Disrupting the “Grand Narrative”: Outreach Instruction and Writing Center Pedagogy

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. 


The author, Stephanie.

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 screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-9-59-17-amof 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


Photo by Travis Wiens.

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

Photo by Louise Leclerc.

Photo by Louise Leclerc.

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.

Works Cited

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. Utah State University Press, 2013.

* Featured photo borrowed from Ken Fager with permission.

14 thoughts on “Disrupting the “Grand Narrative”: Outreach Instruction and Writing Center Pedagogy

  1. Stephanie,
    I love how you push us to think about the collaboration happening in Writing Centers that exceeds the one-on-one interactions between the instructor and student. This makes me think about how my pedagogy is always some conglomeration of things I’ve learned, observed, or discussed with others, and it also helps me imagine how I might work with instructors in the future to ensure this kind of “bridge building” between course content and writing. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  2. Stephanie,
    Because I am new tutor who currently works with students on a one-to-one basis, it is easy for me to get caught up in the “grand narrative” of tutoring sessions. Thank you for the reminder that writing center work means collaborating with both teachers and students across campus (and the community) so that writing can support, reinforce, and enrich such important content.

  3. Okay, I’m realizing that I had a pretty limited conception of what is involved in Outreach. What you’re describing sounds like a cool hybrid of Writing Center tutoring/Writing Instructor-ing/and Writing Fellow-ing. It seems like these multiple levels of talk about writing–between outreach tutor and instructor, instructor and students, and the students talking to each other–would lead to better writing, and better, more rhetorically situated revision. This is making me think about other ways to re-think the one-to-one model of Writing Center tutoring (group conferences, for example, or co-tutoring) and the conversations that would be possible in those different contexts.

  4. Thanks for this post, Stephanie! You’ve made me make me think about Outreach work, which I’ve done for our Writing Center for several years, but I also appreciate that you’ve made me reconsider some of what’s going on in McKinney’s work. Part of what seems to be implied in the grand narrative about one-to-one tutoring (despite best intentions or what we think of as best practices) is a trenchant idea about the tutor as authority; the idea of “one-to-one” is sometimes not only about numbers of people but also about a tutor-to-student directional vector of expertise. The way you’ve talked about the process of outreach work reminds me that not only does Writing Center work not have to be one-on-one but that conversations about “good” writing can evolve with and through students, tutors, and instructors alike.

    Leigh Elion
    Writing Center Instructor
    Co-Director, English 100 Tutorial Program

  5. You have created a wonderful, strong, and thoughtful heuristic for reimagining just how valuable outreach throughout the university can be!! My experience with outreach really pushed my own understanding of the work of a writing center, and it greatly improved my own teaching of writing. I have always loved thinking about the far corners of the university that the writing center impacts and you make a great case for the importance and significance of that work here!!

  6. Thank you for crafting this heuristic (to borrow Anna’s word) and sharing it, Stephanie! I read your post while reviewing evaluations of a workshop I led recently, and it has me thinking beyond the question “How might I or another tutor better meet these students’ needs in follow-up (one-on-one) visits to the Writing Center?” and imagining ways in which the Writing Center might meet these students (in small or large groups) halfway and collaborate in the design of writing instruction that would be most helpful to them. That is, I wonder if we might not approach our workshops – while perhaps not as explicitly as our outreach – as sites for collaboration and bridge-building, too?

  7. What a wonderful inside-view you’ve offered into Writing Center outreach collaborations and what they can accomplish, Stephanie.

    I especially appreciate your inclusion of strategy #2: “Leave Space for Student Conversations that Lead to Collaborative Answers.” In talking about these kinds of instructional collaborations, it’s so important to foreground the role of students (and not just the Writing Center instructor and instructors across the disciplines) in that collaboration.

    Thanks so much for this post!

