How Writing Centers Respond to Writers? Needs

How Writing Centers Respond to Writers? Needs (CCCC 2006 Chicago — Day 2)

Deborah Burns, Merrimack College. “Taking Care of Business: The Writing Center as a Site of Curricular Reform.”

Burns said that for years, the writing center had little impact on the business school. But a recent new program encouraging communications skills in business mandates inclusion of extensive writing activities, as well as other skills that can be learned effectively in a tutoring environment. Most of the faculty in business had no experience with writing-related pedagogy. Writing center provides “business writing fellows” for every writing-intensive business course. The most problematic area centers on business writing assignments – group composition. In a course “Business Enterprise,” a written analysis and PowerPoint presentation was required. Overwhelming majority of students (first-semester freshmen) found the work very challenging.

Students placed in a 3-5 member work group; meet with “business writing fellow” in group tutorials. Often only 1 or 2 of the group members would actually show up; some became frustrated by the idea that the writer had to be present in order to get feedback. (They wanted to delegate to the “best writer” in the group.) Not all students participated during writing tutorials – some IMed, took phone calls, or just sat there. Business faculty didn’t have a problem with the “best writer” model, since that was the model they all used themselves when in graduate school. (This works against the course goals, that expected all students to demonstrate writing proficiency.)

Burns explained her efforts to work more closely with the instructor. I’m sure her business colleagues can, with her guidance, easily see the benefits of apprenticing, scaffolding and the practical functions of group tutorials. She ended with an anecdote from a tutoring session following the new, improved integration of the writing center’s resources. During that session, a non-participating student answered his cell phone for the second time. His classmates turned to him and said, “Come on! We need to get this done.” I enjoyed hearing her success story, since it reminds me of the progress I saw happening during the years I spent at the University of Toronto, in what was then the brand-new Engineering Writing Centre.

Mary Zdrojkowski, Eastern Michigan University. “Laughing Matters in Writing Centers.”

Zdrojkowski’s dissertation is on institutional uses of laughter. Started out with “I’m Mary Zdrojkowski, and you’re not,” but didn’t smile. Then she commented on the fact that some of us thought it was funny, but most didn’t. She also invited those in the audience who might have expected a talk on how to use humor might instead be interested in going to Deborah Tannen’s talk.

Showed a video clip of a tutoring session where a student and tutor discuss whether to indent paragraphs. The student told the tutor that the tutor is wrong about something, but it came out easily and both were laughing about it. Literature studies of irony, sarcasm; philosophical questions of humor (superiority, incongruity, aggression). Tutors, when speaking to each other, can be sarcastic. Zdrojkowski noted that tutors who inadvertently offend students during a tutoring session might backtrack and recast their comment as a joke.

Made a distinction between humor and laughter. Things can be funny without laugher, and people can laugh at something that’s not funny.

Notes that doctors rarely laugh, but that patients laugh regularly in the initial interview when they tell the doctor where their pain is. Students will also laugh, at the precise moment when they “lay their souls naked” and express their feeling that they can’t write.

It found it easier to make sense of the heavily marked-up transcripts (with symbols indicating “smiley voice” or pause in seconds than it was making sense of most of the videos (because the video was unclear and it wasn’t always clear to me at first who was the student and who was the tutor), but I did enjoy seeing the contrasts. One very nervous student makes jokes at her expense, and before long the tutor and student have bonded over laughter; a hostile student leans back in his chair and complains about the professor, and keeps complaining (and laughing) while the tutor responds with stony silence.

I’m feeling tantalized, since I’ve always been interested in linguistics. But we’re going through the clips so quickly that I’m not sure I’m absorbing what I’m supposed to be getting out of watching these clips, or how she herself uses these. She answered that in response to a question from the audience. I think I would have rather watched fewer clips and heard more of her evaluation and conclusions. Nevertheless, her presentation made me think very carefully about the power imbalance when a student comes to me for tutoring. (Of course, I also sometimes hear students complaining about the writing center.)

Laura Patterson, Seton Hill University: “Let them Do Research! Two Uncommon Approaches to Teaching Research in a First-Year Writing Course.”

Patterson began by discussing the context of the panel. She feels she is the odd woman out because of the four panelist, she is not a writing center coordinator. Patterson noted some of the problems associated with getting students to do research on cultural identities. The students felt overwhelmed when being asked to consider cultural identities for the first time, much less asking them to think about it on a critical level. Students were so stressed that instructors felt they were pushed into a counselor role. She noted that for the 3-page research project that was the culmination of the first semester of the course, she asked students to choose a stress-release activity, and to research that activity, in order to address the question, “How does this activity reduce stress?”

The assignment was very structured, more than Patterson would have liked, but she finds this structure necessary for this particular project. She noted that the project is not really about cultural identities; some students resisted, with one student claiming not to have any stress in his life. (Patterson’s response: “I want to be you!”) Some students found that a particular activity didn’t reduce their stress. Perhaps due to the self-help culture, students “did buy in from the outset.” Practicing that stress-release activity was a kind of primary research. The project requires ongoing analysis. Requires the first-person voice; students wrote far more than 3 pages; reported benefits in other classes; were eager to share their results; students felt they had “done something purposeful with their research.”

Patterson remembers this as a “very positive time in the classroom.” Ended with the image of her on the floor with her students, during a student presentation on yoga.

Kim Pennesi, Seton Hill University. “Let them Do Research! Two Uncommon Approaches to Teaching Research in a First-Year Writing Course.”

Her biggest challenge as writing center administrator is getting students to buy into the writing process. Students who expect to drop off a paper and get it proofread, or they are interested in the superficial mechanics of the process, without worrying about the underlying principles. Student attitude to research: “After writing my paper, I always have a hard time trying to plug in my sources.”

Pennesi had students do the prewriting, but instead of actually writing the paper, they simply wrote and presented a reflection paper on their experience. She shared a detailed checklist of what she asked her students to do. Pennesi noted that, since SHU is switching to a one-semester first-year course model next year, she’s not sure what to do with what she’s learned about replacing the research paper with a reflection paper.