Month: May 2012

How the Dissertation Writing Retreat Helped Me to See Writing Center Work in a New Light

Barrie Olson

I’ve been thinking about Writing Center work a lot lately. I attribute this reflection to two events. First, this past week marked my last week working in the University Writing Center at the University of Louisville. It is hard to believe that my two years as Assistant Director (along with Laura Detmering) have come to an end. For both of us, the Writing Center has been a second home. More importantly, our work in the Writing Center has significantly impacted the work we do as both teachers and researchers of writing. There is, however, a second reason for all this reflecting. After two years of Writing Center work, it wasn’t until this past week that I saw, really, truly saw, just how powerful the work we do in the Writing Center can be.

I should, of course, back up briefly and say that I have always felt that Writing Center work is both important and effective. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about it. Rarely, however, are we as consultants given the opportunity to see Writing Center work in its most idealized form. If consultants are lucky, they may work with the same student several times on the same paper. Really lucky consultants might see the same student throughout an entire semester working on multiple projects. What’s great about either of these scenarios is that they let us see the effects of our work. How do students implement the feedback we give them? How do ideas that manifested themselves during writing center consultations then appear in reiterations of the student’s writing? What might we do to better serve this student in the future? When you see the same client multiple times, you can begin to answer these questions and reflect on not only the work you do as a consultant, but also on the effectiveness of that work. Unfortunately, more often than not, writing consultations don’t extend past a single visit. Students might seek feedback for only one draft or come to the Writing Center to discuss writing in only one of their disciplines. While these sessions are no doubt fruitful, as consultants, we can only imagine what the students did when they got home and returned to their writing.

I have been a consultant for both kinds of sessions. I have been left to wonder whether I had been helpful to a student. And I have been able to see just how helpful I’ve been to students. But it wasn’t until last week, during University Writing Center’s first ever Dissertation Writing Retreat, that I was able to see just how powerful Writing Center work, in its most idealized form, can be. The Dissertation Writing Retreat was a week-long intensive writing experience for ten doctoral candidates representing five different disciplines on campus. Participants came in at 8:00 AM each day and would write for approximately 2.5 hours. They would also engage in workshops covering relevant topics such as writing a literature review or overcoming writing obstacles. Then, after a break for lunch, participants would return to writing for about another 1.5 hours before meeting with a writing consultant (like me). Consultations lasted an hour and participants met with the same consultant each day. You can begin to see here how this experience represented ideal writing center work.

First, we had time. An hour is a lot of time to discuss someone’s writing. More time is always great, but an hour gives you time to read the writing, discuss the writing, and, if the participant so desires, begin rewriting. But this is just a logistical advantage. The other advantages spoke to some of the theories of Writing Center work that I never necessarily got to see in action. For example, a common conversation in writing center scholarship revolves around discipline-specific tutors versus general tutors. While discipline-specific tutors are able, often, to speak to the content of a student’s writing, general tutors may be more limited in that area. General tutors offer the advantage, however, of needing the student writer to explain his or her content to a reader unfamiliar with the discipline. In an ideal world, the process of explaining content makes the content more clear not only to the tutor but to the student herself. In explaining the information to someone not already familiar with the content, the student might be forced to think about her content in new ways. If nothing else, she will likely have to make connections within her content far more explicit than she might with someone who is already familiar with it. And, while this all sounded good in theory, for me as a consultant, it was sometimes hard to know if it was true.

Enter the retreat. On the final day of the retreat, participants shared with one another some of the benefits from participating in the retreat. One benefit that came up repeatedly regarded just how helpful it was for them to have to talk about their projects to people outside their fields. Each participant remarked on how such conversations clarified their understanding of their projects and, by association, how they wrote about those projects.

Gaining a stronger testimony in the power of the general tutor was only the beginning. I also was able to see just what can happen when someone gets feedback on their writing not only the same day they wrote it but also on a consistent basis (in this case, daily). I had the privilege of working with two doctoral candidates from the Kent School of Social Work. Each day, we were able to meet and discuss the progress they had made. After each session, we would set goals for the following session. They would then be able to spend time writing knowing that they had goals in mind and that we would be discussing these goals. This isn’t to say that the sessions were prescriptive. At the end of the day, my job was to help these participants in whatever capacity they needed me in. However, setting goals like these meant that each day, we could start the conversation by reviewing what we had done the day before and by seeing how they had progressed based on that previous work. For the participants, this proved to be an important aspect of the retreat. Many commented on the fact that these daily sessions helped them stay on task and motivated. They were also able to discuss their writing when it was still fresh. If a consultant asked them why they made a specific choice in their writing, for instance, they probably could remember why.

