Friday, April 29, 2005


Once I finished my doctoral program in the spring of 1996, I figured I'd be settling in to another phase of adjunct work while I recovered from the dissertating process. I had lined up a couple of sections of composition for the fall and would continue tutoring in the Writing Center at MIT. However, over the summer I spotted a job ad in the Boston Globe. The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy was hiring someone half-time to start a writing center. Hmm. I polished up my CV, dropped a note to my reference writers, and mailed my stuff in. By the next month, I was starting in my role as a writing center director. Amazing.

I've written about my first year at MCP in a WCJ article that's here . That half-time position plus a section teaching first-year composition at MCP meant I could jettison the other adjunct work I had lined up and only work in two places: MCP and the MIT Writing Center. By the next year, I was a full-time faculty member at MCP, a position I would hold for another five years until I left three years ago for my current job teaching in the WAC program at MIT.

As I think about the path I've described this week--from a reluctant undergraduate to a doctorate in education, from a fiction writer to an "academic" writer (whatever that means), from a writer to a teacher, from a tentative graduate student writing tutor to a writing center director--it seems meandering (and I haven't added in the side trips to have two kids, interview for other full-time jobs, write a lot, teach a lot, find a support network within the writing center field). Yet I don't think that lack of a direct line is unusual. I frequently get emails from folks brand new to writing center work, folks who have suddenly been asked to direct their college's writing center and who have very little background in the field. That's likely changing as more and more graduate students turn to the possibilities of writing center work and pursue more traditional paths to the field (and as more and more writing center jobs are defined in traditional, faculty-line ways). Still, our field is a relatively young one, and its inclusiveness is certainly one of its best features. We have yet to be lampooned in the ways that English departments have been for their politics in books such as Richard Russo's Straight Man, David Lodge's Small World, or James Hyne's The Lecturer's Tale.

(Actually, back in 1958, James Ruoff write a hilarious satire in College English on “The English Clinic at Flounder College.” vol. 19, pp. 348-51.)

I'm really happy to be associated with writing center work and am psyched to discover the potential future paths I might follow. Shout a hello when you see me.

Neal Lerner

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Professional Trudge

As I think back on the many institutions at which I taught composition as an adjunct--from community colleges to small private colleges to large public universities--I actually do not remember any contact with the writing centers at almost all of those places. I know now that many of those institutions had writing centers, but at the time I don't recall receiving flyers or promotional materials, arranging class visits, or even hearing from my students who visited the writing center with an assignment I had given. Perhaps the issue was that I was a part-time, temporary faculty member. Rarely would I have office space and even more rarely would I be invited to a department faculty meeting where I might have heard mention of the writing center. I was out of the loop, assuming that such a loop existed.

By the second year in my doctoral program, an extremely fortunate event changed the path I was heading towards: I found out that I had received a full scholarship that year (something I hadn't actually applied for or knew existed but that my advisor had nominated me for). Thus, I could take a break from being a teaching assistant for the Introduction to Education class that I had worked with my first year, and I could take a full load of classwork to fulfill my residency requirement. More important, with a little more money in my pocket I could take a semester off from adjuncting. Still, I wanted some work teaching writing, so when I came across an job ad from the university's writing center looking for graduate student tutors, I applied. With my experiences as a classroom teacher and, yes, even my knowledge of English grammar, I was a much more viable candidate than I had been seven years earlier as an MA student, and I was hired.

Early that first semester in the writing center, when traffic was light and I had time on my hands, I started investigating the center's resources. Way in the back room was a collection of Writing Lab Newsletter issues, and as I read these article and others required for our staff orientation (particularly Stephen North's "The Idea of a Writing Center"), many things clicked. Here, it seemed, was my dissertation topic. I would study the writing center; after all, what better place to combine my interests in the opportunities and barriers that higher education presents before students. My reading of writing center literature had begun to show me just how seemingly caught writing centers were in this conflict between access and success. Studying one particular writing center in depth seemed like the obvious path to investigate this conflict.

So that's what I did. At the same time, Internet listservs were becoming a larger and larger venue for discussions about a wide range of academic issues, and somehow I found my way to WCenter. For a long time, I just read or lurked, feeling quite intimidated by the expertise and authority of these authors. Heck, Muriel Harris was a frequent contributor, and her publications (and her editing of the WLN) put her on a high pedestal in my mind. I was also reading WCenter on the university's antiquated email system, one that didn't have any fancy features such as word wrap or spell check. When I made my first tentative contributions to this list, my pulse raced at the thought of these people reading my words.

Around that same time (1994), I attended my first 4C's conference in Nashville, TN, and I probably went to every session on writing centers that I could (including a pre-conference workshop on Writing Center Research). I saw from my seat in the audience folks such as Mickey Harris, Eric Hobson, Pete Carino, Dave Healy, and Christina Murphy. It was difficult to imagine joining this professional world, particularly as I trudged back and forth between my cheap motel and the conference center, but the work being discussed and the possibilities for my work were invigorating.

I make no claims to the uniqueness of the acculturation process I describe here. It's certainly different than the path of graduate students in large rhetoric and composition programs being closely mentored into the field by their advisors and forming key networks with their fellow students (my advisor was/is an elementary school reading specialist). My path to writing center work, to imagining myself as part of a research and teaching field, to contributing my ideas in ways to advance that field, was more circuitous. Most first-time 4C's attendees feel as I did, I'd imagine, and I was lucky to be interested in a field that is as welcoming and as opportunity filled as is writing center work.

My professional identity, then, was being formed in my interactions with others in the field, whether through reading, writing, research, or conferences. It wasn't quite clear to me what I would do once I graduated, but writing center work was certainly in the mix. First I had to contend with making the margins of my dissertation conform exactly to the specifications of the university's enforces of such standards. That was exhausting. Writing center work could wait, and my account of joining the ranks of "those who direct" will be the subject of tomorrow's entry.

