Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

October 3rd, 2013 by Joe Essid

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year.  How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty.  I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors.  Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.

A 2011 Graduate on Writing in the Workplace

November 20th, 2012 by Joe Essid

By Megan Reilly, WC 2011

Even though I graduated from the University of Richmond in 2011, I often reference my time at the Writing Center to colleagues and to the local New York City students that I now tutor in English and writing. In fact, the main reason why I was hired by my tutoring company in NYC was because of my work at UR!

Working at the Writing Center was a great way for me to build confidence in my own writing, develop a basis of knowledge to help all types of students, and learn how to interact with students of various backgrounds and give them constructive criticism. My work at the Writing Center benefits both my tutoring work and my work as a full-time employee at Penguin Group (USA). If you want to be in publishing it is important to have a passion to read and to write. The two go hand in hand, and I’d like to think that my ferocious reading of Nancy Drew books in middle school has made me a better writer today!

Whether it is writing persuasively in order to latch book bloggers onto a new Amy Einhorn classic, or simply writing e-mails to co-workers, being able to eloquently express yourself in writing is a skill that more and more companies are looking for in recent graduates. Being able to edit countless essays at UR (and both narrative and analytical essays at that) is an experience that will benefit me in any job I may have in the future. I had the opportunity to work with many talented writers and tutors at the Center, and I truly felt like I was continually learning how to become a better writer.

The Brick Moves To The Library

September 28th, 2012 by Joe Essid

My poor English 103 students! Every time I taught the course, I had a mark of shame that one of us had to bear at some point: The Brick.

One one side, I painted “Unsupported Claim” and on the other, the slogan shown above. I last used The Brick in Fall, 2009 but in the Spring of 2013, it returns for my First-Year Seminar “Cyberspace: History, Future, and Culture.”

No errors can eclipse these two flaws. Even a missing thesis, what I prefer to call a “governing claim,” can take second place in a reader’s mind to an argument so flawed that one cannot read on. While I try to be moderately tough on grammar and usage, if the paper makes a logical flaw meriting The Brick, little else matters to me. This is also why our Writing Consultants begin their work with these top-down concerns.

You can read more about how I used of The Brick, but it worked. When a writer, including the teacher, violated one of my cardinal rules about academic writing, s/he got to keep The Brick in each class until the fatal flaw had been corrected, often in a follow-up post to the class blog. I was given The Brick once by my class, I’m proud to say, but only once that last semester. We can all make fatal errors in argument, but I made a generalization in a post online, and a student was quick to spot it. He e-mailed me, then announced my crime in the next class.

In an age of pixelated writing and 140-character “thoughts” at Twitter, the materiality of The Brick reminds us that some words are not easily retracted. That’s a comforting thought in an election year, when billions of words are spewed, and many of them deserve a brickbat or two.

Now that the Writing Center’s daily consultations are moving to our campus Library, I will move The Brick along, too. Enjoy it and never hurl it!

Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

September 5th, 2012 by Joe Essid

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

So, How’d It Go?

July 13th, 2012 by wberry2

By Wendi E. Berry

 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/homard/2620225309/

On Feb. 23, my advanced academic writing students from the School of Professional and Continuing Studies confronted their iPods. After blogging as a prewrite and writing their critiques—in this case 600-word reviews of movies or TV episodes—they scaled what they’d written down to 300 words and prepared to tape their voices. They’d already been reading sections of their papers aloud each week in class in order to slow down, hear where they faltered, and find what worked and what needed to be re-structured and re-worded. Now they faced this new prospect.  Their voices would be taped and they would listen to the recordings with their classmates. This is what petrified them the most.

One of my students, Janice, in reflecting on that initial fear wrote, “I liked listening … even when [classmates] did not enjoy listening to their own. It seems as if all of us felt the same way, although after the first listen, we seemed to get over the initial feelings of dread at hearing our own voices.”

Another student Seth admitted “when we listened to my recording in class I could not hold my head up, even though I heard the class making positive remarks.”

An interesting thing happened during recording, and then later as they heard as each other’s podcasts.  Students became more aware of audience and the effect that had on revision.  For Deborah, the rhetorical situation became real.  In a reflective cover letter, she confided, “I was horrified at the thought of my fellow students listening to me ramble over grammatical errors and stumbling over misplaced words. I instantly began revising my paper, as well as practicing how I would say the words.”

