Writing Center Workshops: Test-Drive an Academic Writing Genre Today!

Classes, Graduate Students, Undergraduate Students, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Center Workshops / Monday, September 28th, 2015

By Zach Marshall

Zach Marshall is the 2015-16 TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where he has been a tutor since fall 2012. He is also a PhD candidate in English literary studies writing a dissertation on American literature, slavery, and media culture.

Zach Marshall
Zach Marshall

Here at the UW-Madison Writing Center, we offer a broad range of short-term, no-credit writing workshops that teach student-writers about specific academic genres and writing tasks. The first Writing Center workshop I helped teach in the spring of 2014 taught 120 students how to write more successfully on the undergraduate application essay for the Wisconsin School of Business. My wonderful colleague Michelle Neiman (then the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center) invited me to join her at a session with a representative from School of Business Admissions to plan this particular workshop. As a second-year instructor at the Writing Center, I was flattered by the offer of more responsibility and decided to join her.

Although I went to the workshop planning meeting feeling interested, I also felt apprehensive. I had taught in the classroom as a teaching assistant and in the writing center as a tutor, but I felt like I was in the way since I had never planned a workshop before. In our meeting, our thoughtful colleague from the School of Business explained her goals for the workshop—helping students write in more detail about their experiences and personal goals. It was a great goal, but I didn’t have a specific plan for what to do to achieve it.

I expected Michelle to say something like, “That’s a great goal—we’ll think about what to do in the workshop and let you know in a few days.” But Michelle responded immediately that the best strategy would be to have an interactive session that would allow student-writers to talk about sample essays. She asked our colleague to find three different sample essays from a previous year, and we sketched a rough outline of our lesson plan. I was impressed by how good and how simple the plan was.

Fall 2015 workshop catalog
Fall 2015 workshop catalog

A Broad Range of Workshop Options

Each semester, the Writing Center offers roughly sixty sections of more than thirty workshops which usually use a similar approach to what Michelle proposed. We offer workshops focusing on specific genres that undergraduate and graduate students will need to write for their coursework:

  • “Writing In-Class Essay Exams”
  • “Literary Analysis: More Than Just a Book Report!”
  • “Writing your First Literature Review”
  • “Writing Graduate Research Proposals”
  • “Developing and Delivering Conference Presentations”

Workshops that provide instruction at the sentence- or format-level as well:

  • “Simple Steps for Perfecting your Punctuation”
  • “Improving Style”
  • “The Basics of APA Documentation”

Workshops in a variety of modes beyond the traditional “paper” format,

Workshop Listings as seen from the Writing Center's Website
Workshop listings as seen from the Writing Center’s website
  • “Presenting with Prezi
  • “How to Email Like a Professional”
  • “Creating Research Posters”

Workshops that help writers get started and sustain work on longer projects:

  • “A Writer’s Retreat”
  • “Senior Thesis Writing Groups”
  • “A Dissertator’s Primer—Pre-Proposal or Proposal Stage”

Workshops oriented towards professionalization for undergraduate or graduate students:

  • “Writing Personal Statements and Statements of Purpose for Graduate School”
  • “Writing Statements of Teaching Philosophy”
  • “Writing an Effective CV”
Workshop promotional email
Workshop promotional email

Through this range of offerings, we’re trying to send at least two messages to students and faculty at the university: 1) that writing is not just for graduate students or English majors and 2) that workshops are not only for student-writers who need remedial help. We work with writers across the university and across all stages and skill levels.

The Writing Center advertises these workshops on our webpage and through campus-wide and targeted emails. Most of this extensive work is done by our Writing Center Administrator, Terry Maggio, and our Online Writing Center Coordinator—this year, Dominique Bourg Hacker. (It’s a lot of coordinating, and they do a great job!) Tutors also tell student-writers about workshops in regular one-on-one sessions. Writers register for workshops by filling out a form online, and they come to the Writing Center on the designated day.

Workshop Methods: “Test Driving” a New Genre

Because workshops don’t run exactly like a traditional classroom setting, they bring workshop instructors a range of new teaching challenges. The wide range of expectations student-writers bring is probably the biggest challenge. When student-writers read the word “workshop,” they often think of it as an informational session where an expert hands down the authoritative word on a subject; on the other hand, some student-writers think of “workshop” in the creative writing sense and come ready with drafts of their own writing. But neither of these is quite accurate for how we run our workshops.

Writing Center classroom set up for a workshop
Writing Center classroom set up for a workshop

Workshops complement other kinds of work being done in the writing center. The primary goal of workshops is to foster a collaborative environment where student-writers work with real examples to practice fundamental writing and rhetorical skills (rather than simply lecturing students about a particular genre). That’s not to say that workshop leaders never use a more lecture-style format, but we believe that student-writers learn and retain the information they need to know much better when they have a chance to “test-drive” the information in a structured setting. To meet this goal, there are two things that show up at workshops in addition to a workshop leader’s informational talk: problem-solving scenarios and real samples.

1. Problem-Solving Scenarios: In a workshop I lead on literary analysis, I ask undergraduate student-writers to compare sample theses using a set of abstract criteria for what a successful thesis should sound like (e.g. a thesis should be arguable and supportable). Student-writers rarely have questions about the abstract criteria when I introduce them because they seem so clear, but when they see examples on the page or screen, they can more readily hash out how successful an example is. Does the thesis really explain what the essay will do and how? Is it really debatable? I love the moment when we debate whether the sample theses are debatable because it shows that student-writers are seeing the thesis from the comprehensive level of its purpose in an essay rather than thinking of it as a neutral statement that comes at the end of paragraph one.