Neal Lerner

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Heart of Darkness

Oh, Friends of Writing Center Journal, down that path did I go after finishing my MA and my high-school teaching credential, straight into the heart of darkness, directly into . . . retail!

Well, actually, I had worked in a bike shop throughout grad school, so it wasn't a leap to go into that line of work despite the educational path I was pursuing. I knew I'd be heading east before long, and a full-time job with a salary and benefits was hard to pass up.

So there I was, two weeks into my job fixing and selling bicycles in Palo Alto, CA, when someone from Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, CA, called me at work. We have a couple of sections of composition open, he told me, and someone at San Jose State gave me your number.

I just started a new job, I told him, I can't quit now.

We ended our conversation. A few minutes later, the person called back, offering that I could teach a Saturday section so as not to conflict with my day job. But I work here on Saturdays, I told him, it's a bike shop. Still, in those couple of minutes between phone calls, the primary thought that ran through my mind was how ridiculous it was for me to be working in a bike shop when it was teaching that I really wanted to do. In fact, I was a fairly mediocre bike shop service manager, without the passion I had for teaching. I told my Evergreen College contact to give me 24 hours to make up my mind.

That evening, my soon-to-be wife and I weighed the pros and cons of the decision in pencil on a napkin at a local Japanese restaurant. It seemed the biggest reason not to leave the bike shop was my own sense of loyalty and reluctance to tell my boss I was leaving so soon after I had accepted the job. The pros far outweighed the cons, so the next day I called the college back, accepted two sections of first-year composition, gave two weeks notice at the bike shop, picked up a section of basic writing at SJSU, and my 7-year career as an adjunct faculty member (and "freeway flier" in California parlance) had begun.

Teaching three classes at two different colleges while working full-time for two weeks at the bike shop prepared me well for the multi-tasking ahead. I would end up teaching first-year composition, basic writing, creative writing, and business communication at 11 different institutions in three states. I would teach in rural and urban community colleges, in a small all-women's private college, and sprawling urban universities. I would teach in a program for Ford Automotive Technicians, on-site at several nuclear power plants, in a program for learning-disabled adults, and GRE preparation (mostly math, actually). I taught in formats ranging from completely on-line, to contact solely by sending student drafts back and forth via US mail, to workshops for one or two after those students have worked a 12-hour overnight shift. I taught as many as six classes a semester, and the day before I got married, I was sequestered in my basement responding to student writing while my wife and mother-in-law got the house ready for our post-ceremony party. I learned a great deal over that time, developing flexibility as a teacher and a range of skills. I particularly relished opportunities to work with basic writing students and returning adults, both groups often damaged by legacies of tracking, racism, and lost opportunities. I also learned that this life would burn me out as a teacher in a hurry. By the time my wife and I were getting ready to leave Maryland for Boston (where my wife had a faculty position), I was ready to go back to graduate school for the 'ol terminal degree.

Now this narrative might seem like a wide detour from writing center work, but certainly one-to-one tutoring was never far from my mind. I tutored for a couple of different private agencies while living in Maryland, and teaching students at a distance (whether via electronic technologies or the USPS) made me think a great deal about the nature and function of response, a key element of writing center work. But it wouldn't be for another year that writing centers, Stephen North, and WCenter would come calling. All I knew at this time was that I was heading to Boston to start a doctorate in education at Boston University.

And that's where this story continues tomorrow.

Neal Lerner

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tutoring as Teaching

When I started working as a writing center tutor while in the fall of 1986 while pursuing my MA in English, I really liked what I was doing, and I particularly liked working with basic writing students, many of whom were non-native English speakers and writers. These students were working hard to get a handle on much of what I took for granted, and any small progress was very satisfying for me. I also saw quickly how the university seemed to be working at cross purposes. Basic writing students were assigned essay prompts by their classroom teacher to which they were to draft a one-paragraph response and bring that piece of writing to the writing center for their tutoring sessions. Several parts of that process immediately struck me as odd: Why only one paragraph? Many of the students I was working with were bursting with ideas, and the constraint of one paragraph seemed ridiculous. What did this paragraph have to do with the work they were already doing in class? In most cases, very little. How could I account for the fact that most students could breeze throught the grammar workbooks (which had an answer key in the back, anyway), but couldn't carry those skills over to their essays? It was all very odd.

I would like to say that these experiences filled me with passion to direct a writing center of my own, but I don't think that crossed my mind at the time. Instead, by the second year of my MA program, I had the good fortune to take a class offered by the San Jose Area Writing Project. By this point, the "oh-I-can-always-teach" part of my original intent had become primary. Writing center work certainly helped spark that desire, but I became more and more focused on high school English teaching as a potential career. My work with the Writing Project further committed me to that idea. My mentors there, Jonathan Lovell and Charlene Delfino, still the co-directors of the SJAWP, were doing such interesting work and worked so well with others to pass along their passion that I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in the secondary-ed credential program at SJSU, and found myself immersed in reading work by Ira Shor, Henry Giroux, Paolo Freire, and Michael Appel, among others. These authors and their sense of "liberatory pedagogy" resonated strongly with my own sense of social justice and helped me understand the conflict between schooling as a path toward societal reform and schooling as a mechanism to reinforce status quo power relations. I continued tutoring in the writing center while enrolled in this program (and still completing work toward my MA), but now I was also student teaching, first for six weeks in two ESL classrooms at a high school in San Jose's eastside, where my mentor teacher had these eager and hormonal high school students reciting nursery rhymes in order to learn English and who told me after seeing my lesson plan, "Don't ask them to write more than a paragraph; they won't be able to do it." (By the end of my student-teaching the students were reciting popular song lyrics and writing complete essays). My second semester-long teaching experience was in a middle-class high school in Cupertino, CA, in which one of my responsibilities was an SAT Prep class for college-bound juniors. From that class, I received perhaps my all-time favorite student evaluation response: "School is not a democracy; you should lecture more."

