International Writing Centers and Environmental Humanities

Community Writing Assistance, International Writing Centers, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Across the Curriculum / Monday, February 3rd, 2014
Rob Emmett at the Kohler Dunes, Wisconsin with Elisabeth, 2010.

By Rob Emmett

Writing centers can launch lives in new directions, across continents and oceans. The years I spent working at the Writing Center while in graduate school in Madison certainly set me on a path to my current work at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich, Germany. The RCC is an interdisciplinary, international center for research in environmental history and allied fields that aims to raise the profile of this work in public discussions of environmental issues, in the spirit of our namesake, the influential author of Silent Spring. The project is exceptional in many ways–one being that its directors, Christof Mauch and Helmuth Trischler, represent Munich’s oldest public university (LMU Munich) and the research division of the Deutsches Museum, respectively. For the last year I have served as Director of Academic Programs; I support the center’s research fellows, develop collaborations in environmental humanities with other centers, and teach in our international environmental studies program, among other things.

My graduate training in U.S. environmental literature and history and the vision of people at the Center for Culture, History, and Environment put the Carson Center on my mental map back in 2009. Yet a surprising number of the skills that I use in daily work I developed at the Writing Center at University of Wisconsin-Madison. These range from the mundane but important (how to keep good records, documentation and reporting practices) to the more profound (how to gain cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural rhetorical competence, and retrieve and contextualize disparate content knowledge). Learning alongside the student writers whom I tutored at the center taught the practical consequences of how epistemological framings operate within disciplines. It also brought home how writing works as a searching, shared activity. Above all, the Writing Center taught me to apply interdisciplinary perspectives to real-world problems and reinforced a sense of why literacy is vital for addressing global environmental change.

Vitiating Simplicity and Listening for Disciplinary Audiences

Before I walked into the Writing Center in Helen C. White Hall, I knew very little about ideas of writing centers and nothing about what could be learned there. As an undergraduate in Charlottesville, Virginia, I would have blushed to be caught near a place where students were learning to improve their writing. I held one of the most common misconceptions about writing centers—that these are places where students go for remedial instruction.

This misguided notion dissolved over the course of one long conversation in the spring of 2003 with a fellow graduate student who had taught at the Madison Writing Center for several years.

I went to talk with Brad Hughes, the long-term Director of the Writing Center at Madison, based on glowing recommendations from several other graduate students. They raved about the training and camaraderie in teaching, and the ethos of the center that converted many graduate cohorts in Madison (not just in the English department, but in history, geography, and the natural sciences) to the value of writing for multiple audiences and learning through structured dialog. At the time I was teaching first-year composition. What I learned in the Writing Center’s training became relevant beyond the classroom and extended into understanding better how the university works, how disciplines are organized and too often fragmented, and how student careers are often shaped by anxious scenes of composition.

How do you listen to a writer’s questions about the purpose of an assignment in a subject you have never studied, for a department you’ve never visited? We learned to listen for nuance and context, to reflect questions, to ask further questions to stimulate, we hoped, reflection and not further confusion about an intended audience. How do you help a writer in a field quite distant from your own—say, Nuclear Engineering—negotiate unspoken conventions of writing at the graduate level in his field? Particularly if you at times find some of those conventions stifling, humorous, or even blind to ethical concerns?

Lumber road through commercial spruce forest south of Munich. Photo, R S Emmett.

We learned to draw out the author’s sense of logical structure and argument, seeking at first to understand rather than judge, but also holding up a mirror to larger or even unintended implications of their ideas.

Such work encouraged me to do more serious interdisciplinary reading in anthropology, critical geography, and environmental history. The more time I spent learning with future engineers, accountants, and nurses, the more certain I felt that literary criticism, too, must produce practical wisdom, not just clever wordstrings.




Empathy and Learning across the Disciplines

In the first two years that I taught at the Writing Center, I cared deeply about these questions of audience and disciplinarity and faced them with each new meeting. I experienced a real tension around how much of myself to invest in those meetings. It was hardest with ongoing appointments, sometimes with graduate students in other programs where perhaps there was less support to spend time on writing but no less pressure to do it well. I remember feeling drained after sessions with students who seemed blocked to doing their best work because of intense anxieties over how their work would be received by an instructor or thesis advisor.

