Tag Archives: Writing Center

Starting Again, and Focusing on Writing

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. 143We 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 wc-signpeople 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.

Advertisements

We all need readers – celebrating the Dissertation Writing Retreat

As I write this sitting in England, I know that back at the University of Louisville they are getting ready for the last day of the University Writing Center’s annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. All week a dozen Ph.D. students from different disciplines across the University, have been coming to the Writing Center each day for a day full of writing, individual consultations, and mini-workshops about dissertation writing. It’s a week that is a great benefit both to the writers and to the consultants and staff. Blog entries both from the Writing Center blog from this year and from last year here (as well as some entries of my own from last year, here and here) give you some flavor of the event and the impact it has on everyone involved. While I have had a fantastic spring being on a leave where I have been able to focus on research, I do miss much about the work and the community in the Writing Center – and in particular the community, productivity, and satisfaction that takes place at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

The importance of the Dissertation Writing Retreat for offering a space for graduate students to not only work on their writing, but to engage in conversations about the conventions, craft, and processes of scholarly writing, is all the more vivid to me given the conversations I have had with graduate students here. While there is no doubt that the graduate students I have met with here, at a number of different universities, are getting support and feedback from their dissertation directors, it is also clear that, for most of them, there is not the additional support for writing that we offer back at the UofL Writing Center. Of course it is essential to learn about research methods and ethics and to have guidance about the content and analysis of a dissertation. Yet it is equally important to remember that writing in a new genre – and a dissertation-length work is always a new genre – must be learned. Such learning comes from explicit conversations about genre conventions, from feedback that focuses on rhetorical concerns, and from attention to the processes of writing and revision for scholarly research writing. The UofL Writing Center – like many writing centers – offers that kind of response. And even if a dissertation director is offering good, rhetorically focused writing response, just having another set of eyes on a writing project is always helpful. (One of the students I am currently directing is taking part in this year’s retreat and I am delighted that she is having another person to offer thoughtful responses to her writing.) Offering thoughtful and constructive response and criticism is something we do at the Writing Center every day, for all members of the University community, not just at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. There are only a few writing centers (or writing centres) at British universities (though some, as at the University of Coventry are doing excellent work). And too often here, as in the U.S., Writing Centers are thought of as having only a remedial mission, rather than serving writers at all levels, for all purposes. I am grateful to the staff at the UofL Writing Center – Adam Robinson, Ashly Bender, Nancy Bou Ayash, Jennifer Marciniak, Tika Lamsal, Barrie Olson, and Matt Wiles – as well as all the participants, for making this year’s retreat such a success and for proving, once again, the value of good writing response for all writers. I miss being there and wish you luck with the final day of writing.

Literacy in a Material World – in the Writing Center

As I mentioned in my previous post, working in a writing centerreveals the fluid nature of materiality/immateriality when we think about literacy. The material context of literacy can be immediate in a writing center. Students sit down with a draft, an assignment they’ve been handed in class, maybe their notes or a book they’re writing about. Their material text is the focus of their concern and it quickly becomes the focus of our concern as well. The classic image of writing center work is the consultant and student sitting at a table, leaning toward each other, talking intently about the draft in front of them. It provides the focus of the conversation and work on the draft is the central motivation for the student.

What’s more, how the consultant responds to the material text has been a oft-discussed part of writing center scholarship over the years. Should it sit in front of the student or between the student and consultant? Should the student read aloud from the draft? The consultant? If the consultant writes on the draft, does that appropriate agency from the student as a writer? These are all questions that have been on the minds of new consultants to our Writing Center that I’ve been working with the past couple of weeks. If we focus on the images in the writing center, the questions about the text, and the concerns of the student about the draft, if would be easy to imagine that the material artifact is central to our concerns.

Yet, even as the consultant works on the text in front of her, there is a powerful tradition among writing center scholars and consultants that maintains that the material text is not the most important element of the consultation. As I mentioned before, writing centers often drag out the oft-used Stephen North quote that their job should be to produce “to produce better writers, not better writing.” It’s a compelling quotation and I don’t disagree with it – and I’ve pulled it out myself more than once in teaching new consultants or talking about our Writing Center with faculty. Yet, as the students in my Writing Center Theory and Practice course proved the other day, pull out the term “better writers” and begin to unpack it and you quickly find yourself in the realm of the immaterial considerations of literacy. We try to tell ourselves that we know what a “better writer” is, and how to help a student become one. Still, every attempt at the definition leads us to the kind of abstraction that we recognize as elusive and endlessly contextual.

In much of Writing Center scholarship, this conflict between the material text – and the student’s focus on improving that text – and the immaterial goals of creating better writers – often ends with either a lament about students’ inability to get beyond their focus on the material text understand or a somewhat condescending satisfaction that we know what is best for students (even if they don’t recognize it) and should continue to work toward our immaterial goals.

