Category: Writing Consultants

Listening to Learn: Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

“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.

Wait, How Can I Make the Most of My Group Writing Experience?: Co-Writing About Co-Writing Part 2

This post is the second in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this second post, we’ll discuss ways to use writing center sessions as a model for negotiating the co-writing process and reflect on the experience of co-writing this blog. The first part addressed key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects.

Left: Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant; Right: Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

Group writing is present in all levels of the academic community. There are informal co-writing opportunities, like a group chat that helps you better understand your discussion board post, but there are also the formal, much more nerve-wracking co-writing projects that, as we discussed last week, cause frustration and anger despite their benefits. Perhaps establishing productive group dynamics is the most harrowing aspect of a co-written project. Each participant will have to put forth their contributions and then, together, the group will have to decide in which direction they will take the piece. Both before the project begins and throughout the duration of the writing process, collaborators will have to manage and negotiate workloads and responsibilities that allow each party to reach their goals. A writing center appointment is kind of like that, too, in that the writer and the consultant have to balance their contributions in order to meet their goals. There is (hopefully) mutual effort and negotiation in every writing center appointment. In this post, we are going to explore facets of writing center practices that correlate to group writing. To do so, we’ll reflect on our own experience writing this series of blog posts. 

Negotiating Boundaries

            One thing that has to be negotiated in every writing center consultation, whether overtly or not, is the role each person will play in the consultation. The writer and the consultant must work together to determine who is responsible for what during the appointment. This is rarely an explicit process, but it will become clear throughout the session that each person takes on certain tasks. Likewise, co-authors must agree on their responsibilities regarding their project, but these roles do not always have to be as clearly defined as they are in a writing center session. For example, when writing this blog series, we did not set strict tasks other than taking on the main responsibility for one post and providing in-depth feedback and revisions for the other post. Other than that, we wanted to remain flexible when it came to “assigning” roles. For instance, one role co-writers might want to establish is a dedicated note taker, but we found it more productive to both take notes since we tended to pick up on different ideas during our meetings. Additionally, we both performed research related to the project, and we both had an active role in developing the outline and structure for the blog posts. This fluidity and casualness that we established may not be possible for every group writing project (for sure, I’m almost certain these blurred boundaries could complicate an actual writing center session), but as long as the boundaries, or lack of boundaries, are negotiated and agreed upon by all parties, then the work should be smooth sailing.

Maintaining Ownership

            Ownership is a tricky thing in a collaborative writing project. In writing center appointments, consultants always aim to provide helpful feedback without pushing the writer to make unwanted changes–we want to ensure writers maintain ownership of their document. A co-authored project, however, does not have the same clean break between who is in charge of the piece. Each person contributing to the project should have a vested interest in the process, content, and product. Yet, even when all parties are invested in the project, there can still be some tension, or at least misunderstanding. For this project, ownership became tricky when we were dividing the workload. Together, we separated our content into two complementary posts, but then we had to decide who would write the first draft of each post. When Brice suggested we each “write a draft,” Kylee thought he meant we would each write a draft of both posts, but that’s because she worked under the assumption that we held dual ownership over the whole project. Brice, on the other hand, had perceived that we were individually taking ownership over one half of the project. Besides this breakdown in communication, we did feel like we had equal control over the project when it came to making suggestions or revisions to the other person’s writing. Without this shared sense of ownership, we would not have learned as much from this writing process. 

Instruction and Feedback

            As co-authors, you have to be willing to learn from each other. John Hedgecock, in his book chapter “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards,” encourages those interested in co-authoring to partner with someone whose skills will balance and complement your own (114). This is true, as well, of writing center appointments, because successful sessions also rely on complementary skills and knowledge. For instance, consultants should know the mechanics for how to write an argumentative essay, but they rely on writers to bring the content knowledge needed to successfully make their argument. So, in a way, there is mutual instruction and feedback happening in every appointment; the consultant instructs the writer on writing practices while the writer instructs the consultant on content. In co-authorship, there may be less instruction on practical writing topics, but each person is going to have different knowledge to add to the project, which they will inevitably have to teach to their partner. We each had two different takeaways regarding what we had learned from each other. For Brice, he learned about accountability from Kylee, as she regularly reached out to make sure the project was still moving forward. Kylee, having no experience with co-writing, though, gained practical knowledge from Brice about the best way to approach our drafting phase. 