By this point, spring 1989, my wife-to-be had taken a post-doctoral position at the NIH in Bethesda, MD, so my shiny new California Secondary-Education Teaching Credential would have to sit unused. I knew I'd be heading east shortly and didn't want to take a high school job that I would leave after a year. Instead, I took advantage of the first job that was offered to me: I became a service manager in a bicycle shop.

The path from bikes back to classrooms and, then, to writing centers, will be the next blog well traveled.

Neal Lerner

Monday, April 25, 2005

Square Roots

A few years back at a 4C's conference, Michele Eodice talked about the geneology of our composition/writing center lives--many of us are linked in ways we do and don't know to those who came before. Then, not long ago Joan Hawthorne asked on the WCenter list for stories of how we started in writing center work so as to show those new to the field the potential paths. So here's mine:

I spent a reluctant four years as an undergraduate at two different institutions: reluctant in that I never could quite settle on what I wanted to study, never developed a passion for a major, until I started writing fiction, and by then I only wanted to take fiction-writing workshops and wasn't interested in coursework outside of that path (in fact, I never took an undergraduate science course, quite ironic as most of my time now is spent helping biology undergrads at MIT learn the conventions of scientific writing).

Fast forward three-and-a-half years to the San Francisco Bay area: After lots of cross-country driving, a mini-career buying and selling computer parts, and a year spent writing a novel, I was broke and faced with a career dilemma--I could try to get a job in the computer industry or I could go get a graduate degree and live off of student loans. The latter was clearly the more tenable choice. I applied to an MFA program at San Francisco State, but didn't get in. I instead opted for an MA in Creative Writing program at San Jose State University. I figured the coursework would give me some structured ways to continue fiction writing, and if that career didn't work out, I could always teach! My first semester in that program (spring semester 1986--I didn't even know enough about how universities work to enter at the start of an academic year), I took a class with Hans Guth called "Practical Approaches to Composition." I really had no idea what I was getting into, but Dr. Guth, much to his credit, treated all of his students as burdgeoning rhetoricians, as up-and-coming members of the discipline. That class really clicked for me, particularly in its emphasis on our own writing processes and on writing essays, a form I never really knew much about (another irony, I suppose).

By the fall semester, I was itching to put into practice what I had learned in Dr. Guth's class, so I applied to be a Teaching Assistant and be one of many grad. students and part-timers at SJSU teaching first-year composition. Well, I didn't get hired. I was disappointed but not too surprised; many of my fellow grad students had a great deal of teaching experience, and I had none. I also have vague memories of the interview itself and the moment when I was asked how I would reconcile grading for "content" versus grading for "mechanics." I believe I gave some lame answer about a split grade (something to give WPAs nightmares), so my classroom teaching career would have to wait. Instead, I applied to tutor at the SJSU writing center after seeing a poster advertising such opportunities. That application process I remember well--I had to take a grammar/usage exam and to respond to a sample student essay. I did well with the latter task, but bombed the mechanics exam (I didn't know my absolute phrase from my Peter Elbow), so I was hired to tutor at the writing center contingent on taking an English Grammar class that fall semester. Well, that's what I did; after a few terrifying quizzes, I got the hang of understanding English grammar, and quickly that semester was immersed in tutoring writing.

At the time, the Writing Center was directed by Scott Rice, best known for the annual Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing. The next semester, it changed considerably and went from open to all university students to working only with basic writing students who were required to come to the center as an entire class and work with tutors for one hour in addition to classroom instruction. That setup was a sort of three-ring circus: some students would be meeting one-to-one with tutors, going over the writing that had been assigned specifically for the writing center session; some students were working away on grammar/usage workbooks (we used Teresa Glazier's The Least You Should Know About English); and some students were meeting in small groups with tutors to get lectured about some general writing issue. I never was crazy about this setup, particuarly when it seemed that it was only in the one-to-one tutoring that any real teaching and learning was taking place and that the other activities had more to do with the number of staff on hand available for one-to-one tutoring than anything else. But that was just my perspective as a would-be fiction writer now finding a new identity as a writing center tutor.

More tomorrow on the paths/opportunities that those experiences led to.

Neal Lerner

Friday, April 22, 2005

One Best Thing: Leisure

They say that academia moves at a glacial pace. So how come life directing a writing center can get so crazed? I often resent the way urgency seems to tyrannize my life at work. Urgent? What’s so darn urgent? Yesterday one of my tutors came screeching into my cubicle, completely panicked about some homework related to our staff development. I calmed her down with these word: There are few life and death emergencies in writing center work.

The truth is that writing center work affords much more leisure than classroom teaching. For center directing, I have very little homework: just a few lessons to plan and papers to read, but, mercifully, no papers to grade. Theoretically, I should just be able to show up with my brain and my heart and little else. And I shouldn’t forget the tangible bennies. Compared to many professions, I have ample time off.

Today I’m wondering if the pressure I feel to work faster, better, and longer isn’t largely self imposed. So today I’m taking drastic corrective measures: I’m taking the day off. I wish you could join me in the tulip fields of Mount Vernon, Washington, on this perfect 70 degree spring day. Since I know you can’t, I wish you may find in your day the softness of petals, the vitality of spring, and the majesty of mountains - and all of life's Best Things.


P.S. I tried to post a picture--I guess this link will have to do:

Thursday, April 21, 2005

One Best Thing: Learning

Did you know that post-operative patients who administer their own pain medications take less overall than those whose meds are controlled by nurses? Or that a society that views corpses as unhygienic and disgusting very likely manifests a strong fear or avoidance of death and aging? How about this: oceans may help with global warming if they are harnessed as storehouses for carbon dioxide gas emissions. Did you also know that if you wanted to recreate Thoreau’s living arrangement at Walden Pond, you can do so for about the same cost (in today’s dollars), using recycled building materials?