Seth acknowledged that before this assignment revision was usually “a one-time read over and making some minor grammar corrections.” When he taped his voice with the iPod, he found that he paused often to make more precise word choices and to vary his sentence length. The biggest change was a global overhaul to the structure and moving paragraphs around to ensure his message was being heard the way he intended it.

He noted that “being able to listen to my classmates was a big help.  This gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast my recording to theirs. From listening, I noticed they had sufficient details which I lacked in the beginning.”

Another student Ryan became “obsessed” with the clarity of the writing.   “I spent a good amount of time choosing descriptive words such as ‘greasy,’ and ‘rusting,’” he wrote in his letter about the experience.

While not all students would say the assignment was enjoyable, most thought it was worthwhile. My class had the good fortune of being able to visit the Technology Learning Center (TLC) and get help from student consultants with uploading files onto Blackboard. One cable was not the right kind, but other than quickly switching cables, uploading was not an issue.  What’s the next pedagogical step for student podcasting?  I plan to use it in the summer with my English 202U students for a preliminary assignment on the way to writing a longer, more developed paper on “What Happened to the American Dream?”

New International Blog About Writing Centers

May 24th, 2012 by Joe Essid

I’m really pleased to announce “Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders,” a new publication by Writing Lab Newsletter. It gives me great pleasure personally and professionally to collaborate with editors Muriel Harris and Alan Benson in working on the first postings for the blog. Some veteran colleagues such as Carl Glover have already posted their ideas.

Our focus, at the blog and a new column in WLN, will be international collaboration. The need is there, as writing-center initiatives are cropping up globally, often taking shape in culturally appropriate ways for their home nations. My own first post focuses on how technology from a center builds ethos and influence on campus.

One shoe cannot fit every foot, and as I learned in 2013 at the Conference for The European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, best practices vary widely and the US model of peer-tutor work is far from universal.

Using the new blog and column, we directors, tutors, writing consultants, peer mentors, and those doing similar work plan to share resources, stories from our centers, and advice to help our writers and each other.

iPod, don’t you?

February 29th, 2012 by wberry2

By Wendi E. Berry

Attribution: Image: 'iTrooper' http://www.flickr.com/photos/83346641@N00/3642642221

 

This summer I let a fellow writing teacher intimidate me with technology.  He handed me an iPod and said, “Pick out a song” and I was baffled and more than a little embarrassed that I did not know how.  “Like this,” he said, spinning the whirligig that I’ve since learned is called a click wheel and selecting a song by Radiohead.

It was enough to provoke me into learning how to use the card-sized plastic and metal audio device and to begin to consider applications for my first Advanced Academic Writing class at the School of Professional & Continuing Studies. My suspicion that I was onto something were confirmed by Assistant Professor Kevin Bruny’s presentation at the annual spring faculty meeting on how his human resource management class benefitted from the audio and video capability of iPods.

Since then, I’ve done research and found that Duke University successfully piloted the use of iPods to first-year students in 2004,  and Middlebury College students had “mixed success” using them for  2005-2006 summer language school, success with “pronunciation and vocabulary studies” and minor problems uploading to the Web.

Crispin Dale of the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K. reported in 2008 on “Podogogy” in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, in other words, the ways iPods stimulated creativity in learning and teaching college level dance, theater, and music classes (4).

A key feature of iPod in the college classroom, according to Peter Galuszka in a 2005 article “Technology’s Latest Wave” in Black Issues in Higher Education, is its portability. Give students an iPod and they can take lectures with them, in their suitcase, to meetings, and standing in line at the DMV (in the DMV’s defense, the last time I only had to wait three minutes).  Middlebury’s writing program, according to a case study posted on Educause, embraced iPods to record class sessions and post on a blog. In my SPCS class, I have adult learners, and like me, they seem hesitant to take risks, not just with whirligigs but on taking chances with their writing.

My first idea, therefore, was to ask them to go all out in critiquing a movie, book, or TV episode they’ve seen, heard, or read lately and record their voices reading these reviews aloud. I assigned their choice of a “rave” or a “slam,” an exercise borrowed from Richard Johnson-Sheehan and Charles Paine’s Writing Today that walks students through arriving at evaluation criteria, a necessary component in writing research papers.

On Feb. 23, I will hold my breath a little as students use a USB cable to upload the wav files onto Blackboard, and I take comfort in having backup–student technicians to answer questions at the CTLT.  The next step will be listening to each other’s podcasts and commenting through discussion threads on tone and word choice.  My dream-scenario is that my writing students will begin to see a range of what’s possible with persona and language in arguing a point.

