At times, it may feel as though education is all consuming. As a student, your life — and, ultimately, your identity — becomes entrenched by course readings and research projects. For me, balancing the mental load of helping writers with their projects — while also trying to do my own writing projects — becomes a bit too much around the middle of the semester. I love helping people, but I often forget to help myself. The pressure I feel to be the perfect consultant, the perfect student, the perfect child, and the perfect partner all become too much to handle; the pressures of academia make me sick with anxiety. I know it’s okay to cry — and hopefully that’s a lesson you’re learning, too — but you need other coping methods. Sometimes, you need to take a break.
It may also feel as though you don’t have much time for anything beyond academics; the idea of taking time for yourself may cause you guilt and anxiety. The relentless “culture of productivity,” or, the social climate that reinforces overworking yourself, may make it difficult for you to feel like you can take a break. But you can — and I’m here to tell you that.
Here are some tips that may help you:
Force yourself to take a break.
Realistically, this is step one: humans need time to breathe, time to create, and time to be comforted. It’s easier said than done, but don’t let “productivity culture” make you feel like you can’t take a few minutes to yourself. Don’t let peers dissuade you, either. Painting a still life, going for a walk, listening to your favorite album, or even just looking outside are great ways to readjust mentally.
I know I’m kind of preaching to the choir here, but this time to destress is crucial. If you’re a planner, plan your break; if you’re spontaneous, stop your work early one evening. Time to relax will prevent an inevitable breakdown, whether it be the result of an overloaded schedule or other excruciating factors. This break time has helped me through hard times — I promise everything will sort itself out.
Keep work and home separate.
I’m not referring to physical space here, but rather the workload between work and home. I usually do the majority of my work for the upcoming week during my weekends; however, I only allow myself to work from 9 am – 5 pm. By giving myself the evening to relax, I’m able to get up the next morning more motivated to work. Try to find an hour where you stop working: a huge weight will be lifted off your shoulders.
Try not to talk too much about work when not at work. I know this is seemingly impossible — I definitely fall into ruts where I talk about nothing but my work — but you need to find something else to talk about. You can talk about the weather, you can talk about the new Netflix special you just watched, or you can commiserate on how much you hate the month of January — it just needs to be something not related to work. It will help give your brain a break from the constant stresses of academia.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
There comes a time where we need a bit more than a break: things can become too much, things can become too loud, and things can become impossible to do on your own. When this happens, it’s more than okay to ask for help.
The cultural stigma against mental health can make it difficult to ask for help; these situations are exacerbated by feelings of guilt and anxiety, whether they be the result of academia or other factors. Conversations around the importance of breaks and community are extremely important in promoting self-advocacy.
I understand the hesitation towards taking a break, especially for students and people who just need to get stuff done. On the other hand, I also understand what it looks like when you don’t take a break: I’ve had semesters where I stopped showing up to classes semesters where I’ve dropped classes semesters where I failed classes. I was too scared to ask for help, and I had dug myself into a rut — productivity had clouded my ability to think clearly, and ultimately, I felt the only way I could cope with the stress was to stop being me for a while. This sounds dark, but I just want to emphasize the importance of making time for yourself.
In graduate school, I made a pact with myself to always take time if I need it. I made a pact that I would always take an hour or two to do whatever I want, even when my workload seems endless. I’m not here to tell you that I’ve been entirely without anxiety, but I’ve been able to stay above water — and that’s okay!
This semester, remember to take a break. It doesn’t matter whether it’s five minutes or five hours: take time to understand who you are and what makes you happy. Try to bottle up that happiness — whether it be memories of your pets or how the sun makes you feel — and look back on it in moments of stress. You can always change your assignments or your research, but don’t let them change you.
Kendyl Harmeling, Assistant Director For Graduate Student Writing
As Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing here at the University of Louisville Writing Center, I work at both the Belknap and Health Sciences campuses and frequently have conversations about writing with undergrads, grad students, faculty, and staff alike. In these interdisciplinary discussions, I often find myself told: “Well, we just don’t do a lot of writing in my field.” For a while, my response to this idea was to shrug and accept that, sure, maybe some fields are less writing-intensive than others. My response was not ideal for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was regularly shrugging off an opportunity to question the function of writing, its definitions, and how it changes across communities. Now in my response to this situation I ask: so, what is writing to you?
