By Bradley Hughes –
Do you know what moonshots are? They are really ambitious goals–or the process of trying to achieve those kinds of goals. The term refers to US President John Kennedy’s 1961 speech, at Rice University in Houston, about space exploration, when Kennedy boldly promised that the United States would land a person on the moon by the end of the decade. Moonshots are really audacious projects, ones that are, in fact, so difficult that they are unlikely to succeed. As Kennedy said in that now famous speech: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In his State of the Union address in January 2016, President Obama invoked the term when he announced the start of an ambitious new “Cancer Moonshot,” an initiative designed to advance cancer care and prevention.
I am inspired by ambitious goals, and I hope that you are too. In fact, I think that establishing ambitious goals and working collaboratively to achieve them are important parts of leadership in an academic culture. I want to think together with you all about what could be moonshots–ambitious goals–for you as a tutor, for your writing center, for the writing center profession. I will try to challenge you to think in some new ways about your writing center work. Later in this post, I’m going to invite all of you to think and talk about setting an ambitious goal for improving your own tutoring or for improving your center or for strengthening the writing center profession. Maybe while you read this post (you can multitask, right?), you can begin freethinking about something substantial that needs improving in your tutoring, something important and challenging that you need to learn, some significant ways in which you or your center needs to stretch or grow or improve. Your moonshot should be challenging and ambitious but can be small in scope–it doesn’t have to involve a journey to Mars.
Come to think of it, writing centers themselves are moonshots of sorts–aren’t they? I’d argue that it’s really important to recognize that the growth and the success of writing centers are improbable and audacious. Even though we can trace the history of writing centers back to the early 20th century, 40 years ago when writing centers really began to snowball, I don’t think many would have thought the progress I will describe in this post would be possible. The professionalism of the field, for example, the variety and quality of current writing center research, the central roles that undergraduates now play in centers and in conferences like this–decades ago, imagining all of that would have been a moonshot, if not an hallucination. And certainly few would have imagined that writing centers would become as ubiquitous as they now are. Lori Salem’s recent research shows–in powerful ways–how unevenly distributed writing centers are across different kinds of colleges and universities, and how our very existence reflects larger economic and political trends in higher education more than just local circumstances. But it’s amazing to see that in, for example, public universities that include graduate programs, according to Salem’s research, 95.5% of those universities now have writing centers (31).
Appreciating the Amazing Learning That Goes on in Writing Centers
Before we collaborate to set some our own moonshots, I think it’s important to start by identifying some of the existing strengths of writing centers at this moment in writing center history. My first point is one you already know: Writing centers are amazing places, where some great learning takes place, where there is serious engagement with learning, where valuable research takes place, and where our methods and values are proven winners in the 21st century. And right now is the best time in all of the decades I have worked in writing centers. When we’re not fighting off budget cuts, it’s honestly the best time for centers and for writing center studies. Don’t get me wrong—it’s NOT the best of all possible worlds—my writing center faces a million problems, I could tell you, and our profession faces challenges. But still, overall, this is a great time for writing centers.
This claim–that writing centers are amazing places–may sound quotidian to a room full of dedicated writing center colleagues. But I want to push us all to be more specific in unpacking the complexity of that claim. All of us who work in and care about writing centers need to be able to articulate specifically how they are so valuable. In this next section, let me try to do a little of that.
The Power of Talking about Writing: For Writers
Writing centers are fabulous places because of the way that they foreground and make visible one of the absolutely central components of the writing process, one too easily forgotten–and that is talk about writing in progress and about revision. In a minute, I’ll share some new research about how important this kind of talk about writing is beyond college. I love just listening, eavesdropping in writing centers, analyzing videos of sessions–listening carefully to that talk about writing. I’m fascinated by how student-writers present their concerns, what they’re asking for; how well–or not–tutors listen. the false starts, the complexities. the misunderstandings. the missed opportunities; the co-planning and co-composing.