One idea of a writing center is as the campus ICU for compositions in critical condition or students just shy of a panic attack. I experienced this with a few students who came satellite campus library center, in their hour (or sometimes half hour) of need before a deadline.

What did we say then? We emphasized that we did not promise an A. We said we could not perform miracles, that we were not an editing service, that we would not write the paper for you. We would have a patient and detailed conversation, driven by the writer’s concerns and tempered by our own experiences as writers and teachers, at the end of which both parties would leave with a different outlook and a different text. There is something magical in hearing one’s words reshaped in conversation with a stranger. Students said, “but I meant to say…” and then they said it better.

Our idea of a writing center was as a campus learning center where it was safe to play with language, where everyone who came in the door could find an attentive listener. One part composition theory, one part educational therapy. It worked both ways. I came to question what mattered most to me in my own writing–what universities are for, what kinds of critique matter, what for me became questions of justice and environmental groundwork–through listening to how others negotiated their own values and goals. If they form the place on campus where the most uncertainties are entertained, new ideas tested, and clearer phrases formed, perhaps it is because writing centers are where real multidisciplinary conversations happen every day of the semester.

Writing Centers without Borders: Community Writing Assistance

The program that has become Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) started in South Madison at the public library while I was finishing my degree. Brad Hughes generously invited me to work there on Saturday mornings as part of my teaching contract. The MWA program continued a tradition of store-front writing centers where anyone looking for writing help could walk in and sign up for an appointment. The Madison program was the brain child of then-Associate Director Melissa Tedrowe and an energetic librarian, Chris Wagner, in South Madison, initially funded by a local university grant.

At the mobile writing center within the public library on South Park Street on Saturday mornings, I met with veterans writing memoirs, returning adult students writing for community college credits, local Hmong high school students, and people of all ages and backgrounds seeking work. I worked with many people on reformatting or typing up hand-written resumes, writing professional cover letters, and navigating electronic job applications. MWA taught humbling lessons about the limits of academic English.

During my daily commute on the Munich U-Bahn, I see signs advertising “Wall Street English,” which captures the ambivalence of contemporary (U.S.) English in the world. No one ultimately owns the full powers of any language, least of all cosmopolitan, contemporary English. The MWA program lowered barriers of entrance to the costlier games of academic and professional writing. But it also strengthened concerns I had about problems of livelihood, sustainability and the abuse of language by powerful interests. It influenced me to get involved in campus outreach, pay more attention to social inequities, and trust myself more as a citizen as well as a teacher. Standing up and engaging people with power is something most of us have to learn how to do—including rather shy and sometimes sheltered academics.

Marienplatz, Munich, January 2014. Photo, R S Emmett.

4. Valuable Models for Public, Problem-focused Research Centers

One last idea of writing centers is one rooted in the concept of great public universities. In Wisconsin, we called it the Wisconsin Idea, that the borders of the university extend to the state’s borders and our ideas ought to serve all the people, not just some of the people. In Virginia as an undergraduate, we called the university an “academic village,” a community both cosmopolitan and intimate. I have encountered similar ideas operating in universities in Sweden, Germany, and Japan, and they exist elsewhere. There are to be no unnecessary or unquestioned borders perpetuated by these universities—perhaps least of all now between disciplines in a time of global ecological degradation and savage economic disparity. The worst abuse of language is to “divide and conquer” by it.

If education is a vital public service in a democracy, then one of the goals of higher education has to be to learn to wield language as a political tool, responsibly and equitably. I am convinced that we learn this through dialog in conditions of care and commitment to common goals.

And this is where writing centers can and sometimes do serve as a campus forum, not for grandstanding or vote-getting, but for questioning principles, duties, and final ends. In a truly good writing center, writers from all the sciences, including the interpretive and aesthetic, as well as natural and social, challenge each other daily to demonstrate the worth of their findings in a context wider than internal, disciplinary validation. So a good writing center, it turns out, provides a prototype for the kind of interdisciplinary, problem-focused centers we need to address the so-called “wicked” or complex problems of poverty, disease, and climate. These include institutes for Environment and Society, for Public Health, for Digital Democracy, and many other international centers for synthesis that are redefining the meaning of socially-responsible universities.

