UofL Writing Center

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Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Critiquing Creative Writers for Those Who Are Not

Katelyn Wilkinson, Consultant

While we advertise help for any kind of writing, be it an essay, resume or co-op report, students often overlook the Writing Center as a place that offers creative feedback as well. Recently, I have noticed a surge of fiction and poetry, both assigned and not, in consultations. As a creative writer myself, these pieces have been both a joy and a challenge to provide feedback for. For some of my fellow consultants these sessions may offer more challenge than joy, however, as I have often overheard them recommending students make appointments with other consultants more creatively-inclined. I realize creative writing isn’t for everyone; still, it is not impossible for those who don’t consider themselves creative writers to offer feedback on such pieces.

As academic writers themselves, all consultants are familiar with reading and critiquing academic essays. However, not every consultant is a creative writer or familiar with giving feedback to one. Given how many different genres and styles of creative writer there are, it can be difficult for even those who term themselves “creative writers” to give feedback to pieces outside of their chosen genre. I have found this to be true as a poet trying to advise students who are writing longer works of fiction. I will be the first to admit that not every session has gone perfectly – some feel more like trial-by-error – but after working consecutively with several different students, I have identified two different things that should be kept in mind in order to get the most out of creative sessions. Since many of these works must be digested in a short period of time, I think these suggestions are helpful for not only consultants who are unfamiliar with reading creative work, but students who might find themselves in peer-response situations as well.

Establish the goals of the writer.
There are many different ways you can approach a creative piece; you might dive straight in to the text, or pause to talk to the author before the reading even begins. Since most of the consultations I’ve had have dealt with works in progress, I find myself doing the latter more often than not. I find this helpful because it allows me to ask the student what I consider the most important question about the piece – What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve with this work? This is especially important to establish with pieces that do not come with an assignment or prompt from a teacher. As a consultant or a peer-reviewer, I have found it just as helpful to go into a creative piece knowing what the author wants to achieve as it is to know the prompt for an academic paper. From there, it’s easier to discuss the nitty-gritty things such as character development, point of view, dialogue, and other sentence-level issues, as well as keep the session on track so the student can get the most out of their time.

Be conscious of how you’re critiquing.
Creative writing is an extremely personal endeavor, and for many students it’s hard to share such work let alone subject it to criticism. With creative pieces especially, the line between author and narrator is often blurred, so it’s important to not conflate the two; the thoughts and experiences of one don’t necessarily belong to the other. Keeping that in mind, anyone reading creative work should also be careful to balance negative and positive feedback while remaining honest as a reader. It helps to be specific about what works and what doesn’t in a piece, as well as what could be done to strengthen the work. For example, rather than saying “you need to work on your dialogue,” pull out a specific moment in the piece that seems weak and talk about different ways the student might strengthen that moment.

KatelynFinally, it is important to remember that your opinion as the reader is subjective, and critiquing creative writing isn’t as black and white as identifying a comma splice in an academic paper and showing a student how to fix it. In my creative writing sessions, I repeatedly remind students that everything I say is simply my opinion; I find this takes the pressure and frustration off of them to feel like they must make every change I suggest. Students should remember that they, as the author, always have the final word on their piece.

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A Two-Way Street: Learning from Clients in the Writing Center

Scott Lasley, Consultant

With my first semester at the writing center complete, I call up the images of all the students I’ve worked with and surprisingly, find more faces of science and business students than English major students.  In the few months of my infancy as a writing consultant, it was especially daunting to work almost exclusively with students in fields of engineering, business, and chemistry because what could this lowly English student help with outside of mundane grammatical and surface-level concerns?  This sentiment was a mere manifestation of my “newness” anxiety that was barely a whisper by the end of the first month.  I became entranced with what work the non-English major students brought in to the writing center.  I found myself learning ideas and concepts that I never dreamed would cross my path from deformable models regarding imaging software to simpler things like how to write business letters and memos.  It was as if I had become the student, my eyes wide as I listened to the teacher inform me of some new piece of knowledge. 

I remember reading a student assignment about some new findings regarding a hominid species that supported the possibility of co-evolution in Southeast Asia.  Staring down at the pages of pictures and blocks of text on this new hominid, I found myself getting lost in the circled and highlighted prints and lines, entranced by the unexpected nature of this newly found knowledge.  What if it were true?  What if this changed our very understanding of world?  Dramatic, I know, but being presented with something I had never considered or even thought of made such findings like a stop sign of sorts in that I must wait and take notice of what lies in front of me.  Even though I knew next to nothing about evolutionary studies, I could not help but absorb all that could from what I saw, like a young boy does when listening to his father.  I craved to know more and found myself taking mental notes of names like homo floresiensis and co-evolution as I worked through the session.  As I sat down in front of my computer after the session, I quickly brought up Google, typing my mental notes into the slender search bar, excited less by what I may or may not find and more by the shear possibilities of what might be found.

This experience, like many others so far while working at the writing center, has demonstrated the importance ofScott consultants not only tutoring and teaching students in order to help them become better writers, but learning from them as well.  That’s not to say that we have to play the role of the engaged student or that we will always enjoy and want to know about what our clients are working on.  Desire and curiosity have their limits.  However, by being intellectually curious of the world outside the English department, we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.