Yeah, I didn’t know either.

I admit I may never use this information (I just did!), but for some reason, I’m tickled to know these and all the other tidbits I learn everyday from the writers I meet. But many things I learn in my work I do use every day. For instance, I’m a much better listener than I used to be - mostly. Last night my partner caught me out. He was trying to explain his feelings while I was busy doing something else. I cut him off, saying I understood. When he got miffed over not being heard, I had to back up and practice what I’ve learned at work: listen till I hear.

But I haven’t just learned relational strategies through my work; I’ve also learned a new approach to life. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Okay, I’m not recovering very fast. Hm, maybe that judgment is just me being perfectionist about my recovery. Oops, tangent. Anyhoo, this year I’ve discovered the value of play in life and work. Now play may sound like an activity, but it’s really an attitude. I’m just now learning that play and playfulness make everything – scholarship, relationship, leadership – everything in our lives and work both more fun and more effective.

I hear skeptics in the room. That’s okay. You may be learning entirely different lessons from your writing center work. But I’ll bet you’re learning. As a library cataloguer, I spent twelve years learning the Dewey Decimal system. I may never again use my knowledge of pain meds and Thoreau’s cottage or even the next gem I learn. But after Dewey, I quiver in anticipation of the next thing, the Best Thing, I’ll learn today.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

One Best Thing: Variety

In my pre-centered life, I was a library cataloger. With apologies to library folk who find such work fascinating, I have just one word - painfully tedious. (Okay, I needed two words.) Writing center work, in contrast, just quacks my duck. Sure, there’s a common thread that runs through our work - teaching, but each day’s tasks to that end remain richly varied.

Take Monday, for example. In the morning, I spend my first thirty minutes reflecting on the weekend’s PNWCA conference for the WCJ blog. Then I turn my attention to the Aardvarks. Hunh? Well, we are facilitating write-to-learn online learning communities for a large, lecture GER course, Asian Art History. My learning community, called the Aardvarks, had posted over the weekend about the way the Indian philosophy of darśan affects worship and art. Fascinating stuff!

Approaching my noon nosh, I am surprised with a visit from a student I had worked with extensively three years back. With just one quarter left to graduate, he dropped off the face of the earth. He’s back, he’s dealt with his Issues, and he’s ready to finish. However, despite his incredible talent with words, he is totally blocked. In the three years he’s been gone, he’s written just one email, period. We catch up. Then we devise a plan to get him unstuck.

In the GPB meeting with our three student coordinators (Grand Pooh Bahs), we discuss our recruiting process and debrief about their conference presentations. Next, I take a phone call from an alumna writing a 75-page paper. She’s in a panic. While I talk her down, I hold a few side conversations, mostly gestured, with writing assistants posing the odd question. Just as Outlook reminds me to work on my proposal for a larger budget, the phone rings again. This time it’s a parent wondering what accommodations Western has for her high school senior with dyslexia and ADHD.

By now it’s time for me to join my cross-town colleague, Sherri Winans, for some eats and an invigorating conversation about our lives and work. We’re writing both a session proposal a pre-conference workshop proposal for next year’s Cs. We have so many interests that we pursue three or four rabbit trails before settling on the one that intrigues us most.

Sadly, I remember feeling annoyed a lot of Monday because so many of the day’s events were unplanned. I never did get to work on that proposal (due today). But today my annoyance embarrasses me. If I wanted predictable, I could have stuck with cataloging. Instead, I inhabit a world bursting with surprise and serendipity - today’s One Best Thing.

Roberta Kjesrud

Monday, April 18, 2005

One Best Thing: Community

We’ve all had them – distasteful jobs we’ve done just for the money. My last such gig was fifteen years ago, but it’s still vivid. I cluck regretfully over lost years of mind-numbing work, but there’s fresh trauma in the flashbacks of cranky customers, underhanded managers, and back-stabbing co-workers. To these who are best forgotten, I say, “Azoy fil ritzinoyl zol er oystrinkn!” (He should drink too much castor oil.)

Writing center folk make me wonder what took me so long to get here. What a remarkable bunch! Take the group of 140 I was with last weekend at the PNWCA conference. We come from K-12 schools, small academies, two year schools, and universities. We are administrators, alums, authors, deans, directors, faculty, grads, rhetoricians, and undergrads. And some of us are, blessedly, Canadian. Despite our differences, we are a cohort of colleagues who share common values – learning, listening, literacy – and a sense of wonder that we get to do what we do with whom we do it.

Daughter of a carpenter and a store clerk, college drop-out, skeptical of hierarchy and politics, I came late to the academy. I chafe here. I’m neither properly credentialed nor respectably published, neither faculty nor tenured. Being with the usual academics makes me a sweaty-palmed blitherer. But being with writing centered people feels like a Kjesrud family reunion. I may not know them all (Kjesruds number in the hundreds), but I know we are all related. We share a bloodline, a heritage, a pedagogy, a vision, and a future. These are not just good people; these are my people. I’m grateful to and for them, my community, today’s One Best Thing.

One Best Thing

One Best Thing

Since the close of the Pacific Northwest Writing Centers Conference held over the weekend, I’ve been trying to decide the one Best Thing about writing center work. I’m bumfuzzled. In so many areas of my life, I can decide the best thing. The best spouse — mine, of course. The best parents — again, mine. The best guinea pig —also mine! The best food — well, this is harder, but as long as I narrow to a genre (Thai, Italian, etc.), I can choose. Since I can’t pick one best thing about our work, I’m going to cheat. Every day, I’m going to pick a new Best Thing. And I invite you to do the same.

