Déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu at the UWMC Writing Center

Writing Centers / Monday, November 11th, 2013

By Andy Karr

Andy1Andy Karr is Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center and Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Andy worked from 2008-2010 in the UW-Madison Writing Center. He is completing a dissertation on writing and thinking in general education.

The University of Wisconsin-Marathon County is one of the thirteen two-year UW-College campuses. About 1400 students attend UWMC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Many UWMC students transfer to Madison, but, at the same time, all UW Colleges have a policy of admitting all qualified applicants. This makes for a broad range of services our writing center aims to provide. Not all UW College campuses have a writing center that operates in the same way that UWMC’s does.

Nearing the midway point of my second year in the Wausau Homes Learning Center at UW-Marathon County, I have found two major elements that are very different from what I had experienced at UW-Madison or the writing center literature I am familiar with. I love the writing center here and really can’t imagine working anywhere else, but before taking this job I was not prepared for a writing center staff of all sophomores serving one-year tenures, or a composition tutorial course led by instructional academic staff.


The marker board in my office that tutors contribute their best doodles to.
The marker board in my office that tutors contribute their best doodles to. All photos by Brian Becker.

Having academically inexperienced student-tutors makes training them efficiently as well as thoroughly more important than usual. They will only work in the writing center for a year, or two at most. Starting this spring, tutor training will take place in English 291, a writing tutor seminar, a course I developed with my colleague Joanne Giordano. It is my hope that some of the tutors will continue working in a writing center or academic support center at the four-year UW school of their choice. It is bittersweet to train the tutors for a semester and then watch them leave after using their training for only a year in your center. Happily though, so far another group of eager freshmen replaced the last group.

There is no standard path that students take through their time at the writing center. Tutors transfer between semesters, and a couple tutors have worked at the center for three or even four semesters, usually because of the need to stick around for one more class. I’m very lucky to have the experience of three juniors on the staff right now. I haven’t been around long enough to know whether or not this will be a common occurrence, but it has provided unexpected continuity from year to year.


Student-tutor Valerie Bastian works with a student on a new assignment.
Student-tutor Valerie Bastian works with a student on a new assignment.

The student-tutors provide many of the same services that graduate student-tutors provided at UW-Madison, where I worked as a grad student. While the tutors at UWMC are generally only sophomores, there are some advantages to their undergraduate status. The tutors may have taken the course they’re tutoring in, or on occasion be in that course at the time. Some students see this as a benefit, as the tutors tend to be high-achieving students.

Drop-in tutoring is provided more than 40 hours a week. Meetings by appointment are the exception, not the rule. The tutors have helped students with papers from many departments around campus, including biology, education, history, and psychology, among others. This is the standard service our writing center provides.

Because our staff is so small, the tutors have often found additional roles to fill, usually when they are not occupied at the drop-in desk. Tutors also visit classrooms where writing is assigned to pitch our services. To supplement the official signs made by campus graphic designer Rose Brust, one of the tutors has made several signs to raise awareness of the writing center, including one to garner likes on our Facebook page. (Give us a like!) She also created the Facebook page and updates it regularly. A former tutor launched a Sunday-night satellite location in Marathon Hall, the dorm on campus.

We have paired off tutors with courses in biology, composition, creative writing, history, and psychology, to hold conferences with these specific groups of students, and one tutor standardized last year’s tutor conference records and created the improved form for this semester’s records.

We hope to connect with more faculty who wish to have writing-center services more thoroughly integrated into their courses. Of course, this is a common goal of any writing center director at the beginning of building anything like a WAC program. We would also like more faculty to see that the writing center is not remedial. We’ve got a start with the faculty, but already see a deeper understanding of what the writing center can provide in the students we work with. For every student coming to us for help with “Grammar,” it seems another student will ask about a higher-order concern or to test out an idea. It is reassuring to see at least some students understanding the depth of collaborative learning the writing center provides.


A fairly light morning in the writing center as a whole. At times, three or four 099 groups will be going at once.
A fairly light morning in the writing center as a whole. At times, three or four 099 groups will be going at once.

The other side of the writing center is English 099: Composition Tutorial. It is our less standard, but more utilized, side.

English 099 works differently on different UW College campuses. At UWMC, English 099 is taught in the writing center by Instructional Academic Staff who all have an MA, MFA, or PhD.

Each section appointment means working 8 hours in the writing center teaching ENG 099 or LEA 120: Intermediate Composition Tutorial, meeting four students an hour. The entirety of the course, and it is a course, takes place in the writing center, working with students from composition courses or other writing-intensive courses.

More of my time is devoted to English 099 because I oversee it and participate heavily in it. I do see drop-in writing center visitors when no tutor is available, but, depending on the semester, up to 40% of my appointment is in ENG 099.