Participants discussing samples in groups
Participants discussing sample CVs in groups

2. Real Samples: Workshops almost always ask student-writers to look at samples: sometimes one, sometimes two, three, or four if there’s time. This is always my favorite part. For one thing, going over the samples very often gets student-writers to repeat back to you the things they’ve learned from your presentation. As an instructor, it’s a great way to gauge what participants retained from previous parts of the workshop.

Often, looking at samples brings up two kinds of questions—about conventions of the particular genre and about writing style. For the convention questions, I usually try to pitch them back to the group and get them to think through the rhetorical moves various options make. This approach is useful because it helps student-writers to see what’s behind “the rules,” and it’s also useful for me because writers sometimes ask questions about a particular genre to which I simply don’t know the answer. We discuss these questions as a group, knowledge accumulates as various participants weigh in, and we formulate a rhetorical heuristic. I learn from these discussions, even after presenting a workshop many times.

What the screen in the previous picture says
What the screen in the previous picture says

Using a range of samples that span across disciplines helps make the workshop content productive for writers at multiple levels of familiarity with a given genre. For example, we give graduate student-writers packets of CV samples selected from experienced and rising scholars in the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and life sciences. Having a wide range of samples invites writers to think carefully about both disciplinary differences and characteristics that cross disciplines. In short, having many samples emphasizes the rhetorical moves at play in a CV rather than formatting or conventions only.

3. Community among Strangers: There’s at least one more feature of workshops that makes them successful—the participants!  Their work in small groups is often where the best work is accomplished. Student-writers attend a no-credit workshop because they genuinely want to learn about a topic; on the other hand, students who might not otherwise come to the Writing Center may attend workshops because of the added degree of anonymity: it’s less intimidating to talk to an expert about a particular genre of writing with a dozen of your peers than it is to talk with a Writing Center instructor one-on-one.

The participants!
The participants!

To help workshop participants feel comfortable (rather than completely anonymous), many workshop leaders work to foster a community among strangers. One simple way we do this is by asking them to work in pairs or small groups. In many cases, we also ask participants to introduce themselves at the beginning of a workshops and identify their goals for the session (assuming the group is less than thirty or so). I stumbled upon this practice indirectly when I was reviewing someone else’s workshop lesson plan from a previous year in order to teach the workshop myself. The margins of the lesson plan were filled with names, and I could tell that it was an impromptu seating chart. Initially, I thought such a practice was unnecessary. However, as I’ve run workshops myself (and seen more and more of these cryptic lists of names scribbled around lesson plans in old workshop files), I’ve realized how knowing students’ names when you call on them changes the dynamic of the group of strangers who have congregated to learn about a particular genre of writing.

Impromptu seating chart
Impromptu seating chart

As I said, workshops complement other kinds of work being done in the writing center. In one-on-one meetings, student-writers look at drafts of their own writing and talk with a tutor about what to revise. In workshops, student-writers spend more time looking at and thinking critically about real samples that help them to understand what the goals of a given genre of writing are.

For readers of the blog, if your writing center hosts workshops, what workshops have you enjoyed teaching? What workshops have you enjoyed taking? What is your favorite part of teaching a workshop, or what is the biggest challenge for you? What have you learned from teaching workshops? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

6 Replies to “Writing Center Workshops: Test-Drive an Academic Writing Genre Today!”

  1. Thanks so much for this important post, Zach! At our last writing center meeting, I kept admiring how well you engage large groups, which is often one of the trickiest tasks of teaching a workshop. Your third part about building a community of strangers stands out the most to be because it can be one of the most powerful and also most intimidating aspects of teaching workshops. Students need to feel solidarity in their writing concerns, and I love the way you approach having students introduce themselves, share a question or concern, and use their individual names. This is something I’m constantly reminding myself to do when teaching these workshops, and like many things, I always see room for improvement in my own practice with this specific aspect.

  2. Thanks for this post, Zach! Your “test-driving” metaphor made me think about a question I often get after workshops–can we build in time for attendees to workshop their essay? I wonder if it would be useful to have a two part workshop (with a week in between), with the second dedicated to peer-review. Maybe the second meeting would be optional?

  3. What a great post Zach! I am so happy to help make workshops happen; they are such an important part of the teaching that the Writing Center does. I really like your discussion of using samples in workshops. Leading the Resume and Cover letter workshop, I found samples invaluable because resumes are such a visual genre. I also think discussing samples is really empowering for students because when they recognize effective writing or point out unsuccessful choices, I think they feel more confident about their own knowledge about writing.

  4. Zach, I really like the emphasis you place here on collaboration and “work” in the workshops. Now that I’m leading workshops for the Writing Center on resume writing and how to use Scrivener, I can also emphasize the value of collaboration in such sessions. Also, when students come to workshops, they repeatedly express gratitude for the number of samples we offer. So the workshop sessions become not only a “think space” and a place for test driving, as you say, different writing genres, but they also enable the students to take away that learning (or to buy the car?). Models are always helpful, no matter the genre. I also like Chris Earle’s suggestion (above) about having a two-part workshop model in which students could return after the initial session. That makes a lot of sense when we’re emphasizing collaboration for these workshops. Thanks for an informative post!

  5. Great post, Zach! I completely agree with you that negotiating the wide range of participant expectations is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching a workshop. I really appreciate how you relate the work being done in workshops to the work being done in the writing center, emphasizing that both are oriented towards collaborative engagement and critical inquiry. I think that making these connections between writing center work and workshop work more explicit can help workshop leaders to better mediate the wide range of participant expectations and/or conceptualizations of what a workshop can look like.

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