Writing centers are one of the few places in a university setting where every single student can be assisted. Every student has to write, and every kind of writing is welcome at the University Writing Center. But, given all the variables that come with working at a university of over 21,000 students, how does a writing center consultant prepare for their appointments?
At the University of Louisville Writing Center, we pride ourselves on our accessibility to every writer we encounter. We have trained, studied, and practiced our skills to make sure that your experience in the writing center is the best it can be. This includes:
Taking a class on Writing Center studies: Consultants take a class that teaches us about writing center theory, ethics, and strategies for the teaching of writing.
Reflecting on appointments with our colleagues and our supervisors: We have formal and informal reflections on appointments with our fellow consultants as well as our supervisors, including the Director of the Writing Center.
Discussing new ways to approach the teaching of writing: We are always sharing new ideas about how to approach our sessions with writers. Our best tips and strategies are often the result of what we have learned from each other.
Staying up-to-date on citation methods: Citation methods can be confusing, especially since they are updated every few years. We study the new versions and update our handouts on different citation styles. Just last week our Associate Director gave a lecture on the 7th edition of APA!
Mentally preparing ourselves before each appointment: Before the day begins, we open WC Online and look over the scheduled appointments. Each appointment form tells us what the writer wants to work on, so we make sure that we are comfortable with addressing the writer’s particular concerns before the appointment. If the writer is working on a kind of assignment or genre of writing that is less familiar, we will do research and ask our colleagues for advice. This preparation helps us begin a session with a good sense of what the end product should look like.
When a session is over and we return to the consultants’ office, we like to share our successful strategies and ask each other for advice. No session goes perfectly, but we take our work seriously and we constantly strive to do better. When you come to the University Writing Center, know that we are prepared and excited to help every writer achieve their goals!
In reflecting on this past semester, my first as an English student and as a graduate student, all I’ve learned, all I’ve taken in and digested, I find myself sorely missing the field of my Bachelor’s degree: I miss History; I miss reading ancient works; I miss talking about Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; I miss it all, the whole lot of it. I changed disciplines between undergrad and grad because of my passion for Writing Center studies, so I left my history studies…in history (cheesy, I know).
My academic voice as a historian was pronounced, articulate, and confident. Being able to synthesize ethics and past events was my favorite part of writing theory for that discipline. But, I often felt out of touch with modernity in writing History. As such, Historical theory is debated around the idea of the present age—do we study history to learn or do we study it to better off ourselves today. I loved this question. It’s one of the unanswerables. I had a professor once tell me that the purpose of research is finding the question you can spend you life trying to answer. At this time last year, I thought I’d be at Yale studying for my PhD in Early American Feminist Rhetoric, and reading Captivity Narratives from 1660 and trying to understand the mechanisms of society which both bolstered and limited female agency in the church. Instead, I’m in a Master’s program in Kentucky, attempting still to learn the mechanisms of English Studies and trying to make myself as a scholar fit into that mold.
I started this reflection in my childhood home. Sitting on my couch, next to my wood burning stove, and thinking about the decisions I’ve made in the past year which have put me in this spot today. I’m writing it now in my studio apartment, sitting in bed, under 14 foot high ceilings and heavy wooden doors hanging off-kilter in their frames. I so miss History, but English is a new language to learn – or to learn better, and confidently.
One question we were repeatedly asked this semester was, “what is English studies?” and I’m not sure I can answer this question yet. Easily, it could be defined as the study of literature. But, History does this too. English could then be the attempting to understand a society through the written texts of a time, including video, art, etc., but… History does this too. I don’t dare suggest these two fields as the same, because that would be an affront to unique scholarship in both, yet both claim Foucault as a founding theorist, both use Frye, Derrida, textual analyses, and conversation.
