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


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