Writing Center Tutors as Comp-Rhet Researchers: Some Notes from CCCC in Kansas City

Uncategorized / Monday, April 16th, 2018

By Nancy Linh Karls –

All of us in leadership roles at the UW-Madison Writing Center are proud of our undergraduate Writing Fellows and our graduate tutors for many reasons:  for doing an outstanding job of supporting student writers, for continually challenging themselves to learn more, and for being all-around great colleagues and friends. We also want to recognize them as important emerging scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition.

In addition to many of our alumni tutors, several of our current tutors recently participated in the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Kansas City, Missouri. They are all Ph.D. students in composition and rhetoric at UW-Madison and have generously agreed to share some of their conference experiences. We hope you enjoy hearing their voices and learning about their research!



Due to the NAACP’s travel advisory in Missouri, there were a lot of conversations around Cs this year as people made decisions about whether to attend the conference. I highly recommend checking out the “fourdaysinkansascity.org” blog to better understand the choices individuals and groups made as well as the experiences of people who participated in the social justice events and initiatives.

The conference began with the announcement of #TYCA19 in Pittsburgh. I think (hope) this will be a happy moment in writing studies, a moment affirming two-year teachers as important members of the discipline. This year, I did not present my contract grading research. Instead, I signed up as a table facilitator for the Council of Writing Program Administrator’s Graduate Organization (WPA-GO). Despite being at 8am and across the convention center, our session, “Laboring Towards Racial Justice in Graduate Organizations and Beyond,” had thirteen participants! Clare Russell, Khirsten Echols, and Lou Maraj hosted a conversation about decolonizing TA practicums and syllabi while my table came together around race talk and course assignments.

Conferences, to me, are for brainstorming and coalition building. Then work happens after. What are we doing after the conference to move towards equity, inclusion, and access in the organization, discipline, and within our home programs? How might we support one another across contexts as we engage in equity-centered research and projects? I am grateful for the opportunity to attend Cs. I feel both exhausted and renewed. #4C18 #laborofundoing #wpasinthewild #friendshipismagic



I presented a chapter from my dissertation, which incorporates field work, interviews, and ego network analysis to examine a coding bootcamp that provides web development training for low-income women and people of color, at the Research Network Forum (RNF) and the Qualitative Research Network (QRN).

RNF and QRN give new and experienced researchers an opportunity to share their works in progress and receive mentorship from colleagues in a roundtable discussion. RNF and QRN are great ways to get insider advice on scholarship that can inform your research, how you can solve sticky conundrums, and how you can deepen your data analysis. I got an impressive list of ideas and scholarship from my mentors, and their suggestions have led me to think deeply about where I’ll take my research next after completing my doctoral studies.

The big highlight of the convention for me was the Social Justice All-Convention event. In a grand ballroom of the convention center, I joined about a hundred or so other grad students and faculty to discuss the ways College Composition and Communication can execute social justice. The discussion at my roundtable focused on what each of our universities or colleges were doing to combat racism and unfair labor policies. Each table had facilitators who took notes that will be forwarded to the executive board of CCCs. I hope College Composition and Communication can use our notes for concrete and specific actions against dehumanizing injustices in higher education.



At CCCC in Kansas City, I presented a talk titled “De-Identifying Through Writing: An Ethnographic Study of Twitter Writers-for-Hire,” which took up what Deborah Brandt identifies in The Rise of Writing (2015) as the “tensions between the high status of consequential writing and the low status of the hired writer” (13). To understand these tensions–where writing is valued in a way that writers are not–I drew from a qualitative study of writers paid to write on Twitter on behalf of their employers–or, rather, as their employers.

