Category: Writing Center Research

Rethinking Writing in the Digital Age: Implications for Writing Center Tutoring

Olalekan Adepoju, Writing Consultant

The boom in digital technologies continues to challenge our basic understanding of writing and literacy practices. Which, for the most part, is a good thing.  This is because these technologies provide genuine platforms for improvement to our information and literacy practices in terms of what is learned, how it is learned, where it is learned and when it is learned. In fact, these available digital devices enable students to learn at their own pace and develop skills needed in a modern society.

It is evident that, nowadays, technological tools are ubiquitous and widely accessible to all categories of people, thereby aiding teaching and learning. This has no doubt contributed to the disruption to literacy practices, especially writing, in that information  used to be conveyed mainly through two modes, namely alphabets and visual elements such as white space, margins and font size.  But this has now been extended to include multiple modes such as visual images, video, color, and sound among others. Social media has also helped a great deal to extend the impact of writing practices beyond pen/pencil and paper to creating a wide space and opportunity for writing to occur beyond the pages of a book.

These forms of writing, thus, necessitate that we, as writing center consultants, re-consider our tutoring strategies to achieve our objective of making a better writer instead of simply making a better text. One of the crucial reasons for rethinking writing in this digital age is because of its implication for knowledge transfer. The proliferation of digital technologies has accentuated the need for creative thinking in all aspects of our lives, and has also provided tools that can help us improve and transfer important skills for knowledge production.

Although writing center consultants’ familiarity with different modes of communication is generally important during tutoring sessions, it is nevertheless not necessary for the tutors to possess expertise in the use of technologies or a genre-specific knowledge of how these modes work in their entirety. However, discussing the thinking and production processes of the digital text constitutes an important aspect of the tutoring; this inevitably helps writers in transferring relevant skills and knowledge garnered through the production stages of the digital texts into other aspects of life.

In addition, since writers, wittingly or unwittingly, approach their writing practices using “all available means of communication” (Takayoshi and Selfe, 2007) at the disposal to express their intentions to the audience, tutoring sessions should also include an examination of the effectiveness of the rhetorical choices and moves made by the writer to achieve this goal.

Rethinking writing practices in this digital age also has an implication for collaboration between the writing center and the digital media centers. Such partnerships, it is believed, will foster efforts on helping students who are struggling with the production of their digital writing practices as well as open a line of communication and exchange of information on the progress and improvements of writers’ digital texts.

To conclude, I would echo Takayoshi and Selfe’s (2007) notion that, if the writing center is to foster the goal of making a better writer, who can both “create meaning in texts and interpret meaning from text within a dynamic and increasingly technological world”, we need to rethink our approaches in order to enable a tutoring session that accommodates the affordances of writing in the digital age.

Source

Takayoshi, Pamela and Cynthia L., Selfe. “Thinking about Multimodality.” Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers . Ed. Cynthia L., Selfe, Cresskill: Hampton P, 2007, pp 1-12.

The Inclusive Tutor: Addressing and Redressing Diversity in the Writing Center

Shiva Mainaly, Writing Consultant

What are the attributes and traits of an inclusive tutor? Why do we need an inclusive tutor?
How does an inclusive tutor differ from a non-inclusive tutor? Why is the question of inclusion so important to writing centers?

These are the questions that have compelled me to ponder.

We have sufficient records that our writing center has been visited by a large number of students year by year. Among those students who have visited our writing center, a considerable number of them are non-American, non-native speakers of English, resident students, visa students, students belonging to 1.5 generation, students on F1 and J 1 status. Some of these students are enrolled in undergraduate classes whereas others are enrolled in graduate level courses. These students embody different socio-cultural, linguistic, historical, and continent specific experiences.

The number of those students having unique cultural differences is on the rise. To provide care, support and guidelines, the writing center has been widening its scope. Since the writing center has already taken constructive steps to include students regardless of caste, creed, convention, color, disability and gender, it has been hailed as the hub where diversity, the differential, and disability are carefully accepted and constructive counseling is given keeping in mind the unique nuance, agency and concern of student writers.

