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


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