Establishing Trust

Trust may be the toughest thing to manage in both writing center appointments and co-writing projects. In a writing center consultation, writers have to trust the consultants are giving them accurate, helpful information that will make their writing and their writing process better. Consultants, on the other hand, have to trust writers are engaged with the project and are invested in implementing the strategies discussed during the session. A writing partnership, likewise, must be formed by people who trust their co-author’s advice and know they are both equally interested and invested in the project For us, we felt confident taking on a co-authored project because we had multiple, informal and formal opportunities to work with each other’s individual writing assignments. Additionally, we had previously met for a writing center appointment over one of Kylee’s class assignments, so we were familiar with how our dynamic would play out. We knew, through experience, that we could trust the other to provide honest, productive feedback, even when it meant taking our ideas in a new, unexpected direction. 

Conclusion

            Like we said last week, group projects probably aren’t going away anytime soon. We hope, though, that this two-part blog series has provided tools and frameworks to help make future co-writing experiences more fulfilling and productive. Focus on what can be gained from the process, not just the project. Chances are, each member in a co-writing project might feel some hesitancy or discomfort, but rely on establishing healthy boundaries, take ownership of the project, delight in the new information being learned, and find trustworthy people to collaborate with.


Works Cited

Hedgecock, John. “Reflections of Coauthorship and the Professional Dialogue: Risks and Rewards.” Writing for Scholarly Publication: Behind the Scenes in Language Education, edited by Christine Pearson Casanave and Stephanie Vandrick, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003, pp. 113-127.

You May Hate It, But There’s a Reason for All This: Co-Writing about Co-Writing Part 1

This post is the first in a two-part series on co-authorship from different perspectives. In this first post, we’ll discuss key cognitive and pedagogical considerations in co-writing projects. The second part will both address ways to use writing center sessions as a model for negotiating the co-writing process and reflect on the experience of co-writing this blog. 

From right to left: Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant; and
Kylee Auten, Writing Consultant

Ah, the dreaded group project, known for its ubiquity and the frustration it inspires. Few assignments elicit opinions as strong as those which require co-writing, but through this post, we’ll argue that the severity of those opinions—while perhaps not unavoidable—can be softened by recognizing features of co-writing projects.

To go about this task, we have opted to get a little meta in our approach and co-write about co-authorship. Using both external research and the lessons learned from our experience, we hope to shed some light on several considerations to keep in mind when approaching a co-authoring project, whether you are a student, instructor, or potential co-writer.

1.   Co-authoring is valuable. No, really!

First, it’s necessary to answer the question on every student’s mind—“Is there even a point to all of this?” Research suggests the answer is yes, and not just because it makes grading easier for a TA. 

James Reither and Douglas Vipond found that collaborative writing is a complex social process, and beyond the surface-level act of writing something down, it offers a unique form of “knowledge making,” positioning collaborative texts not as a product, but as a testament to the collaborative process. Unfortunately, despite other research indicating similar values, the average instructor may be hard-pressed to explain why they use group writing projects. For frustrated students, vague discourse on the importance of collaboration may not feel like sufficient justification for these exercises. Thankfully, there are several other reasons to value the practice.

2.     The co-authoring process is procedurally different from a solo write.

During the process of writing this blog, we found that co-writing is anything but linear. Even though we chose this project of our own volition, the initial enthusiasm waned, and early meetings resulted in a great deal of work from Kylee and a few stray sentences from Brice. The project moved forward in fits and starts, and it became clear that the effort would be weighted towards planning and revision, with the initial draft quickly becoming an afterthought. Suffice it to say, our anecdotal experience suggests co-writing requires a different set of metacognitive skills, and research agrees.

Helen Dale found that in student co-authoring assignments, the additional input from peers created a kind of feedback loop that eliminated the archetypical brainstorm-draft-edit process. Projects also had more logical structures because it was necessary for co-writers to plan in detail before beginning, simply to maintain coherence. Ultimately, co-writing can be a more extensive and intensive writing process, but it has the potential to transform what ends up on the page.