Another idea for how to use iPods came to me while talking to Ken Warren, Academic Technology Consultant at the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.  Why not use them as mobile learning tools for revision? My students are already reading their work aloud. Each time they bring in an assignment, I ask them to share a selected section.

Hearing where they stop, falter, and self-correct can become an impetus for revision perhaps more so than feedback. With iPods, they can record their voice, play it back, and listen to how their writing sounds. Many SPCS students work full-time, and the iPod lets them record, listen, and reflect, no matter where they are in the queue to renew license and tags.

Are we there yet?  Are my students using iPods to revise? I know one of my students has been using hers because last Thursday she informed me she’d misplaced the little white cable that powers it up when the battery dies.  I’ll let you know how the rave and slam assignment goes.  In the meantime, I’m relying on staff at the CTLT for allaying whirl-and-click trepidations and answering questions, mostly mine.

Works Cited

Dale, Crispin. “iPods and Creativity in Learning and Teaching:  An Instructional Perspective.”

International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 20.1 (2008):1-9. ProQuest. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

Galuszka, Peter. “Technology’s Latest Wave.” Black Issues in Higher Education 22.2 (2005): 24-

28. Education Research Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

“Middlebury College Case Study.”Educause. 1999-2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

http://www.educause.edu/ELI/ELIDiscoveryToolGuidetoPodcast/MiddleburyCollegeCaseStudy/13059

 

Google Sites: Page-Level Permissions

November 25th, 2011 by Joe Essid

Google What?

I do not often read Google’s blog about their documents features, but recently I was looking for an answer to a few questions about Google Sites, the tool that I now use for all of my course syllabi. Unlike traditional web-site builders, Google Sites is collaborative; this is common for wikis, web-site software long popular in K-12 education but rarer in higher education.

In doing my reading at Google’s blog, I found a game-changer for writing teachers. Sites has quickly become my favorite tool for a few reasons:

  • It’s free
  • It offers a navigational sidebar that I like from PBworks‘ wiki
  • It lacks obtrusive advertisements
  • It has the ease of use that Wikispaces offers, but appears even more familiar to MS-Office users.

To my knowledge, however, none of Google’s smaller competitors, and certainly nothing from the desktop-centric Microsoft empire, offer a creator the ability to grant permissions, by page, to those sharing a site. Google explains the reasons for this feature here.

Course-Management Software vs. Sites

For years, I’ve refused to use BlackBoard because it has made guest access so hard. In my field, writing & composition, faculty routinely share lesson plans and syllabi, so Blackboard never met my needs. Our Eng. 383 syllabus has become a model for many other schools’ training programs precisely because colleagues outside the class can find it with a Web search and view the content.

That said, I’m pleased that Blackboard, seeing what the competition offers for free, has given faculty a “public” option for Bb sites. But I’ve argued elsewhere that Blackboard is an overpriced “transition” technology in the age of social media and Web 2.0 shared applications.  Blackboard only recently added such technology to its product.

For now, Sites lacks the sort of testing features that Blackboard has, but I don’t use quizzes that way. It would be possible, however, to link to an online gradebook created with Google Docs. You can see the results (but not students’ grades!) in the latest iteration of my Eng. 383 syllabus, used for training Writing Consultants at the University of Richmond.

How the Collaboration Works

The process of granting permissions for a Google Site is a little tedious at first. I had to invite users to the site with “view” permissions…and they must have a Gmail account. But to my knowledge it cannot be one the University grants, either, as my site resides on the public servers at Google. Had I known this, I might have set up the site under UR’s rubric, but that change of service-providers had not occurred when I first set up my Google Site.

The nature of collaboration and the presence of multimedia in modern writing classrooms make something like Google Sites, with page permissions enabled, essential to how I teach. That said, Google still needs to add a few features:

  • The ability to archive the site locally
  • A somewhat more streamlined process for adding users.

Overall, however, this free tool is phenomenal, and I plan to recommend it to colleagues.

Image source: pre-Sites days in Eng. 103 classroom, late 1990s.

A Competitive Edge: Writing Consultants in the Job Search

November 1st, 2011 by mvenable

This column was submitted by Steven Inglis, Writing Center Alumnus, Class of 2011.