This languaging shift occurred for me when I was talking with a graduate student in the Dental program earlier this year, who was narrating their program path to me. They kept referring to their probable lack of Writing Center use because there was just no writing in their graduate program; no writing in a program means, of course, no need to visit the University Writing Center. But I was struck – how does a terminal degree program require no writing for their graduate students? I thought there must be something like writing going on there. To fill in the blanks, I began to think about the professional life of a practicing dentist and a flurry of questions came to me: Do dentists write? What do dentists write? What is writing to a dentist? And why do dental graduate students believe they don’t (or won’t) do it? Where’s the disconnect and what caused it?
I happen to know a handful of dentists and can confidently say that dentists write. Dentists are writers. Writing is a tool that dentists use, just like a tooth scraper or floss. My dentist writes me a prescription when necessary. He writes a regular newsletter for all his patients, outlining changes to insurance policies or scheduling systems. He publishes peer-reviewed articles in the major journals of his field on new technologies and techniques. He also writes me (and all his patients) holiday cards. Isn’t this all writing? What is writing if it’s not what my dentist does? What my dentist writes certainly looks different from what I write as a graduate student in the humanities and as a writing teacher, but the differences in the qualities and functions of our writing do not negate either of our claims to being a writer. Our shared claims to being someone who does writing, for whom writing is a tool of our professions. The face of the writing might change—what its forms, functions, and goals are—but what remains is that we are writers writing.
If you read our Program Assistant Maddy’s blogpost from last week, you’ll learn that if you come to the UofL Writing Center, we’ll call you a “writer.” She does a lovely job writing about why we use this term, and the emotional state that you might find yourself in upon being given a title (like “writer”) that you might not feel comfortable claiming. This is the same response, to me, as when people tell me they don’t do a lot of writing in their field – there is a disconnect between what the general idea of “writing” is and the thing which people do, every day, in their professions and lives. I see this across stations and disciplines, from faculty and staff to graduate students to undergrad students in my English 101 classes. There is trepidation in claiming writing as a tool beyond the humanities, but the reality is quite different. You are a writer, and you do writing. You write, your field writes, and I’ll prove it.
Like my dentist who writes, although who might not claim the title “writer” over the title “dental professional,” we are all writing in our fields and in our lives. From my experience, this disconnect between identifying and claiming writing as a tool of our professions – of our identities in many ways – might come from the lofty myth of writing. This idea that writing must have its head in the clouds with its feet off the ground – that it must loft our better angels of ideas high into the sky where only theorists and artists can find it – is misplaced and misguided. Writing is a tool, and sometimes it can be lofty and heavy-hitting, but sometimes it’s just a vehicle for communication. When I write poetry, I feel like a “writer,” but, when I write text messages, or social media posts, or when I write an email to my boss – I am also a writer in these moments, a writer doing writing. And so are you.
A lawyer will tell you that writing is an essential tool in their profession, likewise a teacher or a professional writer. But so will hospital workers and medical professionals. Nurses doing rounds on call have to write PICO reports of their patients; similarly, they write prescriptions, emails to insurance companies or the billing department, and so many other micro-genres that populate the communicative avenues of their disciplines. A hospital administrator needs to write board reports, grant proposals, budgets, etc. A custodial-professional needs to write order lists and take inventory. An engineer needs to write grant proposals, blueprints, and proofs. A software designer writes code. A postal worker writes “Sorry I missed you” stickers when trying to deliver packages when you’re not home. And these are only examples of mono-modal genres.
None of these genres are any more “writing” than another. Their variance is part of what makes writing such an incredible, essential tool. Lofty or not, writing is about communication – and communication is a fundamental human experience. So, come by the University Writing Center to have a fundamentally human experience, to talk through what writing means to you, what it looks like, and what it does. More so, come by to talk about how the UWC can help you build a relationship with your and your field’s writing. Challenge yourself to question and analyze the role writing plays in your profession or program. Maybe, even, write about it.
Some reflective questions to begin analyzing your relationship with writing in your professional and personal life:
What do you imagine the definition of “writing” is – what elements of a text must be present for it to be considered “writing”?
Where and when did you learn this?
What is the relationship between when/how this idea of “writing” formed for you and how it frames your relationship to writing today? In other words, how were you socialized into this view of “writing” and how has that socialization impacted how you view “writing” today?
What genres (categories) of “writing” do you interact with daily – if we can accept that “writing” can mean any written (alphabetic or otherwise) communication?
