Instruction Across Environments: Teaching and Tutoring at UW-Madison

by Julia Dauer


Author photo, by Rebecca Dauer

Julia Dauer has worked at the Writing Center since 2012.  She is a graduate student in literary studies at UW-Madison, where she writes about American literature and teaches literature and composition courses.  

I went to a small liberal arts college, where writing spaces were relatively uniform.  The Writing Center was housed on the fourth floor of the only library on campus, right next to the English building.  When I came to UW-Madison, navigating campus spaces was a real challenge for me.  All of a sudden there were so many!  And they were so different!

Of course, UW isn’t the biggest campus in the country, nor does it have the widest range of spaces.  But it is a large campus, serving a large student population — the University lists its enrollment at over 43,000, and nearly 30,000 of those students are undergraduates.  And to me, coming from a college of 2,400, it seemed huge.

Teaching across a range of environments at UW has been one way for me to think through this array of spaces, and how they are related to each other.  Here, I’ll offer some information about the kinds of spaces the UW Writing Center inhabits, an account of my own experience here, and some reflection on the way we describe the work we do to make our tutoring and teaching practices work across environments.

Writing Center Spaces at UW

Given the recent remodeling of the UW Writing Center’s Commons, which you can read more about here, space has been on all our minds in Madison.  The new space is beautiful and versatile, and an important part of this Writing Center’s commitment to update its resources and practices to serve a student population with changing needs.

But this renovation was not about standardizing environments.   Instead, it’s one more component in a diverse array of spaces and contexts we are teaching in all the time.

Because I work at a Writing Center where half of the tutors are doctoral students who are teaching semester-long courses alongside their Writing Center work, and because I want to reflect on the link between these contexts, I’ll use the terms “teaching” and “instructor” in this post.  I’m writing from the position of a graduate student balancing several different kinds of teaching, but as you read, you can substitute “tutoring” and “tutor” to think about working with students in your own Writing Center context — the ideas I raise here extend to working outside a centralized Writing Center in any campus environment.

An aerial view of the northeast corner of UW-Madison's campus, including the building housing the main Writing Center, at the far right on the lake. Photo by UW-Madison, University Communications © Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

An aerial view of the northeast corner of UW-Madison’s campus, including the building housing the Main Writing Center, at the far right on the lake.
Photo by Jeff Miller for UW-Madison, University Communications
© Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

The UW Writing Center has been teaching in “satellite” locations outside the Main Center since the early 1990s.  Through partnerships with residence halls, libraries, and student centers, the satellite program now runs 5 nights a week, in locations across campus.  These sites are deliberately on “student turf,” in places where instructors don’t usually spend time.

Nearly all Writing Center instructors at UW work outside the Main Center at some point during their time here, meeting with students at a satellite location or online via Skype or email.  The other half of our staff, made up of undergraduate Writing Fellows who work as peer tutors, is equally dispersed: Fellows hold student meetings all over campus.  The Writing Center is all over the place.

This range of instructional environments is good for students.  Jackie Grutsch McKinney has pointed out that accepted narratives about Writing Centers as “cozy homes” in fact privilege the preferences of a select group of white middle class instructors, rather than acknowledging the needs of a wider spectrum of students, who have different experiences and expectations (see McKinny, “Writing Centers Are Cozy Homes,” esp. p. 25).  Dispersing Writing Center instruction across campus counters assumptions about how Writing Center space should look and allows students to access our resources on their own terms, helping us serve Writing Center users we might not otherwise reach.  But what does this practice mean for instructors?

Teaching in Students’ Spaces

Here’s what it means for me:

As an instructor at UW this semester, I’m teaching in the Main Writing Center, in a library on campus, in a classroom, and via email.  This list is specific to me, but it’s representative of the teaching commitments many instructors balance.  In each of these contexts, I’m a different version of myself.

Sophomores Alex Daneshgar and Leah Steinmetz study organic chemistry, while journalism graduate students Leo Shan and Yuhai Chen work on statistics, a few hours before the Writing Center sets up shop in Memorial LIbrary.

Sophomores Alex Daneshgar and Leah Steinmetz study organic chemistry, while journalism graduate students Leo Shan and Yuhai Chen work on statistics, a few hours before the Writing Center occupies these tables in Memorial Library.  Photo by the author.

Sitting in the West Corridor of Memorial Library at 8pm on a Tuesday night, for instance, I’m in an undergrad’s paradise.  Cordoned off from the lobby of the library, this space is loud and full of students chatting.  Before the Writing Center occupies its allotted space, students use the tables to study, eat, or gossip instead.  This is a social space housed in the principal humanities library on campus, one of seven locations outside the Main Center where Writing Center instructors meet with students.  And they know we’re here: students are often waiting when I arrive with a sign-up sheet at 6:45, just before my 7pm shift starts.

