listening, however, I’m thinking ahead, about how that instructor and I can work together to deliver a lesson that balances the course material with writing instruction. As former outreach coordinator David Hudson puts it, outreach instruction is “bridge building” work. Negotiating these various expertises requires conversation that aims to, in Emma’s words, “really tailor pedagogy about writing instruction to the content of the class” so that students can “engage with the class in a manner that might not otherwise happen” (Emma Frankham, personal communication, August 22, 2016). When students ask questions during the session, the line between content of the course and concerns of writing is not always so clean, which means that outreach instructors must constantly be talking with the instructor of the course to establish a shared responsibility for responding to student needs. We invite them to interrupt us whenever possible—in fact, we’re delighted when they do! Unlike a one-to-one tutoring session, working together with the course instructor allows us to move beyond offering generalized writing advice to instead tailor responses to the context of the class material.
Shifts in Writing Center Pedagogy
Taken together, these three strategies help disrupt what Grutsch McKinney calls the “grand narrative” of writing centers that assumes conversations during one-on-one tutoring to be the primary work of writing centers. Outreach instructors have a unique opportunity to bend our methods and approaches to those in the community who can’t make it to the center or who need a more sustained focus on a particular writing concept. As outreach instructors, we carry the center with us, and in doing so, we renegotiate writing center pedagogy scripts in each situation based on a new set of rhetorical criteria grounded in the needs of new writers.
McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Utah State University Press, 2013.
* Featured photo borrowed from Ken Fager with permission.