Within writing centers, this kind of talk about writing occurs not only in tutorials with trained tutors. In late January of this year, for example, I was helping lead one of our many writing center workshops, this one about writing undergraduate research fellowship proposals. There were about 45 students there, all juniors, from all sorts of majors–they were working on writing c. 5-page proposals for a highly competitive research fellowship program for seniors to work collaboratively with professors on a year-long advanced research project; this fellowship offers good funding for the students and some for faculty. We structured this workshop so that students brought drafts and participated in peer reviews with other writers. After talking briefly with students about what makes for effective peer discussions of drafts, I happened to overhear a pair of science students–one in biology, one in chemistry–working together. The chemistry major, a junior, gave terrific feedback to his peer about a draft research proposal–he started with smart, global concerns, showed genuine interest in his peer’s project, provided detailed, critical feedback, collaborated well, and offered encouragement for doing the hard work of developing ideas and revising. I loved listening to those wonderful tutoring and peer collaborative instincts. And I felt proud to be part of a teaching program that creates opportunities for student-writers, who might otherwise never meet, to have that kind of substantial critical student-with-student interaction around writing in progress.
Student-writers as well as tutors and directors should recognize that one of the most valuable things that writers and tutors learn from tutorial sessions, that they can take into and use in their careers, is that they learn HOW to talk with colleagues about writing in progress. Learning how to do that well has enormous value beyond college–as a fabulous recent book by noted literacy scholar Deborah Brandt makes crystal clear. In The Rise of Writing, Brandt draws from interviews with a diverse group of nearly one hundred “workaday” writers from all walks of life to give a richly theorized portrait of the writing that people do outside of school—both in the workplace and on their own. Her research shows that talk about writing is ubiquitous: in work and in leisure, there is more peer-to-peer engagement among writers than ever before: “Millions of Americans now engage in creating, processing, and managing written communications as a major aspect of their work” (3). And “Many American adults . . . spend 50 percent or more of the workday with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences . . .” (3). That complex workplace writing connects in powerful ways with what we do in writing centers, as Brandt explains:
Mass literacy is evolving quickly from a base in reading to a base in writing.Writing centers are one of the few sites in the entire educational system that recognize and support this important cultural change. They make the human activity of writing visible and alive. They allow the skills and knacks of writing to pass person to person, and they teem with the kind of talk that all writers need to develop. As I visited workplaces and met with people who explained how they did their writing and how they learned to do it, I was amazed at how closely their explanations synched up with the values and routines of writing centers. Writing centers are the workshops of a new mass literacy. (Deborah Brandt, personal communication, January 6, 2016)
Wow–those are powerful observations about writing centers from such a distinguished literacy theorist. That’s why, in a recent review of Brandt’s book, my co-authors and I have strongly urged everyone who is seriously interested in writing centers to read Brandt’s book (Hughes, Christoph, and Nowacek).
Thinking about how writing happens in the contemporary workplace, I wanted to mention briefly a fascinating article by Charles Duhigg in The New York Times Magazine earlier this year, about Google’s internal research into what makes work teams successful. Within this story, there is lots of interest, but for all of us who work in writing centers and promote and practice deep listening and collaborative talk around writing projects, that research is really affirming. Just a sample–as Duhigg explains: “In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”
The Power of Talking about Writing: For Tutors
From this rich talk within writing centers, student-writers can learn a great deal–about the subjects they are writing about, about common genres of writing, about audiences, about processes of writing, and about themselves. The instruction about writing that occurs in writing centers is situated, customized, smart, individualized, flexible, and supportive. But how about the learning that goes on for tutors? Do you think about this much? One of the defining features in writing centers is that learning is multi-directional, reciprocal, complementary, collaborative. There is now lots of evidence that tutors learn a great deal from their experience as tutors. And it’s learning that endures–for years, even for decades. I just got an email from a former tutor on our staff, who works in New York. A colleague had asked her for feedback on a draft piece of writing, which led this former tutor to write me: “So much of how I approached that conversation was shaped by the ethos of generosity and support cultivated in writing center work. I think time that tutors spend in writing centers make us more generous readers in our lives.”