My talk asked: How do Twitter writers-for-hire navigate the vulnerabilities inherent in writing for pay? And how does the Twitter platform shape how writers understand their identities in relation to the words they compose for/as employers? I argued that the writers in my study strategically de-identify with their writing, representing a shift away from traditional notions of authorship which coincides with the rise of mass writing more broadly: as writing is increasingly commodified, writers move to protect their identities from similar commodification. I also found that Twitter writers make use of the platform’s affordances–such as protected anonymity and mandated brevity–to construct these de-personalized writerly personae that serve as professional and emotional safety nets for the writers.

Some highlights of the conference for me included presenting and receiving feedback on my research, learning from amazing scholars in the field, and attending the first ever Teacher to Teacher session of CCCC, a teacher-centric version of the RNF.



This year at Cs I was part of a panel about students’ self-perceptions of themselves as writers and revisers. I’d met the two other presenters as well as our respondent last year in Portland through the Cs’ Research Network Forum (RNF). Given the similarities in our research interests, the RNF organizers had put us in a group together, and after a productive Forum conversation, our assigned faculty mentor said, “You all should pitch a panel for next Cs. I’ll be your respondent.” That’s exactly what we did.

In meeting up in Kansas City, I enjoyed seeing how these colleagues’ ideas had developed, and I was glad to be able to air out some of the findings I’ve been generating for my dissertation. I presented on how student writers respond when they find themselves wrestling with dissonance. I invited my audience to respond to my modified survey about writing and dissonance, and then we compared their results to what my study participants have provided. Audience members seemed pleased to engage so directly with my research project, and follow-up questions, conversations, and emails have inspired my thinking and extended the dialogue beyond the limitations of the conference.



I presented on a roundtable called “Responding to Challenges in Healthcare through Varied Methodological Approaches” with professors from East Carolina University, Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Colorado State University. I had met only one of the presenters before arriving, but I was soon thrilled to discover many, many overlaps between our work. We each presented for five minutes about ways we have utilized our expertise in writing and rhetoric to respond to challenges in health care. We addressed a range of challenges in health care from infertility to workplace risks for firefighters to the Affordable Care Act to closing the gap between medical and social approaches to disability and the value of informal knowledge in the health care system.

While we each addressed a different challenge in health care, we found striking similarities between our methodologies and values. We found that we all value community-based knowledge and we have been working to bring that knowledge into health care practices and policy making. As Dawn Opel, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, put it, we are interested in “rhetoric ashealth and medicine.” We were so excited about our shared goals and values that we decided to continue collaborating–so stay tuned!



This year at Cs, I was part of the Queer Caucus panel exploring transgender rhetorics. I presented on a community project with an organization I’ve volunteered with for several years–LGBT Books to Prisoners.

We send packages of books and other literacy materials to LGBT incarcerated folks across the United States. I discussed how transgender identity is bound up in the literacy practice of reading and writing about transition across a broad community of transgender people. I argued that prisons intentionally create “literacy dead zones” that deny trans people access to materials related to transition as a particularly egregious form of carceral control. Literacy dead zones are a systemic denial of literacy materials to specific populations for purposes of discipline. Within the broader framework of restriction of access to literacy materials, LGBTQ incarcerated people face an even deeper disciplinary system of not being able to access LGBTQ reading material, even with programs ready and willing to send this material to them.

If you’re interested in learning more about my paper, you’re welcome to read the draft and look through the slides at this link: https://drive.google.com/open?id=19erlOIOc_8Zy7nELKvCT93XGsma8s1Fub71qyE89XZM



At this year’s conference I presented some preliminary results of a first-year writing course at UW-Madison that was devoted to learning more about the relationship among writing in and about nature and healing. During the fall 2017 semester, my class had the pleasure to be the first ones to find out to what extent nature writing was therapeutic, and indeed, some of them found that it was. The presentation was a collaboration with Kassia Shaw, who reported results from her second-year writing course. We began this line of inquiry in Professor Kate Vieira’s seminar about writing and healing last spring. Our panel was composed of others from the writing and healing seminar, all of whom are producing exciting qualitative research in a variety of learning communities.

While at the conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to catch up with friends in the field from my previous institutions, and for me this is the best part of conferencing (along with eating good local food, and in Kansas City, this included really good barbecue).



At CCCC’s this year, I participated in a panel titled “How Might Writing Heal?” This panel grew out of a course taught by Professor Kate Vieira in the spring of 2017 during which graduate students designed writing workshops for a variety of populations. Ten of these graduate students presented the results of their workshops with survivors of sexual assault, international students, undergraduates, students with disabilities, and pre-service teachers.

My specific project, titled “Writing to Rest,” was created with co-author Lexus Jones as a participatory research project. It grew out of my dissertation research, an ethnographic study of night-shift university custodial workers’ literacies. Lexus, who is currently on the custodial staff, identified that he wanted to feel more rested because his work schedule and negative dreams were disrupting his sleep. For two weeks, Lexus engaged in twice-daily writing in which he recorded and analyzed his dreams. By the second week, he found he was sleeping less hours each night but feeling more rested. We think these results may be related to the physical routine of writing which allowed Lexus to face his feelings about his dreams and analyze what they may mean to him. Although we can only speculate on the results as of now, we think this writing process may prove helpful for exhausted college students who are trying to negotiate the pressures of work and school.



I presented as part of Professor Kate Vieira’s panel titled “How Might Writing Heal? The Results of Seven Qualitative Studies in Communities and Classroom.” During the panel, my colleague Hadis Ghaedi (Ph.D. Program in Second Language Acquisition) and I presented on our recently completed study, which examined the impact of a semester-long autobiographical writing in a first-year ESL course. We explained the design of our study and our focus on how the activity might lead to students’ self-reported improvement in (1) their ability to cope with emotions manifesting in academic and cultural experiences and (2) their sense of belonging in U.S. higher education.

After unpacking our methods (e.g., surveys, interviews), we described one student’s experiences with the autobiographical writing activity. That particular student, as she reported in surveys and interviews, found the activity useful for helping her think through complex and stressful projects in other courses and for helping her reflect on the quality of her social life. Although our study does not suggest that these beneficial effects (one could say “healing”) are guaranteed with this activity, we found that this particular student benefited from participating in the autobiographical writing activity.

I really enjoyed being a part of this panel and I also really enjoyed attending two other sessions–“Rhetorics of Muslim Identity in the West” (with UW-Madison Ph.D. alums John Duffy and Chris Earle) and “Transforming Writing Center Scholarship” with Brad Hughes and UW-Madison Ph.D. alum Rebecca Nowacek). Both of those presentations helped me do some new thinking about my own research interests.



At 4Cs, I was part of a panel chaired by Kate Vieira, a professor here at UW-Madison, called “How Might Writing Heal? The Results of Seven Qualitative Studies in Communities and Classrooms.” The nine participants were all graduate students in curriculum and instruction, composition and rhetoric, and second language acquisition. We each did a short five-minute presentation on separate workshops and classes we developed in which writing was used to help people process their experiences in some way. I chose to plan a workshop through the McBurney Disability Resource Center here at UW-Madison, offering writing groups open to everyone but designed specifically for students with disabilities. I have sought to make the workshop an inclusive, welcoming space in which students can talk about their experiences with writing. I specifically didn’t want the workshop to be about “healing” or “curing” students with disabilities. Rather, it is an opportunity for them to celebrate successes and get support through the more challenging aspects of the writing process.

One of the best things about participating in our panel at 4Cs was hearing about the workshops my peers had designed–I was so impressed and inspired by them. At the conference more broadly, I learned a lot about how writing instructors can work to fight prejudice in their classrooms and institutions. I left feeling even more inspired to create inclusive environments for my students!



Now that you’ve had a chance to learn a bit about our tutors’ research and their conference experiences, we hope you’ll continue the conversation by posting a comment. Whether it’s about our tutors’ research, your own CCCC experiences, or about composition and rhetoric research more generally, we’d love to hear what you think!