But for me as a consultant, the experience was equally as valuable as it was for participants. I was able to see almost immediately which strategies I used as a consultant were working and which ones needed to be adjusted or abandoned altogether. Moreover, these strategies shifted from one participant to the next. In other words, the reflection I did as a writing consultant, while often generalizable, was also specific to the individual participant. By seeing these participants every day, I know that by the end of the week, I was a better consultant than when I started. I would like to think that during my tenure as a Writing Center tutor, I have always improved but it is hard to know for sure. Only with daily reflection in relation to a returning participant was I able to feel certain about the ways I was being either effective or ineffective.

There are certainly other ways that being a consultant during the retreat affected my views on Writing Center work but many have been, or will be, expressed by others. For example, Dr. Bronwyn Williams, Director of the University Writing Center, has already discussed some of the great things we saw come out of the retreat. Likewise, it is my hope that both participants and consultants from the retreat will be motivated to comment or write blog posts of their own. For now, let me simply end by saying this: Writing Center work works. If you don’t believe me, ask Naouel Baili, Tanvir Bhuiyan, Brynn Dombroski, LeAnn Bruce, Alex Cambron, Anis Hamdi, James Leary, Mohammadreza Negahdar, Zdravko Salipur, or Charlos Thompson—our retreat participants. Or, talk to one of the consultants: Ashly, Bender, Robin Blackett, Laura Detmering, Becky Hallman, or Jennifer Marciniak. While I am sure we all had different experiences, I am also certain that we each took something positive away from this week. While my time in the Writing Center is now up, I look forward to seeing what the future brings to the University Writing Center. My hope is that the kind of work that happened there this past week will continue and that both new clients and new consultants will have the opportunity, like I did, to see writing center work in its idealized form. It’s empowering.

Writing Center Talk

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

I’ve been connected to the U of L Writing Center since 2002 when I made my first visit as a student looking for help on my writing.  I was sold after one consultation and continued to come to the Writing Center until I graduated in 2006.  Later that year, I became a consultant myself when I was accepted into the M.A. in English program and was granted a GTA, which required me to spend my first year working in the Writing Center before moving into the classroom to teach first-year composition.  I did a year in the Writing Center, taught composition the next two years, returned as an adjunct tutor for a semester, left again to work full-time as an academic advisor, and returned a year later in 2010 to replace Ruth Miller as the Associate Director.  Needless to say…I’ve had the opportunity to see our Writing Center from a range of perspectives—client, consultant, teacher, advisor, administrator.

Even though it’s been almost 10 years since I first walked through our doors, I can still remember quite a bit about what happened.  I try to remind myself of that every once in a while.  And this time of year—end of the semester—usually causes me to reflect on that experience as the final rush often brings in first-time visitors.  I wonder what those writers think and feel when they come through our doors—what they expect will happen in the session—how nervous they may be about sharing their thoughts and words with another person they don’t know.

In 2002, I was a sophomore, and I chose to enroll in a Creative Writing class.  I still can’t remember what compelled me to sign up for that class as I had never written anything creative in my life.  In fact, I hadn’t read much fiction or poetry.  Prior to college, I had done what was necessary to avoid having to read for classes, and I generally succeeded at that goal.  But in my freshman year at U of L, I took an Intro to World Literature course and me passing that class was contingent on me thoroughly reading the assigned texts.  We read The Death of Ivan Illyich, All Quiet on the Western Front, The School of Wives—all of a sudden I wanted to study literature.

Taking this creative writing course was me stepping way out of my comfort zone to say the least.  I was just starting to pay attention to fiction writing.  What made me think that I could write some of my own?  I was not only going to be sharing my writing with a bunch of people I didn’t know, but I was also going to be sharing writing that I was pretty sure stunk.  My first workshop date was fast approaching and the words weren’t coming—I had to write a 10 page-fictional piece.  So I went to the Writing Center—I can’t remember how I found about the Writing Center, how I knew where it was located, or anything.  But I got there.