To address constructively all those voices, expectations, dignity, agency and sensibilities of students, writing center needs inclusive tutors. Only inclusive tutors can handle with dignity the longings, concerns and curiosities of student writers. In the present time in which writing centers have been witnessing the flow of students both native and nonnative speakers of English, what writing centers need is inclusive tutors.

By an inclusive tutor, I mean the sort of tutor who demonstrates tremendous patience and a sense of acceptance when it comes to looking into the student drafts. Only those tutors who have the capacity to say ‘yes’ to their own weaknesses, frailties, flaws, feet of clay, shortcoming and limitations can accept the others as they really are. Here I am reminded of what Francis Fukuyama in his book Identity says “the longing to get recognition from others is the universal longing everyone is endowed with. It is this longing for recognition from others that drives us to forge and foment the question of identity”.

Below I have presented some attributes and traits of an inclusive tutor:

• The inclusive tutor does not get stuck on any identity category rooted in caste, creed, convention, color and gender when he or she starts tutoring in writing center.

 
• An inclusive tutor possesses tremendous power of acceptance. In no way, he or she deviates from the centrality of his or her power of accepting difference in any form.

 
• Language has the power to influence thought and vice versa. So, the inclusive tutor does not believe in the dichotomy of lower order concern and higher order concern.

 
• The inclusive tutor is always ready to address any concern of students be it grammar and punctuation or structural chronology of ideas without compromising with the foundational belief that writing center is not a grammar fixing center.

 
• The inclusive tutor acts in an innovative way. Labels, categories, stereotypes and banal modes of expressions are simply rejected by an inclusive tutor.

 
• The inclusive tutor knows when and how to switch deftly and smartly from non-directive modes of tutoring to directive modes of tutoring.

 
• The inclusive tutor believes and acts on the assumption that every student writer is a world in himself or herself. And the tutor navigates this world with consciousness.

 
• The inclusive tutor is driven by the belief that all forms of literacy are interrelated, supplementary, complementary, correlative, and symbiotically linked. Alphabetic literacy, visual literacy, digital literacy, community literacy, twitteracy etc. are all important in knowledge making process. The inclusive tutor makes use of anything that serves the best goal of tutor and boosts the institutional prestige and standing of writing center.

 
• An inclusive tutor forcibly believes that after each interaction with student writer, a new self is born in the life of inclusive tutor.

 
• The inclusive tutor is a mirror on which student writer finds the reflection of his or her own image, face.

 
• Writing is not a product of solitary endeavor. It is a product of collective efforts. This is the quintessence of inclusive tutoring.

The Writer’s Notebook: Building Your Toolkit

Quaid Adams, Consultant

Writing is hard and can be daunting. Let’s get that out of the way first and foremost. Just like with math or science, some people excel at writing and can pump out dissertation length pieces with ease.Quaid Adams  While there are others who find themselves barely being able to string words together to make what they think is a “good” sentence, let alone, a longer piece of writing. I get it. Truly, I do.

Even though I am a graduate student in English, there are days that I struggle to write. Whether that is due to me not really having a direction to go in a new piece or hitting the dreaded wall of writer’s block in the middle of something I have already started. Or even not really feeling like writing that day because there is so many other things going on in my life that I cannot focus long enough to write something well.
Everyone’s story with writing is different and there can be real beauty in that. However, there is one thing I am sure of, there is no such thing as a bad writer.

Regardless of what former teachers, family, or friends have said in the past, you are a writer, neither good nor bad, but a writer who is ever changing and learning. We all are. We can all bring different things to the table and can share amazing stories given the opportunity, some of us are just a bit more reserved about it than others. Writing, whether academic or creative can be an outlet for so many things and can not only serve as a form of expression, but also as a form of therapy and a way to bring clarity to this crazy world. One tool that I have found that incorporates all of this is by beginning to keep a writer’s notebook.

What is a writer’s notebook? The answer to that is simple; it can be whatever you want. However, you may think this freedom makes it sound like a journal or a diary in its makeup. While it does share similarities, the writer’s notebook functions as more of a reactionary platform versus one of description. In his book, A Writer’s Notebook, author Ralph Fletcher describes the writer as someone who reacts to their world and differentiates them from ordinary people who notice things but do nothing about it. He goes on to describe the writer’s notebook as, “a place to write down what makes you angry or sad or amazed, to write down what you noticed and don’t want to forget, to record exactly what your grandmother whispered in your ear before she said good-bye for the last time” (4).

