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All Pathos All the Time: In Pursuit of Credibility in a Post-Truth World

Taryn Hall, consultant

Last week in the University Writing Center, I had the pleasure to work with a writer on a paper which I’ve been thinking a lot about since. The paper was considering the role of education in the post-truth era, a term which I’ve heard before, but hadn’t fully Tarynconsidered the gravity of its meaning. Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year, post-truth refers generally to the idea that facts have become less significant in the public opinion—and in policy making—than political appeals to emotion (Wang). It’s a pretty postmodern idea, right? Objectivity (and reality, maybe) seems to mean little in terms of our relationship to what we stand for as voters and what we look for in our elected officials. This consultation took place on the morning after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and like many of us, I felt the weight of that event like I have many times before. The empty emotional appeals, rather than actionable plans, that I was seeing on social media from politicians and citizens alike perhaps made me sensitive to the conversation I had with the writer, but I left the consultation really thinking about the idea of the post-truth world and our place within it.

The tendrils of post-truth have seeped into further corners of our consciousness than solely the ways in which we connect with politics, however. That emotional appeals are given greater weight than truth is often evident in the work we do as writers and thinkers. Here at UofL, we’ve reached a point in our semester where many of our English 101 and 102 classes are working on either annotated bibliographies or rhetorical analyses. When I work with these students in the UWC, I often find that these assignments are their first experiences delving into secondary sources or examining the rhetorical moves of authors. While I’m sure that professors do an excellent job of preparing students to look beyond the emotional appeals in pursuit of the ethos of their source authors, I still occasionally find myself reading drafts which are predicated on the emotional response a piece elicited from them. Maybe a student didn’t trust the validity of a source because it was arguing for something that they personally don’t believe in, or they have chosen a news article which came from a definitely-not-credible corner of the internet because the emotional appeals made it easier to connect to and thus write about. It’s challenging, though rewarding, to help students learn what it means to find appropriate sources for academic work, but I think my job as a tutor working during this post-truth era is larger. I want to help writers develop their own authorial ethos.

Ethos, in academic writing, is generally used in reference to the credibility of the author: Who are they? How do their credentials affect the authenticity of their argument? As one of Aristotle’s appeals, ethos is an essential concept for those who are working on a rhetorical analysis. Most students learn to interpret the ethos of the authors of their sources, yet sometimes it seems like we don’t teach students to consider their own ethos as they write. You establish your credibility by citing sources, of course, but there’s more to it than that. As Tim noted in his blog post a couple of weeks ago, we are always engaged in manipulation in writing; you couldn’t persuade anyone if you weren’t, yet we have a responsibility to use that manipulation ethically. We do this by privileging facts over blatant or underhanded emotional appeals and by vetting our sources consistently and appropriately. Ultimately, it seems that our duty as learners—and citizens—is to help make this post-truth world a little more truthful.

Work Cited

Wang, Amy B. “‘Post-truth’ Named 2016 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.” Washington Post, 16 Nov. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.4d3811168f02.

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A Thin Line Between Love and [Redacted]

Brent Coughenour, consultant

Someone once told me—it could’ve been my very wise mother—that every song we heard on the radio was about love, or something like it. This was around the time that the songs “Cry Me A River,” Justin Timberlake singing sardonically about his lost love Brentwith Britney Spears, and “Everytime,” Spears’ response to Timberlake, were all over the air waves. Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” appeared prominently in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a film very much about the love between a mother and her daughter, creating this circle of overlapping Items-of-Popular-Culture-About-Love. Love (or lost love) figures so prominently in our day-to-day intake of pop culture that, when you really sit and think about it, it’s a little odd that we dedicate an entire holiday to it like it’s some kind of prominent mythical deity. Valentine’s Day, which falls in 2018 on a Wednesday—this Wednesday!—is so ubiquitous to American culture that it isn’t surprising to us when parades of red and pink, often accompanied with an uncomfortable amount of hearts, invade our department store aisles pretty much the day after Christmas. This year, I’ve taken some time to reflect about the pervasive nature of love and I ask myself the question: what do we talk about when we talk about love? (A shameless reference, sorry.)

