UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Inhabiting a Liminal Space

Laura Detmering, Assistant Director

In “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring” (2003), Peter Carino argues that “to pretend that there is not a hierarchical relationship between tutor and student is a fallacy, and to engineer peer tutoring techniques that divest the tutor of power and authority is at times foolish and can even be unethical” (98). Carino is speaking here of undergraduate peer tutors specifically within a writing center; however, I contend that his argument extends even more compellingly to graduate student relationships within writing centers, particularly those relationships between graduate-student assistant directors and graduate-student tutors. As Michael Mattison points out in “Just between Me and Me” (2008), “When you become assistant director, you take on an authority role that asks you to supervise tutors, some of whom are other graduate students” (16). Mattison raises important ethical questions about the role of the graduate-student assistant director. I am interested in this dual role graduate-student assistant directors play as not-quite students and not-quite administrators. Specifically, I argue that graduate students are placed in a difficult and often underexamined role as assistant directors in writing centers, inhabiting a sort of  liminal space within the university as well as the writing center.

My work in writing centers began during the fall semester of my second year of college. A successful student, I was invited to apply to work at the university’s writing center, and I nervously accepted the opportunity. The new position was anxiety-inducing not just because I was painfully shy and uncomfortable in social situations but also because I lacked confidence in my own writing. Years later, reading Donald Murray’s A Writer Teaches Writing and Lad Tobin’s “Teaching with a Fake ID” in a pedagogy course, I felt for the first time that someone else understood what I felt at my first writing center consultation, that I was a fraud, someone who was on the verge of being caught, someone who lacked the skills to really help others with their writing because I didn’t know what I was doing in my own. What a relief it was to learn that I was not alone in feeling this way. At the same time, I continue to find it troubling how much this anxiety persists and factors into all my professional experiences. And the academy does little to assuage this anxiety, as it continues to place graduate students into positions of authority which are always unsteady, always at question, especially for those of us who are or at least appear very young.

Melissa Nicolas argues in the introduction to “(E)merging Identities,” a collection of essays about graduate students’ roles in the college or university Writing Center, that “Regardless of the role(s) graduate students play in the center—client, tutor, or administrator—their situation is one of constant negotiation” (2). Indeed, graduate students hold a tenuous position within the writing center, as well as within the academy in general. We are not quite students, not quite faculty. Throw in administrative positions, and our status becomes even more confused. Like Nicolas and Michael Mattison, I often wonder how I am supposed to position myself both in relationship to the Director and Associate Director of my writing center, as well as other faculty and administrators on my campus, and the consultants who work in the Writing Center, all of whom are fellow graduate students. For me, the position is always tenuous because of the fact that I am neither a full-time faculty member and administrator nor a full-time student. I inhabit the liminal space, flitting back-and-forth between the positions, both teacher and student, both administrator and writing consultant.

As assistant directors, we are occasionally asked to lead workshops with our consultants. This raises important questions about our authority. For instance, how do I lead a workshop about good writing center practices when several of the consultants I am leading in the workshop actually have more experience working in writing centers than I do? Why should those consultants trust in my authority on the subject when most of my pedagogical knowledge comes from the classroom, not the writing center, and the two spheres are so very different in many ways? Of course, these questions raise other questions like does it ultimately matter if the consultants have more writing center experience than the Assistant Directors.

I would argue that it does because our status is very shaky to begin with, and when you add to that tenuousness the fact that we are being placed in positions of authority over people who sometimes actually have more experience than us, that has an impact on our confidence and our ability to mentor others in the ways that our job demands of us. Granted, experienced teachers and tutors can always learn how to be better teachers and tutors, even from those who are less experienced, and I personally have learned a great deal from teachers and tutors who are less experienced than me, but there will still always remain these questions of or concerns about authority when we place people into Assistant Director positions without a significant amount of experience or institutional authority. At the same time, it is completely understandable why departments continue to follow these practices because when we graduate and apply for positions as professors, we are expected to have such experience, and the current system allows us to gain such experience. And so the cycle continues.

The Process

Lizzy Carraway

We all have different methods for producing writing. I use the word “producing” because writing involves many tasks, roles, phases, and, arguably, people. I used to consider my writing to be a solitary endeavor. I would torture myself trying to find inspiration and, after finding it, obsess over producing something “good”. I had this vision of the genius writer, alone in a dark study laboring away until the piece of writing is finished and handed over to the world as a golden nugget of truth. Here I will hazard to say that for most writers, the writing process is nothing like this. The majority of us thrive on feedback, to shape our work and to allow it to reach its highest potential. I’ve found this to be true for myself, for the clients I work with at the writing center, and for fellow graduate students and teachers. While we all have various approaches to the writing process itself, the one constant I’ve found is this: writing is a social act.