Wheat field with poppy, fall 2013. Photo, R S Emmett.


13 Replies to “International Writing Centers and Environmental Humanities”

  1. Thanks, Robert, for placing the topic of empathy in the discussion about writing. I hope students will read this post and think about the mutuality of any student/teacher relationship in addition to thinking more about writing centers. It’s rare, the teacher who can not only help a student write but explain to others how they accomplish that. I think, maybe oddly, psychoanalytic case studies could me an interesting model for writing teachers, all teachers, really, to think through and with because they have as their focus the capture of either a transformation or the blockage that makes transformation impossible. And while I agree with your point about the transnational potential of such centers, I would also love to have more about the challenges one encounters moving in different countries.

    This post inspired me to have a writing day in my Cultural Studies class next week, and I plan to direct them here.

    1. Thanks Leigh Claire for drawing the connection with the psychoanalytic model of dialogue and working through. I would love to hear more about how you’ve experienced and approached challenges crossing borders in your teaching. I find remarkable the extent to which unspoken deep structures of argument in UK, US, Canadian, and Austrialian English differ, and how the concept of a “paragraph” and “logical organization” sometimes differs between English, French, and German academic writing. I’d love to hear more from scholars in non-Western, non-English academic environments have experienced this transnational dimension of literacy.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Rob! After reading about your experience at the Madison writing center, I wish that the German universities that I attended had been as courageous to establish such an institution. Instead, we were taught that writing is an individual and solitary process.
    Fortunately, while being a PhD student at the Carson Center I had the chance to exchange and discuss my writing with an international and interdisciplinary group and as you said, “there is something magical in hearing one’s words reshaped in conversation.” We’ve learned a lot from each other during our writing group sessions and even though it also required a lot of work to think through and engage with somebody else’s texts, it was absolutely worth it. Not only was I able to improve my own writing during these sessions but I also learned to recognize the value of writing as a shared and social process, enriched by the creativity and multiple perspectives of a group.

    1. It is great to hear about your successful doctoral writing group at the RCC. I know the “Eastside Writing Group” we had in grad school was critical for me. Writing centers are popping up across Europe these days. The European Writing Centers Association, in fact, will hold its biennial meeting in July at the European University in Viadrina.
      Let’s talk more about “recipes” and quick start-up guides for graduate writing groups, perhaps when we meet tomorrow?

  3. You make a great point when you say that, “in a truly good writing center, writers from all the sciences, including the interpretive and aesthetic, as well as natural and social, challenge each other daily to demonstrate the worth of their findings in a context wider than internal, disciplinary validation.” After all, it is only by exchanging ideas with people we wouldn’t normally come in contact with that we can look beyond our normal horizons. I felt the same way during my time at the UW-Madison writing center- I would find myself discussing my own work in literary studies with students studying astronomy, poli-sci, French history, etc. and finding much in common and much that we could teach each other.

  4. Thanks for your post, Rob. I particularly appreciated your vision of writing center work that combines the intellectual work and exploration of higher education at its best and the ability to see beyond the boundaries of one’s field in order to make the world a better place. It reminded me of Bill Cronon’s argument in “Only Connect” – a liberally educated person is interested in how things work in the abstract and how to fix them in the world.

    Your post also got me thinking about how we educate students who visit our writing centers to negotiate differences in discipline and genre. I often find myself teaching students (especially undergraduates) what academic disciplines and disciplinary writing are. At the heart of this negotiation, is imagining an audience who hopes to learn or do based on what you have written. In writing center conferences, tutor and student imagine this audience together.

    Lauren Vedal
    Writing Specialist
    Bates College

    1. Hi Lauren, it’s great to hear from you and be reminded of that wonderful Cronon essay. That articulation of conceptual and practical problems concerns me so often in academic work, whether it’s the research writing or the meta-writing (proposals, curricula, programs). How do we maintain academic freedom in our work while also cultivating universities that are socially-responsive and responsible?