Today’s best thing — Western Washington University’s Writing Center Assistants. Two teams of three assistants presented at the weekend conference, and three gave closing remarks to the entire crowd. Wow! These guys are good. I remember when they first started, two of them 3-4 years ago. Then they were bundles of raw talent, but they didn’t know it. Suffering from low writing center scholar esteem, they really couldn’t have done what they did this weekend — not because they were incapable, but because they didn’t believe they were. Now these months and years later, these folks are bundles of sophisticated competence. They listen well, think thoroughly, adjust to on-the-spot challenges, and exude a confidence that just makes you know that the world is going to be okay if these folks get to run it. They are truly prepared for what Nancy Grimm calls The New Work Order.

As much as I may want to be proprietary — these are my tutors, mine — I can’t, darn it. They get to claim the fruits of their own learning. But I got to watch. And today that seems like a bigger and better Best Thing than I deserve.

Roberta Kjesrud
Western Washington University

Friday, April 15, 2005

You say you want an evolution . . .

From Inside Higher Ed:

Evolution and science are under attack again in Kansas, and academics there and around the country are refusing to participate in state Board of Education hearings designed to debate the concepts.

Read the article:

Inside Higher Ed :: Standing Up by Sitting Out

MIT Mischief

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

MIT Students' Program for Generating Phony Computer-Science Papers Produces a Winner

Fill a paper with gobbledygook, add some fake charts, slap on a title dense with highfalutin scientific jargon, and -- voilà! --- a highfalutin conference may actually accept it.

That's what happened when three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology submitted a nonsensical research paper to the ninth World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics, scheduled to be held in Orlando, Fla., in July.

SCIgen - An Automatic CS Paper Generator--Try it today!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

To Blog or Not to Blog . . .

Blog, in verb and noun form, seems an unfortunate word. It just kind of falls from your mouth. Having said it, done it, leaves your tongue hanging out with a bad taste, as if you have just licked a dozen envelopes (envelopes that hold letters that are strangely both very private and very public). I remain ambivalent about the act of Blogging.

But I like to read about things that attract and repel me at the same time, so I will tell you what I am finding out.

I was struggling with the idea of audience. Is it imagined, invisible, hostile, limited to friends of WCJ, etc? Sending my words out makes me uncomfortable, but is it is the same uncomfortable that I have with writing any old thing (because I do still have that uncomfortable) or is it a new uncomfortable, squarely fixed on this new technology and task? Most of what I am reading about Blogs recognizes this schism: Bloggers operate in a very public and networked world of words, but even with all that stimulation zooming to and from us, we remain in a cocoon of individuality and ego. I had been thinking of this act as very public, very outwardly focused, but Rebecca Blood claims otherwise.

From Rebecca Blood's book: The Weblog Handbook

The audience of one is the single most important principle behind creating [a Blog, Web site, etc] that is fresh, interesting and compelling. There are half a million weblogs; yours will be compelling only to the extent that it reflects your unique way of looking at the world. Your perspective is the point. It is the only reason to read a weblog at all.

It seems to me this is also something we try to convince developing writers of: contrary to what some teachers or their methods say, we really do want students to write about something that holds meaning for them and to think about what they like to read and why as a way to understand how writing works for readers. Right?

While I read Blood's handbook I wished that students had this handbook as their required first-year writing handbook:

If you allow yourself to begin posting entries based on what you think someone else wants you to write, you are missing the point . . .

Your weblog is your playground. Keep it fun for yourself.

Use whatever tools you have to let readers know exactly what you think about current foreign policy, your favorite brand of tofu, or your new haircut.

If a friend mentions one of your entries and you find yourself telling her why you felt that link was interesting or describing the details of the incident you wrote about, you can be sure that you aren't doing your best work.

Having to produce something for your weblog several times a week will force you - or give you an excuse - to practice your craft.

Writing short is hard, and the daily practice of having to summarize or analyze an article with concision will make you a clearer writer and a better thinker.

The initial Blog bug bite let me be silly or let me cheat you of my own writing by allowing me to easily link to other things. Now I am starting to rethink this medium, or genre, or indulgence--whatever it might be functioning as for me at this moment. I am rethinking Blogging in terms of personal and public writing, what writing means to me, what I think I might have to say to an unknown audience.

Holy Hannah, this Blog thing has me writing poems!

A Poem About Blogging

Note it: the giddiness and dread as you press send, submit, or print.
Making public your typeface of selected thoughts
just ain't right somehow or
it is what it is
for now


Monday, April 11, 2005

Taps in Kansas

A Tuesday Evening

Day is done. Sitting on my patio, my pre-dusk cocktail in hand, I wonder if my Adirondack chair feels as out of place as I do sometimes out here on the praire. We just had a vote in the Wheat State that swung far to the right, affirming a ban on any type of marriage other than, well, you know, the kind between the pimply boy you were forced to square dance with and the prom queen. Now, the winners in this state sense the time is right to forge ahead and overturn abortion rights and evolution too. I sigh and am gifted with a drop of bird poop on my lap.

A Wednesday Morning

Today is a day designated for silence - if you register for it.
day of silence

The thought of asking students to remain silent in support of Gay and Lesbian rights is strange to me. I'd like to believe we are all just seeking gestures and signs to exhibit or recognize as reaching out for alliance? But here in the middle, we don't really need a day of silence . . . most folks never did want to talk about it anyway.

Last week one of our writing consultants, Noel, presented her mini-research project at practicum. It was on silence. Her review of dozens of articles, found with keyword searching of silence and teaching, led to this conclusion: k-12 writing about silence and teaching was focused on the uses of silence; post-secondary writing about silence and teaching focused on how not to silence others, how classrooms operate to silence students, how silencing is violence.