There are lots of way to look unapproachable in an environment like this.  Although some graduate students filter in and out, the crowd is decidedly young.  Even as a relatively young tutor, I look too old to be there.  The last thing I need is blazer – most students are in baseball caps and sweats.  Sometimes, I see students in slippers.  In a classroom, I almost never wear jeans, but in Memorial, I always wish I were wearing a t-shirt and drinking a Big Gulp.

It’s more than appearances that can produce problems here.  To the undergraduates who visit the Memorial Library satellite, being in the library at night seems normal.  I am happy that I can be there, doing something that’s normal to them, even if it’s not quite normal to me.  But I have to be present as an instructor in a different way.  In the Main Writing Center, where I teach once a week, I sometimes use my classroom teaching to frame my response to undergraduate writers.  I’ll say things like “That’s a great question for your instructor — I know I’m always happy when my students email me for clarity about assignments,” or “In my classroom, I think about that problem like this:….”  It works.  I can be a teacher without seeming like their teacher.  But in Memorial, letting on that I have a classroom outs me as someone who doesn’t belong there at all: it’s out of sync with the space.  It doesn’t work.

These are small examples, but they show that I can’t rely on the same set of norms or expectations across environments.  I can’t “fall back on” what seems normal to me as an instructor, because it doesn’t always look right in the space I’m using.  And when I’m tired or I’m not thinking deliberately enough about the environment around me — when I just go into “teaching mode” without remembering where the teaching is happening — I’m not always very successful.

A map of Writing Center satellite locations at UW Madison.

A map of Writing Center satellite locations at UW Madison, from the Writing Center’s website.  You can read a little more about satellites here.

Describing the Work We Do

Tutors and instructors working across environments do substantial rhetorical work to adapt not just the more obvious components of their pedagogy but also their dress, language, and tone to new spaces.

These shifts are not about adjusting to the physical limitations of working in different locations, although there’s plenty to say about that, too.  Instead, this work is about adjusting to a variety of culturally coded spaces, in which things like appropriate dress and language shift dramatically.   We’re not just teaching in spaces that do or don’t have projectors or electrical outlets.  We’re teaching across discourse communities.  Environment dictates not just what tools you have, but how and who you can be as an instructor.

If one goal in the Writing Center might be to adapt itself to many spaces across campus, thereby making instruction available to the largest number of patrons, another goal might be neutralize space.  We aim to render space invisible, so that students can expect the same instruction across all Writing Center locations.

It’s harder to produce this instruction in some spaces than others.  Adapting your teaching persona to different environments can be exhausting.  But sometimes the bustle of the library produces a different kind of common ground with students.  Sometimes it’s easy to connect, not because I have experience in a classroom, but because I’m distracted by how loud it is, or amused by the student at the next table over, or hungry for the pizza we can both smell across the room, too.  In this context, I’m just another person in the library, doing some thinking about some writing while campus life goes on around us.

I have been working to recognize, articulate, and reflect on the multiple forms of teaching I often do not just over the course of a single week, but over the course of a single day, and to make this work visible to myself and others.  In the comments section, please consider sharing your own thoughts about doing this kind of work across Writing Center contexts.  How do you think about the spaces where you teach?  How do you think about teaching across environments, and fitting in, or not?  What methods have worked for you in your own teaching?  How does this work happen at other universities, on campuses different from this one?  How can we continue to think together about all the places we are teaching now?

Thanks to Rebecca Couch Steffy and Brad Hughes for talking with me about my ideas for this post.  

9 thoughts on “Instruction Across Environments: Teaching and Tutoring at UW-Madison

  1. Julia, thanks for this post! This is definitely something that’s on my mind this semester – after three semesters of doing almost all my writing center-ing in a satellite (Gordon DEC) and via email, I’m back in the Main Center. While I’m really happy to be back in Helen C, working with ongoing students and seeing grad students as well as undergrads, I do find myself missing the energy and urgency of the satellite location. Your post helped me to think about how I position myself differently as an instructor in those sites, which I hadn’t really thought about in quite those terms before.

  2. “Tutors and instructors working across environments do substantial rhetorical work to adapt not just the more obvious components of their pedagogy but also their dress, language, and tone to new spaces.” I couldn’t agree more, Julia. As you mention, the ergonomics and spatial arrangements of different locations matter hugely. Having worked in quiet satellites such as the Multicultural Student Center and the Center for Cultural Enrichment, I can imagine the challenges I would face trying to adapt to the bustle of Memorial Library or Gordon Commons. Not that a quiet location is challenge-free. At the MSC or CCE I often conduct my conferences in a quiet study room where, all of sudden, my voice–and my students’–becomes too noticeable for us to be entirely comfortable. This circumstance makes me think extra about what I’m saying, but also about what my students are eager to reveal about their concerns and insecurities as writers. Your post suggests that different student writers seek different Writing-Center environments, and that some might prefer the safety of the white noise at a busy location to the haunting stillness of less populated venues.

