By Bradley Hughes –
It’s graduation and award time, and the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is delighted to honor three of our wonderful tutor colleagues, who are the recipients of our third annual teaching awards for graduate teaching assistants on our Writing Center staff. Every semester there are between 45 and 50 doctoral-level teaching assistants on our staff, in addition to c. 50 undergraduate writing fellows, and our career staff and our undergraduate-student receptionists. Through all of the Writing Center’s programs, each year we work with over 6000 undergraduate and graduate student-writers from across the university and in the community through our Madison Writing Assistance Program.
We invited all of the graduate teaching assistants who were on our staff in the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019 to nominate colleagues or themselves for these awards. All of the nominees were then invited to submit a 400-word statement reflecting on their Writing Center consulting and to include a summary of evaluations from their Writing Center students. The primary criterion for these awards is demonstrated excellence in individual consultations in the Writing Center, with both undergraduate and graduate-student writers. The selection committee read the nominees’ statements and evaluations from Writing Center students for evidence of–
- dedication to students
- success in tutoring
- ability to work with writers in various disciplines and at different levels
- evidence of student learning
- innovation in tutoring
- and reflective tutoring practice.
The selection committee (Nancy Linh Karls, Emily Hall, Jennifer Fandel, and Brad Hughes) then selected the recipients for our awards. We had many very strong nominations, and we honestly wish we had even more awards to give!
To honor our Writing Center’s long history—in 2019 we will celebrate our 50th anniversary—for the first five years of these awards (from 2017-2021) we have named them after two stellar figures in the history of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center. Here are brief descriptions of each award and excerpts from statements written by the three winners. We had so many strong nominations that we gave two early-career awards this year!
The Professor Paula Gillespie Awards
The Paula Gillespie early-career award honors graduate teaching assistants who are in their first two years on the UW-Madison Writing Center staff. Professor Emerita Paula Gillespie was the long-time director of the Center for Excellence in Writing at Florida International University in Miami and before that she was the director of the Ott Memorial Writing Center at Marquette University, and she is one of the best-known writing center scholars in the United States. Professor Gillespie did her undergraduate *and* graduate degrees in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a TA on the Writing Lab staff at UW-Madison in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here’s a link to a post that Paula Gillespie wrote for our blog in 2015, about partnerships between university and high school writing centers.
Amy Gaeta—Recipient of the Professor Paula Gillespie Award
Amy Gaeta is a PhD student in literary studies in the English Department at UW-Madison. In her four semesters on the Writing Center’s staff, Amy has done an outstanding job of supporting historically underrepresented students by teaching in our satellite at the Multicultural Student Center. She has also contributed to the Writing Center’s blog, Another Word, by addressing ways that writing and health can be at odds and how disabled writers can reassess writing and productivity, and she has created a new Writing Center workshop, a walking-writing retreat that emphasizes how bodymind well-being affects writing.
Here is an excerpt from Amy’s reflections on her writing center tutoring:
My tutoring involves aspects of feminist and disability studies, which foregrounds non-hierarchical relationality, accessibility, and empowering students to take ownership of their work. I structure sessions and teaching strategies around the overarching goal of encouraging students to treat writing, broadly speaking, as a process that involves multiple actors and stages.
Most of my sessions involve motivating students to explain and assess their ideas and words through compassionate and curious questions to emphasize the oft-unspoken truth of tutoring: tutors are learning all the time. Tutoring is as much of a process for us as it is for our students. This mindset has helped me successfully work alongside students across disciplines, programs, identities, and ages.
Last year, I began a reflection journal to track own my limitations and goals as a tutor and first-year writing instructor. In it, I wrote how my undergraduate instructors told me to simply “do” written work. There was little talk about what my writing “could do” or “does do.” It is this transition from writing as a passive product to active media agent that I strive to incorporate in my tutoring. Hence, I always end sessions by asking students about their next steps and biggest goals for this paper and the ideas within it, beyond just getting a good grade.
For me, success is a student showing even a slight increase in confidence that their voice matters and awareness of how others can access their words. This notion of success is rooted in a firm belief that writing is a conversation and it must be an accessible one. To achieve this goal, I often ask students to play the role of an audience member and imagine how a professor, a TA, or a friend may respond to and understand their writing.
Chrissy Widmayer—Recipient of the Professor Paula Gillespie Award
Chrissy Widmayer, who is a PhD student in Folklore Studies at UW-Madison, has been a tutor at the UW-Madison Writing Center for four semesters. During that time, Chrissy has earned rave reviews not only for her instruction in the Center’s main location and College Library satellite, but also for her work on our online and outreach teams. Chrissy has also taken on the important work of revamping our workshop on “Starting and Sustaining a Writing Group,” and she has provided invaluable assistance to our working group to address issues of disability in the Writing Center.