How is writing integrated into the systems you work within? How does it affect operations and functions of your workplace/space? What about in your personal life?
Would you call yourself a writer – considering your creation of text with these genres and conventions? Why or why not?
How many times do you have to write, and in how many ways, before you can call yourself a writer?
I always hesitate to call myself a writer despite having wanted to be one since elementary school. It feels like I’m pretending to be something that I’m not, but I am a writer. I write. It’s that simple. Sometimes I just need some help reminding myself of that.
This past summer, I attended a week-long workshop as part of completing the requirements for my Creative Writing MFA. I was excited for the opportunity to get back in a workshop, but a part of me dreaded going. Since my program is low-residency, I was nervous about meeting my classmates and professors face-to-face for the first time. Additionally, the last workshop I had participated in made me a little hesitant about putting my work back out there. I dragged my feet while preparing until I finally speed-wrote two new flash pieces to bring with me, stuffing them into my overcrowded backpack and trying to pretend they didn’t exist.
I arrived at Chateau Lesbian (my friend and her wife refuse to let me call their apartment anything else), rolled my suitcase into the guest room, and then immediately left for my first required event. I was joining the second week of the residency, while most people had also attended the first week. It seemed like everyone already knew each other, and while they were all kind and welcoming, I was still intimidated. How would we work together in class? Would they still seem so nice after we picked apart each other’s stories?
I arrived the next day and tried to stay calm, but my efforts were thwarted when I abruptly remembered that my piece was up first for workshop. I was overwhelmed with concern about how weird and rushed and personal my writing was, but it was time to confront my fears. When prompted, I began reading: “This is called The Salami Kids…”
Workshop. Was. AMAZING! My classmates were generous with their feedback, both praise and criticism, and I loved every minute of it. My pen begged for mercy as I scribbled down notes and ideas for revision. Suddenly, I could see how to take everything a little bit further and tighten up the loose ends. My piece became more than just a page of words I’d thrown together to meet the submission deadline: it had potential, and I wanted to keep working on it. I felt a thousand times better. I felt like a writer.
Working the front desk at the University Writing Center, I often hear from other people who insist that they are not writers. I hear things like “I’m not a writer” or “I’m just doing this for class.” When I hear this, I respond, “Of course you’re a writer. You’re writing in here!” This doesn’t always seem to make a difference, but it’s important to me that I say it anyway.
When you visit the Writing Center, you are a writer, no matter what kind of writing you are working on. This is why you will often hear us refer to you as “writers” rather than clients or students. We want to reinforce the idea that you are someone who writes, and that you are allowed to call yourself a writer. In fact, this is something that we cover at orientation at the beginning of the year, because one of our top priorities is helping you to gain confidence and agency in your writing and your identity as a writer.
I have a BA and an MA in English, and I’m halfway through my Creative Writing MFA. I’ve written countless papers and stories of my own, and I’ve helped with so many more during the three years that I worked as a writing consultant. My work has been published, and I’ve even received awards for a couple of my short stories. When I step back and look at it objectively, it seems obvious to me that I’m a writer, but I still regularly face the fear of using that word for myself.
I share this to show that even someone with years of writing experience is still scared of being a “writer.” This is something that I confront daily, both for myself and with the writers who visit my desk. There is no cure-all, but there are steps you can take to grow your confidence and foster your writing identity. One of the most beneficial things that you can do is share your work with others. This helps you to become more involved with your process, as well as to take ownership of your words. Also, it’s exciting! Thinking out loud in collaboration with feedback from others can be so generative, and you’ll come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
Read your work to your friends, share it with a writing group, or visit one of our consultants at the University Writing Center! We welcome all UofL students, staff, and faculty, and we work with all kinds of writing, at any point in the writing process. I hope that you visit and that when your appointment is over, you leave thinking, Of course I’m a writer!
There was a conversation I had with Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of our community of writing consultants, where he told me that all spy movies are literacy narratives. Well, that got me thinking, truly thinking—and this may very well have been the first time I had a truly deep thought in months, coming fresh off of summer break at the time—about what other stories are technically literacy narratives. Some other types of action movies, sure. Superheroes? It’s possible to make that argument. However, fate would grant me a serendipitous revelation just as it was time to write up a blog post of my own. What better day to talk about the literacy of horror movies than today, Halloween? And better yet, is there a more apt movie to talk about than John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)? I think not.