The writer’s notebook is a sanctuary for the writer and its pages are there for them to explore and express themselves through. Writing a paper for class and having too many ideas? Make a list or a web to get your thoughts organized. Lost in a daydream about some far-off fantastical place? Write it down in detail as a starting point for a larger piece of writing. Walk up on one of those campus protest about something you are feeling strongly about but can’t express yourself out loud, write about those feelings. It is your notebook to do with as you please. You can write pages on a single topic or just scribble an idea or something you overheard in the margins of the page to come back to later. Make it look professional with hard-leather backing or make it bright and colorful. Whatever reflects you as a person and whatever is going to make you use it.

I know, I know. It sounds kind of hokey and like just another piece of writing you have to keep up with in your already busy schedule, but hear me out. Writers get better at writing by doing it. Using the writer’s notebook to do this in an environment where you are not being graded or judged allows you to write without fear of repercussions or without an impending deadline looming. It also allows you to have complete creative control of whatever goes into your notebook. Not unlike a tradition journal in this sense, it also allows to you observe and react to the world around you, and as a way to channel your emotions into your writing.

However, the difference here is that while you may be using it as a means of therapy, these feelings and thought are also neatly tucked away into your writer’s notebook, ready for you to pull inspiration from someday down the line. So while you are benefiting from it now by relieving stress or the emotional trauma of Qdoba being out of steak for the burrito you’ve been craving since noon, you may also benefit from it in the future when you need inspiration for another project. The notebook can utilized in terms of academic and creative writing as well. Say an idea pops into your head about a story you might like to write or a topic for a research paper miraculously appears, write it down. Even if you don’t return to it anytime soon, its still written down and ready for you to pull from whenever you need it.

This brings up another important use for the writer’s notebook; reflection and editing. Your notebook is a glimpse inside your mind, spilled out onto a piece of paper. The only difference is that while thoughts are fleeting and can be easily forgotten, what your write in your journal is a tangible representation of your feelings and thoughts which can be visited whenever necessary. Reflection and editing is a vital step in any writer’s journey through a piece. It allows us to better understand ourselves and the work we have done to actually sit back and reflect on its importance to us and to whatever it is we are working on at the time. Through your writer’s notebook you can do just that, without constantly worrying about grammar or spelling errors. You can write what you are experiencing or whatever jumbled thought flits through your mind. Just write it, let it stew, and come back to it on a rainy day, or never again if you don’t want to. Sometimes it is good to get things out of our head and it is ok to never look back at it again. However, it is there should you want to.

The writer’s notebook is a multi-faceted tool for any and all writers, be they from academia, or just the poets and writers that wander the world making it a little better with each written word. It has something for everyone to benefit from regardless if you think you are a good writer or a bad one. Through the use of this resource, we as writers can have safe place to store our ideas, our feelings, and musings, if for no one else but ourselves. So pick up an empty notebook today and just start writing, it doesn’t matter about what, just write. You may be amazed at what actually comes out on the page.

                                                                           Works Cited

          Fletcher, Ralph. A Writer’s Notebook. HarperTrophy, 2006

If interested in further reading on the topic, I highly suggest picking up a copy of the work cited above, Ralph Fletcher’s, A Writer’s Notebook. Below is the link from Amazon:

Get Babashook: Finding Inspiration in the Mundane

Catherine Lange, Consultant 

     Have you ever found yourself doing something mundane and relating it to something you just learned in class? Maybe you kick a soccer ball in an arc and then consider the algebra of soccer. Or perhaps you watch a movie and think it has some interesting perspectives on an issue.Catherine Lange

     Inspiration can come from any number of completely mundane places, as it did for me while watching The Babadook. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it follows the development of a monster that correlates to the mental break of the main character. As I watched The Babadook, I found myself considering the implications of the monster. If he is an entity dependent on the mother, is he a projection of her anxieties? And, if he is, what anxieties is she projecting through the monster? This horror film offered me a means of recreation and fodder for a possible analytical essay. What would my thesis be? Could the monster be the mother’s projection of her sexual anxieties?