As ENG 099 was developed and introduced, the UW Colleges Developmental Reading Coordinator Joanne Giordano and other members of the English department presented to faculty and administrators assessment data demonstrating that students taking ENG 099 performed better in composition courses than those who did not. It is no surprise that what amounts to a weekly ongoing session with a student results in higher persistence in composition courses and less time to fulfilling the transfer requirement. The question that intrigues me about this tutorial course, the one that makes up half of the services provided by the writing center I now work at, was not “if” but “how”, not if the course should be taught but how it might best be taught.

Between the eight of us who have taught ENG 099 over the few semesters I’ve been here, different approaches to the course have become evident. Some instructors take advantage of having four students in one hour to do work in small groups. This option is not available when you have four students doing utterly different things in that hour, but there are many times, especially early in the semester, when you are able to find enough overlap in people’s assignments that you can work on them all together. It is often possible for a group of four students and one instructor to workshop the drafts of one or more students in the group, or help a student brainstorm or give feedback to another student’s ideas as they begin a paper. Some instructors organize their students in a group, even if it’s a group of four writing silently, fairly often, while other instructors hardly do at all. In these cases, the four students will not be sitting together, and the instructor will move from one to the next.

The next questions arise about what to do in the individual meetings with students. These meetings all involve the one to one collaborative learning that is the foundation of writing center work. One simple question is whether or not the instructor asks the student writer to read her or his work aloud. Some of us do; some of us don’t. Some of us vary, depending on the situation. Since we meet with the students every week, they will not always have a completed draft to read, so the question is often moot. Since our students come in at many points in the writing process, at times it can seem that the most useful thing to do is to look at work that has already been submitted and graded. Since many students in 099 are also in developmental reading courses, sometimes instructors will quickly skim a student’s reading assignment in order to be able to talk to them and help them understand it.


Wrap-up discussion in composition tutorial.
Wrap-up discussion in composition tutorial.

One question that has held my interest since I’ve been teaching 099 is the question of tutor talk. I remember it being suggested in my training, and I reiterate it to the tutors I train, that the student writer should talk just as much as the tutor in a conference. My writing center background has led me to believe this to be important for both an effective outcome and the collaborative ethos of the writing center. But what if this is not so in the case of English 099?

Many of the students taking the course are in English 098, two courses below transfer level, and also in developmental reading courses. What if having an equal conversation with these student writers, while easily possible, is not the thing that will make them better writers? What if it will not make them better writers in the span of the three semesters they have to meet the transfer requirement?

All this is to say I’ve noticed many of the other instructors in English 099 talk a lot more to their students than I do. It’s possible that these other instructors, as they talk their students through their assignments, will more effectively move their students through their courses in the time they have. It’s not as collaborative as I try to be, but maybe these students will have time for the collaborative approach in English 101 and 102. Or perhaps that’s unfair to these students, and they actually will learn from collaboration from the beginning. This seems to me an unanswered question, and research and rigorous assessment are difficult in a course like 099.

English 099 is designed to assist students in lower-level composition courses, and does not have much in the way of its own outcomes, so we would be assessing the effect of the course on other courses, further complicating matters. Teaching English 099 is time-intensive, but I find myself wondering about questions of pedagogy and assessment more with this course than with the things that typically go with the writing center drop-ins or other services. Is equivalent tutor talk necessary in all situations or can another model also be effective? These are questions I look forward to exploring.

Much of my work at the UWMC writing center is overseeing familiar elements, if accelerated due to the short time with each class of tutors. One of the interesting and different things I have latched onto is the questions of writing center pedagogy that English 099 raises. Right now, these questions seem like practical ones to be explored and implemented on a daily basis, but also perhaps the subject of larger future inquiry.

8 Replies to “Déjà vu, presque vu, and jamais vu at the UWMC Writing Center”

  1. Thank you for this description of your Learning Center, Andy! One of my favorite things about this blog is the glimpses it gives us into the work of writing centers around the world.

    Your list of structures for teaching the 4-student groups in English 099 is fascinating, and suggests that your center’s approach to group-based tutoring has a kind of play and experimentation that allows you and your peers to teach and tutor responsively to the broad and varied needs of your student body. I was wondering, though, if you could say a bit more about the training structure you use when orienting new student-tutors to their work, since you know their time on staff will be limited. Do you find yourself changing, abbreviating, or accelerating the training process, or does it look similar to the tutor training programs that might be common at programs where the students are likelier to be around for 2 or 3 years?

    Mike Shapiro
    Tutor and TA Coordinator, UW–Madison Writing Center

  2. Thanks for the great post, Andy! It sounds like there are good things happening in Wausau.

    The questions you raise about pedagogy for English 099 seem to point to the importance of tutor (and student) flexibility in Writing Centers. While we can (and should) standardize methods for record-keeping, we can’t develop one-size-fits-all instructional models, particularly when classes are so small and when the work students will be engaged with changes so much from week to week. I’m reminded of an OGE that Jessie Reeder ran on Writing Center pedagogy last fall, in which many of us found arguments for such flexibility appealing: with writers who are experts in their fields we can expect to talk very little, but with novice writers in a particular field we should expect to be more directive. It makes little sense, for example, to ask students how they might organize a cover letter when there are clearly demarcated generic expectations.