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at Nationwide’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC. As part of a team that functions as a liaison between the company, its clients, and the Federal Government, I quickly found that the skills I used and taught as a Writing Consultant were invaluable to my job. The more I thought about it, the experience gained writing, editing, mentoring, organizing endless drafts of papers, and working with clients (both teachers and students) provided skills that are applicable and transferable to any job.

Current Writing Consultants: many of you already have (or will soon be searching for) internships and job opportunities for this coming summer. Although this may seem like a long time from now, I encourage each of you to realize the value of the experience you are gaining and how it can be cited on your resume, in interviews, and finally used in the workplace. From my own experience, I can say without reservation that working as a Writing Consultant helped me most with the following:

First and most obviously, writing and editing. From simple e-mails to high-level industry documents and letters to Congressmen, my supervisors were impressed that I could not only draft an error-free document the first time around, but also demonstrate an uncanny attention to detail when peer reviewing. I could provide substantive recommendations on organization and presentation of an argument or message. This is something we work with daily as Writing Consultants, and a skill that is vital to a majority of jobs. Consider this: a 2004 College Board survey found that 86% of responding companies would frown upon poorly written job applications, and 80% of jobs in the most rapidly expanding service sectors required writing skills. This certainly lends credence to their claim that writing is increasingly a “gatekeeper” or “threshold skill” in the job market. For more, see Writing: A Ticket or a Ticket Out (CollegeBoard 2004).

Second, organization. Writing consulting will teach you how to stay organized during even the most hectic situations, which I came across frequently during my internship. I am sure many of you have experienced how stressful it can be to have sixteen drafts to read and track, sixteen appointments to set up, and professors to keep regularly updated, all on or near the week(s) you have your own midterms and essays to tackle. Stressful as it may be, this offers considerable perspective and helps build habits that can be carried forth throughout your career.

Third, communication. Writing consulting is a client-based process. It helps you learn how to communicate with professors on a professional level, as well as with other students at a peer and mentor level. Likewise, mature and respectful interaction with clients as well as coworkers is inherent to any and every workplace.

Although this list goes on, I feel the message is very clear. Rare is the occasion that you will encounter a job posting that leaves out key qualifications like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘effective written and verbal communicator,’ ‘strong writing skills,’ and ‘highly organized.’ Indeed, as a Writing Consultant, you will continue to develop all of the above, which you can draw upon in interviews (to help you land the job) and in the workplace (to allow you to excel at the job).

As for me, I was happy to be offered a highly regarded full-time position with that same Nationwide office in August. Speaking from experience, I am confident that your work as a Writing Consultant will give you a significant edge in the job hunt and allow you to stand out as the “real world” approaches.

Back to…Paper in the Classroom?

September 20th, 2011 by Joe Essid

Pile of Papers

I have a penchant for mixing things up in class, if only to keep writers on their toes. For many semesters, I got away from any writing on paper in favor of blogs, digital stories, and wikis.  Now, in a literature course I last taught as paperless, some old friends (and nemeses) have returned: staples, margins, page numbers.

Why have I returned to the 20th Century?

When conducting a “paper chase” with 16 Writing Consultants and 18 literature students, I found that paper enables my Consultants to write the sort of commentary they will most likely write for our professors or in our Writing Center. In time, our faculty will embrace multimedia for many projects, but even then, Writing Consultants will need to understand the rhetoric of linear as well as associative, collaborative projects.

One could do what I’m doing with file exchanges, of course, and some faculty do just that. I’m no stranger to MS Word’s track changes and embedded comments, but even as I write this post, a student has contacted me with a question: the introduction I returned to her, with my comments linked to text, does not seem to be “working.”

I’m not fond of MS Word’s dependence upon co-writers having similar versions. I’ll probably have to switch to Google Docs to finish helping her. It’s simply a simpler, and more ubiquitous, technology. Yet even that lacks the ubiquity of paper.

Paper cannot show multimedia (yet). Paper cannot have live feedback forms or allow online tagging and collaboration (yet). Despite these limitations, I’m most curious to see how a paper-based class goes for me this term. Stay tuned.

Some tasks are, however, inefficient on paper. I’d include sign-up sheets for Writing Consultants, whether done collaboratively or with a single editor, as in this example from my current lit. class. Everyone with the link can view the document from wherever they may be. I now consider Google Docs to be “paper plus,” since they preserve what is best about linear discourse but add collaborative features that are clumsy in Microsoft Office, a technology designed for print.