Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

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.

Academic Demands & Student Stress

Bridge below Cornell

I’ve been thinking of Cornell University lately, the site of a first-year seminar program that heavily influenced my thinking about first-year education at Richmond.

Instead of having fond memories of my three visits to Ithaca, lately I’ve also been thinking about the three apparent suicides on the Cornell campus.

Bodies were discovered in the bottom of the gorges–huge canyons, really–that cross Cornell’s grounds. The image above shows the lowest of many foot bridges; on the bluffs above the bridges cross  gorges that are perilously deep.

There have already been six deaths on campus ruled as suicides, not including these three who presumably jumped into the gorges.

Later in life, it’s difficult to comprehend the stress that makes a young person do such a tragic and, finally, selfish thing.  Encountering suicide in person, however, is life-altering. In my second year as a UVA undergrad, I recall coming back to Monroe Hill’s dorms to find police on the scene. An electrical-engineering student had electrocuted himself by wiring his body to his room’s air-conditioner. For the first time in our self-centered lives, most of us came face to face with the reality of death.

Richmond does not have an engineering program, where students often take 6, even 7, classes per term. I roomed with an engineer in my third year, and the workload he faced was simply excessive.  The goal early in the program was to weed out many students, and luckily–I think now–I got weeded. But even at Richmond, faculty and students may not realize the demands we place upon each other. I grow concerned that we are only a year or two away from a tragedy on our campus as well.

Faculty at Richmond could do more by assigning less busy work, shorter readings, and shorter papers. At the same time, that reduction in workload needs to come with a clear message to students: “I will be asking more of you.” I’ve tried this in a limited way, and while I recapture some free time, and my students appear to be doing better projects at the end of the terms, they place enough emphasis on the grades they get to worry me.

Students need to understand–and this probably could be emphasized more effectively in orientation for first-years–that not everyone gets an A at Richmond, that a B or C will mean little, in isolation, to future employers, and that faculty are not understanding when a student places friends or social activities ahead of coursework.

This proposed attitude falls into a generation gap. Millennial-generation students have been studied extensively, and one apparent characteristic is their desire to do meaningful work on a schedule that pleases them. They crave constant assessment and demand both service from authorities and continual guidance. At Richmond, too often, they exhibit a strong sense of entitlement and treat the university like a product they have purchased. All of that grates on many faculty, especially those like me who believe that failure is a teacher and self-reliance the best guide in life. Yet “I’m confused; what do I need to do?” could be the mantra of Millennials, just as “Suck it up and do it yourself” was–well, is–the mantra of my fellow Gen-Xers. Circumstances from the early 70s onward taught many in my age cohort that life is, indeed, hard. We missed the late 1960s and its culture of bliss.

I’m not that callous, usually, but often I find myself telling a student who wants more from me “you cannot have that” or “that’s not A work.” Many, especially in the first year, have never been told this before.

Often, I worry about the consequences.  Yet the world is not made for us, whatever well intentioned but coddling parents claim when they, in effect, tell a child “you are wonderful, and always will be. You can be anything you wish.”  Xers had a different lesson; we older ones had distant and “tough love” parents. “You have no sense at all” and “life will teach you” were common messages among my friends’ and my parents. Younger Xers often had parents who had divorced; as children many led “latchkey” lives. That was rare among my friends, and all of us, after a time of rebellion, came back to love and honor our parents when they, in old age, most needed our help.

Yet Millennials now share something with Xers: graduating into a world with economic turmoil and no guarantee of lifetime employment, something only the oldest Boomers can recall.

If college should be a place to prepare students to think for themselves, to cope with adversity, and to broaden their intellectual horizons, are we Xer and Boomer faculty doing the best job? Or, perhaps, making the lessons too hard for young people who are not able to cope?

We all need to talk more about it, and change our expectations.

19th Century Clues Explored with 21st Century Writing Tools

Usher, Beeble & Swedenborg

Here, avatar Beeble Baxter muses upon the image of Immanuel Swedenborg in Richmond’s virtual House of Usher.

During our pedagogical collaborations in virtual reality, there have been surprising parallels with traditional composition, but finding these parallels is not difficult. More challenging is the invention of an engaging and useful composition in virtual reality for use in our courses to help us to create that balance of challenge and learning that Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD.

Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always fascinated me in terms of its psychological prescience and its manifold intriguing but arcane details. Like many Poe characters, Roderick Usher is melancholic and has surrendered to “the grim phantasm, FEAR” that seems to  paralyze him. Sometimes a cursory reading of Poe moves us to dismiss his tales as merely formulaic, but his details are often doors to the dank dungeons of the human psyche. The narrator of this tale, responding to Roderick’s desperate letter, attempts to distract his friend’s obsessive and fevered mind as they “pored together over” the titles in Usher’s library. In so doing, the narrator gains some understanding of Usher’s disintegrating psyche, but we do not.

However, it only takes a look behind the mention of Immanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) to get a more detailed insight into Roderick’s madness. The full title of the text the narrator finds in Usher’s Library is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from things Heard and Seen.  Swedenborg begins with an exegesis of Matthew 24:29–31 in which he makes the following claim after dismissing the literal reading of the passage:

 “However, people who believe such things are not aware of the hidden depths that
lie within the details of the Word. There is in fact spiritual meaning in these
details, for they intend not only the outward and earthly events that we find
on the literal level but spiritual and heavenly events as well.
This holds true not just for the meaning of phrases but even for each word.”

This passage almost seems to apply to Poe’s tale as well, and so in traditional text we have mirrors of meaning. Roderick’s belief in the consciousness or “sentience” (1st coined in this story) of his house and the influence of the masonry, most specifically the “collocation of the stones”or their particular arrangement, seems to suggest a tendency to find hidden meanings not unlike Swedenborg. The “House” of Usher certainly exhibits the layered meanings that Swedenborg sees in the Scriptures. In his mystified mental misery, it may be that Roderick overlooked or dismissed Swedenborg’s insight in entry 311 where he reminds us that “heaven and hell come from the human race” a concept that might have encouraged Usher to clean up his own haunted palace to end the personal hell he had endured for so long.

It is such detail that suggests virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool for motivating students to dig more deeply into the details of the text and reflect upon their narrative function. Why does Poe bother to list these specific titles? The image of Swedenborg on one of the walls of the Usher library can be “scripted” to provide clues for student research prompting them to ask: how can Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell can help us understand the intricacies of Roderick’s madness?

 And this is but one of the books named by the narrator of Poe’s story, each of which provides its own web of connections and opportunities for research. In “Fall of the House of Usher” the line of exploration can run from Poe to Swedenborg to William Blake whose astonishing hybrids of poetry and image composed via etching and engraving, continue to provide fertile intellectual and aesthetic delight even in the digital age.
The William Blake Archive is one of the first collaborative hypermedia texts to receive academic acclaim and its design provides unprecedented access to the vast collection of Blake’s genius scattered across the globe. Here students can follow the thread from Swedenborg to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes images and text critical of Swedenborg’s views.

When the 19th Century meets the 21st Century in the dark digital hallways of our virtual House of Usher, the possibilities begin to unfold for the bold who playfully pioneer.

Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Wishes for 2010 in Writing

I’m hoping for the following on our campus this  year:

  •  Steady growth in what Stanford calls “a culture of writing.” I love this phrase from their Hume Writing Center. This would involve, at Richmond, faculty engagement in the forthcoming seminars to prepare us to teach in the First-Year Seminar program, more writing in disciplines where it is not traditionally assigned, and, perhaps, a different way of thinking beyond “writing to get it done” by students.
  • More work with technology in writing assignments. Eng. 103 faculty have done an admirable job, during their swansong years as the program winds down. But how many of my other colleagues have writers work online with blogs, wikis, or multimedia compositions?  These are the sorts of writing our students will do beyond the college gates, and I’m not seeing enough of this sort of work assigned.
  •  Fewer “busy work” assignments. Many of our students take writing less seriously than they might because we pack in so much reading, short assignments that never get assessed, and so forth. Part of this, I feel, stems from faculty belief that students won’t do any work unless we push them. My policy of late has been to assign less but assess more carefully. Grades still motivate students; a short “write to learn” in each class that may be occasionally graded will keep students reading more than regular and lengthy assignments. Then writers will have more time for formal writing.

Those are three wishes from the Writing Center Director! We’ll see what 2010 brings.

Individual Conferences & Student Writing

Creating a dialog of growth.

Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Jim Kinney of VCU, a rhetorician who has taught writing for several decades. As he reflected on his teaching during this time, Kinney noticed the greatest improvement in student writing when he used “the Garrison method” of teaching composition. Using a list of specific areas for focus such as pre-writing or invention or organization, Kinney explained that after an initial introductory period, most of the semester involved short individual conferences with students, specifically focused on addressing these aspects of writing.

Intrigued, I googled the name of the method and found that JSTOR had a review of the Garrison method by Jo An McGuire Simmons published in the May 1984 issue of College Composition and Communication. In “The One-to-One Method of Teaching Composition” Simmons offers us a gestalt of the process: “Picture a classroom of students writing. The teacher and a student, sitting side by side, are conferring intensely on a draft of the student’s paper. Two or three tutors may be in the room holding similar conferences. While the other sutdents are waiting for their conferences, they are writing, re-writing and, revising works in progress. What you are seeing is the Garrison or One-to-One Method at work.”

According to Simmons the Los Angeles Community College Distriect tested and recommended the approach in 1974 leading Roger Garrison to publish  How a Writer Works in 1981 . Simmons notes that “the primary assumption behind the method is that the best way to write is by writing and rewriting. Roger Garrison thinks that the best use of class time, then, is not class discussions, nor lectures on writing, nor analysis of someone else’s writing, but writing.” Each conference is limited to one objective and situates the teacher in a less threatening coaching role, helping the student to recognize his own errors and find his own solutions in a series of personalized “mini-lessons.” Such individualized attention is a potent force in a student’s education and a strong draw for the schools or teachers that can provide it with some regularity.

While the method increases individual student attention and decreases time required for final grading, Simmons notes several challenges to this approach. To be practiced as Garrison recommends, each teacher would need two writing consultants assigned to assist with student conferences. This approach also slows production, potentially limiting the number of assignments possible in a semester. In spite of these potential drawbacks, the Garrison method is meant to be flexibly applied according to the requirements of the context. Teachers could apply the method for a specific assignment only or throughout the semester, or the series of objectives guiding each meeting could be abbreviated.

 Certainly there is no panacea for producing better writers, not classical rhetoric, not grammar, not reading the great books, not even individual conferences. Ultimately, the quality of a student’s writing depends on that student applying the writing strategies he has been taught.  Nevertheless, few pedagogical approaches are as effective, organic or cost-effective as increased interaction between teacher and student.

Two Readings, October 20th & 21st

University of Richmond is fortunate to have two really dynamic writers giving readings on campus this week.  Both readings are free and open to the public.

Pam Brown – Australian Poet – 20 October 2008, 8pm, Weinstein Hall's Brown-Alley Room

 

Pam Brown has earned a living as a librarian, nurse, publisher's assistant, postal worker, artworker, and teacher of writing, multi-media studies and film-making. She has published fourteen books of poetry and prose, all with independent publishers. Her volume of new and selected poems, Dear Deliria, received the New South Wales Premiers Award and was cited for "its provocative and witty engagement with personal, social and political issues," ability to invite "reconsideration of mundane experiences and events," and "edginess of language and €¦ emotional honesty, daring, and intellectual curiosity." She has been Associate Editor of the online journal Jacket since 2004. Her most recent book is True Thoughts. She has lived in Sydney for the past 40 years.

 

Margaret Gibson – American Poet and Memoirist – 21 October 2008, 7pm, Keller Hall Memorial Room

 

Margaret Gibson is the author of nine books of poetry, including Long Walks in the Afternoon, winner of the 1982 Lamont Prize, and The Vigil: A Poem in Four Voices, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993. Her most recent work is a memoir, The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood, in which she writes about her upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, and the process of making peace with the dichotomous forces of her past. As Shannon Ravenel confirms, "Margaret Gibson’s evocation of urban southern society in the 1950s is so on target it’s scary. This is a brilliant book." The recipient of an NEA grant, a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, Gibson is presently Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and lives in Preston, Connecticut.

Writing-focused Opportunity for Service

The ESL Tutoring Project coordinated by the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement connects native English speaking members of the UR community to non-native English speaking members of the UR community who wish to improve their English skills. Students & staff from countries such as Haiti, Bosnia, Mexico,Iran & many others meet one-on-one on a weekly or biweekly basis to converse in English and work together on various learning exercises.

Interested staff and student volunteers or participants should contact the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at 804-484-1600 or through e-mail at ESLProject@richmond.edu.