    Of course, this poses a particular challenge for the Writing Center at UWMC – for whereas experienced tutors (and instructors of 099) learn this type of pedagogical flexibility through experience (i.e., plenty of trial and error), your undergraduate tutors will need to learn to be flexible in their own meetings very quickly. I suppose that leads me back to Mike’s question: do you find yourself preparing a different training process for your tutors than you would for those who would learn to be flexible through longer experience?

    Also, on a different note: the vision of the man in the tree was not already seen or never seen, and certainly not almost seen; neither deja vu, jamais vu nor prequel vu was elastic enough to cover it.

  3. Andy, it was a great pleasure to read about all the different ways your Writing Center operates, and to hear you thinking it all through so thoroughly. I expected nothing less.

    I found myself wondering whether “academically inexperienced” applies to your sophomores, in their context. They seem absolutely perfectly experienced for the other students they serve, as your description of their work makes clear. It reminds me of the Writing Fellows peer tutoring model. And at a two-year college, I would think gung-ho second-year students are, in that context, top dog.

    It sounds like you’re all doing great work! I can’t wait to visit! 🙂

  4. Andy, it’s great to hear about your work at UW-MC! I’m especially intrigued by the level of involvement and ownership your peer tutors have taken of the writing center–making and maintaining a Facebook page, restructuring the records, starting a Sunday night satellite. That’s really cool! I’d be interested in knowing more about tutor training and and how you develop an environment for peer tutors to thrive and take ownership of the center.

    The 099 course model is one that I’m not familiar with, but one I’m definitely intrigued by–given the small number of students and the meetings in the writing center. I guess I’m with you, Andy, in assuming that such small numbers make for generative opportunities for collaborative talk. You mention the course not having many clear outcomes, though. What are the “official” course goals?

    Thanks again for sharing about all the good work you’re doing at UW-MC!

  5. Thanks for this post, Andy! I especially enjoyed hearing about the engaged and creative work your tutors (and you) are doing.

  6. Regarding the questions about tutor training, it’s has been a challenge so far. I hope that will change with the implementation of a writing tutor course next semester. The challenges last year ranged from finding a time we all could meet to choosing appropriate readings to making sure the tutors could be paid for training. I think I started with readings that were too abstract and theoretical, but quickly corrected. We then read some very practical selections from Gillespie and Lerner, as well as several articles about working with ELL students in the writing center. Given our relatively large population of Hmong students and growing number of international students at UWMC, this was also a practical set of readings that 099 instructors, who were always invited to tutor training, really benefited from as well.

    Beyond these readings, training consisted of observation and mentoring. Given that all fall tutors started off brand new, tutor to tutor mentoring was not possible until the spring. Since then, it has been an important element in our training. However, my office so happens to be directly behind the tutor desk (both are pictured above), so I was able to listen in on many conferences, and I could discuss them with the tutors afterwards. I listened to them talk through difficult conferences, congratulated them on conferences that had gone well, and just chatted with them about about how conferences had gone.

    I lost about half the tutors to transfer between semesters, but in spring, with the addition of several new tutors, I started to see tutors working in our standard format or their own style that they’d thought through. I’ve been fortunate enough to have enough holdover from last year that I haven’t done extensive training this fall, but the move from any one semester to another seems random. I have at least one student taking the training course this coming spring who won’t even be here next year to tutor. And I said, I have two juniors this year. So I have not only extremely short time with these tutors, but also an uncertain one.

  7. Great post, Andy!

    I’m really intrigued by your description of ENGLISH 099, especially your questions about the course as an opportunity for collaborative learning. It reminds me of some of the studio-based writing courses I’ve read about. You mentioned moments in which students are working individually or in their group of 4. Do instructors ever bring students from the course together in groups of two?

    Thanks for sharing what’s happening at UWMC!

  8. That is a good question, Kate. I did not mean to exclude groups of 2 or 3. Groups of 2 tend to happen when 2 students have things to work on that will take about the same amount of time, like drafts of the same length or brand new paper assignments to brainstorm on. In my own sections, I can recall 2 groups of 2 that work together on an ongoing basis. These students have the same instructor for the same course, so they can really help each other out. On the other hand, part of the ideal of 099 is working together across sections, courses, and instructors, so the students are doing more than just the kind of group work they’d do in class. Similarly, it is frowned on for a student to work with her or his classroom instructor in 099. Of course, students do like to do that as they think it will improve their grade to get extra help from their instructor.

    I can also recall groups of 3 working together productively, or sometimes 2 students being focused and the 3rd getting drawn in.

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