We find literacy in Carpenter’s film in a variety of ways, most notably in the question of why Michael Myers wears his signature mask. There are a myriad of answers, and one of them is that he is trying to hide. The movie begins with Michael hiding from his sister before he, well… you know what happens. Michael isn’t just hiding his face though: he is hiding his ability to be read. He withholds from both the viewer and the other characters of the film the ability to be read and understood. It takes great effort, strife, horror, as well as some sleuthing for the characters to finally track down Michael from his old home to the killings he gets up to throughout the film. It takes a great deal of intellectual and psychological literacy for the doctor to track Michael across Haddonfield to his showdown with Laurie Strode.
Now, you might be wondering—I know I sure was—what has this to do at all with writing or writing center work. Great question! All of these aspects of literacy shown in Halloween started to remind me of something oddly familiar—the writing process itself. Fellow horror buffs may recall, but in the script for Carpenter’s film, Myers is referred to as the Shape; I think this is an apt metaphor for beginning the writing process, for what is the beginning of a draft but a vague shape? The Shape of drafting can be many things: procrastination, intimidation, a confusing prompt or topic, or even something as scary as a new or unfamiliar genre. The Shape finds a way to haunt all of us when we start the drafting process, and it tries to turn us into Bob if we let it.
Starting a paper is much like the events of this film: scary and disjointed without a lot to keep the threads together. Sometimes the meaning and message remains masked, if you’ll excuse the pun. Sometimes it can be something you feel like running from, avoiding it until the last minute. Sometimes you must be Laurie Strode and—metaphorically, of course—stab at your paper wildly with a knitting needle until something comes out loosely approximating what you are trying to accomplish. Either way, the Shape must be confronted to move forward, and often that is done by looking back on what you have accomplished in the past. Relying on your knowledge and the skills in literacy and writing that you have developed over many years of being a thoughtful and insightful human being.
And insightful you are. You are a writer and a reader all-in-one, and just like Laurie you will figure out what the Shape is. Though you may not always unmask it in the end, and sometimes when you think you have finished a draft the Shape will haunt you still. Yet again, just like Laurie, you are not alone. If need be, let the Writing Center be your Loomis: let us help you uncover the Shape of your writing because there is no need to face it alone. Writing, much like surviving a slasher, is a collaborative process—oftentimes taking much more planning and effort to overcome than previously thought possible. But we are here, and we know the Shape just as you do.
This all makes it seem so horrifying, and perhaps this analogy might scare you away from ever writing again. However, dear reader, if you are anything like me, then you will understand that pit in your stomach when you start to write something new. The Shape looming oppressively near you, watching from the corner and remaining masked and hidden from view. Yet, you must remember to always carry the will of Laurie Strode inside you. Clutch tightly to that knitting needle, cower for a moment if you need to, but in the end we all must face the Shape, and more often than not, we win in the end.
Happy Halloween, and happy writing!
Halloween. Directed by John Carpenter, Compass International Pictures, 1978.
Imagine that one English teacher back in your school days that everyone always affectionately called Mrs. Red Pen. I bet this brings you back to some fun moments of dropping your paper on the desk of the teacher and walking out as she starts to work her magic with that red pen, and you can’t help but feel a little bit bitter as that was your hard work. It’s this Mrs. Red Pen that we all seem to have in our memories, be they good or bad, which has led us to think that our college University Writing Center is the same way: full of Mr. And Mrs. Pens.
However, as one who works currently in a writing center, I have to say this stereotype is a little bit silly, and I can promise that you won’t find a red pen in sight of our writing center. In fact, marking with a red pen is often known as editing, which takes away ownership from the writer’s work and puts control into the hand of the editor, which is always frustrating. This frustration isn’t something you will find in the smiling faces of the consultants within a writing center as they help you learn how to become better writers by tossing away the old idea of editing.
Within our writing center, you are the one who gets to take control of where your story goes, of what you think needs changing in your work, and we are always here to help suggest strategies that will turn your first draft into a final draft. While we are not miracle workers, and it’s always best to bring your writing in early, we are always happy to work with anyone who needs help with their writing, be it personal such as poems, creative writing, or an academic paper that is just putting you through the wringer. These are all things a writing center can help you with because ultimately, we are here for you. The true purpose of the writing center is to be there for the campus community as both a guide for writing and as a friendly face to help you take on the college experience.