More on MS WORD Grammar Check (or is it bounced check?)

From Professor Steven D. Krause's Official Blog:

"MS Word grammar check works poorly (or tell me something I didn't know...) This is the first in a couple of posts I meant to make earlier-- I was delayed by work, life, and some sort of weird blogger glitch that I think (I hope) has been solved. Anyway....

See this article Bradley Bleck forwarded to tech-rhet, 'A Word to the unwise -- program's grammar check isn't so smart,' published on March 28, 2005 online and presumably in print by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The opening paragraphs give an idea about what it's about:

Microsoft the company should big improve Word grammar check. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. That sentence is a confusing jumble. However, it is perfectly fine in the assessment of Microsoft Word's built-in grammar checker, which detects no problem with the prose. Sandeep Krishnamurthy thinks Microsoft can do a lot better.

The University of Washington associate professor has embarked on a one-man mission to persuade the Redmond company to improve the grammar-checking function in its popular word-processing program. Krishnamurthy is also trying to raise public awareness of the issue.

This might be a good article to include the next time I teach 'Computers and Writing, Theory and Practice,' though I already assign a couple of good articles about the problems of MS Word as a 'writerly tool:' Alex Vernon, 'Computerized Grammar Checkers 2000: Capabilities, Limitations, and Pedagogical Possibilities,' and Tim McGee and PatriciaEricsson, 'The Politics of the Program: MS Word as the Invisible Grammarian,' both of which were published in Computers and Composition a few years back. "

'Tutoring' Rich Kids Cost Me My Dreams - Newsweek Columnists -

'Tutoring' Rich Kids Cost Me My Dreams - Newsweek Columnists -

Spring Ain't Sprung

If you teach a course on peer tutoring, you might have a crew of future tutors with spring fever--eager to practice with students, chomping to work in the writing center. Students in my course start their internships this week and last week we talked about their concerns and their anxieties--their perception of readiness; a few worried about not knowing enough.

It seems a comfort to them to know that one of the richest men in world, Bill Gates, doesn't know enough either. From today's Chronicle of Higher Education:

AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington has dedicated himself to chronicling the blind spots of the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, and to persuading the software company to improve the tool.

"But how much good does the grammar checker actually do? Precious little, according to Sandeep Krishnamurthy, an associate professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington. After experimenting with the tool, Mr. Krishnamurthy concluded that it cannot identify many basic grammatical faux pas -- like errors in capitalization, punctuation, and verb tense."

See the professor's web page dedicated to this critique.

What do you think about grammar check? Machine scoring? Machine teaching? See the WPA archive to read a recent discussion on this:

More later . . .


Friday, April 08, 2005

Talking Trash

I failed to blog yesterday (sorry!) My day was full, and I was having an allergy attack. Today's writing will be piecemeal, so I think I'll just let it flow. Right now, I'm about to meet with a student to work on a paper about Kate Chopin's The Awakening and "Story of an Hour." I think this is our third or fourth meeting, and the student has made significant progress with organization and development that supports a specific thesis. I'll be back to report how it went today.

I'm back, and I'm pleased to tell you that the student brought a complete draft with the exception of an unfinished conclusion. The clearest evidence of her progress was revealed by the clarity of her writing --- deliberate, straightforward sentences and a logical organizational pattern.

Now, I had planned to write about Dorothy Allison's short story collection, Trash --- so let me go ahead and do that --- and then I'm getting out of here! It's Friday, and the staff and I are going to lunch at Shoney's to have our weekly staff meeting.

You will remember, gentle reader, my previous references to the element of fire as an ongoing theme in my current literature class. Well, Allison's story "Gospel Song" contains another compelling scene that relates to what we've been discussing. In this case, a young girl faces a common challenge: whether or not to associate with (befriend) someone who has been rejected by others. The rejected girl is an albino, treated unkindly by schoolchildren on the bus because of the way she looks.

"I watched her face --- impassive, contemptuous, and stubborn. Sweat was showing on her dress but nothing showed in her face except for the eyes. There was fire in those pink eyes, a deep fire I recognized, banked and raging. Before I knew it I was on my feet and leaning forward to catch her arm. I pulled her into our row without a word. Reese stared at me like I was crazy, but Shannon settled herself and started cleaning her bottleglass lenses as if nothing at all was happening" (47).

What strikes me about this passage is that the writer identified with the rejected girl because of the fire they both had inside. It's a beautiful gesture of friendship, of course, but it's more than that. It's an example of how we can identify with the writers we are tutoring in our centers. Find something in the student that says, "You know me." Target that something, and it will be easier to see our way to what needs to happen next.

Blessings to all of you, and a happy weekend! I'm going camping, so I'll be sitting around a fire contemplating.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Word in an Index or a Greater Blessing?

To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology

"Where now is the memory
of the days that were yours on earth, and wove
joy with sorrow, and made a universe that was your own?

The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current; you are a word in an index."

Thus writes Jorge Luis Borges, bringing us all to that fearful recognition of our smallness in the universe. We can do little to remain other than to leave our names on something.

"To others the gods gave glory that has no end:
inscriptions, names on coins, monuments, conscientious historians;
all that we know of you, eclipsed friend,
is that you heard the nightingale one evening."

(shift to another eavesdropping session on a student consultation) --- you'll see how this relates in a minute)

The consultant: "What I was trying to get you to see was ... the other reasons that you gave me either fit into a moral or logical category of your argument. First of all, you have the "murder/Bible/human being/duty to protect the unborn" argument; then you have medical reasons --- health risks, depression, etc. You will want separate paragraphs that show this organizational principle. So, there it is. That's your outline. Now, what you have to go home and do is to read these sources and while you read, highlight. Okay, this is information about the health risks, and this is a moral concern. You pull these things out to put into your paper. Also I think it's a good idea to mention your own personal opinion and experiences (a personal case study). You could say, "My friend X. ... (and describe her experience to back your opinion, to provide proof for your argument). Use only the first initial, however."