Even if we avoid using that terrifying word “love with a capital L,” it’s hard to avoid feeling, especially when we sit down to write. An oft-repeated mantra in creative writing is “write about what you know.” This can certainly be limiting, and there are numerous variations on the prompt, but it can be particularly helpful to do this when you’re stuck on something. American short story writer Raymond Carver did this often: he was an alcoholic who had been divorced, so he wrote characters who were alcoholic and who had been divorced. This is what Carver knew in his life, but it is also what he loved, as he wrote about often in autobiographical essays. Carver stayed so strictly within these realistic guidelines that he set for himself because he could write about them, and write about them well. This leads into something that I tell writers in any kind of brainstorming that we work on in the Writing Center: if you have been given freedom to write about whatever you want then that’s awesome, you can write about what you know! And more often than not, something that the writers know is something that they love, at least in a roundabout sort of way—and it’s fun to write when filled with love!

Even if they don’t love a topic, though, writers can probably write strongly about something that lies on the other end of the spectrum. The emotion on the other end—which is equally powerful but shall remain unnamed here because, c’mon, this is a Valentine’s Day-themed blog post—can also elicit some pretty strong emotions, which can lead to some powerful writing. True crime authors do this often; it’s not likely they love the often horrific things they’re writing about, but these stories bring from them such a wide array of wicked emotions that give them the urge and the drive to write about something and keep writing. Going even further I’d wager to say that, in many cases, the emotion of love and the emotion of [redacted] are conflated with one another. Carver was probably not too happy that he was a divorced alcoholic, and in fact may have really not liked this fact about himself, but it made him who he was and it eventually led him to the life that he loved for himself where he could write feely (and probably drink, too) with his second wife. Greta Gerwig has spoken about not being so happy with the relationship she had with her mother when she was a teenager, yet undoubtedly love was there too, and that relationship was the genesis of Lady Bird which has now yielded her two Oscar nominations (and you should see that film, because it’s wonderful). If a writer is writing an argumentative essay in the Writing Center, I’ll often tell them that it’s great to write about something that really irritates them—it’s fun to write when filled with anger!

Loving something you write about can be important, but it’s also important to love the writing process. These two things ideally go hand in hand, and I personally find it difficult to do one without the other. Love is a peculiar emotion—it’s overused and trite, unique and effervescent, and sometimes true love can only be directed at furry critters like the two cats staring at me while I write this. Still, love or something like it (like [redacted emotion]) is an incredibly strong feeling, and one that can elicit some really skillful writing. This Valentine’s Day take in the love that you receive from others, but, if you’re feeling [redacted emotion], that’s okay too. Be like Raymond Carver and write about both feelings, because they go hand-in-hand and both are vital to a healthy love of writing. But don’t be an alcoholic. Consider that your Valentine’s Day Public Service Announcement.

Giving Voice to Dirty Words

Tim Phelps, Consultant

In 1991, an era still rampant with fears and misinformation about HIV and AIDS, the hip-hop group Salt-n-Pepa released a song called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which celebratedTim Phelps safe and responsible sex through healthy and honest communication.  The song found success, not only for its catchy beat, but for its unashamed use of the word “sex” itself—the message being that the only useful way of handling the subject was to talk about it clearly and openly.  “Let’s Talk About Sex” argued that the first step in tackling a difficult subject was to not be afraid to say its name.

In that frame of mind, we should consider another word that can also bring up difficult conversation, one that is sometimes considered a dirty word.  It’s a word that really deserves a fair chance, and one that we can’t ignore if we are going to improve our writing.

Let’s talk about manipulation.

Yes, I’m about to argue that manipulation can be a good thing.  I know, I know.  The word has a pretty tough connotation to overcome from the start—it automatically brings about all the negative experiences we’ve had with bosses, parents, friends, and significant others.  If we hear a description of someone being called “manipulative,” we automatically know we don’t want to be around that person.

But if we can distance the word from its negative associations for a moment, we’ll see that almost everything we do is manipulation.  Looking at the professor while you’re really thinking about what to have for lunch?  Using certain words around your friends that you wouldn’t use around your grandma?  Wearing nice clothes, or putting on makeup, or fixing your hair before you go out in public (even though your three-days-dirty pajama pants would be super comfortable while sitting in class)?  These are all manipulative, and we are doing this all the time.  What I hope you’re beginning to understand is that manipulation is not automatically negative.  Plenty of our day-to-day lives are filled with us manipulating each other, and most of the time, we wouldn’t be able to say it’s exactly bad.  While there are certainly nefarious and selfish uses of manipulation, it all boils down to how it’s used.

Manipulation is crucial for quality writing.  If we can’t find ways of manipulating our various audiences, then we simply won’t be effective with our arguments.  We usually talk about manipulation in high school or college English classes using nicer words such as ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos, but rarely recognize these persuasive appeals for what they really are.  Writers who can expertly deliver what the reader needs to hear at that certain moment can convince others of almost anything.  To write well is to have control over your message, and to have power over your audience.

