by Julia Dauer
Julia Dauer has worked at the Writing Center since 2012. She is a graduate student in literary studies at UW-Madison, where she writes about American literature and teaches literature and composition courses.
I went to a small liberal arts college, where writing spaces were relatively uniform. The Writing Center was housed on the fourth floor of the only library on campus, right next to the English building. When I came to UW-Madison, navigating campus spaces was a real challenge for me. All of a sudden there were so many! And they were so different!
Of course, UW isn’t the biggest campus in the country, nor does it have the widest range of spaces. But it is a large campus, serving a large student population — the University lists its enrollment at over 43,000, and nearly 30,000 of those students are undergraduates. And to me, coming from a college of 2,400, it seemed huge.
Teaching across a range of environments at UW has been one way for me to think through this array of spaces, and how they are related to each other. Here, I’ll offer some information about the kinds of spaces the UW Writing Center inhabits, an account of my own experience here, and some reflection on the way we describe the work we do to make our tutoring and teaching practices work across environments.
Writing Center Spaces at UW
Given the recent remodeling of the UW Writing Center’s Commons, which you can read more about here, space has been on all our minds in Madison. The new space is beautiful and versatile, and an important part of this Writing Center’s commitment to update its resources and practices to serve a student population with changing needs.
But this renovation was not about standardizing environments. Instead, it’s one more component in a diverse array of spaces and contexts we are teaching in all the time.
Because I work at a Writing Center where half of the tutors are doctoral students who are teaching semester-long courses alongside their Writing Center work, and because I want to reflect on the link between these contexts, I’ll use the terms “teaching” and “instructor” in this post. I’m writing from the position of a graduate student balancing several different kinds of teaching, but as you read, you can substitute “tutoring” and “tutor” to think about working with students in your own Writing Center context — the ideas I raise here extend to working outside a centralized Writing Center in any campus environment.
The UW Writing Center has been teaching in “satellite” locations outside the Main Center since the early 1990s. Through partnerships with residence halls, libraries, and student centers, the satellite program now runs 5 nights a week, in locations across campus. These sites are deliberately on “student turf,” in places where instructors don’t usually spend time.
Nearly all Writing Center instructors at UW work outside the Main Center at some point during their time here, meeting with students at a satellite location or online via Skype or email. The other half of our staff, made up of undergraduate Writing Fellows who work as peer tutors, is equally dispersed: Fellows hold student meetings all over campus. The Writing Center is all over the place.
This range of instructional environments is good for students. Jackie Grutsch McKinney has pointed out that accepted narratives about Writing Centers as “cozy homes” in fact privilege the preferences of a select group of white middle class instructors, rather than acknowledging the needs of a wider spectrum of students, who have different experiences and expectations (see McKinny, “Writing Centers Are Cozy Homes,” esp. p. 25). Dispersing Writing Center instruction across campus counters assumptions about how Writing Center space should look and allows students to access our resources on their own terms, helping us serve Writing Center users we might not otherwise reach. But what does this practice mean for instructors?
Teaching in Students’ Spaces
Here’s what it means for me:
As an instructor at UW this semester, I’m teaching in the Main Writing Center, in a library on campus, in a classroom, and via email. This list is specific to me, but it’s representative of the teaching commitments many instructors balance. In each of these contexts, I’m a different version of myself.
Sitting in the West Corridor of Memorial Library at 8pm on a Tuesday night, for instance, I’m in an undergrad’s paradise. Cordoned off from the lobby of the library, this space is loud and full of students chatting. Before the Writing Center occupies its allotted space, students use the tables to study, eat, or gossip instead. This is a social space housed in the principal humanities library on campus, one of seven locations outside the Main Center where Writing Center instructors meet with students. And they know we’re here: students are often waiting when I arrive with a sign-up sheet at 6:45, just before my 7pm shift starts.
There are lots of way to look unapproachable in an environment like this. Although some graduate students filter in and out, the crowd is decidedly young. Even as a relatively young tutor, I look too old to be there. The last thing I need is blazer – most students are in baseball caps and sweats. Sometimes, I see students in slippers. In a classroom, I almost never wear jeans, but in Memorial, I always wish I were wearing a t-shirt and drinking a Big Gulp.
It’s more than appearances that can produce problems here. To the undergraduates who visit the Memorial Library satellite, being in the library at night seems normal. I am happy that I can be there, doing something that’s normal to them, even if it’s not quite normal to me. But I have to be present as an instructor in a different way. In the Main Writing Center, where I teach once a week, I sometimes use my classroom teaching to frame my response to undergraduate writers. I’ll say things like “That’s a great question for your instructor — I know I’m always happy when my students email me for clarity about assignments,” or “In my classroom, I think about that problem like this:….” It works. I can be a teacher without seeming like their teacher. But in Memorial, letting on that I have a classroom outs me as someone who doesn’t belong there at all: it’s out of sync with the space. It doesn’t work.
These are small examples, but they show that I can’t rely on the same set of norms or expectations across environments. I can’t “fall back on” what seems normal to me as an instructor, because it doesn’t always look right in the space I’m using. And when I’m tired or I’m not thinking deliberately enough about the environment around me — when I just go into “teaching mode” without remembering where the teaching is happening — I’m not always very successful.
Describing the Work We Do
Tutors and instructors working across environments do substantial rhetorical work to adapt not just the more obvious components of their pedagogy but also their dress, language, and tone to new spaces.
These shifts are not about adjusting to the physical limitations of working in different locations, although there’s plenty to say about that, too. Instead, this work is about adjusting to a variety of culturally coded spaces, in which things like appropriate dress and language shift dramatically. We’re not just teaching in spaces that do or don’t have projectors or electrical outlets. We’re teaching across discourse communities. Environment dictates not just what tools you have, but how and who you can be as an instructor.
If one goal in the Writing Center might be to adapt itself to many spaces across campus, thereby making instruction available to the largest number of patrons, another goal might be neutralize space. We aim to render space invisible, so that students can expect the same instruction across all Writing Center locations.
It’s harder to produce this instruction in some spaces than others. Adapting your teaching persona to different environments can be exhausting. But sometimes the bustle of the library produces a different kind of common ground with students. Sometimes it’s easy to connect, not because I have experience in a classroom, but because I’m distracted by how loud it is, or amused by the student at the next table over, or hungry for the pizza we can both smell across the room, too. In this context, I’m just another person in the library, doing some thinking about some writing while campus life goes on around us.
I have been working to recognize, articulate, and reflect on the multiple forms of teaching I often do not just over the course of a single week, but over the course of a single day, and to make this work visible to myself and others. In the comments section, please consider sharing your own thoughts about doing this kind of work across Writing Center contexts. How do you think about the spaces where you teach? How do you think about teaching across environments, and fitting in, or not? What methods have worked for you in your own teaching? How does this work happen at other universities, on campuses different from this one? How can we continue to think together about all the places we are teaching now?
Thanks to Rebecca Couch Steffy and Brad Hughes for talking with me about my ideas for this post.