The student is writing about abortion. This is her view, written and signed to stand for posterity. But I doubt that she thinks about it that way. It's just an English paper, after all. What will it mean, in ten years, that she wrote a paper claiming abortion is wrong and why? Let's go back to Borges.

"Among the asphodels of the Shadow, your shade, in its vanity,
must consider the gods ungenerous.

But the days are a web of small troubles,
and is there a greater blessing
than to be the ash of which oblivion is made?"

Here's the good part. In my literature class this semester, there has been a sustained visual image of fire: smoke, burning, suffering, ceremony, and rising from the ashes. Examples of texts we've studied that contain these elements: Hamlet; "A Worn Path" (Welty); "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" (Alexie); "Smoke Signals" (Alexie); and "Buddha" (Melville). My students and I have explored some of the principles of faith across different religions (Christian, Native American, and Buddhism) and in particular the concept of nirvana (Borges' "oblivion") --- not heaven but the cessation of suffering (burning). All these words, these writings, celebrate the ash of which oblivion is made.

Back to the student who is thinking and writing about abortion, a painful (burning) topic. Isn't the act of writing about it ceremonial? We lay the subject on the fire and turn up the heat (add fuel, breath, an audience).


"Above other heads the gods kindled
the inexorable light of glory, which peers into the secret parts and discovers
each separate fault"

Yesterday I wrote about the writing campfire circle and invited you to see yourselves (as I do) as explorers in the wild west of writing. Above our heads the gods are kindling the fires. Let's keep stirring up the ashes, weaving joy with sorrow, and making the universe by writing it down.

Tomorrow: Trash: Stories by Dorothy Allison

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Eavesdropping and Exploring

It's quiet in the Studio this morning, and I'm listening in on a consultant's session with a student as I type this.

"What's the significance of this sentence?" she asks.

I hear only a murmur from the student. The topic is Emily Dickinson's "I Could Not Stop for Death."

"What's the feeling you get when you read this line about her gossamer gown?" continues the consultant ("C"), her soft voice barely audible from here. I miss the next exchange and then hear, "And then she actually sees the grave, and realizes that death is forever. It's like she didn't realize it until then."

C. continues to read the rest of the poem aloud, placing emphasize on key expressions.

"What you need to do, she says, "is to write an introductory paragraph, and you might --- did your instructor give you any instructions/suggestions about how to ...?

"No," replies the student.

"Did he approve your choosing this topic?"

"No, this is just one of the poems that he assigned."

"What made you choose this poem?" (She doesn't wait for an answer). "The thing is ... if you choose to write about this, you are going to have to take one view of death and go through each stanza and show how this view is revealed. Do you think you can do that?"

Student: "I'll try."

"See, you jump right into the content without any introduction that gradually narrows down to your specific thesis."

"Even though she was unprepared, she went willingly because it seemed a good thing to do. But by the end of the poem, she realizes that she wasn't prepared. There is a coldness, a darkness, at the end, though earlier she seems very positive. If you are going to focus on the irony, you are going to have to focus on what she says about death at the beginning and what she says about death later in the poem. If I were you, I would ... your thesis statement needs to be in the form of a sentence. It needs to make a statement."

What is so pleasing to me about listening to this particular consultation is that I find I am not listening to evaluate; I am listening to encounter a learning experience and slipping into my researcher mode. I have complete confidence in the consultant and in her methods. I see that she is intuitively following the steps recommended for peer readers in The Writing Circle, by Dick Harrington by touching on the following topics.

Strategies for Exploring
Intention (Focus)
Voice (Persona)

She does this without announcing her strategy. Her consistent, persuasive, muted tone is reassuring and meditative --- two responses that a nervous student writer will appreciate. This consultant is paying attention, as Harrington recommends, --- "selective, focused attention --- to ... information and ideas, to people and behavior, to language. In other words, to explore means to open yourself to possibilities of meaning in virtually any experience" (45).

"C" and I are explorers, crossing the wild west of writing, packing our pencils instead of pistols --- wiping the sweat of concentration from our brows in the desert of writer's block, cutting open the word-cacti for refreshment, and saddling up a horse-thesis for a clear path to the homefront. We eavesdrop around writing campfires at night and see what we can learn from the sentence pioneers, paragraph miners, point preachers, organization sheriffs, and time thieves. I hope you can visualize this extended metaphor. It's a Writing Circle, you see.

Tomorrow: Jorge Luis Borges on life as a writer.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Things My Bookshelf Might Say

Gentle WCJ Friends and Bloggers,

I greet you with clean hands, thanks to AB6 6 Hour Antibacterial Care Cold & Flu Cozy Mint Waterless Hand Gel. In my days of recovery on the couch (in between glances --- okay, overt and bewildered stares) at Court TV, I took another look at my bookshelf to see what it would reveal about my personality to a complete stranger. Would it suggest anything about my interest in writing, for instance? Surely it would. If so, what?

The first books I pulled off the shelf were these:

Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, (The Groundbreaking New York Times Bestseller), by Melody Beattie

The Writing Circle: A Guide for Writers and Peer Readers (2nd edition), by Dick Harrington

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman

Trash: Stories by Dorothy Allison

And (of course), The Writing Center Journal (for this I expect Brownie Points)

So, dear readers, let's look at Chapter 7 of Beattie's slant on the Twelve Step program. Not that any of YOU are codependents, but you might know somebody who is.

