Amy Nichols, Consultant
More than a year ago, I took my first glance at the University of Louisville website. I remember being enthusiastic, as a former professor had recommended the program as one which might match well with my interests. I looked over the application and the professors in the department, but what really caught my eye was the description of the graduate assistantships for M.A. students: “Until they have completed eighteen hours of graduate work in English, M.A. GTAs are assigned to the University Writing Center.” As a student deeply interested in writing pedagogy, both in writing centers and in the classroom, this requirement crystallized my interest in the program; however, I still had some reservations. Would I be able to make a successful transition into the first year composition classroom in the second year of my M.A.? Would one year of classroom experience give me a strong enough C.V. to apply for other teaching jobs in the future?
While I won’t begin teaching in the classroom until next fall, I can sense many of my questions already being answered through my interactions with students and assignments from a broad swathe of disciplines. As a consultant who students view as an ‘outsider’ not involved with the class or the professor, I have been able to watch them react to a variety of assignments, and to observe instructions and prompts which might engender interest or confusion. In addition, I have had to constantly refine and diversify my approaches to explaining any given assignment, seeing what methods help clarify the finer points in the art of academic writing.
Beyond these hands-on, writing-related experiences, there have also been moments when I have had to help students understand the college writing culture. When students begin with “I’m not sure what my professor means by…” our conversations often move beyond the piece of writing itself. I sometimes find myself becoming a sort of cultural guide for students learning to navigate in the world of academia; how to ask for clarification on assignments, how to request a meeting with a professor, and other elements of the communal life of the university often directly correlate to writing what might seem like a simple response paper. These conversations have made me remember my own experience as a first-generation student at a small liberal arts university, learning what Ruby Payne might call the “hidden rules” of college life – rules which might seem extra-textual, but which are critical to the success of any piece of writing (and success overall) in the world of academia.
Perhaps these observations are obvious; all writing is produced within specific contexts for specific audiences. But the position of writing center consultant sits at a strange intersection in the university: some liminal space apart from classrooms, professors, deadlines, and disciplines, and yet intricately connected to all of these things. Without this direct experience at the writing center – that is, without getting involved on a deeper level in that interplay between individual and community which we call collegiate writing – I cannot imagine myself seeing the same set of needs in my future students or setting the same kinds of specific goals for my pedagogy moving forward. As I move into my second semester of tutoring, I can honestly say I would not have wanted my assistantship to begin in any other way.