UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “November, 2011”

Invisible Lines

Mark Williams

I dropped composition 102 two—maybe three—times in college. I did finally complete it in my last semester. It was “take comp or don’t graduate”: I took comp. But even then, it turned out to be the worst grade of my college career, by about an entire grade.

The first time I took the class, at community college, I stayed in almost the entire semester, but at some point halfway through I quit turning in the assignments. The turning point was a long “article summary” that the teacher gave me a D on, some article by a scientist named John Polkinghorne. (It bothered me enough that I’ve remembered, apparently.) I thought I understood the article, I thought I’d written a summary, and the teacher simply said (over and over) that I “had not summarized the article.” I couldn’t get any farther than that with him. So when he began giving small assignment after small assignment and telling us that they would be “helpful,” I no longer trusted him—I’d already decided that he was not helpful, so why would his assignments be helpful? I quit turning things in, then dropped the class on the last possible date.

The next time I took composition, I walked out halfway through the first class. I had some important reasons: first, he called the writing process “percolating,” a really obnoxious metaphor for people like me who hated coffee. I still smell that bitter coffee smell when I picture his classroom. Second, he was using his percolating metaphor to justify a mountain of assignments that I thought were way overboard for a simple gen. ed. requirement. I don’t like coffee and I don’t like being overworked in a gen. ed., so I walked out before he’d finished the syllabus. I picked up stellar astronomy instead.

I arrived at the last semester of college, finally forced to take ENG 102. I felt dragged along, alternately insulted and embarrassed by what I was learning, until the final paper when we were required to have a tutoring session at the writing center. I remember my writing center tutor was a girl I’d gone to junior high with named Courtney, and how much it embarrassed me to be “asking” for help on an English 102 paper from someone I wanted to view as an equal. But I didn’t see much choice, and Courtney was quiet, and thoughtful, and patient, and helpful—and forty-five minutes later I was walking out of the library into the cold Chicago air with a new blue pencil and the uncomfortable realization that I could’ve been a lot better student, and a lot better writer, than I would now be as a college graduate. I felt as if an opportunity had been there, and I was too late to make good on it.

That was nine years ago this month. I still feel the almost infuriating helplessness I felt in those moments—moments when I knew there was something I could not do but needed to do, something just on the other side of a paper-thin curtain. The causes of those impotent moments can be different—in my stories I can see circumstances, a teacher’s failure, my laziness and my pride all getting in the way; for other people it can be language barriers, or educational differences, or a language disorder. But in all those cases writing doesn’t work like other skills. It’s not like basketball, where we always can see that we’re missing our shots or dribbling the ball off our foot or just getting beaten by bigger, faster, stronger players. Oftentimes, success and failure in writing operate along invisible lines for those of us who are failing. As a writing tutor and teacher—a “success”—I have to say that the lines haven’t really gotten more visible. They’re more strongly felt, I want to say—but then again, I felt my failures as a writer so deeply back then, too. I think it comes down to this, for all of us: we may not be able to recognize what’s going on in our writing, but we do acquire a “feel” as writers. Good feelings, but bad feelings too, feelings that make writing impossible, undesirable, beyond us. If I’m right, then we need to work to pay attention to the forceful, invisible lines writing continually bumps us up against. And trust that everyone else feels them too.

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Reading with Writers

Emily Freund

Autumn! While the daylight subsides and leaves a blaze like a phoenix, we have more excuses to curl up in a comfy chair and hold a cup of piping-hot coffee in one hand and a good book in the other. As winter approaches, I’ve noticed that I have started thinking about my holiday reading list. Although I enjoy reading my classes’ assigned texts, my fellow recreational readers must agree that nothing compares to winter and summer reading. However, not everyone is as excited about reading and writing. Since I am relatively new to Writing Center consulting, I had never considered the close connection that reading and writing enjoys. After a few months of holding my own consultations, I am settling in and becoming more improvisational and collaborative with writers. I have learned more about how I view myself and strategize as a tutor, realizing that the Writing Center offers a cooperative environment composed of many ideas about writing and reading.

I have realized that by sharing and exhibiting reading strategies within the Center, I am a better tutor by being an engaged reader. Reading puts me in the role of the writer’s audience, and I give the writer ownership of his or her text while offering a thoughtful interaction with his or her work – which is what every writer wants, right? As a responsive reader, I show that writers can define their own roles as scholars, and I help others find a distinct voice in the academic dialogue. By paying close attention to the way I read a text, I have the opportunity to better serve the writers’ requests and allow them to guide the session. I give writers the power to guide my reading by asking where they want me to focus. Making meaning based on the writers’ requests gives tutors the chance to help them in a resonating way.

Writers come in to the Writing Center for many reasons, but one thing that everyone wants is someone engaging with and investing in their writing. By reading, we as tutors ask questions and help writers find what their text is and what it could be saying to their audience. Although we are working on making “better writers,” writers expect us to enter into a conversation about their work. Focusing on the text does not mean forgetting about the writer; instead, using the session-specific text allows tutors to offer their own techniques and strategies or give examples that can be improvisationally modified for new or different concerns. By inhabiting our roles as readers and tutors, we can exhibit qualities and show possibilities for each writer’s own new readings, giving writers the tools to read their texts from a new and focused point of view.

So, as the semester reaches its most stressful weeks, remember that we’re here to help. We all love to read and discuss our interpretations, and we would love to spend some time with your thoughts and ideas. We even have comfy chairs and hot coffee.

Google Docs

Ashly Bender

Tech-geeks can sometimes get a little over-excited about using “cool new technologies.” When it comes to new media writing technologies, I also sometimes have this response: “Look how cool it is! Let’s use it in class!” Most of us who have had to use a wiki or Google docs or some other online writing collaboration tool find that the classroom can be much better at pointing out the kinks in a program than highlighting the usefulness of it. Recently though, I used Google Docs with a classmate to write a six-page essay critiquing an academic article. We wrote the whole paper in an hour, and we were amazed at how quick and productive the whole process was. It was a kind of writing high—something that a lot of people, even English majors, don’t always experience when they’re writing. As we talked about the Google Docs experience, though, it became clear that some of the success of our one-hour writing sprint had to do with the technology, but some of it just had to do with the way we had prepared.

The technology itself allowed us to write with each other at the same time in the same document. It helped that we were also sitting next to each other at the coffee shop, but really we spent more time typing than talking. She pasted in an introduction from a handout we had made previously, and I expanded it out while she wrote the next two paragraphs. Then as she wrote the conclusion, I was able to add in the rest of the body paragraphs. In between, we revised each other’s paragraphs so that the paragraphs would flow together. It just seemed to be a writing groove that Google Docs enabled precisely because we were working on a single document at the same time—writing with and over each other.

The catch, though, is that we didn’t start writing completely unprepared. Before we wrote this paper, we had presented the same content to our class. We also created a handout for that presentation. It took us approximately 4 hours (all together) to prepare all the material. Our Google Docs paper was essentially the flushed out version of the handout we created. So even though it seemed to only take us an hour to write this paper, really it was the final product of 5 to 6 hours work.

Still, Google Docs is awesome. You should use it. In class if you can.

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