Tag: writing center research

Finding the Strategies, and Confidence, to be Stronger Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

If you’ve ever heard someone from the University Writing Center talk about what we do here you’ve likely heard them say that our goal is to do more than help a writer simply “fix” a current draft. We also want to provide ideas and strategies to help that person become a stronger writer in the future. Some of these suggestions are nuts and boltsdscn2185 suggestions about organization or revision or grammar and usage. Yet we also believe that writing well involves more than just mastering a set of skills. The writing processes we use, as well as how confident and motivated we feel to work on a piece of writing, can be crucial to how successfully any writer navigates new writing challenges.

Talk to many university students – or, quite frankly, most people in the culture – and you will hear people say things such as “I just can’t write,” or “I’m not a born writer.” After years of unproductively harsh criticism, rather than constructive instruction, they have internalized a belief that there is some kind of hidden magic to being a good writer, and that they don’t have it. The truth is, that writing well takes time, practice, failure, revision, advice, and is an ongoing, life-long learning process for all of us. There are simply no “born writers.”

In recent research of mine, I have been focusing on what makes people feel anxious about, or confident in, their reading and writing abilities at a given moment. Put more simply, what makes a person feel literate at one time and not another. Many factors facilitate or obstruct such a feeling of agency for people. A new technology can make writing suddenly much easier, or can make previously simple actions complicated and confusing. A teacher’s response to a writing assignment can be dismissive and discouraging, or offer encouraging suggestions for revision that make a writer feel that success is possible.

Culture, material conditions, language, and many other factors shape all writers’ perceptions of agency. All of these external influences result in experiences, emotions, and memories that also shape such perceptions. My research on how these factors influence student writers took place in part at the UofL University Writing Center as well as with students in the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, (the book is titled Literacy 9781138667112Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities). In this research, I drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as other fields, to understand how writers’ sense of confidence could vary dramatically from one context to another and how that affected their abilities to write successfully. A student could write well in one course, and struggle in a new course, even in the same major, when facing a new genre. Another student could excel at writing at work, but not at school. Each experience creates a different emotional memory that will influence how that student both thinks and feels about a similar writing situation the next time it comes up. Research in psychology on emotion, memory, and motivation, illustrates how important the kinds of response we provide as writing consultants and teachers is to the ways in which students approach their writing.

At the University Writing Center, we have incorporated some of the ideas from this research into the ways we work with writers. We are developing strategies that help writers approach revision, even substantial revision that will require a great deal of work, with more confidence in their abilities to do such difficult work, and more internal motivation to complete the work. One key part of this approach is helping writers understand that their struggles and anxieties are not unique to them, but typical of all writers, from first-year students to famous novelists. We sometimes take the time to talk about how learning anything is first a struggle, but one that they can work through. Writing is not an innate gift, but a learned activity that gets better with practice. That knowledge alone, research has shown, can result in significant changes in how willing student writers may be to put in the hours and effort to improve their work. We both give students strategies for improving as well as talk to them about how, like all writers, they have strengths, challenges, and the abilities to keep learning.

My research is just one example of the ongoing research about writing and the teaching of writing that takes place at the University Writing Center. We are, as our mission statement points out, “committed to being part of ongoing scholarly conversations about the teaching of writing.” You can see this research reflected in work that Cassandra Book, our Associate Director, did on our Virtual Writing Center, or by the publications and graduate student projects that you can find listed on our website, or the conferences at which our staff present each year. An essential part of being a research university is the idea that we should use our research to contribute to knowledge in our field and enhance the educational experiences of our students. We’re looking forward to the start of the spring semester and to helping all writers find the strategies, and confidence, that will offer them the chance to express their ideas as clearly and creatively as possible.

University Writing Center (r)Evolution?

Cassie Book, Associate Director

Many posts here on our blog are about the writing and tutoring processes, but another important part of “who we are and what we do” is participate in scholarly conversations. This month I attended the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) annual conference. The theme, Writing Center (r)evolutions, challenged me to rethink my own assumptions as a consultant and administrator. I’m sharing a few of the half-formed thoughts and questions. I want to invite you into my conference experience. By doing so, I hope to blur the invisible boundaries between daily practices, personal reflection, conversations, and research; I want to make our behind-the-scenes writing center conversations a bit more visible.

  • Foremost on my mind is the University Writing Center’s impending move to the first floor of the library. We’re excited to gain a more visible space and digital consultation rooms. But we’re also gaining new neighbors: the Digital Media Suite, REACH Computer Resource Center, and Research Assistance and Instruction. Stacy Rice’s presentation confronted anxieties that exist when separate centers, such as writing, speaking, digital, or communication, have somewhat overlapping missions. She challenged all centers to not attempt to divide communication into different realms and instead simply respond rhetorically to the writers and composers who seek response and feedback. Our new space and location affords us the opportunity to collaborate in ways that previously may have been difficult. Will each center embrace opportunity or retreat into our separate spheres? What are the best ways to collaborate?
  • Regardless of any (r)evolution or renovation, I think it’s safe to assume our writing center services will always include the individual consultation. Yet, writing center research still has work to do in understanding the dynamics of writing tutoring. Molly Parson’s research focuses on consultants’ perceptions of conflict during sessions. Parsons made me think about the expectations consultants and writers have for sessions. She seemed to suggest that while both sides may think “good” or “productive” sessions will be those that steer clear of conflict, but, in reality, conflict can spur ideas and those “ah-ha!” moments. Do we learn because of, not despite, conflict?
  • We work with many multilingual writers. Nicole Bailey’s presentation suggested that centers should consider providing tutoring in writers’ home languages when possible. Her ethnographic research in a multilingual university in South Africa suggests that when writers feel comfortable, they will learn more. She’s already embraced the practice at the writing center she directs. How can we bring writers’ home languages into the writing consultation?
  • All the consultants in the University Writing Center are graduate students who complete a course called Writing Center Theory and Practice. Kelsey Weyerbacher and Jack Bouchard, two undergraduate consultants, presented their experience and research data. Their perspectives challenge the (mis)conception that a tutor is just a tutor. Yet, writing centers are fruitful sites for research that informs issues of learning, writing, development process, response, space, and conversation. What happens when tutor-initiated research becomes the rule rather than the exception?
  • Matt Dowell’s presentation suggested that writing centers should pay more attention to paratexts—handwritten notes, charts, marginalia, and drawings—written or drawn during sessions. These texts may have untapped potential. In a separate presentation, Matthew Rossi argued that doodling in sessions can create opportunities for common ground and understanding that talking simply cannot.

Finally, a panel organized by Muriel Harris challenged writing centers to better use online spaces—listservs, blogs, databases, and websites—to share across centers and among local contexts. An important question that arose during the discussions was: Who do our blogs reach? Our UofL Writing Center blog had 7,541 unique visitors in 2014. We’ve had 6,263 so far in 2015. But who are you? Is there a better way to reach our target audiences?

To that end, I encourage you to be radical—comment on the blog and let us know. What are your thoughts on writing center (r)evolutions?