It’s this idea of a friendly face, one of your peers, that makes the writing center what it is and what it is not: the growling old teacher voice of Mrs. Red Pen back from your school days. I promise you we are not here to relive your old haunts but to share a few of our own stories of Mrs. Red Pens and help you to take your voice to the next level through writing. Your voice is important, and our goal at the University Writing Center is to make that voice heard through your work so that people can better understand what you value. As people begin to understand you through your writing, you will find that this opens up a lot of opportunities for you. Written communication is of the essence, and developing that within a cheerful space is why I encourage everyone to visit a writing center.
And while I know there are many opinions about what goes on in a writing center, I must tell you the “red pen experience” is one that most of us don’t want to relive. We want to see a smiling face greet us upon opening that door on the way to becoming better writers. As such, I encourage you to think positively about the writing center experience and realize that we are always going to be here for you.
We write to forge and connect the thoughts we can’t seem to verbalize aloud. We write to shield ourselves from the stinging winds that exists in our minds. We write to thrive in a world different from ours, a world controlled by the fingers that eagerly smack into the different squares on our keyboard. Yet, possibly most importantly, we write to bring attention to issues we view as unjust and unsatisfactory. Political and social engagement isn’t solely attained through protests and marches; in fact, one of the easiest and most impactful ways a concerned citizen can make their voice heard is through a medium with no audible voice at all: writing.
One area of life I am especially interested in is women’s sports, specifically women’s soccer. The United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) has consistently been ranked as the number one team in the world for many years now. Not only that, but they’ve also been the winners of the 2015 and 2019 Women’s World Cup. Compared to their male counterparts, who have never won a World Cup, the women have exceeded expectations year after year to continue their reign as the queens of women’s soccer.
However, despite their continued dominance, the women have been severely underpaid compared to the men. Despite support from millions of Americans, including United States President Joe Biden, U.S. Soccer continually denied the women’s claim to equal pay, and even took the women to federal court in an effort to settle the dispute once and for all
One of the most effective ways the U.S. women garnered worldwide support in their fight, aside from their multitude of impressive performances they displayed, was a public letter to the U.S. Soccer Federation in response to a letter from former U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro. In this response, the USWNT tackled the untrue claims spewed by the federation and publicly announced their support for a new presidential candidate, Cindy Parlow Cone. In this letter, the USWNT utilized language that was firm, confident, and demanding of respect. Although women in our society are expected to be docile, socially submissive, and unaggressive, the letter from the USWNT showed their prowess and their desire to achieve equal pay. By publicly stating their discontent with the U.S. Soccer President, and instead announcing their support for a female candidate, they secured a big boost in morale in the fight for equal pay.
After the votes were tallied for the U.S. Soccer Presidential Election, the results indicated that Cindy Parlow Cone would replace Mr. Cordeiro as the presiding official of soccer in America. Just six months after the letter was released to the public, the USWNT were finally given what they’ve deserved for many years now. After years of mediation and negotiating, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the newly appointed President agreed to sign a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the USWNT to ensure equal pay for both American male and female national team players. After the USWNT’s game against Nigeria on September 6TH, the Federation and the women’s team signed the CBA in front of thousands of fans who cheered and chanted along with the players.
The letter the USWNT wrote to publicly take a stance on the issue of equal pay was a defining moment for women’s sports around the world. In response to the USWNT, many European teams also sent letters to their federations demanding equal pay. Following in line with the U.S., nations such as Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, and more demanded in writing that they be paid the same as their male counterparts. Instead of negotiating behind-the-scenes, these women publicly announced their discontent, further gaining support from fans around the world.
By writing these letters in a demanding, assertive tone, the women have been successful in voicing their opinions and forcing responses from their federations. Finally, after many years of fighting, the U.S. Women have finally secured what they’ve deserved since the beginning of the USWNT: equality. The question, now, shifts to something else: why did it take this long to achieve equal pay? We’ve seen the power of writing to force those in power to make important decisions. Writing allows us to take the time to methodically select the words that carry the most power while organizing the structure to best illustrate the issues at hand. Women, specifically, have been expected to remain complacent for centuries; let us all learn from the tenacity of the USWNT and recognize the power behind writing to achieve equality for all.
Writing can often feel like a solitary practice. It’s likely we’ve all had the troubling experience of staring into a blank page, searching ourselves for how to fill the void with our thoughts. And these lonely feelings have only been compounded by our collective public experience over the past few pandemic years. Yet during this time, I continually found comfort in the realization that when a writer sits in front of the page, they always bring others with them. We write to an audience, we engage with other voices in our field, and we collaborate with other writers to improve our practice. Indeed, when we are writing, we are not alone.
