By Becca Tarsa
In addition to teaching both first-year and intermediate composition for the English Department, Becca Tarsa has worked in the UW-Madison Writing Center for five years, and is currently serving as TA Coordinator. She is in the final year of her PhD in UW’s Composition and Rhetoric program.
In her article “Composition’s Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace,” Nedra Reynolds sums up in three words something nearly all writing instructors have learned keenly by experience: “Space does matter.” For better or for worse, our authority as writing instructors is often drawn from the contexts in which we’re working – as are the practices through which we enact that role. Because, as Reynolds puts it, “surroundings have an effect on learning or attitudes towards learning, and material spaces have a political edge,” our ethos and praxis are to some degree (often a significant one) determined by the location in which our work takes place: “where writing instruction takes place has everything to do with how” (20).
This is true of all writing instruction – but it is arguably particularly true for writing centers. Unlike classroom instruction, whose material location changes semester to semester, a writing center’s location is (for the most part/in most cases) a stable part of its identity. To ask for directions to a freshman English class you have to know the room number – students ask for the writing center by name. This spatial identity looms large for for students, staff, and scholars alike As Jackie Grutsch McKinney points out, writing center research is peppered with spatial metaphors: Andrea Lunsford’s garret and storehouse; Elizabeth Boquet’s laundry or safe house; Stephen North’s fix-it shop or “cross between Lourdes and a hospice.” This is all the more reason for those of us who work in these spaces to take up the challenge Reynolds issues in her article to “insist on more attention to the connections between spaces and practices, more effort to link the material conditions to the activities of particular spaces” (30).
A Newly Designed Space
The opening of the Writing Center Commons is a great opportunity to engage in just this kind of reflection. Thanks to generous funding from an Instructional Lab Modernization grant from the College of Letters and Science, the computer classroom directly adjacent to our main locations’ reception and tutoring areas was transformed over the summer into an exciting new multipurpose learning space. The traditional wall between the classroom and the central tutoring space has been torn down, replaced with transparent glass. Fixed rows of desktop computers have been replaced with pair workstations arranged around a central seminar-style table (itself equipped with  brand-new laptops). And with a new digital camera setup, the room can now facilitate more responsive and collaborative video conferencing.
As both a member of the Writing Center leadership team and a composition instructor here at UW-Madison, I’m in the fortunate position of regularly seeing the Commons in a range of different “hats”: for example, during one late-September week I used the space for individual instruction, informal conversations with tutors, classroom teaching, and a staff meeting. In the rest of this post, I’ll be drawing from these experiences to consider the link between the material conditions of the Commons space – particularly its layout and technological affordances – and the values and practices of the work that goes on there/it was designed for.
You can see some of McKinney’s “comfort of home” idea in the Commons’ design – just ask any of the instructors who helped comfort-test the three chair model finalists last spring. But more than it reflects a “homey” ideal, the design of the Commons reflects the values of the Writing Center as a whole.
Consider the glass wall. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the wall brightens the space (and looks extremely cool) – but it also creates a strong visual link between the central tutoring rooms and the Commons – and by extension, between the activities taking place in both spaces. And while the work that goes on in the main rooms is relatively constant – scheduling and tutoring – the Commons regularly sees a much wider range of activity. Though much of this activity was already happening in the room before the renovation, it was largely out of sight – and therefore, especially for visitors unfamiliar with these sides of the center’s work, out of mind. The glass of the new design reconnects the central tutoring space with the activities and practices unfolding right on the other side of the wall. It invites visitors and staff alike to see the center’s work as connected and inclusive. Tutoring, leadership meetings, casual conversations and colloquia are all visually connected by a common space and a common commitment to helping writers: writers from freshman English and other courses, writers who are also instructors, writers singly and in groups.
From Online to In-Person
The affordances of the Commons also connect it with the work of another “out of sight” space – the Online Writing Center. Though online writing centers are increasingly common, some feel that their digital natures separates them from brick-and-mortar centers not just spatially, but conceptually as well. In her article “The Ideas of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model,” Lee-Ann Katsman Breuch posits that online spaces’ inherent differences from physical ones create “complexities” for their work that require them to use a different set of models and practices than brick-and-mortar locations. “Online writing centers,” she says, “must effectively create their own conceptual models that make sense for the technologies and resources they have available to them.” I agree with Breuch that there are necessarily differences between physical and online spaces for writing instruction (a worthy topic for a post in and of itself). But I think that the practices created by and for digital instruction, rather than pushing the two spaces further apart, can bring them closer together.