The place looked pretty much like it looks now (take a look at previous blog entries for pictures)…same tables, same arrangement of tables.  My consultant (Jeremy) greeted me at the entrance, led me to the consulting area, and initiated a conversation about my project.  Like I said, I hadn’t written a line—I had no angle—no concrete idea.  But I did envision a story centered on a guy sitting at a bar watching other people.  What was going to happen in this bar?—I wasn’t sure.  Had I even been in a bar?  Not exactly, given that I was 19.  Why a bar?  Beats me.  Maybe I was trying to form some picture of a future self.  Sophisticated.  Drinking.  Observing.  Waiting for the action to happen.

Jeremy, in a non-challenging but certainly curious manner, asked me what kinds of bars I had been to.  (I didn’t even look old enough to be in college.)  “None.”  I remember feeling embarrassed.  But I also remember that he wasn’t dismissive of my idea at all—he never made a suggestion that I pick a different locale, never shot me a puzzled or condescending look—instead, we talked about what my idea of a bar was, how I might find out more about bars, how I might paint that picture, where I envisioned the story taking off and concluding.  It turned out that I had more of story in mind than I realized.  I just needed someone to ask the right questions that could bring out the ideas that were floating around in my head—to ask the questions that I wouldn’t have thought to ask myself.  And thinking back now, I needed someone to actually care about my answers to those questions—someone I could confide in and share my ideas with.  His enthusiasm in the session was contagious—as I answered each question, he became more excited about the possibilities.  In a subtle way, his enthusiasm must have implied to me that the writing ahead of me didn’t have to be a chore.

By end of our Q & A, I had a story.  The guy in the bar—a crime reporter!—strikes up a conversation with a woman next to him.  They immediately connect, have a good chat, and eventually decide to play a game of pool.  The woman is an excellent pool player; the man…well, he’s just okay.  Two other men (a bit older), playing at another table, notice the couple and ask them to play doubles.  The man and woman make a good run; then, the two men convince them to play for money.  Turns out the woman and the two older men are a team, and the young man loses all of his money, including a watch that the “one who got away” had given him.  I told a familiar story for sure, but it felt good to tell a story.

I remember feeling strangely empowered.  I promise you that this was the first time that I had ever talked through a paper before actually writing it.  I had never really brainstormed—I never thought that kind of work was worth my time.  Why plan, strategize, map out, and so on if the end result was still going to be a piece of writing that I wasn’t proud of?

My teachers had given me a host of great invention strategies—some had even required me to employ those strategies.  But nothing they told me really stuck.  Ultimately, my “failure” could probably be attributed to my commitment level to making those strategies work for me, but part of me also thinks that I needed that interested person sitting across from me to talk to me about how to brainstorm and to model for me what brainstorming involved.

This is definitely what I like about Writing Center work.  I like the talk.  Two people talking about ideas, sharing stories, developing those ideas, shaping those stories.  Ultimately, Jeremy slowed me down.  Through his questioning and listening, he got me to think a little bit harder about what I was writing than I would have otherwise.  And he gave me some approaches to how I could use those thoughts in my head in a way that would help me craft a story.

Why is our talk so effective?  Perhaps, first and foremost, our consultants are trained, interested, and experienced.  They know what questions to ask, when to ask them, when to not ask anything, when to give direct advice, etc.  And they believe in what they’re doing.  But one other thing I like to talk about when I’m trying to explain the effectiveness of our methods to others is that our talk slows people down.  When writers come in for a session, they are choosing to spend at least one more hour than they might have otherwise on their writing.  And it’s a productive, focused hour.  They have someone to listen to them, to talk to them, to appreciate the effort they are putting in, to show interest in the approach they are taking.  Writers have the chance to think more directly and deliberately about the choices they are making in their writing, which ultimately helps them exercise more control over their writing projects.

I’m not saying that after that first session with Jeremy that I was completely transformed as a writer.  But my attitude toward the projects that came later in my undergraduate career definitely changed after that session.  I honestly came to what were at the time shocking realizations to me—that I had control over the words that I put on the page and that I had control over how I arranged those words.

As I said, the semester is nearly over.  I want to thank all of the consultants in the Writing Center; they are a great bunch of people—a great bunch of friends.  And I want to congratulate Erin, Becky, Sean, Jennifer, Lauren, and Nia for finishing their MAs.  You six have made these last two years a lot of fun.  Thanks.