What We Talk About When We Talk About Seaweed

Outreach, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Centers / Monday, November 1st, 2010
Rebecca Lorimer

By Rebecca Lorimer. A course coordinator in Biology was explaining to me that her students were having trouble in their discussion sections. I nodded as I mentally sifted through my grab bag of discussion-leading strategies. When she asked, “do you have any ideas for our TAs?” I was ready.

“Yes! Well, there are lots of things you can do to make discussion sections more active.” I smiled enthusiastically. “You could have students discuss questions in small groups and report out to the class. You could have students brainstorm questions and ask them in new groups. You could…” The course coordinator sat quietly, blinking. “I mean discussion sections,” she said, “as in the end of their lab reports?”

I shook my head and turned pink, as I tend to do. She laughed with me, and then I offered up an entirely different set of strategies for teaching students to write more analytic discussion sections in their lab reports. I had, of course, assumed she meant the discussion sections many in the English department lead as their teaching assignments. I was coming at the question from class format but she from genre structure. Such are the moments of disciplinary miscommunication I find myself enjoying as I travel beyond the English department to teach.

It’s easy to make too much of interlocutors missing each other’s meaning (generative! productive conflict!), when in fact we mostly just misunderstand and then continue to push forward. But when academics from dissimilar epistemologies or methodological paradigms pause to delight in each other’s misunderstandings, these moments, I think, can open up the very enterprise of a liberal education.

In “‘Only Connect’: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” William  Cronon lists what he believes defines a “liberally educated person.” The third quality of this person is that “they can talk with anyone”*: Educated people know how to talk. …They can hold a conversation with a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a nursing-home resident, a factory worker or a corporate president. Moreover, they participate in such conversations not because they like to talk about themselves but because they are genuinely interested in others. A friend of mine says one of the most important things his father ever told him was that whenever he had a conversation, his job was “to figure out what’s so neat about what the other person does.”

I don’t include Cronon’s thought to toot my own liberally-educated horn, or to suggest that our writing across the curriculum program (of which I am the assistant director) is the only place where these conversations occur. Certainly we converse across difference constantly in the writing center and certainly our outreach instructors experience these moments as frequently as I do.

Instead I wonder something a bit different. I wonder if our ability to cultivate genuine curiosity during moments of misunderstanding, to find out “what’s so neat” about what other disciplines do, is heightened when we physically walk away from the English department and enter the rooms of other areas of study.

As WAC assistant director I am often on the move, and while I ride the bus out to Plant Pathology or march my way up Bascom hill to Political Science, I muse: How is our exposure to other disciplines in the writing center conditioned by letting them come to us? Is this understanding qualitatively different than the one I experience as I sit among (and smell) seaweed samples in a lab? How far can we travel in our understanding of other areas of study without actually moving?

I’m not sure yet. These are genuine questions. But when, as I’m discussing global vs. local writing concerns with biology TAs, my eye is drawn to a large map of the Galapagos scrawled on the wall in black marker, I’m reminded what delightful misunderstandings of the words “global” and “local” I could explore in this particular room.

–Rebecca Lorimer, Assistant Director, Writing Across the Curriculum, UW-Madison

*Cronon, William. “Only Connect…: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” The American Scholar 67.4 (1998): 73-80. Print.

6 Replies to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Seaweed”

  1. What a lovely place to begin discussion on talking across disciplines, Rebecca! Variances in concepts of “discussion sections” and “global and local concerns” are a great way to illustrate real differences in disciplinary paradigms.

    As someone who spends a great deal of time dabbling across disciplines online, however, I’d suggest that although the smell of seaweed can be a facilitating factor in cross-disciplinary conversations, it’s not necessary. In fact, I do travel widely–while I sit on my couch! Through blogs and Twitter and various websites, I’ve connected with practitioners of the kinds of writing I study as well as other people who think about things I like to think about– but from the perspective of design or computer science or interfaces or rhetoric or journalism. Many of the people I connect with online wouldn’t know how to put themselves in a discipline if they tried.

    That said, I’ll admit that connecting online with other is not the same as connecting across physical campuses. Proximity is powerful, even for those who communicate online. I value my field trips to the “other side” of campus, where labs and workspaces demonstrate different ways of working and thinking.

    I’m curious… How would your vision of connection connect with the online missions of the Writing Center?

  2. Thanks, Rebecca, for your thoughtful response. I see you modeling risk-taking: not only in stepping outside the familiarity of your disciplinary “home,” but also in working through and sharing publicly your story of misunderstandings.

    You’ve got me thinking about how “messing up” or “getting it wrong” is a powerful space for growth when met with a stance of openness and willingness to learn — certainly part of the mission of liberal arts. So, I’m wondering this Sunday morning: how do we each cultivate that sense of openness — willingness to take risks and learn through mistakes — both for ourselves as individuals and for the writers, students, instructors, and community members with whom we work in our daily writing center work?

  3. Thanks for the post, Rebecca. As a former Outreach staff member, I really enjoyed leaving the main WC (and HCW!) and discover different disciplinary conceptions of writing. It was refreshing, kind of like seaweed, depending on how it’s prepared, served, savored, etc. . . .

  4. Wow, Annette and Beth, you ask some good and hard questions!

    Professor Vee: You are quite right, of course, and I contemplated this idea of online travel as I was writing the blog. Is it the same? Hm, not sure, which is why I avoided it, ha. I suppose I think physical proximity and opportunity to engage the senses isn’t more essential than exposure to disciplinary difference via the web, but offers different kinds of cues, or reminders, that spark questions in those moments of interaction. Maybe that makes sense? I babble.

    Soon-to-be Professor Godbee (it rhymes!): I would love to know what you think about where such cultivation best occurs–in training, in certain WC locations, all the time? I’m so site-centric. In other words, I think I could best begin to brainstorm how to cultivate openness and willingness to mess up when I understand where and with whom instructors are more apt to engage in this risk-taking.

  5. I loved this post, Rebecca! Discussion sections. Right.

    There is something about the seaweed. It puts us physically in the position of learner, as opposed to English-teacher expert. This is a powerful place to be for interdisciplinary conversations.

    At the same time, I take your question seriously: How far can we travel without actually moving? After all, the reason you smelling the seaweed at all is because you have a particular kind of expertise, rooted in a field of study.

    To steal an idea from your own scholarship, maybe it’s not an issue so much of how one place or another shapes understanding. Maybe it’s more about the very act of moving–about seeing our collective literacies as in motion.

  6. Hi Rebecca, Thanks for taking the time to share this with us. I was looking around at some of your other posts after I found your blog through one of my students blogs. Keep up the good work.

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