     All of these questions inform my writing potential and would make for a creative but academic essay.  So, as you go about your day, look for the connections you can make between your everyday life and your coursework; sometimes inspiration is closer than it seems…

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.

Behind the Scenes at the Virtual Writing Center

Cassie Book, Associate Director

DSCN3703

As the University Writing Center’s (UWC) Associate Director, I’m always interested in ways to move from practice-based questions to research and practical improvements. The goal of a recent research project was to improve the overall Virtual Writing Center experience for both writers and consultants. During my day-to-day experience in the UWC, I noticed that some writers (the students, faculty, and staff who use our services) had difficulty locating Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule. The “Virtual Writing Center” broadly encompass our website and synchronous (live chat) and asynchronous (written feedback) online tutoring. We offer both forms of Virtual appointments to Distance Education students and those who cannot visit for a face-to-face appointment. In addition to noting that some writers couldn’t find the Virtual Writing Center appointments on our online schedule, other writers accidentally scheduled a live online chat session when they really wanted asynchronous written feedback on their draft. These were not trivial issues. If not corrected, they result in a writer not getting the help they wanted or losing valuable appointment time.

I developed a research project based on “user-experience” (UX) methodologies that would allow me to investigate where the breakdown in usability and/or communication occurred. The most important reason why it is important for writers to be able to successfully use the technology writing centers employ is accessibility. For instance, in physical writing center spaces, stairs leading to an entrance could be a barrier for a writer using a wheelchair or crutches. In online spaces, the clunky setup of online scheduling systems could create barriers to accessing writing centers. Understanding how writers use our UWC’s online scheduling system would help us redesign elements of the system to make it as welcoming and usable as possible for all potential users.

To understand how our website and schedule confused writers, I recruited six UofL students who have never used the Virtual Writing Center and conducted usability tests and interviews. A “usability test” is not really a “test;” it simply provides scenarios for study participants to undertake (such as, “schedule an appointment in the Writing Center; you want the kind of appointment where you do not physically have to go to the Writing Center”) while a researcher (me) observes them. My follow-up interviews asked the students to discuss their perceptions of the scheduling process and the website. Finally, also I observed three Virtual Writing Center consultants as they worked and conducted a focus group about their use and perceptions of the technology. I collected and analyzed the data on the usability tests, interviews, observations, and focus group to create a picture of what was happening “behind the scenes” of the Virtual Writing Center. For example, to analyze the usability test data and interviews, I simply looked for patterns. One pattern I noticed was that most participants did not stop to read the instructions on our website before attempting to schedule an appointment. My data overall showed me how consultants and writers used the technology, which was valuable for me as an administrator wanting to improve their online experiences.

After I analyzed the data, I developed a list of recommendations for changes to the website and scheduling system based on my findings. We’ve already put in place several improvements! These include: redesigning the Appointments webpage using icons and new resources, such as a new Frequently Asked Questions about the Virtual Writing Center. We also added disclaimers and visual clues on the Appointment page and online schedule to grab writers’ attention to let them know where to find the Virtual Writing Center schedule (see below). We changed the names of the Virtual appointment types to more logically descriptive names. Now the choice between “Written Feedback” and “Live Video Chat” in the Virtual Writing Center is, we hope, clearer. We also revised some of the training for our Virtual Writing Center consultants to ease their anxieties about using technology to communicate about writing. If our consultants aren’t 100% comfortable with it, we can’t expect the writers to be.

announcement uwc wconline
The revised announcement on our Ekstrom Library location schedule, which uses visuals to capture users’ attention.

I would like to make two points to conclude. First, I believe that integrating user-experience perspectives into writing center practices benefits both writing center administrators, to make more informed design decisions, and writers, to more easily access centers. Writing centers (alongside other entities in education) can get easily excited about a new innovation or tool, but we need to also think critically about the impact on students, especially in terms of accessibility. Writing center theory already values writer-centered practices and user-experience studies build on that foundation. Second, a major tenant of user-experience research is that it should be ongoing, so our work is not done! We will continue to collect data on how our writers and consultants use our technology and use those insights to make adjustments to practice.