To understand tutor learning more systematically, Harvey Kail, Paula Gillespie, and I created the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, which some of you may know. To understand better the skills, values, and abilities former undergraduate writing tutors developed from their education and experience as peer writing tutors, we conducted extensive survey research with 126 former tutors from our three universities (the University of Maine, Marquette University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison), who were from 2 to 30 years beyond graduation, from all kinds of majors, in all kinds of careers—when they completed the surveys, they were working as an ethnomusicologist, a business manager, a social worker, a newspaper editor, a salesperson, a psychology researcher, a mortgage administrator for a bank, a Peace Corps volunteer, an attorney, a kindergarten teacher, a medical student, an aspiring actor, an economics professor, a technical writer, a manager for a national folk festival, a special-education teacher, an analyst for the defense department, a biotech patent agent, an anesthesiology technician, a lobbyist, a clerk for a Supreme Court justice, and in many more fields. In their rich responses (we analyzed over 500 pages of single-spaced responses to our survey questions), tutor-alums described how influential their learning as tutors was. From their education and experience as writing tutors, they developed:
- a new relationship with writing
- analytical power
- a listening presence
- skills, values and abilities for professions
- skills, values, and abilities for families and personal relationships
- earned confidence
- an understanding of and commitment to collaborative learning (Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail)
In our more recent analysis of our findings, Paula, Harvey, and I have been focusing on what former tutors said was really difficult about their tutoring. And we’re convinced that this learning occurs because tutorials are difficult, even risky, for tutors. Tutoring can be hard, right? In their writing center work, tutors regularly have to:
- work across differences in culture and in communication style
- help writers with high-stakes writing
- deliver honest criticism in a supportive way
- find their bearings with subjects they may know little about
- work across differences in motivation
- collaborate rather than dispense advice (Gillespie, Hughes, Kail)
And we have become convinced that learning is forged from that difficulty and from the unpredictability and challenges of writers and their situations and their expectations.
As I have done this research about tutor learning, concepts from economics research help me understand just how formative the experience of being a writing tutor can be–research about attitudes that workers have toward their work. These attitudes were described in a fascinating article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic magazine in the summer of 2015, an article about imagining a future world without work–or without enough work to go around–because of increasing automation. Maybe you know this already–an Oxford University study finds that perhaps 20% of jobs in the US could be replaced by automation within the next 20 years. The article includes some fun images of full-time workers in museum display cases, labeled “extinct from the early 21st century.” As Thompson explores the implications of future dramatic changes in work, he explains that how we will respond to those changes depends on our attitudes toward work. Based on research done in psychology and in labor economics, especially by Amy Wrzesniewski at Yale’s School of Management, economists classify workers’ attitudes toward work into three bins–a job, a career, or a calling. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive–someone could see a job as all three or as a combination of two. If it’s a job, workers view it as a means to an end; if it’s a career, workers focus on success or prestige and advancement; if a calling, people view work as integral to their lives and identity (in this context, the term “calling” is not meant to carry any religious connotations). It’s striking that many of the participants in our tutor alumni research make it clear that tutoring was such an important part of their university lives and identities that their attitudes resemble what economists and psychologists label as a calling.
Sustained Focus on Diversity and Inclusion
One of the most impressive current strengths of writing centers is their sustained critical focus on diversity and inclusion and their commitment to social justice, especially in the past 10 years. Tutors and scholars and directors now understand, in deeper ways than they have before, not to let the focus of writing centers on individuals obscure systemic or institutional racism. Let me suggest just a few examples, both national and local, of this important focus on diversity and inclusion.
Anti-racism SIGs are now a powerful, well-established presence at regional and international writing center conferences; some of these groups have been initiated and led by members of the MWCA. And many, many important anti-racism publications have appeared within writing center studies: from Margaret Weaver’s chapter “A Call for Racial Diversity in the Writing Center,” in The Writing Center Director’s Resource Guide; to Nancy Grimm’s and Nancy Barron’s pioneering article in The Writing Center Journal, “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center”; to the chapter titled “Everyday Racism” in The Everyday Writing Center by Anne Geller, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Beth Boquet; to Harry Denny’s Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring; to the award-winning collection Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change, edited by Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan; to Ben Rafoth’s Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers.
And locally, the writing center on my own campus, like centers at many schools and colleges and universities, works intentionally to do anti-racism work with campus partners, through our satellite locations in multicultural centers on campus, and through our community writing centers, the Madison Writing Assistance Program, led by Nancy Linh Karls. And we try to encourage continuing self-critical reflection on our own knowledge and practice, through, for example, this past spring semester an ongoing education project on writing centers and LGBT writers, led by Neil Simpkins and Chris Earle.
