How I Became an Addict

Uncategorized, Writing Center Theory, Writing Centers, Writing Fellows / Monday, May 7th, 2012

A revision addict, I mean—addicted to sharing my work with others and responding to theirs, addicted to creating a community of writing collaborators.

Cydney Alexis, Ph.D. candidate in composition and rhetoric, assistant director of the Writing Fellows program, and former Writing Center instructor
Cydney Alexis, Ph.D. candidate in composition and rhetoric, assistant director of the Writing Fellows program, and former Writing Center instructor

Someone once told me that my Master’s thesis would be the longest all-nighter I’d ever pull. He was a graduate student at the very tail end of his Ph.D.; I was wrestling with my looming thesis, and specifically with conceptualizing such a large project and organizing my ideas. And I believed and enacted the advice he gave me. As was my usual practice, I knocked my thesis out in a weekend.

I had been knocking out papers several hours before they were due my whole life. As my friend and future colleague Nicholas Purdy commented when he peer reviewed this blog post draft, to knock out a paper implies I was going to “curb stop it to the professor; to wrestle it to the ground and give it a black eye and turn it in.” He’s right—it’s a violent way to go about talking about writing, one that implies not negotiation with ideas, but ferociously spitting them out in word-to-word combat.

Nick Purdy, former Writing Fellow
Nick Purdy, former Writing Fellow

That was writing to me before Wisconsin: frantically collecting my sources eight hours before a paper was due and then pounding it out, five typed pages at a time, surrounded by candy and coffee, until the paper length was achieved and I turned the thing in, usually barely acceptably late. And since I almost always received As on my work, there wasn’t a lot of inspiration or motivation to revise my practice. Often, those As were accompanied by statements such as, “Based on your class contributions, I was expecting more from your final paper, but your participation all semester has earned you an A.” I struggled with long texts that required patience, time, feedback, and revision. If a text was more than eight pages long, I couldn’t keep the structure in my head. My thesis completion wasn’t terribly different; I spent one miserable weekend hammering the thing out (another violent metaphor) and I knew that as a result, it would collect dust both on my mental shelf and the material one it still resides on in Florida.

You see, at the school where I did my undergraduate and Master’s work, peer review was not a common practice. Writing instruction was sparse. Along with tepid praise for my final papers, I also received a lot of warm praise for my shorter ones, which were easier for me to organize. My professors could see good ideas lurking behind confused structure in the longer drafts. A couple of very meticulous professors nitpicked grammatical errors and taught me how to write mechanically correct sentences. But no one talked about process.

And my sheepish revision practices—ones that were sustained by a scholastic (literary studies) environment that was not fully cognizant of how to teach revision and process—were not limited solely to written work. I delivered papers at conferences without practicing them and even winged co-presentations. This carried on, in fact, when I came to the University of Wisconsin. My friend Kate Vieira and I presented together at a conference and she suggested, or rather implored, several times, that we should practice first. I dragged my heels until the very last second, when I begrudgingly performed the conference paper with her 20 minutes before we presented–and I experienced, for the first time, how the flames of anxiety chilled after running through our ideas.

I reflect a lot on what happened to transform my writing process, because it is safe to say I am now a peer review and collaborative learning addict. I read my work to others many times before I deliver it, email it, or turn it in. I am dependent on many readers of my work.

Nicole Kvale
Nicole Kvale Eilers

My friend Nicole Kvale Eilers, an immigration historian, reads every draft I produce. This is significant for many reasons, including that I was her writing tutor for a couple of years in the Writing Center. Over the course of our living together and being colleagues at Wisconsin, the trust we developed as peer reviewers of each other’s writing developed into dependence on exchanging ideas, despite our disciplinary difference. When she was on fellowship in Germany, I was so eager for her feedback on a presentation that we Skype peer reviewed (a practice we still carry on, since she now works in D.C.) My roommate, Megan Adams, helped me to transform the current dissertation chapter I’m working on one afternoon on our porch, after I had been blocked for weeks.

Billie Schwartz
Billie Schwartz

My sister, Billie Schwartz, a Ph.D. student in counseling psychology, and about a dozen others, listened to my job talk before I delivered it at on-campus interviews this past year.  One of my former students, Nick Purdy, whom I mentioned above, helped me when in a panic to structure my job talk. One minute after I verbalized to him that I still don’t work from outlines, I outlined the job talk in response to our conversation, around four main arguments. Incidentally, Nick is a former Writing Fellow and one of the most diligent, patient, and insightful peer reviewers of my work, and almost every important document travels through him before being sent into the ether, including this blog post.

In my reflection on the drastic shift in my writing practice, I come back to three main ideas that illustrate how the collaborative, revision-centric climate forged by our robust and central Writing Center and its tentacular presence on campus fosters a strong writing culture at UW-Madison:

1. Possible Selves. I’ve been working with the psychological concept of possible selves in one of my dissertation chapters. In a nutshell, possible selves is a theory that addresses how people become things they wish to be and respond to past experiences and incorporate these experiences into their self-concept, as well as how self-concept drives what we think we can and do become. By working in the Writing Center, I was constantly surrounded by people and experiences that enabled me to change my self-concept from one who couldn’t organize long texts and did not revise papers to someone who saw that writing is a practice, one that involves patience and recursion. One of the graduate students I mentored in the Writing Center, a Ph.D. candidate in speech pathology named Marina Papangelou, taught me how critical really hard daily work is to one’s writing practice. Each week, she obsessively printed out her work, responded to what we’d talked about the week before, and came in bearing new material. She modeled for me, or gave me a glimpse of, the possible self who could finish a dissertation by working in small bits–or, rather, I saw that it is small bits that add up to a large project. Other graduate students who struggled and finished have also been a really important component of envisioning myself finishing my dissertation. Seeing friends sending out their articles enabled me to relinquish an article I’d written to one of my field’s journals. Watching a graduate student named Anneliese Cannon whom I worked with in the Writing Center for a year or so meticulously produce writing each week and then bring me, at the end, a fairly perfect, tour de force paper on performance ethnography reinforced the idea that I needed to work more consistently on writing. All of these anecdotes are meant to illustrate how the culture we are around supports our writing and contributes to the senses of self around writing that are possible within a culture. The Writing Center believes in transformation; my writing practice has been transformed accordingly.