Writing, it would appear, is a much more social activity than we often think. With this truth in mind, I invite you to consider how further engaging in community as a writer may improve your practice. Here are a few benefits and advantages.
Everyone struggles with writing. Despite how it may seem, even the best writers experience difficulties or frustrations with their writing. But on the other side of struggle, progress awaits. When writing within a community, you’ll find others who not only understand what you are going through, but often they will share strategies that have worked for them in the past. One easy way to have a conversation about your writing is to make an appointment for a consultation at the University Writing Center. This free service invites writers to bring any piece of writing in, during any stage of the process. We’re also here for any writer, be that an undergraduate, graduate, faculty, or staff member. My own academic journey has been greatly impacted by writing center consultants. When I meet with a consultant, I feel heard, affirmed, and encouraged in my work. I like to think of it as a series of ongoing conversations about writing, which continually refine my practice and make me a better communicator.
One of the most treasured gifts a writer can receive is a reader. When writing in a community, we freely give each other this offering. When a person thoughtfully reads your work and responds to it, you receive perspective on your writing that will improve it. At the University Writing Center, we aim to provide students with useful suggestions they may take from our consultation to immediately bring their writing to the next level. We also welcome writers to attend multiple appointments on a single piece of writing. Our appointment sessions last 50 minutes and will always provide you with something to work on after the consultation is over. However, if you are looking for more feedback, we hope you will return to us for another chance to gain more insight. Communication in these appointments is key. Be sure to let your consultant know what you want to take from the session; they will do their very best to assist.
Another way to tangibly find community as a writer is to join a writing group. The University Writing Center offers multiple opportunities for writers to meet with other writers with similar goals. One such example is the Faculty and Graduate Student Writing Group which will begin again this fall. Another group starting soon is the Creative Writing Group, open to any creative writer seeking a group for growth and feedback. Groups like these, and many other events offered by the University Writing Center throughout the year, provide a chance for you to gain multiple perspectives on your writing, within a safe and helpful environment. Writing groups undoubtably help writers to set goals, maintain focus, and improve their work over time. You may also develop relationships with other writers, particularly with similar interests, that extend beyond your time in the group. Many of my lifelong friends are individuals I met during community writing events or retreats. Be sure to check in with the University Writing Center throughout the year to see when new groups or events are posted so you can experience these benefits, too.
While we have reviewed three important reasons to incorporate more community into your writing life, it is hardly a comprehensive list. Engaging in a community of writers certainly develops our technical skills, but also affects many of the more abstract qualities that make a good writer. I know my conversations with other writers have undoubtedly given me greater perspective, deeper empathy, and a wider awareness of the world. A good writing community can refine your purpose as a writer and push you towards bigger goals than you even thought possible. Maybe you hope to complete a novel, publish a poem, or conduct a new research study? A community of writers can help you achieve these dreams and will stand alongside you during the journey. It’s my hope we will see you at the University Writing Center soon to begin this process. Let’s get started today!
August 23, 2021. It was a big day for us. After seventeen (yes, I counted) months of 100% online services, the University Writing Center opened its doors again for in-person consultations for the Fall 2021 semester. While we were hesitant about what consultations would be like with masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray, we soon found that the opportunity to talk to writers face-to-face was worth the stress of figuring out how to come together.
Hopefully it goes without saying that our proudest accomplishment this year is our successful transition (back) to in-person consultations in the midst of the ebb and flow of COVID-19 cases and our feelings of personal and collective safety. In other words, this year’s consultants didn’t miss a beat in jumping in to work with writers, both in-person and online. Our staff maintained a shared commitment to working with a wide range of UofL writers. They were first-year composition students hesitantly writing their first annotated bibliographies. They were Southern Police Institute students composing academic research papers after many years away from the classroom. They were seniors writing essays for Fulbright applications (that they would later receive). They were pre-nursing students writing personal statements for their nursing applications. They were PhD students getting started on their dissertations in Education, Engineering, Business and Public Health. They were even a few elementary school students writing poems about unicorns and universes. They were all writers whom we served this year.