Here is an excerpt from Chrissy’s statement reflecting on her tutoring methods:
One of my favorite moments in the Writing Center is the “aha!” moment when the clouds clear and a student notices their brilliance or uncovers their pathway to growth. In my work in the UW Writing Center, I have sought a practice that will create more of these “aha!” moments. With each iteration of an “aha!” I notice something different. In the end, reflecting on these experiences has allowed me to cultivate a Writing Center pedagogy rooted in care, confidence-building, and skill transfer.
For instance, I recently worked with a bioengineering PhD who is a superb writer for engineers but wants to reach a general audience. I know nothing about bioengineering, and the complicated cryo-technology she writes about often goes over my head. But, through collaboration, we always have an “aha!” moment where something clicks for us—she explains the technology using an analogy that (finally!) makes sense to me, or I notice a human impact of her research that helps provide a more relatable angle to her audience. These “aha!” moments remind us that working across disciplines can create new connections and understandings of ideas long-seated in our research. We become reenergized in our work both separately and together.
Beyond energizing writers, “aha!” moments can also build writer’s confidence. . . . It is this function of the “aha!” moment that find most meaningful—an “aha!” can build confidence by bringing clarity that is lasting and meaningful. I have helped students find pathways through their deep-seated anxieties, helped them address common issues that no one took the time to teach them, and given them tools that help them clear the way to the things they truly care about in their writing. Through all that, I see that care is something that does and should guide my practice—it makes my students’ struggles matter and helps me give them an “aha!” moment to recognize their success is theirs alone.
Aaron Vieth—Recipient of the Professor Joyce S. Steward Award
The Joyce S. Steward award is our senior TA award, honoring graduate teaching assistants who have been on the Writing Center staff at UW-Madison for more than two years. This award is named in memory of Professor Joyce S. Steward, who was the founding director of the Writing Laboratory (the original name for the writing center here) and one of the most important pioneers in developing writing centers nationally and in developing the field of writing center studies. To learn more about Professor Steward’s remarkable career and accomplishments, please see this tribute to Joyce Steward, published in 2012 on our Writing Center’s blog and this article co-authored by Susan McLeod and Bradley Hughes, published in 2017 by The WAC Clearinghouse, “Understanding the Stories of Two WPA Pioneers: Ednah Thomas and Joyce Steward.”
Aaron Vieth, who is a PhD student in literary studies in the English Department, has been a tutor at the UW-Madison Writing Center for seven semesters. During that time, Aaron has taught for our online staff as well as our Madison Writing Assistance program, which serves community members at local libraries and neighborhood centers throughout the city. Aaron has also taught and revamped workshops ranging from “Building Your Argument” for undergraduates to “Getting Your Dissertation Off the Ground” for grad students. And he has played a major role in co-teaching four of our week-long Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps in conjunction with the Graduate School. Aaron is renowned for always volunteering to help with anything concerning the Writing Center, and the thoughtfulness and quality of his work and his dedication to students are truly exemplary. All of us in the Writing Center appreciate Aaron for all that he has done for so many student-writers and for the countless ways he has improved our programs. Congratulations!
Here is an excerpt from what Aaron wrote in his statement, in which he describes, with a playful spirit, how generously he gives his time to help student-writers:
[Doing online tutoring] helps me sidestep [what I perceive to be] some of my faults. The writer isn’t sitting there seeming to expect instantaneous brilliance, and I can go over time. . . . I don’t do this all the time, but I do when I want to—when I feel that taking extra time means my comments are going to be stronger or that I’ll access what the writer is attempting to say when their words say something else. Approaching my Writing Center work by taking advantage of flexibility (especially my own) gives me the space to develop more painstaking feedback methods—highlighting that sometimes uses five different hues, enumerated options for ways to revise something in the summary note— and to find joy in random eccentricities.
[In my in-person tutoring,] [l]ast weekend [at one our community writing center locations] I saw a grad student who was really struggling with a literature review. She had tons of pages. Some single-spaced. We read everything. It was a fantastic session. She got strategies for organizing her sources, and I really learned something about the state of tribal education in Wisconsin. I like engaging with student work when that engagement breaks routine, and I try to maximize those opportunities within routine. When I can. Even sometimes when I shouldn’t. But that’s just between us, okay?.
On behalf of all of the students and the staff of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a huge congratulations and thanks to Amy, Chrissy, and Aaron—and to all of the wonderful, smart, generous tutors on our staff! And a heartfelt thanks to the UW-Madison English Department and the Buchanan fund for their generous support which makes these awards possible!
Featured photo of yellow daffodils in front of the Natatorium on the UW-Madison campus, by Bryce Richter, University Communications, April 2019.