  3. This really interesting discussion of teaching spaces has also made me think of time. As you mention, Julia, working in a satellite not only means teaching in students’ spaces, but also during their times! This was an important reminder for me that not everyone–and certainly not all undergraduates–work a 9-5. This seems to me another reason why satellites, online instruction, etc., are crucial in supporting learning and meeting student needs.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Julia. I was struck by the notion that the work instructors do to adjust to multiple spaces and the discourse communities connected to them involves navigating different goals. On the one hand, we want to render space neutral, or even invisible, so students experience consistency of instruction across our locations; and on the other hand, we want to recognize spatial difference, so as to enable students to access instruction, at least in part, on their own terms. Both of these goals are absolutely necessary, yet they can tug in different directions. No wonder it’s complicated!

  5. Julia — thx for this wonderful post. I, too, have been thinking a lot about the relationship between my teaching in the classroom, the main Writing Center location, and the satellite locations. Not only have you provoked me to think more about how the spaces in which we teach affect our teaching (and our students’ learning), but also how there are differences among the Writing Center’s various satellite locations — differences that matter. For example, I’m now considering how the space of the College Library satellite (where I taught last semester) is different from Gordon (where I’m teaching this semester) — different environment, different sensory experience (the music at Gordon is a distraction and there is food everywhere), and — perhaps most importantly — different students. Since I began teaching at Gordon, I’ve seen less graduate students and more freshmen, less Writing Center alums and more first-time Writing Center students, and different sorts of assignments. I’d love to hear from other instructors about their experience of the differences not only between the Main Center and satellites, but also the diversity of teaching spaces and experiences within the satellite centers.

  6. Great post, Julia! What you say is helpfully thought-provoking especially because I haven’t been thinking about all of the spaces where I’ve been teaching this semester (or what I’ve been wearing) and how they are different and require different pedagogical approaches. When I was reading your post, I kept thinking, “yeah, that’s me too.” For example, you can’t out yourself as an instructor or a friend of the student’s instructor. For me, I really love teaching at the satellites, and I’ve taught at four different locations at this point. One of the things I love is the way it makes the writing center more visible. Often students who come to the satellites mention having trouble finding the main center or feeling like they don’t belong there (often because they assume it’s for grad students). And on a campus this large, it is hard to find and get to. Another thing about visibility is that it emphasizes the importance of writing in all disciplines. When I’ve taught at Gordon DEC and College Library especially, I’m there with instructors from 3-5 other disciplines, usually chemistry and economics, among others. On one level, it shows how much writing matters at the university. Additionally, I often meet people who are merely curious about what I’m doing there, who haven’t ever really considered going to the writing center, and who end up bringing me an assignment that they were working on.

  7. Thank you so much for this post, Julia! It reminded me of a lot of what I remember thinking about when I started doing Skype and GoogleDoc instruction – in that case, the spaces include the student’s dorm or apartment, my home office, and the space of the GoogleDoc itself. Talk about expanding the writing center! Not only do we spread across campus, but into homes and digital spaces. And yes, when teaching from home, I found my methods and persona to be different… but perhaps not completely different. I love what you and Rebecca mentioned above, that in even that extreme of an example, we want to make that space neutral so that the instruction has the same value as it would at any location, but also be aware of the specific quirks and conditions of the space(s) we’re in. Awesome post.

  8. As a fellow SLAC grad, I remember feeling a similar jolt in the transition from a tiny college campus, with a relatively uniform writing culture, to a university where it seems impossible to get to know all of the ways that students write and revise their work. Your discussion of clothing and body language in the satellite locations also did a terrific job of thinking through a process that I never fully conceptualized when I moved between the library locations and the main center. I know that my clothing and my behavior changed to fit the new environment, but I didn’t consciously think through the message that my presence was sending to prospective students in a space outside of the classroom.

  9. Julia: Your points about different norms and expectations in satellites really resonates with my experiences in them. Sometimes this can be difficult, as you say – but I absolutely agree that it’s those differences, in part, that make the satellites effective in reaching wider groups of students. This has always been something I’ve loved about online synchronous instruction – while I definitely see the usual suspects in there too, I’m always particularly happy (and, as a proponent of online WC as a tool for reaching out, validated) to work with students who, for whatever reason, would not want or be able to come to the main location.

    Working in satellites gives tutors something they can’t usually get in the main location too: the undergraduate ongoing. We don’t see a lot of those in the main center, but I had a lot of them when I worked in the CRC. Undergraduates can develop fast as writers, visibly growing even over one semester – and I got to watch that happen firsthand working in the CRC, as students brought back new assignments and reported on the results of the previous ones. I got to develop relationships with them, learn their attitudes about writing, and develop a deeper and more personalized rapport.

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