Time, Talk, and Attention to the Individual Writer: How Learning Happens in the Writing Center
Bronwyn T. Williams, Director
Every year I spend much of my August telling people about the University Writing Center. I go to a number of departmental and college orientations and resource fairs so I can offer an overview of our services. I tell people that we work with any member of the UofL community on any kind of writing at any point in the writing process. I talk about our various writing groups, writing events, and the workshops and retreats we offer. And I describe, briefly, how we don’t edit papers for people, but work with them to discuss the strengths and weakness of a draft and come up with strategies for revision that will make the writer stronger yet.
Yet, I usually have only about 15 minutes to talk, at best, at these events, so I don’t get to explain much beyond that. There are any number of things I’d like to be able to say, but with the start of the new academic year, I want to take a moment to focus specifically on a few values and approaches that we have in the University Writing Center that both set us apart from other parts of the University and create distinctive learning experiences that keep people coming back to make appointments with us. These are all ideas we spent the day talking about at our start-of-the-year orientation this past Thursday.
People, Not Just Pages: We work with writers, not just on drafts. We’re not an editing service that marks up a draft with “corrections.” Instead, our focus is working with a writer to provide that person with suggestions and strategies that help the writer make the draft in question stronger, but also offer the writer ways to write more effectively in the future. We remember that we’re responding to a person, not just a set of pages. Such an approach also means that we work in dialogue with writers, listening to their concerns, offering suggestions, and emphasizing that the best learning comes from such cooperative and collaborative approaches.
Location, Location, Location: We can start with writers where they are. In a class full of students instructors have to make assumptions about what the students know and start from there. Being able to work with writers individually means we can find out what they know, what they want to learn, and adapt our responses accordingly. The reality is that no writer is always a strong or weak writer. Competence and confidence depend on the writer’s familiarity with the genre in question, whether you’re a first-year student or working on a doctoral dissertation. We tailor our teaching to the individual and the context.
Time Is On Our Side: Unlike conventional courses, we’re not bound by the limits of a 14-week semester. Our timeline for learning is up to the individual writer. Some writers make multiple appointments with us during a given writing project (writers can make up to three appointments per week). Some make regular, standing appointments each week was they work on a longer piece, like a dissertation or book. Others we see from time to time during their years at UofL. The point is, we can keep working with a writer over the course of college career and our approaches to teaching and learning can take the long view and not be truncated by the semester schedule. Such an approach, again, means we can focus on teaching the individual, not just fulfilling a course syllabus.
Learning, Not Grading: When we sit down with a writer, our focus in on helping that person write more effectively, not coming up with an evaluation of that writer that
reduces it to a number or single letter. Taking this approach allows writers to be more honest about their struggles and more willing to explore a variety of approaches knowing that an approach that doesn’t work won’t result in a failing grade, but just having to try again. In the Writing Center the response of the reader is what matters, and in that way reflects more closely the reality of writing in daily, non-academic contexts. What’s more, research on motivation – and research on grading – overwhelming demonstrates that instrumental reward systems such as grades diminish both internal motivations and learning. We offer a learning environment that emphasizes individual learning, not group assessment, and that makes the learning and motivation that much stronger.
Writing Matters in the World: We’re committed to cultivating and sustaining a culture of writing on campus and in the community. Our writing groups (Graduate, Creative Writing, LGBTQ), our community work and workshops, and our events (Banned Books Week, Celebration of Student Writing, International Mother Language Day, among others) are all done with the goals of supporting the writing that people do, but also reminding people of the important work that writing does in their lives and in the world. Toward that end, we also value and emphasize the role of writing and literacy in advancing and advocating for equality and social justice.
Regardless of your political views, it’s hard to argue with the idea that these feel like tumultuous times. But, as my father once said, “Education is an optimist’s racket,” which means I can’t look at the new faces on campus and not feel hopeful. We are excited to open our doors at the University Writing Center to begin another academic year and remain a positive force for UofL writers and their writing.