A Growing Body of High-Quality Research and Expanding Undergraduate Tutor Research
How exciting it is to see the growing body of research in writing center studies. RAD research in our field–replicable, aggregable, and data-supported–in The Writing Center Journal and in many other publications! New research paradigms complicate, in a good way, superficial, vague understandings of collaboration and they complicate what Jackie Grutsch McKinney, in Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, a book I really admire, identifies as the master narratives of our field. Some of the most valuable new research illuminates the detailed inner workings of writing center consultations–especially a new book, Talk about Writing: The Tutoring Strategies of Experienced Writing Center Tutors, by Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson, who provide a valuable coding scheme for analyzing tutorial talk systematically. Thanks to them, I can never observe a session or analyze a transcript or design tutor education without their powerful categories of “instruction strategies,” “cognitive scaffolding strategies,” and “motivational scaffolding strategies.” And within the past 10 years we also have much smarter and more probing conversations within research in our field about second-language writing and about consultations with wonderful multilingual writers in our centers. Some of that comes from Carol Severino from the University of Iowa, research about second-language writers and writing centers, online and in person. And other wonderful research done by Therese Thonus. And there is a lot to learn from a recent study, published in WLN, by Bromley, Schonberg, and Northway, about how student-writers define engagement within writing center tutorials. Intellectual engagement as “cognitive challenge or questioning” and as “tutors’ active involvement in student writing”–necessary ingredients for what students define as productive sessions.
Some of the exciting new writing center research comes from undergraduate tutors, and which many tutors present each year at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing and at the regional writing center conferences and IWCA and CCCC. In publications like the well-established Young Scholars in Writing and the new journal for undergraduate authors called The Peer Review. The emphasis on undergraduate research in The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors, by Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta (2015) and in Joyce Kinkead’s brand-new Researching Writing: An Introduction to Research Methods.
Planning Some New Writing Center Moonshots of Your Own
So I really believe that it’s worth identifying and articulating those particular strengths of writing centers and of our profession. But I promised that I wanted to think critically about writing centers as well. Writing centers always need to improve. We need to look at what we do critically–as individual tutors and as communities of tutors and as programs–and we need to set goals for improving.
I could go on for weeks asking tough questions and suggesting ways we as tutors and our program can improve. Let me name a few quickly, just to help us all get thinking. I love to encourage the introspective and self-critical tutor; the creative writing center; the activist writing center; the writing center that has a seat at the important tables in all of our universities.
- We need to find concise, memorable, sticky ways to describe what’s great about writing centers (Harris). Our explanations are usually too long, forgettable, and uninspiring. For a good counterpoint to what we usually say, did you see what Jeff Brooks–Brooks of the famous “Minimalist Tutoring” article–wrote in a January 2015 WLN piece? Brooks works in marketing, doing fundraising for non-profits. Along with some good sarcastic comments, Brooks tosses off a memorable pitch. “To get students into the writing center, tell them what the writing center does offer: a skill that you will carry with you for the rest of your life–something that will set you apart in any workplace, any career you choose. You’ll land better jobs, make more money, have more fun. Really.” That might sound crass as an appeal, but Brooks is right–high-level literacy skills actually do have a lot value. And he’s right that writing centers can–and need to–find better, more appealing ways, to describe the value of what student-writers can learn from writing centers.
- We need to make our centers even more welcoming and inclusive for ALL student-writers and for ALL tutors; in many cases, centers need to do more to align themselves with diversity initiatives on our campuses.
- We need to develop new writing center programs that support social justice, that expand our service to communities beyond our campuses, that align writing centers with service learning and community-based research.
- We need to improve tutor knowledge and tutor education for crossing disciplines, Sue Dinitiz’s and Susanmarie Harrington’s 2014 research study reveals. We cannot ignore those findings. Too many tutors do not know enough about the rhetorical work done by common genres of academic writing. Do you?
- We need to improve tutors’ ability to teach about writing in ways that transfer–that help student-writers transfer what they already know about writing–or what we as tutors explain to writers–transferring that knowledge to new genres or new writing situations. So, for example, when students face a new writing assignment in their sophomore molecular biology course or their junior history course, they rarely draw upon what they have previously learned in a writing course or in a writing tutorial. So here’s a challenge for all of us in our own tutoring. And a challenge for those who design tutor education. Two articles in The Writing Center Journal in 2015 focus on transfer in writing center practice and research, and a forthcoming special issue of WLN will also feature work on transfer. In her research study of transfer, Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act, Rebecca Nowacek suggests powerful ways that writing center tutors can play a role in transfer, working as “secret agents.”