"People say codependents are controllers. We nag; lecture; scream; holler; cry; beg; bribe; coerce; hover over; protect; accuse; chase after; run away from; try to talk into; try to talk out of; attempt to induce guilt in; seduce; entrap; check on; demonstrate how much we've been hurt; hurt people in return so they'll know how it feels, threaten to hurt ourselves; whip power plays on; deliver ultimatums to; do things for; refuse to do things for; stomp out on; get even with; whine; vent fury on; act helpless; suffer in loud silence; try to please; lie; do sneaky little things; do sneaky big things; clutch at our hearts and threaten to die; grab our heads and threaten to go crazy; beat on our chests and threaten to kill; enlist the aid of supporters; gauge our words carefully ..." (this list goes on for quite a while). I'm stopping with "gauge our words carefully" because I want to explore what it means to "gauge" our words.

According to Wikipedia (the FREE encyclopedia), there are many different uses of gauge. It might mean, for example, "the size of the conductors used to carry electric current" or "any of a variety of measurement devices in engineering." It is also the stage name of an actress in adult films. I'll leave it up to you to investigate that one. In regard to jewelry, "gauge refers to the thickness of the metal that penetrates the body tissue." In mechanics, "a pressure gauge is a device for indicating liquid or gas pressure." Three more usages relate to railways, shotguns, and ships, respectively --- the first, track or rail gauge, "means the distance between the inside edges of the two rails forming the track;" the second, (shotgun) gauge refers to "the diameter or caliber of the barrel," and the nautical reference is "the position of a vessel in relation to another vessel and the wind." There are more, believe it or not.

Clearly, when we gauge our words, we mean to measure them or test them against some standard. I lay before you the question: Which standard? What are its dimensions? How can we conform to its specifications or limits? Isn't this the very thing we are trying to teach students about academic writing --- how to gauge their words? Also, should we keep a copy of the codependency book in the writing center? A few of us might need an occasional reminder that we are not responsible for the ultimate well-being of every person, including our baby writers.

Tomorrow we'll look at The Writing Circle.

Tamara Miles

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Light We See By, The Thing We See

“When you think like a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – My dad.

In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.” Her comment refers of course to religious ideology, but I believe her claim applies to any ideology, including writing center ideology.

The light we see by is theory. A theory gives us questions to ask, privileges certain questions over others, and intentionally or not obscures other questions. One unfortunate result of prevailing writing center theory, to my mind, is that it has not made the distinction between the light we see by and the thing we see; we have confused the two, and at times asserted that the two are one and the same. What I mean is that contrarian theory, the light of the past twenty years, fails to acknowledge (let alone embrace) that we often work toward uncertain ends, that our liberator inclinations are mixed with our deeply held values of sociality, and that in this soup there are likely regulatory beans and broth. The result, at least for me, has been a feeling of disconnection between what I read and what I see in our own writing center and other centers in the southeast.

In Elizabeth Boquet’s history, she describes how writing center work over the years was appropriated by folks in the content disciplines, from Psychology to Composition Studies. In recent years, I’ve read more than one writing center article that--however satisfying as a product of the academic mind--seemed to display a greater understanding of Critical Theory than of writing center reality. I am not advocating a theory that privileges nuts and bolts over the theoretical, though I would say that theory ought to illuminate our everyday practices. To return to O’Connor, I believe the light we see by, our theory, is not a substitute for what we see every day in our writing centers.

Bill and I are interested in what questions we might ask when we see by a different light. To define the work of writing centers as mind work, we believe, gives us new ways of seeing, and, we believe, new things to see. I’ll play around here with the questions we’ve been asking for years:

What are we?
We are a discipline. A discipline is defined as a body of knowledge or a set of methodologies. Both do mind work, but the content disciplines are unique in the first; writing centers are unique in the second. Both serve the tutorial, an event in critical inquiry.

Why do we belong?
First because we contribute in powerful ways to the intellectual and personal growth of students, the core aims of the educative process.

How do we do it?
Though dialogic efforts, the tutee and tutor cooperate in processes that develop those sensibilities required to think with clarity and to write with precision and skill. These efforts are deeply rooted in values of sociality that focus on the whole person, thus the aim is to produce better writers, not better pieces of writing.

What is the role of peer tutors?
Peer tutors have the capacity to positively influence other students’ disposition toward learning in ways that teachers cannot. Their ability to help students shift personas, negotiate the landscape of college life, and perceive themselves as writers are vital, largely unexamined, contributions. Also often overlooked are the reciprocal benefits of these peer experiences for student tutors, adding further to the intellectual and personal life of a campus.

How do we assess what we do?
Because our work is mind work and the way we carry it out aids students’ disposition toward learning, we look to the fields of Psychology and Sociology for assessment tools. We need not reinvent the hammer. Accepted methods, industry standards if you like, already exist.

What about research?
Readers of “The Polyvalent Mission of Writing Centers” will find that research has been redefined to serve writing centers in multiple ways.

What about the future?
When Riley published “The Unpromising Future of Writing Centers,” he was right about a lot of things. First, that our movement is an evolving one. Second, that at the time it was written we were in a period of frustration. He was exceedingly astute in seeing the parallels between writing centers and the birth and growth of American Lit,. composition studies, and literary theory. But I think he (like the rest of us) made a critical mistake in not distinguishing between a content discipline and a discipline of methodologies. How can we attempt to claim purity of content and at the same time claim to be cross-disciplinary? If our status is second class, we share some of the blame because we have not reminded others that we are a discipline equal to and working in tandem with the content disciplines.

There were things Riley could not know at the time. First is that technology would so profoundly alter the profession. When the professor is no longer the repository of knowledge, things change. He could not know that research would come to be more broadly defined. And finally, he couldn’t know that educational methods would actually take a turn in our direction, that things like problem-based learning and learning communities, the stock and trade of writing center work, would come to define new and innovative trends.

Bill and I believe that a new light gives us new ways of seeing and new things to see--like a new future. What do you think?

Phil here