Tag: mentoring

We’re Always Learning About Writing: The Importance of the University Writing Center as a Site of Research

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The obvious work of the University Writing Center takes place during the writing consultations. If you walk in and see the room filled with people in conversation about writing project, it might be easy to think about the individual teaching as all that happens here. Yet another important aspect of our work in the Writing Center is not immediately visible during consultations, but is vital to helping us engage in effective teaching with the writers with whom we work. In addition to being a place where people can get support for their writing projects, the University Writing Center is an active research site into the theory and practice of Writing Center work. DSCN1706By learning more about writing and how writers learn, we improve our work and contribute to the scholarly conversations in the the field of Writing Studies. For example, many of the graduate students who work as consultants in the Writing Center also engage in research on everything from how international students work in online consultations, to how to teach ideas about genre in writing, to how Writing Centers work in community colleges. Such research can form the core of a graduate students’ dissertation or MA project, or result in publication in the scholarly journals and books in our field. You can find a list of some of the research projects that have emerged from the Writing Center on our webpage.

Engaging in research is vital to the work we do in the Writing Center. Writing doesn’t stand still. By that I mean that writing is a complex social endeavor that we are constantly having to study to understand. It’s widely accepted in our field that writing is more than just making or deciphering marks on a page. The way we write, the way we learn to write, and what we write are all shaped by the social world that surrounds us. Everything from technology to language to changes in the culture around us influence how reading and writing happens. For example, the rapid changes in digital technology have changed the writing and reading practices of everyone in the University (as is obvious if you’re reading this blog). If you ask twenty people at the University how changes in technology have influenced student writing, you might get twenty different answers, some of which might be accurate and others wildly wrong. Our research, like all research at the University, is intended to help us move beyond our initial opinions and gut instincts to gain a clearer understanding of the complex nature of student writing and student writers today. With such an understanding we can work more effectively with writers to help their work communicate their ideas in creative and critical ways, and to teach them skills and approaches that will help them be better writers in the future.

In addition to working to understand more about how people write and how we can teach them to be better writers, we work to conduct research in an ethical and participatory manner. We do our best not to regard the writers involved in our research as lab rats that we can observe with detachment and analyze at our pleasure. Instead we want to conduct research that is collaborative and participatory in nature. We want to do more than simply comply with University ethics guidelines (which we do, of course). We want to model research with writers in the Writing Center as something that they learn from, and benefits them directly, even as we learn more for ourselves. One of the core values of Writing DSCN1772Center work is a dialogic approach to teaching and learning. We work in conversation with students and faculty who come to the Writing Center. We start from where they are, and respond to their concerns as we also discuss with them the ideas and questions we find in their work. This same kind of participatory and dialogic approach helps shape our research ethics and practices and is part of our identity. We believe in a model of research that is reciprocal and engages everyone involved in learning and creating knowledge.

Tomorrow, we’re taking some of our research on the road. Along with Adam Robinson, Associate Director of the Writing Center, and Ashly Bender and Jessica Winck, two of our Assistant Directors, I will be attending the annual conference of the national Council of Writing Program Administrators. The CWPA is an organization that discusses both the practice of administering writing programs, as well as pedagogical approaches to teaching writing. At the conference, we’ll be presenting on a panel titled, Writing Centers as Enclaves: Creating Spaces for Pedagogical and Political Change. After the conference, I’ll be writing more about this idea next week. As with any academic conference, we’re looking forward not just to presenting our ideas, but in learning from the conversation from the people there. It is all part of  connecting research and teaching in order to improve all of our practices in the Writing Center.

The Importance of the Graduate Cohort

Alex Bohen, Consultant

AlexAs I began to brainstorm about what I wanted to discuss in my blog post I kept trying to remember what my first impression of the Writing Center was. I entered into the Writing Center for the first time in late August to take part in orientation. I remember seeing Dr. Bronwyn Williams, the director of the Writing Center, standing at the door welcoming everyone in and radiating an enthusiasm I was unaccustomed to at nine in the morning. Next, I saw Adam Robinson, assistant director, manning the coffee pot in a manner I would soon become familiar with. I continued to think back on that day and the next image that came to my mind was the myriad of strangers populating the rest of the room. These people were my new cohort and over the next several months they would become the greatest source of information and learning in my life. I have come to know that if I have a question my cohort is who to turn to for the answer. Having trouble helping a client? Ask the cohort. Wondering how clearly the thesis statement of your seminar paper reads? Ask the cohort. Not sure what classes to take next semester? Ask the cohort.

