Beyond the Back Room: Traveling, Collaborating, and Expanding Tutoring Strategies at SWCA-KY
Brooke Parker, Consultant
If you’ve ever had an appointment at our writing center, you’ve most likely experienced something like this: You walk through the center’s open glass door, check in at the front desk, and choose a work table to sit at. All the while waiting for your consultant to emerge from behind the (somewhat mysterious) back room door. And you might have some questions about that.
What exactly are we doing back there? Well, we do quite a few things. From reading your registration/assignments notes and writing about our own sessions to basking in the general glow of the truly interesting work each of you is doing, our time is spent thinking, writing, and ruminating on writers. And drinking coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
That’s probably what you expected all along, right? It makes sense that we spend most of our time preparing for and reflecting on the sessions we’re participating in. That’s what the back room is for. But, what are we doing beyond that room? How are we, as writing center consultants, expanding our experiences of tutoring, of writing from outside of the space we encounter and work in six days a week? Sometimes, our exodus from the back room covers quite a bit of mileage.
Recently, several of us hopped in a Volvo and made the two hour trek down to the Southeastern Writing Center Association-Kentucky Conference at the Noel Studio of Eastern Kentucky University. We were eager to learn from what other universities are doing in their writing centers and, hopefully, to discover some new strategies to further help our writers here at UofL.
If this is a conversation where are all the people?
We arrived at EKU bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, parked in the designated area, put on our name tags, and walked into the Noel Studio. I think this was the first time any of us had visited this particular center or conference, but our reactions were pretty varied. Regardless, we were collectively surprised by the amount of participants, for better or worse. Two of our consultants, Carrie and Michael, touched on this in their responses.
Carrie: Honestly what struck me the most about the conference was the lack of participation from other schools. I think there were four schools? And like less than fifty people. It just makes me curious, writing centers strive to be places of collaboration and it’s sort of disheartening to see centers not engaging together. Of course, there are probably factors I’m not considering all the way, but I don’t think that takes away from my initial feeling.
Michael: What I liked most about this conference was its intimate, conversational nature. I never really felt like the conference was lecture-oriented. Instead it encouraged audience participation and discussion in a way that was casual yet intimate.
While my initial reaction was similar to Carrie’s, I thought that the smaller size of the conference made it feel comfy, inviting those kinds of intimate conversations that Michael referred to and aiding in the collaborative activities the organizers had us in engage in.
Michael: As for the brain-dating activity, I found the balance of one-on-one conversation with individual tutors and with overall group discussion to be a valuable exercise. Gaining different perspectives on how to tutor translingual writers was really helpful for me, personally, as I feel better equipped now to communicate more effectively with all kinds of writers.
In Michael’s case, the size of this conference really worked. But Carrie’s point hits on something I think writing center consultants feel drawn to do—to keep collaborating—and not just with writers and other tutors in our own centers, but with centers (and writers) across the state, across the field, across the curriculum. So, we ask ourselves, how can we continue to collaborate in new ways?
The mood within a writing center is – to some degree – determined by its layout.
The space of Noel Studio at EKU was incredibly beautiful and engaging: artwork hung on the walls, white boards lined the far left wall, chairs rolled and moved, and skylights beamed down sunshine. I think we all took multiple pictures of the space. Both Kevin and Melissa mentioned the effect of the layout on their experience at the conference.
Kevin: I think my biggest takeaway from the event was the setting of the conference. Seeing EKU’s writing center really revealed to me just how the physical layout of a writing center can affect the atmosphere within it. With its brightly colored walls and windows, ample amount of art, and availability of different writing surfaces and utensils (markers, colored pencils), EKU’s writing center offered up an extremely inviting and fun vibe. The space itself suggested that the activities facilitated by the writing center were fun and creative.
Let’s face it, the space was a piece of art in and of itself, but Melissa pointed out that for every up there is a down.
Melissa: The Noel Studio was like a playground for college students. However, while it seemed like a wonderful space for creativity, I could see myself getting easily distracted in there. They did have legos, ya know, so could you blame me?
The very deliberate construction of the Noel Studio pushed us to think about the space of the writing center in new ways. So, we also ask ourselves, how can we use or change our space to help facilitate writers’ processes even further?
By bridging language barriers, we have a gateway into an entirely new way of thinking.
The second presentation of the day dealt with translingual approaches, particularly literacy maps, in the composition classroom, but (as the presenters encouraged) could be adapted to apply to writing center strategies, as well. Our consultants were really drawn (pardon the pun) to these methods.
Michael: The two activities, the literacy map activity and brain-dating, really pushed conference attendees to consider how ELL students approach language and writing. With the literacy map activity, specifically, I found that exploring the ways my own literacies have been shaped has helped me to understand better how different cultures and different experiences will yield different language-building practices.
Melissa: I never really viewed multilingualism as a deficit per se, but I don’t think I ever really took the time to recognize just how many different elements have influenced my English language development. These different “domains” that I have always taken for granted have provided me with a certain amount of privilege that I had never thought of before. I not only have the lingo, but the experiential knowledge to speak with authority about several aspects of American life. And while multilingual students may not have those same advantages, they certainly have their own when talking about their own expertise growing up in a foreign culture.
Both Michael and Melissa point out the really productive ways these literacy maps helped them explore their own literacy experiences and how they might also do the same for the ELL writers we work with at UofL. We are currently speaking with each other about how this activity might be applied in our center.
In the end, there’s a plethora of resources out there that could help foster the creative process.
After the presentations, the lunch, the brain-dating and collaborative activities were over, we packed ourselves back into the Volvo and began the journey back to Louisville. But the conference certainly hadn’t left us, even though we’d left it. The next two hours were spent talking about what we’d learned about ourselves as tutors, about the writers we work with, and what questions we should take back to the rest of our cohort. I think Carrie summed up the experience nicely, saying “Overall, the conference definitely made me aware of how centers should try to accommodate as many learning styles as possible.” It certainly had that effect on all of us.