3. Collaboration succeeds when collaboration is the point. 

 Louth et al. compared both student scores and attitudes on individual papers and collaborative papers in a college freshman English course, and while they found no statistically significant difference between the scores, there was a markedly positive difference in attitude, with collaborative groups being more satisfied than their individual counterparts. The authors suggest that dissatisfaction arises when collaboration is elevated as a pedagogical value rather than a theoretical one; it works when the focus is on what is gained through the collaborative process.

In the case of this blog project, is the writing inherently better? Not necessarily, but it did push our approach in directions that might otherwise have gone unexplored. In the early stages, we riffed and asked each other questions about possible ways to broach the subject of co-authoring, and we challenged each other’s expectations about the goals and parameters of the project. For example, the initial draft of this post was specifically directed towards instructors planning co-writing assignments, but Kylee wisely pointed out that it was too narrow of a focus to be very helpful, and it negated the relevance of our own co-writing process. By shifting our attention to more general principles, the post opened out into something more accessible for different types of readers. 

4.     Successful collaboration as a learning process may largely be a matter of personality. 

If you’re one of the many individuals who resents collaborative writing, fret not—research indicates that group work will not be universally beneficial or enjoyable for everyone. Utilizing attachment theory, Shiri Lavy studied whether there was a correlation between personality types and performance in group projects. While it’s difficult to say how metacognitively beneficial the practice was, Lavy found that students’ self-reported satisfaction was influenced by their attachment style, with anxious and avoidant students both expressing dissatisfaction with group work compared to individual work, despite performing well. Some people just won’t enjoy collaboration, and that’s okay.

Ultimately, group projects aren’t going anywhere, and while it may seem reductive to point out that co-writing may not be for everyone, recognizing that reality may help reluctant co-authors re-evaluate their approach.  

Check back next week for a deep dive into the lessons we learned by co-writing as well as how writing center sessions can model the skills necessary to be effective co-authors. 


Works Cited

Dale, Helen. “The Influence of Co-Authoring on the Writing Process.” Journal of Teaching Writing, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996, pp. 65-79, https://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/teachingwriting/article/view/1194/1154.

Lavy, Shiri. “Who Benefits from Group Work in Higher Education? An Attachment Theory Perspective.” Higher Education, vol. 73, no. 2, 2017, pp. 175-187, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26447599.

Louth, Richard, et al. “The Effects of Collaborative Writing Techniques on Freshmen Writing and Attitudes.” The Journal of Experimental Education, vol. 61, no. 3, 1993, pp. 215-224, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20152373.

Reither, James, and Douglas Vipond. “Writing as Collaboration.” College English, vol. 51, no. 8, 1989, pp. 855-867, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/378091.

For The Love of Writing

Michael Benjamin, Assistant Director and Writing Consultant

It’s not lost on me that this is being posted on Valentine’s Day, 2022. So I’m going to try and stick to the day’s theme: love.

Love is hard. Complex. It’s a feeling, sure, but it’s also an action. These days I’ve been conceptualizing love within the framework of care. Caring about ourselves, our dearest ones, our community, our larger world. Care can be shooting a text to a friend you haven’t heard from in a week or two or volunteering at the local community literacy center. Care takes energy but is always worth it even though it usually comes with little to no reward. In an affective economy, care is a currency. Tying love and care together begins to make visible all of the little acts we do. It pushes us to be thoughtful and reflective and, frankly, better people.

I realize this probably feels like it’s going off of the rails, but please bear with me.

I think I can speak for everyone at the writing center. We care about writing at the here because we care about our UofL community. And we know that we have a unique opportunity to spread the joy of a love for writing.

Here’s a quick story: it was my first month of my undergraduate career and I’d gotten a lower grade than desired on an assignment. I went to the writing center, not really knowing what to expect, hoping that I’d come back with a better text to bump my grade up. What I got was an experience that has powered my academic career for the past decade. My consultant smiled at me and told me Play with your writing. Find the joy in it. Keep caring and putting love into it. That experience was so transformative for me that seven months later I was working in that writing center. I’m sure it has something to do with my pedagogical ethos, too. That consultant cared about me, showed a love for her work and writing and the writers she worked with in a way that was so infectious and powerful that I needed to take action, to pass it along.

