UofL Writing Center

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Write Like You Mean It

Josh Christian, Consultant

            Advanced Composition appeared as an elective course in my student handbook at Campbellsville University, where I was an undergraduate. I enrolled my junior year, to try to get it out of the way for a freer, more calm senior year.Josh Christian (We all know about senioritis) But it was the only class on my schedule that semester I was concerned about, as I didn’t know what to expect. “Advanced Composition” read as if I was going to be plunged into the icy academic waters, left to sink or swim. So, sitting in the lecture hall on the first day of class, I was surprised when the syllabus listed a narrative as the class’s first formal assignment. First, I wondered about its elementary nature, how it seemed trivial for English majors. Then I began to panic. What was I going to write? How was I going to structure it? What ways could I approach such a broad topic? How would I know if I was writing it correctly?

If you are wondering, I didn’t die. I got through the assignment, and it was much easier than I thought it would be. But I do not believe I am alone in my panic, as in universities across the country, students are faced with such writing assignments in composition classes. And because of their lack of experience with writing narratives in an academic setting, they don’t know what to do.  The anxiety they are feeling is more than one writing assignment. No, it is evidence of something larger at play.

Throughout my high school and early academic experience, I was taught to write for the academy. I was to take myself out of the equation, permitted from using “I”. Instead I was told to be objective and to state my opinion but through an unbiased language. I was taught to not make a claim unless I could back it up. And if I did attempt to back up my claims, I needed to cite the material in-text and on a reference page of some sort. This was academic writing. The other kinds of writing, creative writing (stories, poems, plays, etc.) and journaling or messages sent to a friend, had their place but it just wasn’t in the academy.

You see, there had been a binary established, one in the making for generations before me. Academic writing sat on one side, while creative writing sat on the other. And like all binaries, there was a strict wall between them, especially early on, when all narrative or poetic elements were driven from a student’s paper until it became nothing more than thesis statements and transitional phrases. Don’t get me wrong, these elements of academic writing also have their place. But to drive the use of these elements out of any writing completely, is to take away a writer’s desire or ability to be creative, leaving stacks and stacks of student papers which otherwise could have been more thoughtful.

So, what do we do with such a binary? How do we, as students or faculty deal with it? How can we be excited about academic writing, if we can’t be creative? And how can we approach creative projects, like literacy narratives, if we haven’t historically been given permission to be creative before? Well, like any binary, we begin to defeat it when we question it. And when we begin to question the binary, it only helps if we are ready, as students and professors alike, to take back the mantle of “writer,” a title left for the literary authors who often mold the work we, as an academy, talk about.

            When we begin to identify as writers, we begin to take responsibility for our words. We begin to be more thoughtful about what we write because we have agency over our words, them becoming our own. So, make the choice that all writers have to make. When you read the assignment sheet, ask yourself where you can stand to be creative. How can you begin with an anecdote, using narrative elements? How can you push the limits of a rubric by thinking differently about a topic? How can you make what you are writing fun to write or read? Before you know it, your creativity will inform your academic work, and your academic writing will show you the necessity of research and argument. Dare to be a writer in your own right. And whatever you write, write like you mean it.Image result for bob dylan think different                                                                     (Apple, 1997)

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Education is an Optimist’s Racket – Starting the Academic Year by Remembering What Matters

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

My father, who spent his working life in schools, used to say, “Education is an optimist’s racket.” Certainly there has been news on every level around us that could lead people to feel exhausted and disheartened – and I have felt that as well. Yet a new academic year never fails to bring out the optimist in me. I find meaning and hope in all the new students on campus and the anticipation, by both those students and their instructors, in the learning that can happen in the weeks ahead. Looking around the University of

wc staff 2018

The University Writing Center Staff for 2018-19

Louisville campus, as the academic year begins, there is a lot that is notably new. It is heartening to hear new UofL President Neeli Bendapudi talk of her commitment to student learning and engagement, and, at the same time, see the opening of a new, modern building on campus that is also dedicated solely to student learning.