- We need to think about writing centers in visionary ways. Here’s just one way for writing centers to imagine entirely new possibilities. According to a New York Times story, early this year AT&T told its 260,000 employees that they have to adapt–or else. Worried that Google and Apple will take away their core business, AT&T told its employees that they have to keep learning, on their own time, outside of work, online. They are offering employees opportunities to study for masters degrees in engineering through Georgia Tech. After lamenting yet another example of unstable 21st-century employment and hyper-competition, I do think we should see some exciting new opportunities for writing centers as part of that explosion in lifelong learning.
Those are just a few quick thoughts about new directions and needs. It sure does take ambition and vision and lots of energy and time to imagine and realize moonshots. But working on them collaboratively can create amazing opportunities for growth, for renewal, for creativity, for partnerships, for fun, for exciting new futures.
Some Closing Thoughts
After inviting us all to think in exciting new ways, to imagine new directions for us as tutors and for our writing centers and for our profession, I would like to suggest a different way to view our experiences as writing center tutors and directors and scholars. This image comes from a beautiful book called Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenecker, published last year. The author is an airline pilot, and the book is about how airline pilots experience flight and travel. The book is described as “[a] poetic and nuanced exploration of the human experience of flight that reminds us of the full imaginative weight of our most ordinary journeys—and reawakens our capacity to be amazed.” In one section of that lyrical book, the author explains that airline pilots have in their minds a pilot’s map of where they have been–lots of bright dots for cities and countries where they have been. dark spots, often entire continents, where they have not.
Imagine your writing center map as a tutor or director. Where have you been? What are bright dots on your experiential map? And where is it dark? What do you need to know more about? Which destinations in your tutoring experience do you want to be intentional about exploring where you haven’t been before? What have you learned from working with writers who have disabilities? What have you learned from working with writers at different levels of study? Or writers with different first languages? Or writers with different degrees of engagement in or commitment to their writing projects? Or writers with different conversational patterns? How do you want to stretch? How do you want to contribute? In what ways do you want your center to stretch? And for those of you who are directors, how do you want to create more opportunities for tutors? What are your goals for stretching, improving, learning, for doing something that is difficult? What are your moonshots? In comments on this post, I hope you will respond to some of what I’ve shared here, and I hope you will share a moonshot for you or for your center. Or I hope you will push back on the idea of even having moonshots. Thanks so much for reading!
Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. Cambridge UP, 2015.
Bromley, Pamela, Kara Northway, and Eliana Schonberg. “Student Perceptions of Intellectual Engagement in the Writing Center: Cognitive Challenge, Tutor Involvement, and Productive Sessions.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 7-8, March/April 2015, pp. 1-6.
Brooks, Jeff. “Reflections on Brooks’ ‘Minimalist Tutoring.'” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 39, no. 5-6, January/February 2015, pp. 10-13.
Dinitz, Sue, and Susanmarie Herrington. “The Role of Disciplinary Expertise in Shaping Writing Tutorials.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 33, no. 2, Fall/Winter 2014, pp. 73-98.
Duhigg, Charles. “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” Illustrated by James Graham. The New York Times Magazine. February 25, 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html.
Gillespie, Paula, Brad Hughes, and Harvey Kail. “Powered by Collaborative Learning: What We Take with Us from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” Keynote Address at the European Writing Centers Association Conference, Frankfurt, Oder, Germany, July 21, 2014.
Hardy, Quentin. “Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else.” The New York Times, February 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/technology/gearing-up-for-the-cloud-att-tells-its-workers-adapt-or-else.html.
Harris, Muriel. “Making Our Institutional Discourse Sticky: Suggestions for Effective Rhetoric.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no 2, Fall 2010, pp. 47-71.
Hughes, Bradley, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail. “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, Fall 2010, pp. 12-46.
Hughes, Bradley, Julie Nelson Christoph, and Rebecca S. Nowacek. “Mass Literacy and Writing Centers: Deborah Brandt’s The Rise of Writing.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, Spring/Summer 2016, pp. 173-185.
Salem, Lori. “Opportunity and Transformation: How Writing Centers Are Positioned in the Political Landscape of Higher Education in the United States.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2014, pp. 15-43.
Thompson, Derek. “A World without Work.” The Atlantic, July/August 2015, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/.
Vanhoenacker, Mark. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. Alfred A, Knopf Publishers, 2015.
Featured photo is of Apollo 17, the last moon shot, on the launch pad in Florida in December 1972, waiting for its night launch. Photo from NASA–http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/images/150989main_image_feature_598_ys_full.jpg