I write this as a call for all of us to radiate that love and care throughout our worlds. I also write this as a way to urge us to use the written word as a means of care.

Next week, we are hosting an event for International Mother Language Day. I’m excited to see y’all UofL community members show a love for writing through all of these guest blog posts written in your mother tongues. I’m even more excited to fill out these notecards for recent immigrants and refugees. Handwritten letters of simple words of encouragement are an act of care. Taking the time out of your day, in the middle of what has been a brutal semester, to stop and focus writing something for someone you don’t know in your best handwriting won’t show up on your CV or transcript, but it’s a loving act that can have a world of meaning. I’m personally excited for our little writing center community to show love to all of the multilinguists and polyglots amongst us.

I know today is viewed as a day or romantic love. A day you spend with your partner, showing them how much you appreciate them. I implore you to show that care to everyone. What if you jotted a little note of appreciation for the wait staff at the restaurant? Sent a couple coworkers/colleagues/classmates a small compliment? Took 10 minutes to yourself to journal what and who you love and care for? Care for you? What if you went completely old school and snail mailed your folks? Words are powerful and cost nothing. Write them. Share them. Care for and with them.

Why Can’t I Write Like Derrida?

Yuan Zhao, Writing Consultant

The other day, I had a discussion with our acting director on what are the standards for good writing. As a graduate student, I have witnessed numerous writing styles published in academic journals. Some are written in straightforward plain English; some are less accessible to read, as those written by Derrida, Lacan, Spivak, and Homi Bhabha. Whenever I attempt to read these great thinkers, I would often find myself trying to single out the main arguments from their obscure styles—convoluted syntax, jargon with special connotations, and complicated sentence structures. I have heard people complain about these authors: “Their writings are too incomprehensible!” “Why can’t they write in a more reader-friendly way?” My discussion with the acting director on the standards of good English writing remained unresolved. We were uncertain whether it is appropriate for us to decide if these great thinkers compose good writings, but we agreed without any doubts that these authors are super intelligent.

Bearing in mind the question of what makes good writing, I started to read one of Barbara Johnson’s essays “Bad Writing.” In this short article, Johnson defends at least three types of “bad writings.”  One of these “bad” qualities lies in obscurity—that readers assume a text to be bad if it is difficult to read. “‘Don’t understand!’ becomes an accusation,” and readers blame the “incomprehensible writing” as “the cause of incomprehension” (Johnson 160). However, Johnson argues, it is unfair to critique authors simply because their works are difficult to read. Readers can at least suspend their judgment and reflect more on their own reading attitudes, skills and strategies (Johnson 160). Johnson notes, “[a]fter the theory revolution it is no longer possible so serenely to separate style from thinking, idea from language” (162). In other words, complex theoretical thoughts sometimes require convoluted expressions. Style and thoughts are in a unity. Reading thus becomes demanding. To appreciate such complexity needs a set of advanced reading skills that readers can hardly achieve unless they are properly trained. No other way out.

Therefore, obscure works are not a result of bad writings. They are just difficult to read, foreign to our established mindsets. To read them needs time and reflection. Johnson notes “[u]nderstanding the conceptual breakthrough … depends on pausing there long enough” (164). She also points out, “[t]hought as a break is different from thought as a chain” (165). Whenever we pause and attempt to comprehend the obscure writings, the fluency of reading is surely to be interrupted, but the breaks are also chances for our mindsets to welcome transitions. To digest new and complex knowledge cannot be an easy task. It needs time and effort.

Last semester, a course instructor criticized my writing style as convoluted and complex. She also mentioned that I failed to follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson who can express complicated arguments in a clear and accessible way. Such accusations made me feel so anxious to the extent that I started to deliberately avoid composing complex sentences. I was disappointed that she did not appreciate the designs I embedded in the selection of words and paragraph organizations that were intended to respond to the main arguments and to relate the resources I read. I understood that my reader-instructor expected a style of clarity. But what if my arguments are complicated and they need complex organizations? Does a student assignment have to be explicit direct and simple-minded? Does it mean a complicated student assignment can only be marked as a product of bad writing? After reading Johnson’s essay, I might challenge the instructor’s critique: why can’t the instructor follow the spirit of Barbara Johnson to read—to pause and reflect when reading a student’s assignment?