What if we took a different approach? What if we made the tensions between the material artifact on the table and the immaterial concerns of the consultant part of the explicit conversation during the tutoring session? What if the first set of questions consultants’ asked not only addressed the students’ concerns about the draft that motivated them to come to the Writing Center, but also at the less tangible questions about writing that concern us? What if we did a more explicit job of grappling with the abstractions with students first – and not just at the conclusion of the session – and used that as the framework for considering the material text?

If we think that students are intelligent and deserve our respect, let’s not play games about the agenda taking place during a consultation.

More soon.

Literacy in a Material World – Or Not.

The number of administrative emails I’m getting means the summer is clearly about to be over and the new academic year is on its way – the large wave I can sense just beyond the horizon. So, after a summer away from the blog – with some work and some play – I’m drawn back here to start trying to work through some of the things that I’ve been kicking around since May.

In work terms, the highlight of the summer was time spent at the University of Sheffield, both at the Center for the Study of Literacies conference, and in talking with people about plans for my Fulbright there in January. Once again, the conference was a great experience. Small, focused, yet full of surprises, I found myself filling page after page of notes from people like Jennifer Rowsell, Lalitha Vasudevan, Cathy Burnett, Guy Merchant, and Jackie Marsh.

This year the presentations and conversations kept coming back around to the connections/issues/possibilities of how we conceive of literacy as constantly moving between the material and the immaterial. Whether it is the pondering of what being “literate looks, sounds, or feels like” (from Lalitha Vasudevan) or the ways in which children on playgrounds embody in their play the texts they’ve been reading/playing online (Jackie Marsh), or the question of how we think of literacy when it inhabits both the material and immaterial at the same time. This final idea, or the fluid nature of literacy in terms of the material and immaterial has been sticking with me since the conference in July.

Jennifer Rowsell gave a splendid and thoughtful talk about the fluidity of literacy as it exists in the material and immaterial simultaneously. On the one hand, a text, in whether on paper or screen is a material object, and requires material resources to produce. Yet what is produced is simply representation, marks or images on a page or screen that are only meaningful – or bothered with – as immaterial representations of other ideas or things. Literacy is not a material thing. It’s a concept, a skill, an argument. Yet it is perceived by the creation of things. Her talk had been thinking about how the strength of print in particular is its ability to represent the immaterial – emotions, ideas, dreams – and yet can only do so through writing words that are material, but always incomplete representations. And one implication of this fluid sense of the materiality and immateriality of literacy is that it helps explain some of the confusion and conflict that exists in the culture at large when conversations turn to literacy. On the one hand, because there are material artifacts, it seems as if literacy is something we ought to be able to define, categorize, assess, know when we see it. Yet, because all we are seeing in the artifact are incomplete representations of the immaterial, because it is impossible to determine what being literate looks and feels like, any method devised to categorize literacy through work with the materiality of texts inevitably is either simplistic and unenlightening, or contextual and complicated to the point that it isn’t useful (like a map in a Borges story) or is rejected as impractical by institutions interested in efficiency and summary. I think anyone in literacy and education has felt the frustration of others outside the field who push for material and direct – and simplistic – assessments of texts we know to be complex and nuanced.

There are also implications in other areas of our work too. For example, as director of a Writing Center I’m not above trotting out the old chestnut about how the goal of Writing Centers is not just to create better writing, but to create better writers. It’s not that I think that’s a bad philosophy (though I think as many have pointed out there are complexities there that need continual unpacking). But it is the case that when we talk about better writing or better writers, we are also dealing with a situation where a constellation of  material and immaterial concerns come together in subtly complex and shifting ways. The simple concept of having a draft the student wants to improve moves quickly from the material text the student and consultant are reading to the immaterial goal – and perception – of “improvement.” And this is just the start and doesn’t even begin to get at issues of embodied responses, the immaterial presence of the instructor who wrote out the material assignment and so on.

There is much, much more to work on here and I’m only musing on the surface for now. In the meantime I want to point anyone toward the much, much smarter exploration of some of these issues that will be coming out soon from Jennifer Rowsell, Guy Merchant, Kate Pahl, and Cathy Burnett.

For me this conversation came along at a the perfect time as I begin to ponder a new project that will bring me back to the territory of literacy and identity (more on that to come in time.) And, as won’t be a surprise to some who know me, I also found that it connected me back to popular culture and literacy issues (and more on that to come sooner).

Once again, my thanks to the organizers of the conference (Kate Pahl and Julia Davies) and the all the participants who talked of such a range of ideas and perspectives with generosity and insight. More to come soon.

What Can You Accomplish in a Week? Part 2

It’s the last day of the UofL Writing Center Dissertation Writing Retreat. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the questions I was pondering was what the participants attending could expect to accomplish in a one-week retreat. Obviously, no one was going to write an entire dissertation. So what would constitute a successful week for the writers? The consultants and Writing Center staff?

As the week is drawing to a close, one thing is clear – the energy and attitude around the entire week has been positive and productive. The commitment of the participants to writing every day and then engaging in individual consultations has been impressive and inspiring. What’s more, the discussions about writing during the group writing workshops – from problems and obstacles to aspirations and solutions – have been enlightening and useful to everyone involved. My sense is that all the participants feel they have had a productive week.

