The start of the fall semester should mean that summer is over – though the weather outside in Louisville reminds us otherwise. Regardless of the weather, I realized a while back that I tend to set my annual internal clock by the start of the academic year. My new year – my resolutions, my reflections, my sense of renewal – starts not in January, but in the autumn with a new academic year. This year, as with every year, I find myself busy beyond belief (hence the paucity of posts since July) but also invigorated by a campus full of students again. There is always a sense of promise, a sense that this semester, whether as teacher or student, there will be a breakthrough of learning, of inspiration. (Am I a bit on the sentimental side about these things? What do you think?)
Working in the University Writing Center is particularly conducive to optimism. We work with any and all writers in the university — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff — on any kind of writing at any stage in that writing. Our goal is both to help the writer improve the current project, but also to help teach the writer new strategies to use on writing projects in the future. In practice, we see a lot of people who come to us at moments of extreme anxiety about their writing, and, most of the time, when they leave they have a clear plan for revising their writing, and feel more confident about their work. (The fact that almost half of our visitors schedule return visits during the course of the year is a testament to the fact that we must be doing something right.) We ground our work in an ethic of care and an ethic of respect for the writer and I think that comes across to people. It’s hard work sometimes, and exhausting, but rewarding for both the students and consultants. (It’s also a space that has political potential in the university in ways that need more exploration, but that is for a future post.) So it’s not hard to feel optimistic when you know that this is what the work for the year will be.
Much of the preceding paragraph is not news to those who work in Writing Centers, which are becoming much more common in U.S. universities. (Even so, it felt good to write it). But I realized, while in Britain in the spring, how little the concept of a university writing center was understood there. When I would tell people that I was director of the Writing Center at UofL, many people had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained what we do, from the individual writing consultations to the classroom workshops on writing to the events such as the week-long dissertation writing retreats we hold, the lack of understanding often turned to envy. It’s hard not to like the idea of a writing center. And, in places where there are writing centers, like the marvelous one in at Coventry University, they have become valued institutions. But I missed the commitment to writing instruction in universities there that I think writing centers exemplify.
My point is not that I wish more UK universities had writing centers (though I do – and if anyone is reading this and wants me to come over and help set one up…..). My point is that, while I enjoyed my time with my British colleagues so much, and learned so much from them, it was meaningful in coming home to again be part of the Writing Center, and all the things we do. Simple as that.