Should the instructor respond to me, she might say it is both impossible and unnecessary to invest so much time in reading a student’s assignment. If a student has complicated ideas, they have to be expressed in an explicitly direct manner so that instructors can comprehend them at first glance. I can understand this excuse. Nowadays, instructors are often so fully occupied with teaching duties, research tasks and administrative jobs that they can hardly spend more time than necessary on reading students’ assignments. Within the limited time, instructors don’t expect to encounter obscure works at the student level. Otherwise, they might tend to assume the convoluted writings are a product when students fail to try harder to express in a clearer way. However, in the meantime, we will find instructors tend to spend hours readings the obscure works of Derrida and Lacan. Why can’t they spare more time on the obscure students’ writings? The disparities in writers’ academic achievements and social status are another factor to affect instructors’ reading attitudes and expectations. As Johnson notes, most obscure works will keep being condemned by most readers until they enter into the canon, and only since then, readers can attempt to appreciate the poetic genius in the obscurity (160). As for students’ works, they are far from being recognized by academia, not to mention the canon. No wonder instructors tend to underestimate the possible significance and academic contributions in students’ writings. At the student level, writing styles are supposed to yield to the expectations of their readers.

Cruel reality, isn’t it? What can we do? Can we still write like Derrida if we have complicated thoughts to express? The strategy I propose is to keep writing. Keep writing the way colonized writers “write back” to colonizing powers in postcolonial studies. Like them, we can use writing to issue our subaltern voices when we practice complicated thoughts. Keep writing in the spirit of Derrida’s “as if.” Write as if we are complicated scholars, who always attempt to develop sharp arguments while balancing between complex ideas and the accessibility for readers. Keep writing with a consciousness to look for potential quality readers in academia—compose quality papers, send them to journals, respond to feedback from editors and reviewers, and try to get them published.

Now, we can repeat the question “Why can’t I write like Derrida?” in a plain tone, without agitation or anxiety. Repeat it as a rhetorical question because it no longer is an unsolved problem. I can write like Derrida, but sometimes, I choose not to. Now, I will consider the factors, such as context, reader and genre, before I make the decision whether it is necessary to write like Derrida.

In-Person or Online, We’re Still Here And We’re Still Talking about Writing

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

For the first time in almost 18 months we have been arranging tables, stocking up on handouts, and dusting off shelves in anticipation of once again holding in-person writing consultations. On Thursday we welcomed our new group of writing consultants for orientation and once again the University Writing Center was full of conversations about how best to help writers in the UofL community learn strategies for being more effective writers as well as gain a stronger sense of confidence and agency about their writing. One thing we have missed in the last year, given the kind of collaborative dialogue that is at the foundation of teaching writing the way we do, is the kind of nuance and richness that comes from in-person conversations. Though we value the online video chat and written response appointments we held last year – and will continue to hold this year – we are also excited at the opportunity to talk to writers face to face again.

University Writing Center Staff – 2021-22

Of course, the fact that only half of each face will be visible is a reminder of the range of physical, logistical, and emotional challenges we all continue to confront. We are returning to a campus where masks are mandatory, in a city and state were delta variant cases among the unvaccinated are skyrocketing. Though all of our staff are vaccinated, we are not immune to anxiety or the distraction that comes from the ongoing uncertainty all around us. We will be adopting myriad modifications and practices to do our best to keep everyone safe. It’s certainly not a return to 2019.

Even so, our plan is to move ahead and, whether in person or online, do the best we can to use constructive dialogue to help writers address their individual concerns about their work. We will continue to listen carefully during appointments and respond with suggestions that writers can use to rethink and revise their work to make it as engaging as possible. And we will do our best to create a safe and supportive space where writers can try out new ideas – and sometimes make mistakes – and then be able to try again. There may be many uncertainties ahead in the coming year, but we will – as always – be committed to starting where writers are, with their concerns, and working toward honest, constructive conversations about writing that emphasize collaboration and creativity.

We are excited about the year ahead and the chance to help writers do the important work of communicating the ideas they are passionate about to the world around them.

