UofL Writing Center

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Finding the Strategies, and Confidence, to be Stronger Writers

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

If you’ve ever heard someone from the University Writing Center talk about what we do here you’ve likely heard them say that our goal is to do more than help a writer simply “fix” a current draft. We also want to provide ideas and strategies to help that person become a stronger writer in the future. Some of these suggestions are nuts and boltsdscn2185 suggestions about organization or revision or grammar and usage. Yet we also believe that writing well involves more than just mastering a set of skills. The writing processes we use, as well as how confident and motivated we feel to work on a piece of writing, can be crucial to how successfully any writer navigates new writing challenges.

Talk to many university students – or, quite frankly, most people in the culture – and you will hear people say things such as “I just can’t write,” or “I’m not a born writer.” After years of unproductively harsh criticism, rather than constructive instruction, they have internalized a belief that there is some kind of hidden magic to being a good writer, and that they don’t have it. The truth is, that writing well takes time, practice, failure, revision, advice, and is an ongoing, life-long learning process for all of us. There are simply no “born writers.”

In recent research of mine, I have been focusing on what makes people feel anxious about, or confident in, their reading and writing abilities at a given moment. Put more simply, what makes a person feel literate at one time and not another. Many factors facilitate or obstruct such a feeling of agency for people. A new technology can make writing suddenly much easier, or can make previously simple actions complicated and confusing. A teacher’s response to a writing assignment can be dismissive and discouraging, or offer encouraging suggestions for revision that make a writer feel that success is possible.

Culture, material conditions, language, and many other factors shape all writers’ perceptions of agency. All of these external influences result in experiences, emotions, and memories that also shape such perceptions. My research on how these factors influence student writers took place in part at the UofL University Writing Center as well as with students in the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, (the book is titled Literacy 9781138667112Practices and Perceptions of Agency: Composing Identities). In this research, I drew on research in psychology and neuroscience, as well as other fields, to understand how writers’ sense of confidence could vary dramatically from one context to another and how that affected their abilities to write successfully. A student could write well in one course, and struggle in a new course, even in the same major, when facing a new genre. Another student could excel at writing at work, but not at school. Each experience creates a different emotional memory that will influence how that student both thinks and feels about a similar writing situation the next time it comes up. Research in psychology on emotion, memory, and motivation, illustrates how important the kinds of response we provide as writing consultants and teachers is to the ways in which students approach their writing.

At the University Writing Center, we have incorporated some of the ideas from this research into the ways we work with writers. We are developing strategies that help writers approach revision, even substantial revision that will require a great deal of work, with more confidence in their abilities to do such difficult work, and more internal motivation to complete the work. One key part of this approach is helping writers understand that their struggles and anxieties are not unique to them, but typical of all writers, from first-year students to famous novelists. We sometimes take the time to talk about how learning anything is first a struggle, but one that they can work through. Writing is not an innate gift, but a learned activity that gets better with practice. That knowledge alone, research has shown, can result in significant changes in how willing student writers may be to put in the hours and effort to improve their work. We both give students strategies for improving as well as talk to them about how, like all writers, they have strengths, challenges, and the abilities to keep learning.

My research is just one example of the ongoing research about writing and the teaching of writing that takes place at the University Writing Center. We are, as our mission statement points out, “committed to being part of ongoing scholarly conversations about the teaching of writing.” You can see this research reflected in work that Cassandra Book, our Associate Director, did on our Virtual Writing Center, or by the publications and graduate student projects that you can find listed on our website, or the conferences at which our staff present each year. An essential part of being a research university is the idea that we should use our research to contribute to knowledge in our field and enhance the educational experiences of our students. We’re looking forward to the start of the spring semester and to helping all writers find the strategies, and confidence, that will offer them the chance to express their ideas as clearly and creatively as possible.

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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.

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.

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