This research was funded by the Christine Cozzens Research Grant from the Southeastern Writing Center Association and will likely appear in more detail in a future publication.

Writing Centers Look Back: A Focus on Methodologies and Institutional History

Cassie Book, Associate Director 

Last week I attended the annual International Writing Centers Association conference in Denver, Colorado. In 1983, the first ever conference for the organization was held in Denver (pro tip: it used to be the National Writing Centers Association). Fittingly, this year’s theme was “frontiers,” which allowed writing center scholars and practitioners a moment to consider connections to our past. Conference organizers, including conference chair John Nordlof, also asked participants to question new territories and critically reflect upon colonial, capitalist, racist ideologies that persist in writing centers and institutional spaces. As Shannon Carter has argued, writing centers are paradoxically caught between institutional priorities and our educational commitments to literacy.

Everyone experiences a conference individually— through sessions selected, dinner conversations, tweets (#iwca2016), and scribbled notes in the program’s margins. As I followed the crumbs of my own writing center interests, a theme emerged. I noticed the complexity in looking to the future when we’re in a field saturated with the richness of situated and lived experiences of teacher-scholar-practitioners. I saw this in both explicit critical reflections on research methodologies and implicit acknowledgements of the effects of local institutional histories on current and future practices.

More than last year, I noticed presenters thoroughly engaging with and reflecting on methodologies for creating knowledge in writing center studies. For instance, Holly Ryan’s survey results seem to indicate that a video demo compared to an in-person demo of a tutorial have equally positive effects on students’ intentions to visit the writing center. Yet, Ryan didn’t stop with results and implications. She encouraged the audience to both follow our intuitions and consider the limitations of survey research; she even provided examples from other disciplines. Steve Sherwood took a wider view in his reflection on scholarship and research trends. Though he was generally supportive of the current landscape, he admitted his unease with the current push toward valuing replicable, aggregable, data-driven (RAD) studies. Sherwood said he certainly sees the value, but wonders: what is lost? What happens to our practitioners’ knowledge? Building on the notion of questioning RAD, Rebecca Hallman proposed that qualitative writing center researchers, in order to account for local situations, cannot neatly or ethically replicate methods of past studies. Again, using the opportunity to “look back,” presenters turned a critically reflective lens onto their and the fields’ methodologies.

I also noticed the pull of the past in presentations focused on new initiatives. For instance, I presented with a panel analyzing writing centers’ move into learning commons. Both of my co-panelists, Mary Beth Simmons and Melissa Manchester, included how their institutional histories affected their current situation. I’m reminded that I too should more thoroughly consider institutional history as I research how UofL’s University Writing Center can best collaborate with our new neighbors in Ekstrom Library’s Learning Commons. In the digital realm, Megan Boeshart reminded her audience that digital technologies have institutional histories too—online tutoring must be developed and maintained within the affordances and constraints of available campus technology, student familiarity, and tutor expertise. If not, online tutoring, though available, might not be accessible. Finally, I noticed attention to graduate student consultants. Like UofL’s University Writing Center, many centers employ graduate students. However, as presenters such as Deanna Babcock, Molly Tetreault, Bradfield Dittrich, and Bridget Carlson argued, graduate student consultants bring with them their developing disciplinary identities, and varied goals for themselves as teachers and professionals. The writing center may or may not play a significant role in their teacherly identity. Yet, graduate student consultants are built into the very foundations of many writing centers, like UofL’s, and rightly so. My point is, when looking to the future, we must take into consideration our local institutional histories. I appreciated the presentations that attended to the messiness of their local situations.

For writing center scholars, writing centers are both our subjective daily lived experiences and an object of our scholarly attention. IWCA’s exercise in variations on “frontiers” has allowed me to see that writing centers studies may be in a formative space as we begin to question the strengths and weaknesses of methodologies, such as RAD, and look to how our local institutional histories affect current and future practices.

Works Cited

Carter, Shannon. “The Writing Center Paradox: Talk about Legitimacy and the Problem of Institutional Change.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): W133-W152. Print.

International Writing Centers Association Annual Conference, Denver, CO, October 2016. Conference program. 19 October 2016. Web.