I want to focus on the cohort a little more closely. As a student and consultant in the Writing Center I can’t express how valuable my cohort has been to me. My only source of lament is that the cohort didn’t have more people in it. That is why I am incredibly happy to highlight and plug the Peer Mentoring program, headed up by two members of my cohort, Amy McCleese Nichols and Michelle Day. The program will pair new first year MAs with a second year MA who can function as the first building block for each student’s personal cohort. I think this is a great opportunity for all parties involved. New students will get an insider’s view on how to balance the stress of academic and personal life, as well as a familiar face at department social functions. Second year students get the opportunity to pass on all the helpful tips they have amassed after navigating one year of the program. I am excited to take part in this program and I hope that I can be as valuable to a new student as so many people have been to me during my first year at Louisville.

Reflections from the Observed Tutor

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

In writing center training we often talk about how valuable observing is because it gives the consultant the opportunity to reflect on the multiple roles people can take up in a tutoring session, including the different perspectives and positions that both the consultant and the writer might embody. Importantly, as Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner demonstrate with real tutor reflections, the observing process gives the consultant a chance to learn new approaches and also to reflect on what they might do in a similar session. It is with this understanding that our consultants have observed at least four—but often more—different sessions over the past two weeks. However, as we talk about and prepare consultants for the observing process, we tend to focus on the person who is doing the observing—how to do it, why it’s valuable, etc. We even spend time talking about making sure the writer is comfortable being observed. I’d like to think here, though, about the experience of being observed, because over the past two weeks, I’ve found there’s plenty to learn on that side of the situation as well.

First, I found there is just as much opportunity to learn new strategies when you’re the one being observed. We’re lucky to have experienced and reflective new tutors in the Writing Center this year. These tutors taught me new approaches and terms as we talked about the sessions we had just been a part of. In one session last week, one of the observing consultants and I stepped away from a student to let him work on revising and developing a new paragraph in his essay. During the session, I had been struggling to discover what the student wanted help with and how I could help him best for the paper and future papers. The observing consultant, Daniel, suggested that in addition to talking about paragraph development, we also show him the “3 by 5” structure for the whole paper. I had never heard of this term for what is basically the five paragraph model for essay writing. When we returned to the student, we looked over the paragraph he wrote, and then the observer talked to him about the “3 by 5” structure. The student knew exactly what he was talking about and saw how it could help him with his paper.

Similarly, even though I was at first nervous to be observed, I found that a number of the observing consultants were able to step in when I was having trouble explaining concepts to students. In one session, an observing consultant gave me more terminology so that we could help a student identify when to end his sentences. I was talking about “periods,” a term with which the writer was not familiar. The consultant observing, Brit, was able to simply offer the term “full stop.” This allowed the writer and me to understand one another and quickly address the concern in his writing. I had a similar but more complex experience while Scott was observing and he helped to explain the rules about the use of articles.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons for me over the past two weeks, though, has been simply the articulation of my tutoring strategies and practices. While our new consultants take a graduate course about tutoring practice, most of my writing center training has come from practice, instinct, and whatever I could transfer from my classroom teaching training. Talking to the new group of consultants about sessions and responding to their questions made me more conscious of the reasons behind the way I tutor. It gave me an explicit opportunity to consider my practices as well as the value of other practices. Also, because I was especially hoping to demonstrate a range of strategies while tutoring, I believe I’ve pushed myself to become a better tutor—one who is not as set in her ways and is more open to trying new things. More importantly, I push myself harder to listen to the student and think about what might be the best way to work with that particular student.

Thus, while I was initially anxious about being observed, I find that the experience has in fact been enjoyable and important to my theory of tutoring. I hope that as the consultants begin tutoring they are able to take similarly valuable lessons with them from these two weeks. Even when we have experience and even when we feel like we know what we’re doing, it’s sometimes nice and refreshing to be in the training position again.