Yet beyond the words written and pages produced, the people involved in the retreat have talked about other things that they have learned or been reminded of during the week.

First, you can’t underestimate the value of having extended, dedicated time for writing. As one writer noted this week, in the busy lives of graduate students where research and writing must be balanced against other demands of work and family, it is easy to think that writing can be squeezed in as one of a number of simultaneous, multitasking obligations. She was reminded, however, how much difference it made to her writing and thinking to simply have a quiet space and extended time to write and focus on writing. Of course that’s not always possible. But several of the writers have mentioned how they plan to continue to block out some time each week in this way to get some writing done, and may very well come back to the Writing Center to do it. (And we welcome them! We have a great space with the best view on campus.) At the same time, we also talked about the benefit of writing on a regular basis, even if it’s only a sentence or two a day, and how that will keep the writing and thinking close by and accumulate pages faster than people realize.

Also, the participants in the retreat have mentioned how useful it has been to receive the ongoing, timely response and feedback that their consultants have given them during the daily writing consultations. It can take a long time to get comments back from dissertation committee members (and I am as guilty as anyone in sometimes having trouble getting drafts back to my students). What the writers this week have talked about is the benefit of being able to talk about their writing while it’s in progress – and to have those conversations focus on the issues of rhetoric and writing. As Don Murray used to say, there is no substitute for being able to show your writing to someone who makes you want to go back and write and revise more. My hope is that these writers will continue to get that kind of response and conversation both from visits to the Writing Center as well as in writing groups they may form.

Finally, there was the benefit of being part of a community of writers. Writing a dissertation – writing anything, really –  can feel like such an isolated and lonely endeavor. This week all the participants in the retreat found themselves in a community of writers. They’ve talked about the benefit of the support that comes from talking with peers about writing issues and getting both suggestions as well as empathy. They found that talking, and often laughing, about writing, even when your field is far removed from writing studies, can be enriching. And they also found that simply being in a room with other people writing can inspire them to continue to put create words.

A good space to write, productive consultations, and a community of writers – from where I stand that’s an incredible week and a testament to the great writers and consultants and staff that made it all possible.

A special thanks to the participants:

Naouel Baili, Tanvir Bhuiyan, Brynn Dombroski, LeAnn Bruce, Alex Cambron, Anis Hamdi, James Leary, Mohammadreza Negahdar, Zdravko Salipur, and Charlos Thompson.

And a thanks to the Writing Center staff:

Ashly, Bender, Robin Blackett, Laura Detmering, Becky Hallman, Jennifer Marciniak, Barrie Olson (who had the idea and did the research to plan the retreat), and, of course, Adam Robinson.

And thanks to Beth Boehm and the School of Graduate Studies for their support for the retreat.

We’re all tired, but very happy. For more on the Dissertation Writing Retreat, see the UofL Writing Center Blog.

What Can You Accomplish in a Week?

Tomorrow is the start of the first Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University of Louisville Writing Center. This is the first retreat like this we’ve held (and, yes, I absolutely refuse to call it a bootcamp). We’re excited about it and I think we’ve got an intriguing combination of time for writing, mini workshops, eating and relaxing, and individual consultations organized for the ten participants. I’m delighted that it’s going to happen (thanks Barrie, Adam, and Laura) and that we have a range of participants from disciplines as diverse as Engineering,Humanities, Social Work, and the Medical School.

But there is one question that continues dig at me a bit – as it may for the participants who will be coming to the Writing Center tomorrow: What can we really accomplish in a week?

If I think about a good week of writing – make that a great week of writing – I might hammer out a dozen pages or so, and that’s only if I’m really organized and know what I want to do with whatever the project might be. More likely, even on a good week, I get a couple of good days of producing a lot of words, and then I have days in between of making notes, staring at the screen, going back and moving things around, looking again at my notes and the books I’m using, and so on. I certainly don’t think I’m atypical when it comes to academic writers. So, again, given the scope of a dissertation of a few hundred pages, what can we really accomplish in a week?

My thinking at this point – and my hope – is that we might give the participants a jump-start to their writing, some energy to go forward, make even some extra confidence. (That’s why it’s not a bootcamp; we’re about support, not trauma.) More than that, I’m hoping that the combination of writing time and daily consultations might help the writers reframe their writing habits and approaches so that they can work more effectively to finish their dissertations. So it’s not about the pages; it’s about the processes. And I hope they’ll keep coming to the Writing Center (and will tell their friends). To see what happens you can also visit the Writing Center blog during the week.

I’m thinking it will be a great week of writing and talking about writing. Tune in later and I’ll let you know.

University of Louisville Writing Center Blog

The consultants here at the University of Louisville Writing Center (where I am the director) have started a blog. They’ll be writing about their work with writers, their thoughts about writing and writing pedagogy, and just life around the Writing Center. It’s definitely worth a visit! Thanks to Barrie Meadows for making this happen. Come see what’s up with the Writing Center. (You can also visit our website – soon to undergo major renovations – or visit us on Facebook).

The University of Louisville Writing Center