Writing Groups and Events

In addition to our individual consultations, we will continue to offer other ways to support and sustain writing at UofL. Once again we will facilitate writing groups for Graduate Students and Faculty, Creative Writers, and LGBTQ+ Writers. For graduate students we will offer workshops on writing issues and our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. We will sponsor events, from our annual Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night (co-sponsored with Miracle Monocle), to our celebration of International Mother Language Day. What’s more, we will continue our community partnerships with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House.

We wish everyone a safe and fulfilling year and we look forward to working with you soon.

Helping Western Branch Library Revive the “Cotter Cup” as a Student Poetry Contest

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

One of our goals in our ongoing community partnership with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, is to create programming and tutoring that not only engages young people in writing and reading, but also connects to and supports the distinctive and important history of this library. The Western Branch library, built in 1908, and the first library in the nation to serve and be fully operated by African Americans has a history of significant contributions to the city’s West End. One of those important contributions was the founding in 1913, by Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter, of an annual storytelling contest. The “Cotter Cup” was a ‘storytelling bee,’ intended to encourage children to read and learn through the art of storytelling.

A couple of years ago, Natalie Woods, branch manager of the library, raised the idea of reviving the Cotter Cup as a writing contest. Her vision was of a Cotter Cup in which Louisville K-12 students would produce creative writing and be supported in that work through consultations of University Writing Center staff. The goal of the contest would be to encourage creative writing in the community and to connect K-12 students with writing support and conversations with our university writing consultants. We were excited at the possibility and have been delighted to work with Natalie and her staff on planning and implementing the contest. On our end, Edward English, our Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, organized and facilitated scheduling and supporting the consultations.

It has been a great experience to take part in the inaugural Cotter Cup poetry contest. Although the pandemic necessitated that the contest and consultations take place online this year, we had a great time working with dedicated and imaginative students from across grade levels and across the city. All the participants in the contest received books and writing journals, funded by the UofL English Department Thomas R. Watson Endowment. The winners also received prizes and will have their names engraved on the new “Cotter Cup.” You can read the winning poems here! It was also meaningful, during the pandemic year when so many programs were cancelled and put on hold, to have the chance to create a new program with our community partner and connect to students across the city. We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.

Our consultants also had a great time working with the young writers from across the city. Here is what some of them had to say about the experience:

Ayaat Ismail: I was completely taken aback by these young writers’ creativity and drive during our meetings. It was truly inspiring to watch such young students brainstorm ideas and write poems based on their interests and experiences, whether limericks, free verse, or narratives, as they immersed themselves in poetry and demonstrated their talents and capabilities. It made me appreciate writing in a whole new way, as well as the concept of progression and learning in general.

Caitlin Burns: I really enjoyed being able to tutor elementary students for the Cotter Cup. They were so creative and energetic. I loved hearing their ideas for their poems and working with them, and I learned quite a bit from them as well. It was so lovely to get out of my grad school bubble a bit and have fun playing with words with them. Thanks for all of your and the Writing Center team’s work putting it together!

Alex Way: It was a great experience tutoring students for the Cotter Cup. I worked with an elementary school student who produced an amazing poem and ended up winning first place. Not only was his work exceptional, but he had a deep knowledge of poetry forms and what makes good poetry. Even though I only tutored my student for one session (and he did all the hard work), I can’t help but feel proud of what he has accomplished

Edward English: Working as a consultant for the Cotter Cup was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done this year.  It was so fun and encouraging to work with such promising young writers and be inspired by their creativity and intelligence.  It was also an incredible honor to be part of contest which continues the exceptional legacy of Joseph Cotter and Western Branch Libraries.

Maddy Decker: I really enjoyed expanding my tutoring horizons from working with college students to also working with high school and elementary writers. I feel like I learned more about myself as a tutor and about what creative writing looks like at different levels. As someone who started writing poetry and short stories in middle school, I’m glad to see so many young writers putting themselves out there, and I hope they continue to explore their talents!

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

Keeping Our Commitment to Writers in Deeply Unsettling Times: A Year in Review

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

I’ve been struggling with how to start this version of my annual, end-of-year blog post. Every attempt to find words to convey how the extraordinary events of the past nine months, from pandemic to protests to political insurrections, have affected us in the University Writing Center quickly crumbles to cliché. At the same time, just a proud listing of accomplishments doesn’t seem appropriate to capture what has happened in the past year. So I think I’ll leave the big themes to someone else and just keep it simple.