Teaching Practices in the Writing Center: Looking Forward

Amy Nichols, Consultant

More than a year ago, I took my first glance at the University of Louisville website. I remember being enthusiastic, as a former professor had recommended the program as one which might match well with my interests. I looked over the application and the professors in the department, but what really caught my eye was the description of the graduate assistantships for M.A. students: “Until they have completed eighteen hours of graduate work in English, M.A. GTAs are assigned to the University Writing Center.” As a student deeply interested in writing pedagogy, both in writing centers and in the classroom, this requirement crystallized my interest in the program; however, I still had some reservations. Would I be able to make a successful transition into the first year composition classroom in the second year of my M.A.? Would one year of classroom experience give me a strong enough C.V. to apply for other teaching jobs in the future?  

While I won’t begin teaching in the classroom until next fall, I can sense many of my questions already being answered through my interactions with students and assignments from a broad swathe of disciplines. As a consultant who students view as an ‘outsider’ not involved with the class or the professor, I have been able to watch them react to a variety of assignments, and to observe instructions and prompts which might engender interest or confusion. In addition, I have had to constantly refine and diversify my approaches to explaining any given assignment, seeing what methods help clarify the finer points in the art of academic writing.

Beyond these hands-on, writing-related experiences, there have also been moments when I have had to help students understand the college writing culture. When students begin with “I’m not sure what my professor means by…” our conversations often move beyond the piece of writing itself. I sometimes find myself becoming a sort of cultural guide for students learning to navigate in the world of academia; how to ask for clarification on assignments, how to request a meeting with a professor, and other elements of the communal life of the university often directly correlate to writing what might seem like a simple response paper. These conversations have made me remember my own experience as a first-generation student at a small liberal arts university, learning what Ruby Payne might call the “hidden rules” of college life – rules which might seem extra-textual, but which are critical to the success of any piece of writing (and succeAmyss overall) in the world of academia. 

Perhaps these observations are obvious; all writing is produced within specific contexts for specific audiences. But the position of writing center consultant sits at a strange intersection in the university: some liminal space apart from classrooms, professors, deadlines, and disciplines, and yet intricately connected to all of these things.  Without this direct experience at the writing center – that is, without getting involved on a deeper level in that interplay between individual and community which we call collegiate writing – I cannot imagine myself seeing the same set of needs in my future students or setting the same kinds of specific goals for my pedagogy moving forward. As I move into my second semester of tutoring, I can honestly say I would not have wanted my assistantship to begin in any other way.

Back to Work in the Writing Center

Adam Robinson, Associate Director

AdamWe enter this Spring semester with incredible momentum.  Last Fall, we increased our number of consultations (we did 2587 appointments!—200 more than last Fall) as well as our number of in-class workshops (we gave over a 100—almost double from last Fall).  And as usual, our online exit surveys showed high praise from the writers who worked with us.

Traditionally, the Spring semester is slower than the Fall—fewer students are enrolled, activity on campus is slower, etc.  But we have reason to believe that this Spring may be our busiest Spring yet.  In the Fall, we reached out to a number of student services offices and programs, such as TRIO, Family Scholar House, the Cultural Center, and Undergraduate Advising.  I once worked as an academic counselor for U of L’s College of Arts and Sciences, so I know firsthand the incredible impact and influence these offices have on the students who frequent them.  Sometimes students don’t feel comfortable asking their professors for help, but those same students will talk to their advisors and mentors.  For example, last October, I attended a college fair for the Family Scholar House, a support service for single-parent students.  The fair was held at one of the Family Scholar House residence locations, which allowed me to have informal conversations with the students in the program.  Many told me that they knew about the WC but didn’t feel comfortable visiting—some didn’t want to ask for help, others were afraid of criticism.  Being able to talk to them in a non-institutional space made a big difference.   Those working in these programs understand that too—that students need not just information but encouragement seek out help from professors and campus resources.  Our plan is to continue to build partnerships like these.

We have some side projects to work on this Spring, too.  U of L has begun migrating its website to a newer version of Plone (our content management software), a move that will afford all departments and offices more freedom to design custom sites.  We hope we can design a site that meets both the needs of our U of L community members as well as the needs of other Writing Center community members who may visit our site.  And while May is a ways away, we are gearing up for our second Dissertation Writing Retreat (check out our May 30, 2012 blog to learn about our first retreat).  The first one was a great success, and we’ve already received inquiries from interested students who have begun writing their dissertations.

Our main goal, however, is to keep offering excellent tutoring and response to students, staff, and faculty.  I want to personally thank Ashly Bender, Alex Bohen, Nancy Bou Ayash, Sam Bowles, Daniel Conrad, Michelle Day, Tika Lamsal, Scott Lasley, Brit Mandela, Jennifer Marciniak, Amy Nichols, Meagan Ray, Lauren Short, Mandi Strickland, and Katelyn Wilkinson.  Their excellent work is why writers keep coming back for help and why those same writers leave with smiles on their faces.  I’m happy to see all of our consultants again after a long break, and I’m equally excited to see some of our regular clients already returning this year.  And of course, I eagerly await the opportunity to see some new faces too—and hope they become familiar faces.

I want to wish Bronwyn Williams, our director, the best of luck on his Fulbright—he’ll be in England for six months doing important research on literacy.  That leaves me in charge of this place. So perhaps then, a personal goal is to not screw anything up!  I look forward to the challenge.

Finally, I want to send my sympathies to Dr. J Blaine Hudson’s family.  Dr. Hudson served U of L for many years as a professor in the Pan African Studies Department and more recently as the Dean in the College of Arts Sciences.  He died on Saturday, January 5.  Dr. Hudson leaves behind an incredible legacy not only at U of L but also in the Louisville community where he worked tirelessly for others.

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