One of the two main instruction methods in our online center is videoconferencing. Using a combination of Skype and GoogleDocs, instructors are able to see and interact with both the student and their draft. The audiovisual nature of a Skype call preserves the immediacy and intimacy of a face-to-face conversation. And in lieu of physical space, the draft itself becomes the shared space – both student and instructor are reading, responding to, and revising the same document. Though the practice is rooted in the material exigencies of online space – students can’t hand you a hard copy from across town – tutoring with GoogleDocs has proven to be a uniquely effective practice in its own right. Combined with Skype’s video connection, it encourages an active and collaborative approach to writing and revision.
But while any tutor with a laptop can bring GoogleDocs into a session, the practice doesn’t quite map cleanly onto face-to-face sessions. With only one laptop, and thus one writing “space,” students can become distracted by small editing concerns; it can also be difficult for participants to follow along evenly when one person is controlling but both are trying to read. And with two laptops, the shared document can all too quickly become a distraction. In online sessions, GoogleDocs work as a unifying force because in addition to making the draft itself a shared space, they allow participants to interact with both the draft and each other through a “location” – their computer screens. In a face-to-face session, however, sharing the draft across individual screens requires participants to shift focus between physical and digital spaces. Much of the collaborative atmosphere is lost, and flattened power dynamics begin to reinflate.
The Commons offers a way to transfer the practice of tutoring with GoogleDocs into physical sessions without this loss of collaboration or togetherness. Its design makes it possible for instructors and students to share both a physical and digital space without sacrificing the what’s valuable about each. Because in the Commons, there are potential writing spaces everywhere! And at the push of a button, any one of them can appear onscreen.
Students and instructors can interact with the text independently, and refer to the same large screen when not actively doing so, preserving the connection and “togetherness” that’s such a valuable part of in-person instruction. I tried this out with a student recently, and found that having a shared screen – particularly one whose size makes it a dominant feature of the physical space – made it easier to shift attention between each other and the text. We could both easily make notes on the draft, even while the other person was speaking, without significantly breaking our focus on the other person. The setup took some getting used to (not least because the glass wall made the student more aware of their writing’s visibility) but by the end of the session, both of us were moving smoothly between our laptops and the big screen without breaking our conversation. It wasn’t a perfect session – but it underlined the potential of the Commons to bring together digital and physical writing center practice.
Attending to Spaces
I’ll close this post with one more quick story about teaching in the Commons. Since my composition class this semester has a visual rhetoric theme, most of my lesson plans involve slide presentations. While I was happy with the way my slides supported my speaking, by week three I had become decidedly unhappy about the power dynamic created by the material conditions surrounding them; standing in front of my class implied “lecture” rather than discussion to both me and my students, leading me to talk more while they settled into “receiving” mode. My first instinct was to solve the problem by bringing something new into the space: I would bite the bullet and buy a clicker. I was literally in the act of choosing a finalist off Amazon before I thought to ask the obvious question: is there an answer available in the Commons already? It was a powerful “duh” moment. Because of course there was – all eight of its central laptops are connected to the central projector. Not only can I sit with my students and still control the screen, I can easily share that control with them – opening up some interesting and exciting possibilities for classroom dynamics and collaborative writing.
The purpose of this slightly embarrassing story is to highlight the importance of actively paying attention to the material conditions we work in. The solution I needed was in the space all along – and once I turned my attention to it, I was rewarded not only with an easy way to control my slides but with possibilities for other new practices beyond that as well. Buying a clicker would have worked too. But attending to the Commons space worked better. Innovative practices, or even just simple ones, don’t emerge from material conditions on their own – even those as rich and thoughtfully designed as the Commons. It’s our responsibility, as Reynolds reminds us, to focus effort and attention on uncovering and experimenting with ways of matching our work to our space.
Lee-Ann Katsman Breuch, “The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model.” The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 21-38.
Jackie Grustch McKinney, “Leaving Home Sweet Home: Towards Critical Readings of Writing Center Spaces.” The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 6-20.
Nedra Reynolds, “Composition’s Imagined Geographies: The Politics of Space in the Frontier, City, and Cyberspace.” College Composition and Communication 50.1 (1998): 12-35.
All photos by Samantha Lasko