As I’ve said before, this shouldn’t imply an automatic negative connotation.  Sure, I could potentially use that power and control for my own selfish needs.  Or, consider the alternative: I could use that power and control to fight for what’s right in the world, to help people up when they are down, to support the emotional, physical, and financial goals of those I care for.

In order to do that, in order to have even a chance at that positive power, we have to be willing to consider our writing from our audience’s viewpoint—ideally, a viewpoint that does not agree with us.  By taking this approach, we can start to see where our efficiency breaks down, where changing the organization of logic makes it easier to follow, where adding an emotional appeal might make it easier for that audience to agree.  As you practice more and more, you’ll find individual words that could make all the difference between success and failure.  This becomes just as true for writing that isn’t even (technically) an argument.  If I’m reading fiction or a poem, I still need convincing that what I’m reading is worth my time.

None of these skills are easy as a writer, but we can begin by not being afraid to admit that effective writing is really just effective manipulation.  Salt-n-Pepa manipulated a new generation positively by giving voice to a word that plenty of households considered a dirty topic at the time.  Once we reach the same step of awareness with manipulation, we can experiment with ways of making our manipulation stronger, and by extension, our writing more powerful.

Showing Up Over and Over Again: Some Updates on Our Community Literacy Projects

Layne Gordon, Assistant Director

If you’ve been keeping up with our blog for some time, then you may have already heard a little bit about our community partnerships with Family Scholar House and the LayneWestern branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. We are now in our third year of exploring ways to fulfill our commitment to community literacy in the broader Louisville area, and these projects have recently unfolded in really interesting ways.

Last semester, one of our most exciting endeavors was partnering with students in Dr. Andrea Olinger’s undergraduate capstone course on “Literacy Tutoring Across Contexts and Cultures.” Upper level English majors in this course tutored for four weeks at our community partner sites, and their coursework allowed them to reflect on their experiences and discuss both foundational theories and pragmatic strategies related to community literacy projects. In turn, this partnership allowed us to significantly expand our presence at both partner sites. With the help of these students and five other more long term volunteers, we had a total of over 70 tutoring sessions at Family Scholar House and the Western branch in the fall.

Now that we have settled into the new year and new semester, we have some exciting updates to share about our community literacy projects and some things we’re looking forward to this spring.

1. Our undergraduate internship program.

This semester, we have expanded our relationship with the undergraduate English major program to create an internship opportunity in conjunction with our community partner sites. We are currently working with four interns who have regular, weekly tutoring hours at one of the two community locations, and–particularly at the Western branch–are helping us generate programming and outreach ideas. One benefit of this program is that these upper level students are able to explore their research interests in more concrete ways. For example, two of our interns have previously researched translingual and multilingual literacy tutoring, and another is interested in beginning a reading/debate group for elementary and middle school students at the Western branch. We are so excited about the range of interests these tutors bring to this experience, and we can’t wait to see how their involvement shapes the future of our community partnerships.

2. Working with adult and young writers at the Western branch.

When we first began our relationship with the Western branch, we focused primarily on K-12 literacy tutoring. During the summer of 2017, for example, we offered a series of comic writing workshops for young writers. However, at the end of last fall, Natalie Woods (the Western branch manager) and I decided to expand our literacy tutoring to include adult writers as well. Since we knew that the involvement of existing tutors and the addition of our new interns would allow us to offer even more weekly hours, we felt that the time was right to expand our tutoring for all ages. So far this semester, our tutors have already worked with young writers on school assignments, creative writing projects, and applications to local middle school magnet programs. We are looking forward to seeing how our tutors take advantage of this opportunity to work with a broader range of writers and how this change grows our involvement with the local community.

3. Continuing to learn from our community partners about how we can contribute to their goals.

From the beginning of this project, we have been committed to prioritizing the needs and goals of our community partner sites above all else. Drawing on the tenets of participatory action research, we have begun by “showing up” and listening to our partners, then offering our knowledge and institutional resources for the purposes that they deem fit. While the same can be said for community literacy work in general, this approach in particular requires a great deal of flexibility and creative thinking. It isn’t enough to show up once and think we have everything figured out. We must continually listen and look for new ways to show up for the communities we are working with. Through this process, we have already learned so much about what we can bring to writers in the community and how we can create sustainable relationships with these organizations and the populations they serve. As we develop new ways to adapt to the needs of the broader community, we are so excited about the opportunities, challenges, and successes that await us as we continue to look for ways to fulfill our commitment to showing up over and over again.