This year, like every year, University Writing Center  welcomed a new group of consultants who will spend the next year working with writers from across the UofL community. They have moved to UofL from across the country with a varied range of interests and backgrounds. Every group of consultants brings a new set of personalities, insights, and experiences to the University Writing Center. Every year the consultants form their own distinctive community of teacher/tutors here. Yet, this year, as in the years before, I am also confident that they will demonstrate a dedication to student learning that is equal to any on campus. What will not change is their eagerness to work with any writer on campus – student, faculty, or staff – on any kind of writing, at any point in the writing process. They will accomplish this in the same way as those that have preceded them, through collaborative conversations with writers. They will respond to the writers’ concerns, offer their own insights into how writers’ drafts could be made stronger, and help the writers formulate plans for revision. In doing so they will not only help the writers with individual drafts, but will offer insights to help them to navigate more confidently the writing challenges they will face in the future. I have no doubt the new consultants will find individual and distinctive ways to do this, but it will happen again in the University Writing Center.

Our commitment, to working with students ongoing dialogue, is central to what we do and will not change. We will continue also to teach without grading, to work with students as often as they want our help, to treat every writer with respect, and to base our pedagogical approaches on the most recent research in Writing and Literacy Studies.

Our approach to working with individual writers is not all that will stay the same this year. We will also continue to foster a culture of writing on campus in as many ways as we can. We will offer workshops on writing issues for classes and campus organizations.  Once again we will facilitate writing groups for Graduate Students and Faculty, Creative Writers, and LGBTQ+ Writers. For graduate students we will offer workshops on writing issues and our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. We will sponsor events, from our annual Halloween Scary Stories Open Mic Night, to our celebration of International Mother Language Day. What’s more, we will continue our community partnerships with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House.

Education is not a panacea, but it matters now more than ever, in every way. I’m grateful to have another crack it this year. I wish everyone a year of resolute and passionate teaching and learning.

 

 

 

 

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.

Teaching Practices in the Writing Center: Looking Forward

Amy Nichols, Consultant

More than a year ago, I took my first glance at the University of Louisville website. I remember being enthusiastic, as a former professor had recommended the program as one which might match well with my interests. I looked over the application and the professors in the department, but what really caught my eye was the description of the graduate assistantships for M.A. students: “Until they have completed eighteen hours of graduate work in English, M.A. GTAs are assigned to the University Writing Center.” As a student deeply interested in writing pedagogy, both in writing centers and in the classroom, this requirement crystallized my interest in the program; however, I still had some reservations. Would I be able to make a successful transition into the first year composition classroom in the second year of my M.A.? Would one year of classroom experience give me a strong enough C.V. to apply for other teaching jobs in the future?  

While I won’t begin teaching in the classroom until next fall, I can sense many of my questions already being answered through my interactions with students and assignments from a broad swathe of disciplines. As a consultant who students view as an ‘outsider’ not involved with the class or the professor, I have been able to watch them react to a variety of assignments, and to observe instructions and prompts which might engender interest or confusion. In addition, I have had to constantly refine and diversify my approaches to explaining any given assignment, seeing what methods help clarify the finer points in the art of academic writing.

Beyond these hands-on, writing-related experiences, there have also been moments when I have had to help students understand the college writing culture. When students begin with “I’m not sure what my professor means by…” our conversations often move beyond the piece of writing itself. I sometimes find myself becoming a sort of cultural guide for students learning to navigate in the world of academia; how to ask for clarification on assignments, how to request a meeting with a professor, and other elements of the communal life of the university often directly correlate to writing what might seem like a simple response paper. These conversations have made me remember my own experience as a first-generation student at a small liberal arts university, learning what Ruby Payne might call the “hidden rules” of college life – rules which might seem extra-textual, but which are critical to the success of any piece of writing (and succeAmyss overall) in the world of academia. 

Perhaps these observations are obvious; all writing is produced within specific contexts for specific audiences. But the position of writing center consultant sits at a strange intersection in the university: some liminal space apart from classrooms, professors, deadlines, and disciplines, and yet intricately connected to all of these things.  Without this direct experience at the writing center – that is, without getting involved on a deeper level in that interplay between individual and community which we call collegiate writing – I cannot imagine myself seeing the same set of needs in my future students or setting the same kinds of specific goals for my pedagogy moving forward. As I move into my second semester of tutoring, I can honestly say I would not have wanted my assistantship to begin in any other way.

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