Perhaps, then, the difference is that History deals in fact and objectivity. English deals in emotion and subjectivity. But even this delineation is too contrite. I once read a work called, The Myth of Religious Violence: The Roots of Modern Secularism by William Cavanaugh. Of course, the work itself doesn’t apply to this consideration, but in the work, Cavanaugh suggests that it’s impossible to define religion. He writes that drawing lines too tightly leaves out non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, but drawing lines too broadly lets in social structures like Capitalism into “religion.” I suggest English studies as the same: un-pin-point-able. Maybe this is because most of my training as a scholar was done by historical method, but c’est la vie.
Where does this leave me? Again, I’m not sure. For a reflective entry, I find myself knowing what I am not more than knowing what I am. In History, we call this an “ethnically differentiated classification,” where knowing your own identify comes through the “I am not’s” and not through the “I am’s.” In regard to my future in the field, I don’t even know what I’m “not.” Outside of the academic, I joke with my friends that if I was ever to leave the academy, I’d proofread restaurant menus. While certainly not a money-producing vocation, it would be fun. But I have a while between now and doing that proofreading job. So for now, I’m in the academic. Where I love being. It took me a long time when I was a bartender to learn how to make certain drinks, and learning this new field will be the same. And luckily, I know how to make a Manhattan to help get me through that process.
Bronwyn T. Williams, Director, University Writing Center
When I talk about working in the Writing Center to new consultants at our orientation, I make the point that the work we do has to be grounded in an ethic of care, an ethic of service, and respect for students. I never feel like this is a hard sell – people who didn’t already feel this way don’t usually apply to work in a Writing Center – and this year was no exception. After a day of conversation with the new group of consultants, I realized that they were all deeply committed to these ideas when they walked through the door.
Working in a Writing Center is always a matter of striking balances. You need to listen to students and ask questions that help them discover for themselves how best to improve their writing, while not withholding expertise and advice that will give them insights on how to revise their work. You need to be patient and not rush writers in a session, but you also can’t waste time and not get anything accomplished. You need to attend to the concerns writers identify during a session, but also bring up other issues you see in their work. You need to be friendly and reassuring, but also professional and honest. What struck me about the new group of consultants at our orientation was how quickly they identified these issues of balance on their own, and the productive conversation we began about how best to draw on these various qualities when working with students.
A number of our new consultants come to us already having worked in other writing centers or as teachers, and all of them have the talent and enthusiasm necessary to be effective writing teachers. They bring a diverse set of interests and backgrounds to their work. Yet all of the new consultants understand, from the beginning, that our goal in the Writing Center is to not only help students with their immediate writing projects, but also help them develop skills and strategies writers that will benefit them throughout their university lives and beyond. Some of the new consultants are native Louisvillians, while others come from places including California to Virginia to Georgia. We talked at orientation about the ways that the Writing Center works with all writers in the UofL community – students, faculty, and staff – on any writing project, at any point in the writing process. I left orientation excited about the year ahead and confident that UofL writers will gain a great deal from visiting the Writing Center this year.
A Last Look Back
While late August is always a time of excitement as the new academic year begins, it also is a moment when we can take a last look back at the year we just completed. We had an exceptional year at the Writing Center, thanks to a great group of consultants and assistant directors and especially thanks to the work of Associate Director Adam Robinson.
A few of the highlights of the 2012-13 academic year were:
Writing Center Consultations: The Writing Center had a successful year of more than 5,400 consultations on the Belknap and Health Science Campuses and through our Virtual Writing Center. This was a 10 percent increase in visits over the previous academic year.
Exit Survey Results: Our exit survey indicated a high level of satisfaction with the Writing Center, by both quantitative and qualitative measures. Highlights of the survey are:
In answer to the statement: “My Writing Center consultation addressed my concerns about my writing project,” more than 96% of respondents selected “Strongly Agree” (70%) or “Agree” (26%).
In answer to the statement: “What I learned during my Writing Center consultation will help me with future writing projects,” more than 92% of respondents selected “Strongly Agree” (64%) or “Agree” (28%).
In answer to the statement: “I plan to use the Writing Center again,” more than 96% of respondents selected “Strongly Agree” (78%) or “Agree” (18%).