“Words with Friends” and Other Ways to Write Outside the Classroom

Keaton Price, Consultant

I’ve recently started playing the game “Words with Friends” with one of my coworkers and I’m obsessed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, this app can be added to your phone and allows you to play a form of electronic Scrabble with Keatonwhomever you like. You can play with a stranger or one of your close friends, but be prepared to become addicted to this game of strategy. I’ve spent many nights playing until 1 am, a feat that is exhilarating in the moment but I ultimately regret when I have to be up early in the morning…

Not only has this game taught me many new words (who knew “qi” will not only get you at least 11 points on “Words with Friends” but also refers to “the circulating life force whose existence and properties are the basis of much Chinese philosophy and medicine”), but it has also made me start to think about the many forms of writing that people use outside of academia. Writing isn’t just something that you do in school. As Rachel discussed in her blog post, some people use journals or diaries to keep track of events in their lives. Beau too commented on his passion for journalism and how he continues to explore this area of writing outside the classroom by writing articles on sporting events at UofL. I play “Words with Friends” and not only have built up my vocabulary but also use this “academic” game as an excuse to avoid doing homework.

I feel like having a space outside of academia to do some writing is quite beneficial. Writing can be a healthy way to explore your passions or try and make sense of the world around you. It seems like a lot of the time people only associate writing negatively with school assignments, but there are so many other avenues that can allow you to see writing as a fun activity. And technology has only added more spaces for people to explore their writing abilities. Now people create blogs where they detail their hobbies and others use Twitter or Facebook posts to contribute to conversations that concern their areas of interest. The list goes on and on. Ultimately, writing shouldn’t be seen as a burdensome task that you only do when your schoolwork requires it of you. There are so many ways that make writing fun and introduce you to new ideas or, in my case, words that you never considered before.

Idea Journaling

Mary-Kate Smith, Consultant

In the book Boy: Tales of Childhood, author Roald Dahl describes his practice of jotting down thoughts in a small idea journal. When looking for a new narrative, Dahl would consult his own undeveloped musings. From these brief notes taken years earlier, Dahl Mary-Kate Smithdeveloped a number of beloved stories including Fantastic Mr. Fox and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Since reading Boy, I have kept an idea journal similar to Dahl’s. Though my notes focus on coursework rather than on creative writing, Dahl’s practice has been very useful to me. Whenever I am asked to writing an essay, a conference paper, a proposal, or even I blog post, I consult my idea notes hoping for a spark of inspiration. Looking at previous, spontaneously incepted ideas often helps me to eliminate writer’s block in a way forcing new ideas does not. Thus far, I have chosen all of my graduate school seminar paper topics in this manner. Often, brainstorming with others helps writers to develop ideas. When outside insight is not available, however, an idea journal can offer the needed intellectual spark.

Not every journal needs to follow a paper and pen method, though fancy stationary probably can’t hurt. I often write thoughts into the “Ideas” note on my MacBook. Post-it notes, smart phone self-texts, newspaper marginalia, and napkin memos are all viable options. Notes can be as short as a single word and as long as a paragraph, though mine tend to stay closer to the one-word end of the spectrum. Overall, if writers make an effort to collect and record ideas, no mater how seemingly ridiculous, they prepare themselves to develop these ideas and others in the future.

Silencing Self-Doubt

Taryn Hall, Consultant

As I write this, I am about seven hours away from giving a presentation for which I have been preparing for around a month. The research is done, the paper is written, yet I find myself doubting that my hard work has resulted in something worth presenting. If I’m not careful, I end up struggling with this same sense of self-doubt about many of my writing assignments. Usually, when I give in to the temptation to doubt myself, it devolves quickly into something which prevents me from being productive: Is this idea Tarynworth researching and writing about? Am I qualified to make such an argument? Am I bringing anything new to the academic conversation?

Feeling like an imposter in academia is often at the back of my mind when I am writing. And I know, from my work in the University Writing Center, that I am far from being the only one who feels this way. In fact, I’m sure most of us have experienced this at one time or another. We’re confronted with a new genre of writing, or with a particularly challenging prompt, and we respond by overthinking to the point of doubting ourselves. At its worst, I’ve seen this become something which stops the writing process in its tracks. Writers come to us feeling anxious or overwhelmed; they express doubt that they can pull off the assignment, and they say things like “I’m a terrible writer.”

