By Angela J. Zito –
This past summer, I had the good fortune to step from the familiar position of tutoring at the UW-Madison Writing Center into two roles new to me: administration as co-coordinator at the Writing Center, and instruction with Madison Writing Assistance (MWA), our center’s community-based arm. While each of these positions has me thinking about the work of the Writing Center, its tutors, and its writers in many new ways, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about the documentation for all these MWA and writing center tutoring sessions—that is, their records.
I know, yes, session records tend to fall pretty low on the list of exciting and impressive things in writing center pedagogy and administration. But, in my work as a tutor with MWA, I’m continually struck by the clarity of function of these reports—they support the program’s funding and development by building a narrative in grant proposals detailing MWA’s effective responses to community writing needs.
Without that documentation of the writing assistance MWA provides, MWA might not maintain the funding necessary to provide that assistance. Session records, for MWA, are consequential narratives with a clear audience and purpose.
As an instructor in the campus writing center, I didn’t feel this same imperative when writing up my records at the end of a shift, though I knew our records contribute (along with student evaluations, testimonials, workshop attendance, campus outreaches, etc.) to a fat stack of evidence asserting both the need for and high quality of our center. I wrote my records primarily with my colleagues in mind, who might work with the same student I did at a later date and need some background on the student’s concerns and advancements. To keep the record-writing process as quick and smooth as possible, more often than not I used a narrative formula: Student came in with assignment x, concerned about y; we addressed y (and maybe z, too) by talking about a and practicing b.
In the administrative position of co-coordinator, I’m writing fewer of my own records these days and reading more of my colleagues’. The variety of style, structure, points of emphasis and level of detail multiply, for me, the potential functions of these session records. I wonder to what degree session records pose insular narratives of unique encounters between tutor and student? To what degree are they dialogic? Is there crosstalk in individual students’ records, and what might the significance of that crosstalk be? What do these narratives tell us about our students, our tutors, our culture of teaching?
Session Records and Institutional Narratives
In her article “’I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You’: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative” (2013), Rita Malenczyk notes that session records function differently from center to center: they might be primarily informational, in the sense that one tutor provides her colleagues with background information on a student’s challenges and successes, or provides concerned faculty with an account of what their students sought assistance in; they might be educational, as in tutors might turn to their own past session records to reflect on their instructional practices, or tutor educators might incorporate records in their training materials; or, as Malenczyk argues, session records might carry, as well, a community-building function.
Malenczyk sees the potential for this community-building function in the narrative forms of session records and what they suggest about not only the teaching and learning that occurs in sessions but the ways in which writing center workers talk with each other about the work they do in those sessions. I’m attracted to this idea of session records as community-building spaces where tutors convene, in a way, to collaborate in writing instruction, exchange knowing glances, or nod at one another in passing. I’m a little resistant, though, to the heavy institutional weight Malenczyk also sees in session record narratives. She argues that “like teacher end comments, tutor reports are not just exchanges between the tutor and one or more people but are, rather, part of an institutional network of relationships” (77) and “what writing center tutors write in their reports not only reflects their view of their work, but may also represent a larger message that the center, and by extension the university, is delivering to students about their status and ability as writers” (88).
Because session records at our center are written by often exhausted or hurried graduate students, and because they are not regularly or explicitly addressed in ongoing education for our tutors as a site of critical reflection or professional development, I hesitate to agree that the content of our session records are representative of what is actually accomplished in the corresponding meetings between tutor and writer, or of the messaging directed at the writer about their status and ability.
There is something compelling about Malenczyk’s argument, though. As Neil Simpkins notes in a 2013 post, even seemingly innocuous features in administrative documentation (like a space for preferred names as well as legal ones) can have huge rhetorical ramifications. What might a study of our own archive of session records reveal about the kinds of narratives we tell each other about our student writers, and about our work in the writing center?
I don’t mean to suggest that analysis of a single record sufficiently tackles these questions about the significance of session record narratives, but just to get a conversation started, take a look at the record below:
What might we assume or desire this narrative reveals about the work performed in our writing center specifically or in writing center culture broadly? I’m particularly drawn to those exclamation points, “(!!!).” Who are they addressing? What are they saying about the session, the student, the tutor, the center?
Please post a comment sharing your thoughts on session records and the narratives you feel, hope, or even worry they build in your center!
Malenczyk, Rita. “‘I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You’: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative.” The Writing Center Journal. 33.1 (2013): 74-95.