Bronwyn T. Williams, Director
Here’s the thing about writing, it is a distinctive medium not just for communicating across space and time, but for connecting human consciousness. When we write, we lay out our thoughts in a way so that someone across the world, or across centuries, can understand our perspectives, our interpretations, our desires. Writing allows us to convey not only the surfaces we can see, but the thoughts and emotions that we hold most central to our lives and identities. Though not everything we write is of equal intensity and meaning, writing is always available to us to make these essential connections. The fact that AI platforms may be able to mimic broadly some writing is beside the point. When we want, when we need, to connect our minds to the minds of others, writing will continue to be there for us, and to matter deeply.
It is this ability to connect human thought, to make meaning, that makes writing the intellectual center of life in the university. Writing that truly asks people to solve problems, create, synthesize, critique, resist, advocate, and connect is writing that makes knowledge. Because humans are meaning-making creatures, we will continue to try to figure out the world around us, and our lives within, and good, thoughtful writing, will continue to be central to that endeavor. All of this is why the University Writing Center, overlooked, underfunded, and often misunderstood, matters so much. For the past twelve years it has been my privilege to serve as director of the University Writing Center. After this spring, however, I will be stepping aside as director and, before I do, I want to take a moment to reflect on why I think the work of the University Writing Center is so important, as well thank the people with whom I have shared in this work.
The Purest Teaching On Campus
The meaningful work in the University Writing Center is grounded in the talent and commitment of its amazing consultants. Though they come here from different backgrounds, and may use a variety of approaches to teaching, it is their commitment to individual, dialogic, and collaborative teaching that has made the Writing Center such rewarding and distinctive place to work. Many writers come to the University Writing Center thinking, or worrying, that what we will do is simply correct mistakes, because far too many faculty and administrators on campus mistake surface correctness for strong writing. Yet, when writers get here, what they find are collaborative conversations with our consultants where they work together to find out what it is the writers truly want to say in their own words, and in the most engaging and persuasive way possible. The approach we use, where we take our time, start with the writer’s concerns first, ask questions, — and don’t grade — makes this some of the purest teaching on campus. When writers leave after an appointment, they leave not only with new strategies for writing, but often with a greater sense of confidence as writers and students. We see these changes in writers’ identities reflected in our exit surveys and hear it in comments as people leave. People who know me have heard me talk about these ideas and experiences before, yet it is the changes in confidence, perceptions of agency, and in true learning that writers find here, that have meant so much to me over the past twelve years.
The other aspect of the work here that I appreciated in our consultants has been the ethos, the disposition they worked hard to take into each appointment. What they did, in appointment after appointment with writers from every college and discipline, and with most kinds of writing on campus, was listen carefully, and respond with respect and care. In short, they treated each writer as a writer, and not simply as a draft to be corrected. They also never lost sight of the fact that writing is deeply connected to issues of identity and power and to teach in a recognition of and response to issues of social justice. It has meant so much to me to work in a setting where the teaching is grounded in theories and practices of hospitality, reciprocity, inclusiveness, and equity. We learned from writers and they learned from us. Too much of education is based in rigid standards and punitive assessments and we have worked not only to provide a different model for teaching and learning here, but to to try to use it when we can as a model for change in the University (And I just published an article about those efforts, if you’re interested). Teaching is an ethical and political project and I’m glad to have been part of what we have been doing here over the years to work to build on student knowledge and for intellectual exploration and knowledge building.
When I started thinking about this blog post I started thinking through some of the numbers that marked the past twelve years. There have been more than 55,000 appointments, more than 150 consultants and staff members who have worked here, more than 120,000 views of our online resources and videos, hundreds of workshops on writing issues, 15 dissertation writing retreats – and this is blog post number 425. Yet what those number really represent to me, what really makes me smile, is all the words, the ideas, the connections, that were started and sustained, because of work through the University Writing Center. It has been impressive, and often moving, to watch and I respect all the work the consultants and the writers have done together
A Place of Collaborative Accomplishments
There are programs and changes that have taken place in the last twelve years that I have helped facilitate and in which I do take some pride. We connected to graduate students, both in appointments and in workshops and dissertation writing retreats in new ways and greatly increased our presence in support of graduate student writing. We started an office down at the Health Sciences Campus and did both tutoring and workshops over the years. We created online resources from Writing FAQs, to videos and to handouts, to oral histories, for UofL writers but available to any writers looking for help. We helped design and move into a new space on the first floor of Ekstrom Library, to a larger, more flexible space that made us much more visible to the University community. And we did our best to try to find ways, despite increasingly shrinking funding, to nurture and support writing on campus and in our community through our writing groups, events such as International Mother Language Day and Open Mic Nights, and our community partnerships with the Western Branch Library and with Family Scholar House. We did our best to try to be a center for all writers
All those accomplishments I frame with “we” because all the work that has taken place at the University Writing Center has been a collaborative project. It has been my deep good fortune to work with people who committed themselves to this collaborative vision of work, both with writers and with each other. So many people over the years came up with new ideas or showed me new ways to do things. They kept my thinking fresh, challenging it when it needed challenging. And, just as important as anything, they kept their sense of humor and warmth. It made this a fun place to work.
I can’t list all the people who have worked here by name, but know that I am grateful to all of you, learned from all of you. But it is important to thank individually the permanent staff I’ve worked with. At the front desk and running the office, Robin Blackett, Amber Yocum, and Maddy Decker were the calm, friendly, and resourceful people at the front desk who set the tone for everyone who walked through our doors and reassured both anxious writers and weary staff. Also, I have worked with three associate directors, but that title is so misleading. I have enjoyed the great opportunity to have true working partnerships with these good and wise friends, Adam Robinson, Cassie Book, and Annmarie Steffes. All three of them provided the stability and professionalism to keep everything running. There was much more than that, however. They were always coming up with new and important ideas – and kept me from coming up with bad ones – and they were instrumental in shaping the positive and constructive emotional ethos among the consultants on staff. I once said we were co-pilots in all things Writing Center and it has always been true. I owe you all more than I can say.
Moving On and Changing Lives
In my years as director, people often have asked me how work was going. I would tell them that, even though I might be wearying of wading through administrative budget cuts and assorted other drudge, I still looked forward to coming to work each day. When I looked around me in the Writing Center, I would tell them, I see a group of people with a strong sense of community, doing the kind of teaching, learning, and caring that I wish were the model for the whole university. I will miss all of that when the next year comes around. I will miss working with the new group of consultants in the fall. I will miss the moment of a student writer stopping in my office to say that, in her mind, the writing center would be standing next to her when she received her diploma at graduation.
Still, it is healthy for institutions to have different people with different ideas and approaches in charge and the University Writing Center is positioned to have exciting times ahead under the leadership of Tim Johnson and Annmarie Steffes. As for me, I will be continuing to teach and to research and write about students’ experiences of the pandemic, climate change education, and participatory community writing projects. I’ll be around.
At the start of each academic year, when I talk to the new group of writing consultants at our orientation, I tell them about the writers who come to the University Writing Center, often anxious and uncertain, but leave both learning about writing, and feeling a stronger sense of agency and confidence. “Quite often,” I say, “We do change lives.” Certainly my time in the University Writing Center has changed mine. Thank you all.