Of course, as tutors and peers to the writers with whom we work, we know that they aren’t bad writers. That indeed, each writer who comes to us is approaching writing with a unique perspective and an individual voice worth adding to the conversations ongoing in their respective fields or majors. My goal as consultant is to help writers alleviate these anxieties and to silence the self-doubt of academic authorship. As Nicole discusses in her recent blog post, learning to locate one’s voice in academia can be challenging; we have to overcome our sense of not belonging in order to feel like members of the academic community.

This is a task which feels like something that we’re always in the process of doing. For a while, as I got close to finishing undergrad, I felt like I was finally starting to find my niche and had this whole writing thing figured out. And then I got to grad school, where I was the newest member of a whole new conversation. Back to square one. While this causes some level of anxiety when I approach new writing tasks, I also find that my newbie status helps me feel more engaged with actively learning new genres and new techniques. It’s okay to not have the conventions of graduate writing down pat, just as it was okay when I was in English 101 to not have the conventions of college writing mastered.

While I find some level of self-doubt instructive, as it encourages me to learn and to overcome, I have to beware of that anxiety becoming crippling. This is why I recommend to writers who express having similar feelings of doubt or insecurity a proactive approach to their anxiety. If you know that an upcoming paper is going to cause you to feel those feelings of self-doubt, talk to someone early in the writing process. Sometimes, the most beneficial thing you can do is just express your writing fears. The UWC can help you get off on the right foot before you ever have to commit pen to paper or fingers to keys.

This is a strategy which has been essential to my own writing successes. I say this as someone who has returned to writing this blog post after having given the presentation I mentioned earlier. The sense of relief is palpable—I’m much less fidgety now—and I know that working with other consultants at the UWC on this assignment was essential to my writing process, and ultimately, to the success of the paper. They helped me focus, to figure out what was important, and to locate myself within the conversation I was attempting to enter.

While I’m sure that the next new genre I approach will make me briefly feel like an imposter, trying to skirt the defenses of academia while the Mission: Impossible theme song plays somewhere in the distance, I also feel comfortable in my ability to respond appropriately to my self-doubt, and to seek help when I get stalled. As this semester begins to draw rapidly to its close, I hope that members of our university-wide community of writers can find similar solace. If you have a paper, presentation, application, or other writing project coming up which has taken up an uncomfortable residence in your mind, we’re here to help.

College: What Your Guidance Counselor Didn’t Tell You

Mitzi Phelan, Consultant

I’m watching the professor’s mouth move. I’m nodding and smiling at appropriate times. My body language is positioned as engaged and interested. I nod appropriately as my classmates ask interesting questions relevant to the topic. My body is here, but my mind is not. So, you ask, where is my mind? At the moment, it is furiously engaged in Mitzischeduling. Somehow, this is the last week of October. I have a 12 page conference paper and presentation due Wednesday night. The good news: I have a stack of superb scholarly journals related to my subject matter. I also have a stack of 8 books checked out from the library that will lend a wealth of intellect to the research I am working on. The bad news: I have only read one of the journals and none of the books. So somehow I am going to need to synthesize all of that material into that conference paper in a very short amount of time. This is only one of the three papers that I need to make serious progress on before this semester ends in a few short weeks. So, am I mentally engaged in this class right now? No. I’m not. Do I want to be? Yes, absolutely. The information being discussed is vital to my chosen field. Also, college is expensive. It is costing me not only financially but time-wise as well. I miss evenings of going home and just hanging out with my family without a pending assignment looming over me. It is frustrating at times to find myself and my life dictated by due dates and deadlines. So what, you may ask, does this have to do with you? If you have never had an experience like the one described or felt the pressure of college closing in, then nothing. If you have, then everything.

College is challenging, and not just in the clichéd way people have always talked about. It takes commitment and dedication to be academically successful. But if we are completely honest, commitment and dedication is not drawn from an endless supply inside us. It usually is funneled from another place. Therefore, a high GPA usually means that some other area in a student’s life had to go on the back burner. The area that loses attention is different for everyone; for some it’s their social life that suffers, for others it’s leisure time, perhaps sleep. Many times the areas being sacrificed are not even an conscious decision by the student, they are just “getting things done.” But, at some point, this deficient area will make itself known.

My area made itself known when I realized that I had taken too much on and was overwhelmed with deadlines. The moment I described above was any eye-opener for me. I had to take a breath and self-evaluate. I became aware that I was frustrated with the lack of time I had with my family so I was procrastinating getting started on assignments. This led into a cycle of more frustration and more deficiencies in other areas of my life as I was overworking myself to stay successful academically.