2. Training and practice. It’s one thing to be told that peer review matters, or that positive feedback is important to give in order to establish trust with a person whose work you are responding to; it’s another to read research on the topic, to practice that research, to teach it, and to see one’s students and oneself benefiting from it. When I took the invaluable tutor training seminar that accompanies our first semester of Writing Center tutoring, I was thirsty for professional development, as I still continue to be. I eagerly learned about the value of reading one’s paper out loud in the Writing Center context, though I had never read one of my own papers out loud before. And slowly, through watching the recursive thinking that writers would do when working in this revision-centric space, I began to apply what I was teaching to my own practice. In Nick Purdy’s words, “Being in the Writing Center context was an essential transition into a revision-based writing process. [I] had to be immersed in a place where recursion was a normal methodology and philosophy to recast [my] writing process.” (In his peer review of this post, Nick asked me to ruminate on the latter concept in order to end this paragraph; I’ve included his words instead to make his contributions to this draft, and my writing, visible.)

3. Collaborating with cross-disciplinary, cross-generational others. For years, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to theorize the power of working with people in other disciplines or people of different ages. My former students, for example, students such as Nick, comprise some of the peer reviewers of my work I’m most dependent on. It feels banal to say that it is powerful to work with people younger than oneself or that interactions at the boundaries of disciplines are especially energetic. But for some reason, they do hold a special charge. It might be the power that comes from working with younger students who bring new vision to their work. Or the transformative power of role reversal, such as having one’s students revise one’s work. When I taught English 316, the honors proseminar that new Writing Fellows take, I was so blown away by the intellectual prowess of the Fellows I was teaching that I began very quickly to see them as colleagues, colleagues who were not only engaging with the ideas about writing and peer review I was teaching them, but were then teaching them to undergraduates and faculty members across campus. They were also teaching me. But there’s something more here, I think, which is that opening oneself up to unexpected collaborations of any kind, across any kind of difference, enables unknown, powerful, catalystic experiences.

I can’t honor, here, all of the mentoring and training that has led to the revisioning of my practice. My advisor has spent countless hours reading drafts and giving me support that has enabled me to let go of my writing to others. Working with so many students who revised so conscientiously in response to my and their peers’ feedback encouraged me to share my work with them in kind. Interview participants who detailed to me their struggles with writing their dissertations and then finished gave me a glimpse of myself walking across the Ph.D. finish line.

This is for me, though, a blog post about the impact that UW-Madison’s Writing Center has had on my writing life. The Writing Center, and each program or event or collaborative endeavor that is connected to it or grew out of it, is a place “primed for this kind of interaction to take place” (once again, this is Nick speaking). Training and contact with many others of all ages, backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplinary interests creates a contact zone in and through which we all find ourselves, and our writing, in a steady process of transformation.

11 Replies to “How I Became an Addict”

  1. What an apt description of the powerful culture of writing at UW. Also apt: I had totally forgotten that I made us practice for that presentation. What I do remember is learning from you how to write a conference proposal. : )

  2. Very interesting. At this point, without a dedicated peer structure, I doubt I’ll ever get there, though…

  3. Thanks for your post, Cydney! Your words are a wonderful testimony to the amazing community of writers that we have here at Madison. They also, however, reflect your own care and thoughtfulness, which have helped me and so many other fellows in the Writing Fellows Program. Thank you so much — you will be missed!

  4. I love what you’ve written here, Cydney, because you so skillfully tell us a story about how we constantly modify and revise ourselves as writers. You make it clear that writers who lack an accessible community of readers and a concept of revision are missing an integral component of their writing identity. Fortunately, we have a space like the Writing Center where it’s possible for any willing student to explore collaboration and to develop revision skills!

  5. Nick, I can’t wait until you eventually are a part of this community once again! And Amanda, I am going to miss you, Molly, and the other Fellows so much when I am gone. Kate, if only we could co-present sometime soon. Thanks for reading!

  6. Your post touches on issues I’ve had in my own writing, especially in thinking of it as some sort of struggle to be won. My writing habits shifted dramatically from undergrad to grad school; in undergrad, I always thought for a while about assignments and wrote them entirely the night before. That morphed somehow into obsessive writing, cursing, rewriting, tears, rerewriting, etc. by the time I started my MA program. The one constant, though, was the unshakable feeling that I was fighting with my words. Something to think about as my writing habits and purposes continue to evolve…

  7. As a fellow PhD student in the throws of the dissertation writing process, the peer review and revision process (particularly provided by my amazing sister Cydney) has been invaluable to my success. It is something that I continually recommend to both my peers and students! Now there is another article that I can refer them to–great article, Cyd!!

  8. Thanks for this wonderful post, Cydney. I’m literally inspired by it to slow down and consider what my writing process (practice?) is, how I can revise it (love the idea of revising my revising), and how I can be open to hearing new suggestions about my current work–even when I feel time pressures and just want to get the writing done. We’ll see how this works out as I struggle with the new genre of prelims essays, and then that terrifying genre you mentioned: The Dissertation. 🙂

  9. The phrase that leaps out at me from your post, Cydney: “tentacular presence.” What a beautiful, organic way to describe the Writing Center’s reach and involvement at UW-Madison! I will remember that, and your powerful ideas here, for a long time to come.

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