I am always proud of the people who work in the University Writing Center and often tell people we’ve got the best Writing Center staff in the business. Yet it would be hard to overstate how special this year’s staff has been. As you may know, we have a completely new staff of MA Graduate Teaching Assistants as consultants each year. Despite the challenges of having to learn how to conduct all their consultations online, under the public health protocols of the pandemic, this group of consultants were consistent in their commitment to helping and supporting UofL writers. Whether they were working, in their masks, from our on-campus space, or from their homes, our consultants continued to listen carefully to writers and to provide excellent advice about writing, and empathetic support about how to navigate, and respond, to writing in such deeply unsettling times.

The less visible, but every bit as essential, part of our work happens behind the scenes with our administrative staff who kept everything organizationally running smoothly given the unprecedented challenge of having both writers, and often consultants, scattered all over the city (and beyond). It is a testament to their creativity, patience – and tenacity – that the organizational aspects of the things ran splendidly, allowing the consultants and writers to focus on issues about writing. This year, as in every year, the work done by Associate Director Dr. Cassandra Book,  Administrative Associate Amber Yocum, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan was simply indispensable to everything we accomplished.

Though it may be hard to appreciate from the outside, conducting all writing consultations online is a far more challenging teaching context than conducting appointments in person. For our consultants and our administrative staff, having to work completely online, while dealing with taking their own courses online, technological glitches, screen fatigue, physical isolation, students in the Library not wearing masks, and the political turmoil all around us, really has been truly extraordinary. It has also been exhausting. Like everyone else, we’re tired. It’s been hard on all of us and that is important to acknowledge. What I am proud of – and moved by – is that all of the University Writing Center staff, weary as they are, have done their best to remember that the writers bringing their work to us are also weary and stressed and worried about their writing. We have done our best all year to keep the writers’ needs at the forefront and to provide the individual, one-to-one response that is the core of our work in the University Writing Center. It’s been amazing to watch.

Thanks to the Best Writing Center Staff in the Business

Our superb, dedicated, and brilliant consultants make such a significant difference in so many UofL writers’ lives. Our consultants this year have been Michelle Buntain, Lauren Cline, Maddy Decker, Amanda Dolan, Chuck Glover, Ian Hays, Andrew Hutto, Ayaat Ismail, Zoe Litzenberg, Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Cat Sar, Spenser Secrest, and Emma Turner. Also special thanks go to Writing Center Intern Kendyl Harmeling. Our amazing student workers were Mikaela Smith and Jency Trejo.

We want to give our special thanks and congratulations to Jency Trejo, on her graduation with her BA in English. Jency joined us as a student worker during her first semester at UofL and has been a central and important part of the University Writing Center ever since. We wish her all the best in the future.

We will be open during the summer, starting May 10, from 9-4 every weekday. You can find out more on our website. You can also follow us on our blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Beyond Tutoring – Writing Groups, Retreats, Community Writing

Writing Groups, Workshops, and Dissertation Writing Retreats: 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. We again held our annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat  as a fully virtual Retreat. We plan next year to continue all of these groups, so be sure to check our website for information and dates.

Community Writing and the Cotter Cup: We also continued our work with our community partners, the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House. Once again we are grateful for the participatory and collaborative partnerships with these organizations. You can find out more about these community writing projects, including how to get involved with them, on our website.

We were particular excited to collaborate with the Western Branch Library on re-establishing the “Cotter Cup” competition. In the early 20th Century Louisville poet and educator Joseph Cotter established a storytelling competition for local youth called the “Cotter Cup.” We worked to support Western Branch Library in re-establishing the Cotter Cup as a poetry contest. As part of the contest, local K-12 students had individual writing consultations with our University Writing Center consultants. The contest entries will be judged by local poets with an awards celebration next month. We hope that this will become an important and vital part of writing in the community going forward.

Writing Center Staff Achievements

The University Writing Center is also an active site of scholarship and creative work. Staff from the Writing Center were engaged in a number of scholarly projects during the past year in rhetoric and composition, literature, and creative writing.