News and Accomplishments in Academic Year 2021-2022
In November, after the departure of Amber Yocum for the School of Education, we welcomed Maddy Decker as the Program Assistant, Senior! Since she started, Maddy has been indispensable in keeping our appointments and front desk running smoothly. She has kept our appointment schedule up to date, often making last-minute adjustments for sick consultants and constantly monitoring the virtual schedule. She is often the first face or voice that writers interact with; she provides a calming and reassuring presence daily to consultants and writers. We are so happy she decided to join our team!
Bronwyn Williams earned a sabbatical for the Spring 2022 semester. He is working on a book about the experiences of university students during the pandemic and is a visiting scholar at the School of Education at the University of Bristol. I (Cassandra Book) am currently serving as the Acting Director during Bronwyn’s sabbatical. As one consultant kindly put it, I am “keeping the ship upright and sailing smoothly through the general upheaval of these times.”
Beyond Tutoring – Writing Groups, Community Writing, and More
Our work extends beyond the writing consultation. Our administrators, like Maddy, help create the logistical infrastructure and supportive environment so that our consultants can do their jobs. In addition, our administrative staff leads outreach, including conducting presentations, facilitating workshops, leading writing groups, maintaining community partnerships. Our Assistant Directors, Olalekan Adepoju, Elizabeth Soule, Todd Richardson, and Michael Benjamin helped to ensure that mentoring and outreach work happened professionally and with a strong disciplinary base.
Our popular LGBTQ+, Faculty and Graduate Student, and Creative Writing writing groups continued to give UofL writers supportive communities through which they could create and talk about writing. A big thanks to Elizabeth Soule and Aubrie Cox for volunteering their time to support LGBTQ+ and Creative Writing Groups this year. Olalekan Adepoju, as the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, has led the Graduate and Faculty Writing Group for the past two years and will pass on the baton in June.
We worked with our partners at Family Scholar House to offer their participants an online writing laboratory. This would not have been possible without both the constant correspondence and support from our partners at Family Scholar House, in particular Nia Boyd. Additionally, it was only due to the kind contributions of this year’s volunteers that we were able to offer these hours. Thank you to: Ayaat Ismail, Emma Turner, Morgan Blair, Cecilia Durbin and Michael Benjamin. The time that you committed to working with students means a lot to all of us.
We also worked with the Western Branch of the LFPL to organize and hold the 2022 Cotter Cup, a K-12 poetry contest. Last year, we worked with Western Branch to revive the 100-year old tradition. University Writing Center volunteers worked with K-12 writers to brainstorm, draft and revise their poems for the contest. Over the course of two weeks, our volunteers worked with 28 separate individuals in 30-minute sessions. A cast of all-star judges are reviewing poems as we speak, and we look forward to finding out the winners in May. We’re grateful to the contributions of our volunteers: Eli Megibben, Maddy Decker, Aubrie Cox, Brice Montgomery, Cassie Book, Kylee Auten, Yuan Zhao, Zoë Donovan, Ayaat Ismail and Liz Soule.
We are also proud of the work our staff does as academics, professionals, researchers, and, honestly, people, beyond the University Writing Center. Please take a moment to read over their individual professional accomplishments and, if you see them or know them, congratulate them on their hard work!
Michael J. Benjamin presented “Antiracist and Inclusive Conferencing: Co-Constructing Access, Attending to Power, and Practicing Accountability” at the 2022 College Composition and Communication Conference and “Modal Responsivity: Ethical Pivots to Meet Pandemic-Induced Distance Education Challenges” at the 2022 Computers and Writing Conference. He also served as the inaugural 2021-2022 The Big Rhetorical Podcast Fellow, his work discussed in Episode 92.
Melissa Rothman received a position as a library specialist for undergraduate research with Ekstrom library.
Mikaela Smith earned a summer internship with the IT department at Humana. She also served in a leadership role with the UofL Chinese Scholars Union (CSU), hosing various successful events. She has been elected Vice President of the CSU for 2022-2023.
We will be open during the summer, starting May 9, from 9-4 every weekday. In May, we will again hold our spring Dissertation Writing Retreat; it will be in-person for the first time since 2019. You can find out more on our website. You can also follow us on our blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
One of the things I love about working in the University Writing Center is the exposure I get to so much fascinating and important work. I’ve read about entrepreneurship among Rohingya refugees, the impact of sexual health on longevity, green building practices in sports venues, what Afrofuturism tells us about our history…. Pardon my childlike gushing, but it’s so cool! This is why I love academia. People are creating knowledge here! Aaaand that leads me to what I’ve been writing about. Yep, knowledge.