Most of us start with a brainstorming or prewriting phase, in which we take on a creative role and generate ideas. My prewriting phase can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and involves many conversations with friends, professors, fellow students and writing center consultants. Usually it begins with, “Is this idea crazy?” and I’m consistently amazed when I’m told that it’s not. I find that many of my clients at the writing center similarly question the validity of their ideas. We need people around us to engage with our thoughts and give us their input. Sometimes, we simply need people to listen while we voice a new idea for the first time to see how it sounds. Occasionally, after a session at the writing center, I realize that most of what I’ve done is listen. Yet these sessions are very valuable, because the writer can actually see the imaginary reader who is always present as we write. By actually speaking to our reader, we can learn immensely about the way our ideas are received.

For some, the next phase of the writing process is some sort of outlining or note-taking. This is when a writer decides which moves to make in a piece of writing. Generally, for me, this is the phase when I like to mark up my books and scribble furiously as my ideas take form on the page. Others are more methodical and organized. I have one client who uses a complicated color coding system to organize her notes. On the other side of the spectrum, a fellow consultant of mine free-writes to allow her ideas to progress, a process she jokingly calls “word vomit”. This can be very useful because it allows the writer to think on paper without concerns over organization or style. In any case, involving another person in this planning phase can really help a writer prevent major revisions later.

Finally, there is the drafting, revising, and editing of a paper. These acts seem to exist on a continuum at the end of the writing process. After all, many of us edit and revise as we write and, likewise, add new material during revision and editing. What makes drafting, revising, and editing inherently social is the basic fact that no one can completely intuit how their writing will be received. I might think that something I’ve written makes perfect sense, but my reader’s furrowed brow tells me a different story. This is why every piece of writing that I’m proud of has gone through at least one rough draft that I’ve revised after receiving feedback. Similarly, my clients at the writing center report significant improvement in their grades and in their own perceptions of their writing after bringing a draft to the writing center. Whether the person reading through a draft is a writing center consultant, a professor, or a friend, the feedback seems to greatly improve the clarity and often the persuasiveness of a piece of writing.

The bottom line is that without the response of a reader, writers are at the mercy of their own imaginations. While some experienced writers may be very good at intuiting their invisible audience, no one can claim total clairvoyance. At the root of the writing process is something deeply collaborative because, ultimately, we write to communicate. I’ve found in my experience as a consultant at the writing center—and as a writer myself—that the only real cure for writer’s block is simply to find another human being.

Art and Writing in the Writing Center

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

The core concern of the University Writing Center is right in the middle of our name – Writing. We work with anyone on campus, with any piece of writing, at any point in the writing process from getting started to final editing. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that we’re focused on, obsessed with, and even more than a little in love with, words.

Art and Text in the Writing Center

It’s hard to describe how excited everyone here was, then, when Professor Gabrielle Meyer showed up last week with paintings from her Art 501 – Concepts in Painting students. Professor Meyer, who has been coordinating the student artwork on display in the Writing Center this year, assigned her students in the class to create works of art that contained printed words. She created the assignment with display of the works in the Writing Center in mind.

As Professor Meyer described the assignment:

The idea for this concept comes directly from the professional art world.  Galleries and art centers often send out a “call to submit artwork” by concept or theme.   Our concept is inspired by a recent juried international opportunity to submit artwork to Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio.

 Not long after humanity began drawing, drawings evolved into writing. Pictures became symbols, abstraction blossomed, and language became visual. Two branches, sharing one root, carried forward people’s ideas, feelings, and plans. The visual and the verbal arts shared the role of encapsulating civilization’s data.

Art and Text in the Writing Center

The students in class responded to the assignment with inventive and thought-provoking combinations of creativity and craft. The paintings are stunning individually, and, hung together, they create a fascinating range of representations of about how words work both as concepts and as aesthetic objects themselves. For our consultants and clients coming to the Writing Center each day, the paintings are points of conversation, objects of contemplation, and a wonderful reminder of how writing permeates our lives and our identities.

I want to offer my thanks to the artists, for their generosity in allowing us to display their work: Alex Kenitzer, Ashley Triplett, Sarah Reasor, Olivia Perkins, Sandra Charles, Brittni Pullen, Audrey Marberry, Miriam Nienhuis, and Amber Schultz.

Please come up to the Writing Center to see this intelligent and creative work!

By Miriam Nienhuis

By Amber Schultz

By Brittni Pullen

By Audrey Marberry

By Sandra Charles

By Olivia Perkins

By Sarah Reasor

By Ashley Triplett

By Alex Kenitzer

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