Cassandra Book, Associate Director, gave a presentation on “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference.

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, gave a presentation titled,presented a paper on “Discursive Practices in Recurring Asynchronous Consultations:  Implications for Peer Tutoring” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference. He also published the essay, “Rethinking Tutor-Writer Engagement in Asynchronous Consultations: A Conversational Approach to Recurring Witten Feedback Appointments” in The Dangling Modifier .

Consultants

Michelle Buntain completed her MA Culminating Project, titled,”To Listen is to Witness: Discovering Suffering Through Literary Analysis.”

Maddy Decker was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literary Magazine in Spring 2021 and served as editor of reviews. She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Register 16.”

Amanda Dolan was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and will have a book review published in the upcoming issue.  She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Precipitated.”

Kendyl Harmeling completed her MA Culminating Project titled, “Circumventing Self-Destruction:  A Study on Imposter Syndrome, Affect Dissonance, and the Power of Hospitality in a first-year Graduate Program.” She gave a presentation, “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference . Kendyl also was a Writing Center Administrative Intern in Fall 2020 and will be joining the UofL Rhetoric and Composition PhD program next year.

Ayaat Ismail was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and published a book review with poet Steve Kistulentz in the current issue. She also became managing editor of the Miracle Monocle’s mini anthology called MONSTER.

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker completed his MA Culminating Project, titled, “Sho Baraka’s The Narrative: Hip Hop and the Social Role of the Church.” He will also be joining the Georgia State University Literature PhD program in fall 2021.

Cat Sar completed her creative MA Culminating Project titled, “Ghosted.”

What We Can Learn from Dogs: Resource Guarding and the Writing Center

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

For the past six months, I have been raising a puppy—my “quarantine puppy,” if you will. During this same time period, I have been doing my best to read materials on how to train said puppy. Teaching and growing with my dog has been a wonderful, terrible, stressful, informative, and rewarding experience, and, surprisingly/weirdly, I have found that some of the strategies I have learned in helping her personality develop translate to understanding processes of writers who visit the Writing Center (myself included, if not emphasized). 

One of the behaviors that can develop as a dog grows older, and that I have done my best to curb with my doggo, is resource guarding. Resource guarding is when a dog becomes particularly aggressive and protective around an object that they see as holding value. That object could be food, a toy, a sock they stole from their owner’s roommate (not that my dog has EVER done that), or a place like the dog’s bed. The dog sees value within whatever object it chooses to guard. It believes that it owns that item and will do anything to protect it even if this means hurting other animals or its human, but in order to train a dog out of such behavior, one must learn to engage in a practice of patience, understanding, and trading. To overcome such behavior is an act of collaboration between the dog and its owner. It is a give and take of allowing oneself to be vulnerable and allowing another to be near or a part of something of value. 

Working with writers is a similar process when thinking about the development of the writing consultation. In a sense, writers resource guard their work. As a writer, even if we dislike what we have written, at some level, we are proud of it. I say we because I am a writer too, and to pretend that I would not defend, protect my own work (even the worst of it) would be hypocritical. To accomplish the feat of generating a product for an assignment is impressive on its own no matter the final quality. Because we are proud of what we have written, we want to protect it. Even if the feedback we are receiving about the draft is helpful and positive, it is normal to feel conflicted about the revision of a creation that we are already content with. But, as a puppy learns as it overcomes the habit of resource guarding, sometimes sharing the things we value most can yield the biggest reward.

Collaboration in a writing consultation is key. Although the responsibilities of the consultant and the writer may differ within a session, three manners in which a mutual performance is integral are patience, understanding, and generative discussion. Through a live chat or written feedback session, these behaviors primarily take place through discussion of the draft and the writing process as a whole. Being patient with each other—the writer with the consultant and the consultant with the writer, making an honest effort to understand the point of view and the opinion the other offers on the content and form of the paper, and engaging in a conversation that aims to create a friendly, intellectual environment that fosters further development and exploration of the writer’s project are fundamental to creating a space where writers do not feel the need to actively guard their work. Instead, a collaborative effort can yield a product unshackled by the crushing weight of self-conscious and defensive writing. Collaboration and trust can set our words free.