Monday, September 26, 2005

Lesson from Leaving

I’ve just returned to my job as writing center director at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I was on maternity leave for the first month of the semester. (BTW, a big URRRGGG to colleagues who called my leave “a nice little vacation”.) I think I learned more about my job while I was gone than I do when I’m there. Maybe that’s overstating it, but it was good to get some perspective on it.

First, I realized that I’ve got to make some changes in how I do things. When I was preparing for my leave, the assistant chair of the department said there was money to pay someone to help out in the writing center. I thought about this for a while and realized that it would be more work for me to have someone there than not. This is because I have not done a good job of keeping operating notes on what I do. [Does anyone do this—if so, tell me about it.] Having someone else in there would mean creating these notes in a short period of time and being on call when questions arose—neither things I wanted to do at the end of my pregnancy or during my leave. So I decided to delegate the things that had to be done before my return (training the new tutors, leading a staff meeting) to my assistant director and do other things myself before the leave (make the fall schedule, enter this into TutorTrac). Other things, I decided, would just have to wait (scheduling class intros, putting together a new training manual).

And, it all went fine. However, I see now that had I better notes about what gets done when, if I trained others to use TutorTrac, and if I had the writing center files not only on my mac but also saved on one of our writing center computers, it would be much easier to delegate more tasks. [How many of us have an office, desk, or computer in the WC? My office is down the hall, an arrangement I like, but it does mean that many writing center files are not in the WC.]

The other thing I saw when I stopped in towards the end of my leave was that the day-to-day operations in the WC were going just fine. In fact, I was floored overhearing one of the brand new tutors working with a difficult regular client of ours. The client, an ESL graduate student, is working on his master’s thesis, bit by bit. He can be rather pushy and passive at the same time—have you worked with this type? I worked with him a little this summer and found it really difficult. (OK, and I was put off when he scoffed at my decision not to stay home fulltime with the new bambino.) Yet this new tutor was really pushing him hard and he was responding to it. She got him engaged by asking questions and not doing the work for him. I saw her hand him a dictionary to look up past tense verbs when he didn’t know them, which he did. I mean, this client who has been in numerous times still has to be given a pencil to remind him of his role and he still tells the tutor--"you can just fix it." Yet, this tutor, in one of her first sessions ever, was doing some really assertive things to get him involved. At the end of the session, the client made another appointment to work with this tutor. Perhaps she gave him what he needed all along.

I guess, if I’m leading towards a clichéd, FYC what-I-learned ending here, it’s this: I need to let a little. (I like how Mary Rose O’Reilley talks about classrooms. She says we need silence sometimes, we need margins. We need to let as often as we do.) Training obviously went well during my absence. The students still came to the center; the tutors still tutored. I think I need to think in practical terms about how to make the writing center work better with and without me.

Jackie Grutsch McKinney


At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 9:25 AM, Blogger Clint Gardner said...

Hi Jackie,

I appreciated your article in WCJ on ideas of WC space. I'm still pondering the idea of "comfort" and how much weight we have given it in the WC field. I know I for one like our couches, but when it comes down to it, most of our consultation is not conducted on the couches. Rather it is conducted at our round tables. Often student writers sit on the couches to read or to work quietly alone; sometimes just to chat. There is a feeling of discomfort when one works with student writers and their writing on the couches, however. I still don't know that I would give them up, however, as they are attractive to people who have only bare linolium to sit on out in the hall.

--Clint Gardner

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