  5. For me as a descendant of people who came to Wisconsin from very near Munich 160 years ago, it is especially lovely to see the Wisconsin Idea be carried to Germany and used at an institution that works to raise consciousness about our gorgeous planet among students from various countries and disciplines.

    1. Hi Laura, I consider myself a transplanted Wisconsinite, now. It’s great to hear your example and think about how the state has so many remarkable traditions, quite a number of which can be traced to those radical 48ers.

  6. Thanks for your article, Rob. I found it interesting and also inspiring. I have lost some of my craft in writing since leaving school and it’s because I don’t get to write and rewrite in the dialectical way you discuss. I spend a great deal of my day writing, but it becomes rote and formulaic because I often say the same or a similar thing to many people over and over again. And it also gets exhausting to give individual attention to every email I have to respond to. I’m looking forward to the chance to write again in graduate school and to write for the purpose of communicating ideas and puzzling questions.

    Thanks to Laura for the lead on Bill Cronon’s essay as well. St. John’s College in Maryland, where I earned my bachelor’s, cared deeply and seriously about the pursuit of a liberal education, and reading Cronon’s articulation of what it means to be a liberally educated human was a nice reminder of why I went there and what I got out of it.

  7. What a great post, thank you very much! I love the description you give of the UW Madison Writing Center and how you show that it is much, much more than writing that you can learn in a writing center like this. I am looking forward to quote you on this: “… one of the goals of higher education has to be to learn to wield language as a political tool, responsibly and equitably. I am convinced that we learn this through dialog in conditions of care and commitment to common goals.” In Germany, writing centers are still in a starting stage, as you know presumably, and I really hope that we can avoid the misconception of serving only week writers, that you mention in the beginning of you post. I hope we will manage to convince the public that writing centers can serve democracy, as you show.

  8. Thanks so much for this post, Rob! I love your central claim that good writing centers can provide a model for the work of interdisciplinary environmental research centers—in their ethos, in teaching through conversation between people and across disciplines, and even in their day-to-day operations. In my time at UW-Madison, I’ve found the Writing Center and the Center for Culture, History, and Environment the most vibrant and rewarding places on campus to spend my time, both as a teacher and a student, but I’ve never quite articulated the connection between them the way you did. Thank you for that!

    As you suggest, the reasons for that connection lie in part in the interdisciplinary of both spaces—in CHE, issues of rhetoric and differing conventions continually surface because people from different disciplines are trying to understand each other’s work. But both writing centers and environmental humanities research centers are also addressing problems beyond the purview of any single discipline, whether that’s a student’s struggle to articulate her ideas despite anxiety and the challenge of learning a new genre or the difficult task of integrating disciplinary perspectives to understand and develop responses to complex environmental problems. In this sense, the interdisciplinarity is necessary in both contexts.

  9. Your essay made me recall the differences between teaching my own students writing in the classroom and tutoring total strangers on everything and anything. I tutored undergraduates, MBAs, PHDs, and non-native speakers of all ages across the disciplines; these were writers working on everything ranging from when to use a preposition to how to start that daunting dissertation chapter. In some ways, I think the tutor faces more challenges than the teacher. As a historian, I was unfamiliar with a lot of the jargon outside my discipline, and had only the fuzziest notion of how to structure something like a lab report. Overall, though, I found that my unfamiliarity could be a tremendous advantage. Because I sometimes knew very little about the subject of their writing, tutees had to think about audience and explain concepts they had not previously articulated. In the process, I learned about many things outside my discipline, and became motivated to join interdisciplinary writing groups, which helped me expand the audience of my own work.

    Many students I tutored were anxious and balked at the prospect of reading their work out loud. Others wanted to drop their work off and pick it up when it was “done.” Rob, I really like your description of tutoring/writing as a “searching, shared activity.” I less eloquently often told students that writing was a “process,” which still captures the sense that writing is almost never “done.” Incidentally, I don’t think students ever enjoyed hearing this.

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