  8. Thanks, Stephanie, for challenging “grand narratives” of writing center work. What you write about writing center instruction has me thinking about the way college instruction in the present relies on many different kinds of bridges with experts across campus. Recently, I asked the libraries to give a presentation in my writing class on using library databases (quite like when I’ve worked as an outreach instructor, but on the other end), and a librarian and I collaborated on the kind of assignment I had given students and what kinds of resources would be most helpful to talk about. I learned a lot, which surprised me. I’ve also been giving a few brief introductions about the writing center this semester, and I’ve been lining up alongside other campus resources that help people to think about their classroom learning or use digital tools in and out of classes. It’s as if instructors must put up a half dozen or so bridges to experts outside of their field of expertise to provide the comprehensive instructional experiences that help students learn.

    As a writing instructor, I obviously believe strongly in the value of writing as a tool for guiding students in the kinds of critical or abstract thought a college education promises. I’m surprised to find myself in situations where writing instruction is one in a larger constellation of other cross-curricular skills, particularly knowledge acquisition and the use of various digital applications.

  9. What a great post, Stephanie! It is really interesting to read through your Outreach experience and think about how interacting both with an instructor and a whole class of students challenges the “grand narrative” of one-on-one appointments. It is also making me think of the occasions in which more “traditional” Writing Center appointments can change when they are with either a whole group working together on a project or even when one student from a group comes in for a consultation. Your post is helping me think through different ways to navigate those types of appointments to drive learning, revision, or discovery through the interactions between the students in the group in addition to interactions between the tutor and each individual student.

  10. Stephanie! I love how this post uses a single, rich case study to break down all of the nuance that goes into Outreach work. As a former Outreach coordinator at UW-Madison, I was into the whole thing. However, I was particularly drawn to the way that you frame the collaborative work behind the scenes. You say that, “in other words, much of my outreach instruction happened in the background with Emma before I even met her students.” That might seem minor, but I like to think how that work might actually make the labor of preparing for a class more legible professors. Just as one-on-one work in the Writing Center highlights the value of the writing process, we might also think of one-on-one work with a faculty member as highlighting the value of the pedagogical planning process. When I’m not collaborating on lessons, I often forget that the time that goes into pre-class lesson plan revisions can have as much process value as the time that goes into revising the words on the page.

  11. Stephanie, I love the different “layers” of thinking you describe that are involved in strong outreach writing instruction. I’ve found it to be a really complex and challenging task, but in the best way possible. I love how in #3 you describe exactly what you are listening for when you first talk with an instructor. I’ve had similar experiences when talking with instructors from across campus about their writing instruction, and I’m now thinking about how I can better prepare Writing Fellows to do such careful, calculated listening when talking with professors about their writing assignments. I would love to design a “what to listen for and what to ask” when talking with an instructor about writing for the first time–this could be useful for both outreach instructors and Writing Fellows!

  12. Thanks, Stephanie! I really appreciated this post and thinking more about how moving beyond the one-on-one can work successfully. One thing I’m wondering if this concept of one-on-one is also very tied to working only with students. Perhaps what you outline in point #1 is thinking about how we can work one-on-one with instructors! Thanks again for sharing!

  13. Thank you for this post, Stephanie! As others have said, it’s great to see a single case study unpacked to reveal so many different layers of what we do in Outreach. As the current Outreach Coordinator, I’ve had many occasions to think about why we do Outreach. We all seem to agree that it’s more than just advertising, although getting students into those one-on-one appointments is an important part of each presentation we give. I also agree that much of our Outreach work is modeling writing instruction, much as WAC folks do, for faculty who may not have had pedagogical training focused on teaching writing. Your post has given me much to think about, though, in terms of why we do workshops separate from any classroom setting. I am confident that there is value in, say leading an APA workshop for graduate students whose program schedules classes at the time we’re always offering our regular APA workshops… but then how does that workshop, or any other, fit into our goals of building stronger writers, not just delivering knowledge? How does the group instruction possible in a workshop feed into the individual coaching that our tutoring accomplishes? I do not know if we have this data, but I’m curious how many students engage in both workshops and one-on-one tutoring, and if so, what they get out of doing both.

  14. Pingback: Tutor Session Reports – Narratives We Build Together | Another Word

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *