Crossing the Barrier: Advocating for Students, Educating Faculty

Outreach, Peer Tutoring, Student Voices, Technology, Undergraduate Students, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, March 14th, 2016

By Alexandra Asche –

Alexandra Asche
Alexandra Asche is the Student Assistant Director at the Writing Center of the University of Minnesota, Morris, a public liberal arts college. She works with Director Tisha Turk, who served as a UW-Madison Writing Center instructor and Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program while earning her PhD. Alexandra has been a consultant in UMM’s Writing Center since 2014 and the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper since 2015. In her spare time, she studies English and Psychology. Photo by Kari Adams.

When I first started planning this post, I intended to write about the UMM Writing Center’s formal outreach to faculty. However, as I looked through the previous posts on this blog, I found that others have already written about how to plan this sort of outreach. I also noticed, though, that I was in the peculiar position of being a student consultant and administrator attempting to educate professors who, to say the least, vary highly in their degrees of interest and investment in our small campus writing center.

As the bright-eyed, newly instated Student Assistant Director of our writing center, I believed that I would be perfectly free and able to communicate with faculty on an equal level. I soon discovered that not only did some faculty perceive me as just a student, there was an additional disparity at work: writing centers are by default considered a kind of supplemental, take-as-needed service—a secondary limb of the primary faculty body. We assist. That is all.

Of course, that is not all. A writing center functions not as something external to or separate from the university’s instructional mission but as an intermediary within it. It intersects with virtually all disciplines and involves exchanges between faculty, staff, and students alike. This is what makes a writing center an integral part of the whole university system. Most importantly, writing centers can straddle the boundary between faculty and students. Ultimately,  writing centers operate as an area of negotiation between these two groups—not necessarily an overt, political negotiation but rather a quiet voice that interjects itself into the silence that falls in a conversation between two parties who are very much in different boats.

Peer writing consultants, who are “only students” in the eyes of some faculty and yet in a position of authority (though not evaluation) in the eyes of students, have a special role to play in writing center outreach and education: We can advocate for students in our communications with faculty.

The Purpose of Post-Session Reports to Faculty

Attempting to communicate with faculty while also negotiating power disparities can be frustrating—but table-flipping can be kept to a minimum.
Attempting to communicate with faculty while also negotiating power disparities can be frustrating—but table-flipping can be kept to a minimum.

At UMM, we use WC Online to send reports to professors about their students’ sessions; however, this is only ever at the student’s request and the reports are never evaluative in nature—they simply describe the aspects of writing that we worked on in the session and how the student plans to apply what we discussed. This has the benefit of informing the professor that the student knows what they need to work on without saying that their writing was “successful” or “unsuccessful” or making any general comments about the quality of their writing.

This allows writing consultants to do for student writers what they cannot always do themselves—that is, to communicate to professors exactly what their students intend to do to improve their own writing. Thus we advocate for students by demonstrating how they have taken the process of improving their writing into their own hands by seeking feedback outside of the classroom. Furthermore, we can show faculty the specific work that students perform by engaging in conversation with the Writing Center.

First of all, the fact that the students decide whether or not we send a report to their professors is key to ensuring that students feel we are working with them, not against them. We make it clear that we will not be sharing any information that they don’t give us permission to share; this way they can feel comfortable being open with consultants without worrying that their professors will hear about every single thing they said and did. This is a subtle kind of advocacy that ensures we are communicating about students in a way that the students themselves have approved, which means that professors receive not only descriptions of students’ sessions but also the information that students want to convey about how they are engaging with their writing outside of the classroom.

When writing these reports, consultants must consider what information will help professors understand what their students accomplished during their Writing Center sessions and what they intend to work on going forward. What does the professor need to know in order to best support the student writer at this point? I often find that it’s helpful to explain how the writer and I determined which elements of the paper were most important to work on so that the professor can understand why we focused on what we did and then how we went about this process.

Example of session report form
Example of session report form

After lots of experimentation, I’ve developed the following structure when writing my post-session reports: I begin with what the writer brought in with them (notes, a partial draft, a full draft) and their intentions coming into the session (i.e., what they thought they needed to work on); I do this particularly to show professors that their students often come into the Writing Center with an idea of what they need to do to be more successful writers, meaning that they thought about the assignment before coming to their session and therefore have already put some effort into improving their writing before we’ve even begun. Then I describe what we talked about after reading the draft (if there was one) in order to demonstrate which areas of the paper needed the most attention, emphasizing the conversation between the writer and myself so that the professor understands that the writer was also working during the session, not simply being instructed in what to do. This is usually the longest and most detailed part of the report because I want the professor to understand the process of how the writer and I worked through the issues specific to their paper; if the professor sat down with their student after the session, they would know how certain issues have already been tackled and either give them little or no attention compared to other issues or use a different approach when working through them (since they would know what had already been tried). Finally, I end the report with what the writer intends to do after leaving the Writing Center so that the professor knows how the writer’s work on improving their writing will extend beyond the session itself.

Taken together, these practices both advocate for the student and assist the professor; we advocate for students by explaining the efforts they put in before, during, and after their sessions, and we assist professors by describing what we worked on with their students so that they can decide how to best assist them from there. We also, less overtly, inform and educate faculty about what we we actually do in the Writing Center–a task we also take on in our classroom visits.

Classroom Visits: Not Just for Students

At UMM, as at many other campuses, faculty can request Writing Center classroom visits where one or two consultants come in at the beginning of class in order to tell the students about what the Writing Center does and how they can use it. Consultants can use these visits to educate not only students but also faculty about how the Writing Center operates so that professors better understand how we work with student writers and how to interpret a post-session report.

During these visits, we explain to the class how appointments are structured and what aspects of writing we work on (that is, virtually any aspect that we can cover within a 30-60 minute slot), but we also explain how we prioritize what we work on: what is most pressing in order to create a paper that is able to communicate its argument or purpose? We also spend some time talking about who uses the Writing Center (from first-year students to seniors, from people who enjoy writing and are comfortable with it to people who become extremely anxious at the thought of a paper). Possibly the most important part of these visits is when we describe how a session works—namely, that it is based on a conversation between the writer and the consultant, a collaborative effort that requires at least as much work from the writer as from the consultant. This last part is especially important to advocating for students, since professors need to know that their students come to the Writing Center to do work, not to have their papers edited or corrected.

We have a few faculty members who consistently request these visits for their freshmen composition and ESL classes, and these professors demonstrate that visits help educate faculty about the Writing Center. When we visit these professors’ classes, we find that they have heard our presentation so many times that they’re able to prompt us with questions that set up what we’re about to say or interject with information they think will be especially helpful to their students. They’ve become so versed in our script that it seems like they could almost do the presentation themselves.

This is valuable because this means that faculty members have internalized the ways in which the Writing Center is set up to help their students, which in turn sets them up with the right expectations for 1) what their students need to prepare for a Writing Center session, 2) what kind of work they do during that session, and 3) what is expected of them after the session. This way, when these professors receive a post-session report, they already understand the work and collaborative effort that the consultant and the student writer have already put in.

Faculty and writing center consultants and faculty members can work in parallel, just like these two kitties.
Faculty and writing center consultants and faculty members can work in parallel, just like these two kitties.

This understanding makes our job as advocates for students much easier. When faculty have learned what our role is as writing center consultants, they are more likely to listen to us and appreciate the nuances of what we are trying to communicate. For example, if we describe a session in which a writer came in wanting to work on their paragraph organization but instead we worked on developing their thesis, the professor will more easily understand why that happened—that we had prioritized working on the thesis over the paragraph organization because we talked with the writer and agreed that the thesis ultimately needed the most attention. Therefore this professor will also be in a better position to help the writer continue the paper because they understand what the writer has already worked on and why.

Students Advocating for Students

Post-session reports and classroom visits are only two of the ways that UMM’s Writing Center advocates for students in communications with faculty. I have focused on post-session reports and classroom visits because they are our most frequent form of contact with faculty, and it is important to understand how and why these basic methods operate before we work on designing something new, which may serve to supplement a deficiency in these earlier methods.

What is most important about these methods is that they provide a direct line of communication between consultants and faculty that enables peer consultants to advocate for fellow student writers. This is important because the consultants also have something at stake in this interaction; as students, we know what it’s like to negotiate the boundary between professors and students, and we understand the power disparities in play. For this reason, we are particularly sensitive to the needs of student writers and take especial care in the way we talk about the writers who come to see us.

This sensitivity matters because many faculty (the majority of whom do not request classroom visits) don’t necessarily understand the mission of the Writing Center or how it helps student writers. In these situations, consultants must walk a very narrow line: communicating what happens in a Writing Center session while also ensuring that we only share information with which the student writer is comfortable. For this job, no one is better equipped than student writers ourselves.

4 Replies to “Crossing the Barrier: Advocating for Students, Educating Faculty”

  1. Great post! It’s really valuable to recognize that, despite the fact that faculty may not treat you as a professional and an equal, there are unique advantages to being a student consultant. I worked in the UMM Writing Center as an undergrad and the kind of processes you describe now heavily inform my work as a writing and literature instructor at Ohio State. In fact, they are SO central to my teaching process that it puts me in an odd position where I expect to have those same advantages you’re talking about, but then regularly come up against the fact that I don’t. As a grad student, I still tend to feel like a student and thus a peer, but my students don’t see me that way (understandably, because I give them grades and such). In becoming an instructor, I’ve lost the benefit of the peer consultant’s position as an authority but also an equal, and that makes me sad a little, but also really reinforces for me the necessity of both positions. It’s great to be a writing center trained English instructor, but that training doesn’t mean that I can come any closer to fulfilling the position of a student writing consultant. It really is a unique position, and one that should be considered as central to teaching college writing as the position of writing instructor.

    *Hiring faculty who have themselves worked at writing centers is another way of making sure that faculty know and value what goes on in writing centers…a probably impracticable way, but one can dream…

  2. Thanks, Alexandra, for this post!

    To echo a lot of what Kate said, I was also a tutor in the Writing Center at UMM and remember some of this struggle. I was a TA for one class, while I was a writing tutor, and ended up requesting that students see someone else when possible. I was trying to avoid the stress of being both a peer tutor and TA who would be evaluating those papers.

    Now, I’m a graduate student at Colorado State University. I teach my own first-year composition courses and feel a bit discordant at times with students in the way I tried to avoid at UMM. I always have one or two students coming in for advice on papers–they want to know how to get an A, but I want to focus on their writing. It was a lot simpler in the Writing Center where I didn’t have to walk that line.

  3. Receiving the writing center reports usually works as corroboration for me, as another voice saying what I’ve said in another way (and sometimes in the same way). I’ve found it really helpful for students to realize that they aren’t simply writing for me and that good writing is not (just) a matter of pleasing a particular instructor. And in student conferences, having more information about “how [students] are engaging with their writing outside of the classroom” definitely helps me figure out how to direct them better, how to make their writing process more functional. I think it would also be valuable if writing center tutors included more faculty, at least occasionally, and I think that more regular, standardized meetings between writing instructors and tutors would improve each side’s understanding of goals and constraints. One idea: what if writing center tutors reached out before the start of every semester to everyone teaching a first-year writing class (and maybe also those teaching first-year seminars)? More faculty might then be willing and remember (key part) to invite a tutor to visit the class, as well as begin the term with a clearer understanding of the WC’s role. (I admit that this is the first I’ve heard of tutor visits to classes–or at least the first time I REMEMBER hearing about it–and I teach the class every year. Sometimes being a little pushier is necessary just to get our attention.) Reading all this reminds me, too, that I should be pushing the WC even harder to my upper-level and honors students, who could all benefit from thinking more about how they write as well as what they write.

  4. Alexandra, I’m so thankful I read this post! It’s especially helpful and timely for me, I think, since I’m currently a Writing Center consultant at UMM (sitting right this very moment, as it happens, in the Writing Center). I know that we were taught in Understanding Writing the value of session reports, but I admit that the routine of doing them has kind of dulled that value for me. I’m not nearly so detailed in writing my reports as I should be, and as you are; I normally just relate what happened during the sessions, with some occasional details about “what happens next” to conclude. But reading this really made me realize a value in your “before, during, after” formula that I hadn’t before, or at least that I had forgotten about. We’re not just recording what happens for posterity’s sake–we’re trying to foster conversations between professors and students by using our own conversations with students as prompts. Well done, and thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Also, referring to what Janet said before me, I think closer, more frequent interaction between consultants and faculty would be awesome. I’ve often thought, too, about how helpful it would be to reach out to professors (particularly, as Janet said, of first-year writing classes and senior seminars) earlier in the semester, so that we can get those conversations going sooner. I also think it could be helpful to include more faculty as part of the Writing Center-consultant entourage, but I think that doing that would involve some risk of students and faculty falling back into their normal roles (i.e. those of the evaluator and the evaluated). If we were to try and integrate more faculty into our staff, we might really have to drive home the roles of consultant and consultee instead–which could be difficult, given that the consultant role, as you pointed out, Alexandra, is so unique, and not one that inherently exists between professors and students . Ultimately, then, it seems that we would have to construct an entirely different relationship between professors-as-consultants and students, on top of the dynamic that already exists. I’m not sure how we might to that, but still, it’s an approach worth considering.

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