If you are finding yourself falling into the these cycles of frustration that tend to happen at this point of the semester, I have some pointers that might can help. First, just breath. You’re going to be fine. Second, prioritize: what is the most important thing you need to be working on right now? Identify it and start chipping away at it. Instead of waiting till the night before a paper is due, start four days before it’s due and write a fourth of the assignment every night. Also, use resources; if you are having trouble starting an assignment, email your ideas to your professor. If they don’t like your ideas, they’ll tell you. Then you’ll know what NOT to write about. I encourage you to visit the Writing Center too. It is surprising how often just talking out an assignment with someone can make it come together so much more easily. Lastly, make peace with the fact that you aren’t going to “get” everything. There are going to be lectures that your mind spaces out on and there are going to be reading assignments that you just can’t get your head around. The funny thing about college is, it’s not until about the time you are nearing graduation that you realize that everyone is struggling as much, if not more, than you.

I leave you with the words of one of the writers I worked with last week: “Be kind to yourself.”

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 dscn2185our 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

WC staff 17

University Writing Center Staff, 2017-18

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.

 

Community Literacy and the Writing Center: Building Foundations

Amy McCleese Nichols, Assistant Director Amy N

For the past two years, the Writing Center has been working to build a commitment to community literacy into our activities. While writers from all over the university come to us for help with course assignments and beyond, writing centers constantly inhabit a liminal space where personal, academic, and professional writing collide. To honor this fact, we also wanted to expand our offerings to value writing that may happen off-campus, whether connected to higher education or not. While the role of writing centers and community engagement is still relatively new to writing center scholarship, we are excited about the potential benefits that what we might call writing center values, with their focus on listening and building trust over time, may have for the way university entities approach community partnerships.

Amy Picture1In Summer 2015, we began conversations with academic support staff at Family Scholar House to find out how our skills might be of use, and started offering workshops and tutoring hours for student writers on FSH campuses. This year, we expanded those hourly offerings and began allowing some of our trained consultants to volunteer as well. Three accomplishments we are particularly proud of this year:

  • Working in conjunction with Bronwyn Williams’ Spring 2017 Community Literacy course, we have been able to expand our spring hours to offer hours on multiple FSH campuses throughout the week, meeting a long-term FSH goAmy Picture2al of providing more in-house academic support for student writers.
  • Assistant Director Amy McCleese Nichols led families in a set of “Story-Making Workshops” during Fall 2016, which focused on composing for fun using family (or imagined) stories. This 3-day set of workshops had a total attendance of 81 adults, 52 children, and 48 hand-sewn booklets with individualized covers were made for participants to write stories in and take home.
  • This spring, we have also added another community partner: the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. Also working with the Community Literacy course, we are providing writing help every Tuesday for K-12 students.

Throughout these conversations, we have kept several values in play: showing up, listening, and building partnerships gradually for continuity. In Bronwyn’s words, we begin by simply “showing up.” Showing up in our context has meant keeping a sense of flexibility when setting up programs and plans. While we have put time and effort into making sure our work is meeting a need articulated by our partners, we also save room for the moments when no one shows up – and then we show up the week afterward. By building our relationships and a sense of trust gradually, we have found ourselves more able to have conversations when offerings need to change for the mutual benefit of both organizations.

We are also creating logistical structures within the Writing Center to support long-term partnerships. As the first Assistant Director working with community literacy, I brought a unique skill set from my previous work as a nonprofit volunteer coordinator. As I have worked with our partners, I have written manuals, kept records of previous conversations, and passed that knowledge on to other staff in the Writing Center so that our partnerships are not bound entirely to a semester-by-semester schedule. While our offerings and volunteer numbers will ebb and flow over time as partnerships evolve, we hope that having a consistent contact who stays in touch from year-to-year within the university will provide a sense of continuity for us and our partners while also providing opportunities for graduate student assistant directors to gain experience in the logistics of managing partnerships.

We look forward to learning more with Family Scholar House and Western Branch Library. This fall, we are partnering with the English 508: Literacy Tutoring course, taught by Dr. Andrea Olinger. The course will cover teaching writing individually and in small groups in academic, professional, and community contexts, and students that have taken it will be qualified to complete internships and volunteer work through these partnerships.

Ultimately, we hope that what Tiffany Rousculp has termed a “rhetoric of respect” will define our community literacy efforts. By putting our partners’ voices first in the conversation, keeping elements of our partnerships consistent, and strategically partnering with service-learning courses, we look forward to learning more with Family Scholar House and Western Branch Library.

 

 

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