By Rachel Herzl-Betz
Rachel Herzl-Betz is an Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she has been a tutor and administrator since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian Literature and Disability Studies.
I’ve always been a fan of academic conferences. At their best, they offer an unprecedented chance for scholars, students, and practitioners to step out of their individual institutions and connect with the wider intellectual community. We often become so ensconced in our own contexts that we forget the possibilities being put into practice one state, one city, or even one neighborhood away.
This opportunity for communication and connection represents just one of the many reasons why I was so excited to travel with five undergraduate University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows to the 2015 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW) in Salt Lake City. From November 5th-8th, Samantha Lasko, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, Hannah Locher, Samantha Stowers, and I had the chance to take in more than 100 panels by tutors, administrators, and writing scholars following the conference theme: (De)Center: Testing Assumptions about Peer Tutoring and Writing Centers.
Since we couldn’t take the whole Writing Center community with us to the conference, we have set a up this blog post as a kind of mini panel. Two fellows— Hannah Locher and Samantha Stowers—each offered to discuss one takeaway from their experience. Hannah writes about a realization she had during the conference, while Samantha addresses the larger professionalization process, but both engage with what it means to put a research project in conversation with tutors from across the country and across the world.
While NCPTW may have lasted four days, the research projects the fellows presented began more than a year ago. At UW-Madison, Fellows work closely with ten to fifteen students, for whom they provide extensive feedback, both on paper and in person. To prepare for their work, all new Fellows enroll in English 403, a three-credit honors seminar on tutoring writing across curriculum taught either by Assistant Director, Annika Konrad, or by Director, Emily Hall. In the course, each Fellow completes a substantive empirical research project that explores an issue related to tutoring or teaching writing. All five presentations that traveled to NCPTW grew out of research projects for this course, after they were first adapted into power points and Prezis for their colleagues, then into conference proposals, and finally into professional conference papers.
Our group presented on two separate panels, each of which was received with enthusiasm and generous questions. Samantha Lasko, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, and Samantha Stowers each took part in a panel entitled “Touring the Peer Writing Conference: Empirical Studies on Student Stress and Conference Dynamics.” Samantha Lasko spoke on fostering a writerly identity in students, Julia Boles presented on the value of productive interruption, Chelsea Fesik spoke on the anxiety of high-achieving writers, and Samantha Stowers presented on student stress. Hannah Locher presented on a separate panel on “Work In Progress: The Connection Between Writing and Work.”
Hannah Locher on the “Many Incarnations” of the Writing Center
Since our panels took place at the same time, Hannah had the pleasure of introducing the UW Fellows Program herself. When asked what she had found surprising about the conference process, she spoke about the contrast between the system she had come to know and the variety of ways that Writing Centers are organized throughout the country:
“As a Writing Fellow at UW – Madison, we are exposed to the ideas of a Writing Fellows program and writing centers as academic spaces during our time in English 403. Given the nature of our program, it is easy to forget that there are bound to be differences between the many incarnations of Writing Centers and Fellowing programs. At NPTCW, the words “writing center” and “Writing Fellows” occurred naturally, but as the conference progressed, I realized no one had defined these terms in the context of this event. Every Writing Center serves the obvious purpose of providing writing feedback and assistance for students at the institution, but the story is more intricate in reality.
NCPTW made me aware of a few types of writing centers. First, there’s the type similar to ours at UW, where trained graduate students work in the writing center by meeting with students who have made appointments. The next is a bit different, and employs both undergraduate and graduate students as tutors in their center. Instead of only graduate students who are trained writing tutors who have more authority, there are also writing centers that add peer tutors to the mix. Finally, there are writing centers that require undergraduate students pursuing degrees that relate to writing tutoring/studies to work as a tutor in the writing center.
The most common type of Writing Fellow differed a bit from the UW Writing Fellows Program. A presenter discussed the writing fellows at her school, and the program seemed much smaller than ours. Instead of being assigned to a specific class each semester, these students engaged in community outreach by tutoring primary school students and engaging them in the writing process. A program that was open to anyone who wanted to get involved was another version of a Writing Fellows program, and it did not require the same application process as ours at UW. After learning about these Fellowing programs, I have realized how applicable our training as tutors is to all types of tutoring settings, not just peer-to-peer tutoring for assigned courses.
Gaining awareness and learning about the different types of writing centers and Writing Fellow Programs allowed me to consider other ways in which undergraduate writing tutors can contribute to the writing community as a whole. Tutors can become involved in community outreach and the general tutoring scene at their universities. I had not considered a program that had undergrads in the writing center or thought of Writing Fellows who had more general tutoring duties. Now that I know about the ways writing programs can be constructed and implemented, I can see the importance of each school’s rendition of a Writing Center or a Writing Fellows Program. Each is necessary for achieving the universal goal: improving student writing while making writing a fulfilling process for the writer.”
Samantha Stowers on “the wider scholarly discussion”
NCPTW wasn’t the first professional conference for every Fellow on our trip. Both Chelsea Fesik and Samantha Stowers had already had the opportunity to present at previous conferences, including the Conference on College Composition (CCCC) and the International Writing Centers Association Conference (IWCA). When asked what she took away from her experiences in the Writing Center community, Samantha spoke about the sense of validation as a presenter and a scholar:
“When I first joined the Writing Fellows Program at UW-Madison, I knew there was a research component, but I had no idea exactly how significant the research project would end up being for my college career. What began as a research paper evolved into a series of trips to share my findings with others – not just with my peers, but beyond the reaches of a campus. After having my research accepted at Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Tampa, I felt like I had truly become part of a wider scholarly discussion on tutoring and writing. From conducting research, formatting my findings for a wide array of audiences, and getting plenty of practice with public speaking, I have obtained skills that will undoubtedly assist me in my future. As a senior graduating this upcoming May, I can say that the experience of presenting my research is one of the fondest memories I will have of my time as a student at UW-Madison. I would encourage anyone to apply and take advantage of such an amazing opportunity, especially Writing Fellows as they have so much support from the Writing Center community.”
While Hannah and Sam address individual experiences as presenters and scholars, they both hone on the legitimacy that makes undergraduate research and professionalization so important. For Hannah, seeing different organizations in practice expanded her vision of the tutor in the University. For Sam, conference participation granted a kind of intellectual legitimacy that she will carry with her after graduation.
This confluence registers, in part, because of NCPTW’s unique emphasis on tutors and new scholars. Here, peer tutors have the chance to contribute to writing center discourse in ways that are often limited to graduate students or administrators, and that dedication to new voices manifests throughout the conference. Beyond the centrality of undergraduate presenters, panelists and other event coordinators made a concerted effort to provide context for their arguments and to orient listeners to debates in the field. It was an admirable form of intellectual accessibility and one that contributed to the sense that undergraduate research wasn’t just welcome at the conference; it was the conference. Undergraduate tutors shape the field and, as their research demonstrates, they deserve to be taken very seriously.
In the comments, I’d love to hear about your experiences as a conference goer, presenter, and planner!
- How would you characterize your first experience at a conference? Did you feel welcome?
- What do you see as the relationship between Writing Centers and conferences? Have you ever made changes to your program or Writing Center practice after an experience at a conference?
- Have you presented at a conference as an undergraduate or helped prepare undergraduates for presentations? How can we prepare to take part in a community outside of our own centers?
- Why does that broader Writing Center conversation matter for you, your students, or your program?
- Finally, how do the conversations that take place at conferences like NCPTW relate to blogs like this one? Are we all taking part in the same discussion or is there something special about addressing Writing Center practice in person?