What, really, does it mean to create new knowledge? What is knowledge? Wait! Don’t go away yet! I promise, it’ll be interesting. I won’t put you to sleep. Well I might… but you’ve been needing to catch up on sleep, haven’t you? Knowledge… well, let’s begin with a bromide: they say “knowledge is power.” Get the knowledge, then you’ll have power. Go to school, learn some stuff, and now you’re Captain America. We all want to feel powerful. Nobody’s angling to be powerless. Well yes maybe but… But let’s think this through a bit. Power is the ability to do something, it’s potential. You learn some stuff to empower yourself to do things. But it won’t mean much if you don’t actually ever do. So it’s the doing that matters. You might “know” some things, but it’s what that does, it’s how that shapes your behavior and creates material effects in the world, that has any importance or value. You might know what the capital of Georgia is or how to juggle five balls, but unless and until that brings you glory at your local pub quiz or impresses everybody at the party including that certain someone, it’s uh, purely academic. It’s just information, neutral and inert, until its usage has material effects. And the imperfect predictability of these results and the results of those results and of everything is what elevates knowledge over information.
So maybe the phrase, “knowledge is power,” while pithy, doesn’t quite get us there. A focus on material effects, on application, urges us toward a different understanding of knowledge. I think Wanda Orlikowski (2002, 2006) gets it right when she talks about knowledge as practice. Ah. So it’s doing something. It’s in the doing. Knowing about car engines versus actually getting that car right there to run again. Knowing physics versus actually getting someone to the moon.
Orlikowski elaborates. “Know-how” is a capability generated through action. And this requires repeated actions. These sustain the “know-how” while also, of course, adapting it, improving it, expanding it, in some way changing it. So the idea that knowledge is some inert, stable thing or repository of things is an illusion. It looks that way because we keep repeating it. It’s a bit like how a movie looks real because our mind does that little trick of stitching all those individual images together into a fluid whole. Except in this case the individual images are events, actions, each very similar yet slightly different from the last. Or it’s like how an insect wing looks like it’s not moving but is actually flapping a zillion times a second. Just remember that the wing itself is not stable either. It’s also changing, growing, aging. Did you know that trees vibrate? Knowledge, then, is like a tree, always changing, or okay but really more accurately, knowledge, as practice, is change. There is nor was there ever no stable thing that then changes slightly. It’s always changing. Indeed, this is how we know change, and recognizing change is how we mark time, and for that matter, space. How you like them apples? But let’s not bite off more than we can chew in one blog post…
What does this mean for knowing how to write? That’s what you tuned in for, right? I thought knowing how to write was, basically, you know, learning some vocabulary and nailing down the grammatical rules. That would be nice. Then it’d be a simple matter of collect all twelve! Buy the Happy Meal, get the toy, put it on your shelf, repeat. Trade them with your friends. Trade them for money! But surely thou didst know that language changeth over time and space. Aye, ’tis ne’er so stable a thing as me lord thus willeth thou what okay nevermind. No it doesn’t work that way. The rules are mere conventions, and dig a little and you’ll find considerable disagreement about and variation even within those conventions. Word meanings are always changing (read the etymology of your favorite word on the OED or spend five minutes browsing the Urban Dictionary), sustained through practice and but also thereby always changing. This isn’t a movie, no nice tidy plots. Knowing how to write, like all knowing, is an “ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted in everyday practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p252).
So when you’re learning to write (or more accurately, when you’re writing), you’re participating in and contributing to the way things are (more accurately, appear to be) for a given context (or to be fancy, discourse community), such as your discipline. An interesting little thought exercise, no? It calls into question all sorts of things that we take for granted, and it’s massively inconvenient. It gums up the works. How do we know what’s right any more? Goodness me. But on the other hand and at the very least, it also means you should stop berating yourself, if indeed you were. That whole impostor syndrome. That anxiety. That feeling of inferiority. You can dial that back a bit. You’re not “bad at writing” and they are not always and everywhere good at it. You’re joining a community (such a nice-sounding word), and that community has a way of doing things. They’re a bit anxious to keep it that way ’cause it seems to work, to produce some desirable results. But it is nevertheless changing, a living thing, and it lives, in part, because of you.
Orlikowski, W. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249-273.
Orlikowski, W. (2006). Material knowing: The scaffolding of human knowledgeability. European Journal of Information Systems, 15, 460-466.
“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.
Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.
In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.
In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.
Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.