In answer to the statement: “The Writing Center staff were welcoming and helpful,” more than 97% of respondents selected “Strongly Agree” (78%) or “Agree” (19%).
Presentations and Workshops: During the academic year, Writing Center staff conducted 75 in-class workshops on writing issues (and increase of 51 over 2011-12) and 76 presentations about our services (an increase of 15 over 2011-12).
Dissertation Writing Retreats: The Writing Center held two Dissertation Writing Retreats during the spring and summer of 2013. In the May retreat, funded by SIGS, 14 Ph.D. students representing four different colleges and nine different disciplines spent a week in the Writing Center working on their dissertations. In July the Writing Center collaborated with College of Education to hold a retreat on three consecutive Saturdays, in order to provide opportunities to graduate students from that college who work full-time jobs. Nine students took part in this retreat.
Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing/Health Sciences Campus: In Fall 2012, the Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing was established. This full-time GTA position (20 hours/week) is dedicated to the support of graduate students, paying particular attention to the needs of international graduate students on both the Health Sciences and Belknap Campuses.
Writing Center Blog and Social Media: The Writing Center Blog, to which all members of the staff contribute posts during the year, was viewed more than 5,000 times in 2012-13. In addition, the number of visits to our Facebook page and our Twitter account have both grown substantially during the past year.
Campus Outreach: Writing Center staff worked with a number of University programs, giving presentations and conducting workshops. These programs included the Porter Scholars, A&S Advising, UofL Athletics, the Career Center, the Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Program, Family Scholar House, the Delphi Center, E.S.S.E.N.C.E, Housing and Residence Life, First Year Initiatives, the Dental School, Student Affairs, Information Technology,TRIO, Ekstrom Library, and the International Center.
Now, to Look Forward
The accomplishments of the past year are things that we’re eager to repeat – and build on – in the year to come. We’re all eager for the year to get started and to work with all writers in the UofL community.
I don’t know what it is about the summer – perhaps that bit of extra flexibility in my schedule has turned me towards the philosophical – but I recently had an interesting consultation with a student that left me thinking. We worked together on some organizational and grammatical changes to the paper, but had a bit of free time left at the end of the session. On the spur of the moment, I asked where he was from – he had a lovely accent, but I had never asked. He told me he was from South Sudan, and we had a great discussion about our respective home countries.
This experience started me thinking more carefully about the students I meet every day. They represent people groups from all over the world, from all walks of life – and I know that part of my training is to recognize that. But, and perhaps because of that training, it can sometimes be easy to break a patron down into an “eastern” or “western” writing style, into the component parts of their writing.
Before I was born, my dad was involved in a terrible car wreck that left him needing multiple surgeries. He was heavily sedated but remained conscious while hearing the doctors talk about fixing his hip the next day, “just the way you’d talk about fixing a car.” And I have to ask myself – do I, in some ways, reduce these students to the things in their writing that I can help them “fix,” and does that help or hamper my ability to do so? For doctors, I imagine that (at least in cases of trauma) focusing on what you can improve is an important mechanism that lets you do your job efficiently and effectively. And my father didn’t criticize his doctors for reducing him to his component parts – by doing so, they were doing their job. But for my very different work of helping writers improve themselves, reducing an entire person to whether their writing meets certain criteria might interfere with being able to see the very things (their own creativity, the way they articulate ideas verbally rather than on paper, etc.) that will let them improve.
None of this is original thinking, of course. One of the first things we were taught at the beginning of last fall was to pay attention to students’ emotional well-being – if someone is crying because their paper is due in five hours but they’ve been away at a family funeral, the first focus is on that total person, on helping them get to a point where they can work on the paper. But in the rush of appointment after appointment and juggling life and schoolwork, it’s easy to begin to have a kind of surgical focus on papers and organizational structures. It’s easy, in short, to forget that key idea – that in front of me there is a human being with a complex existence outside of our interaction, and that paying attention to who someone really is can help me be a more effective writing consultant.