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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Physical Space and Collaboration: Comparing the Two Locations of the Texas A&M University Writing Center

Recently, I had the opportunity to partake in a unique consultation at the West Campus Library University Writing Center. This location is a converted small group study room. As such, it is a small but open space that boasts just three separate desks equipped for consultations. There are no walls separating the desks, and individual consultations are visible and audible to all inside the room. That day, two of us had finished our consultations but a fellow consultant seemed to be having a difficult session. She turned her head around and asked us for our opinion on the issue. The client’s prompt really was difficult to decode, and we each had our own take on it. We were unsure of what her professor wanted her to analyze from a website: the pictures? Rhetorical devices? The advertising? But we sat there, huddled together (three consultants to one client) discussing and exchanging ideas. The client reacted favorably to this environment, becoming more animated about the paper and process. I believe that the client became receptive to the idea that, in the end, we are also students (her peers) who struggle with ideas and assignments, and that writing is a dynamic and often collaborative effort. Eventually, we were able to steer her in the right direction, and she left satisfied with the consultation. Never have I had such a collaborative consultation at the other location of the University Writing Center, and I believe that is due to the radically different physical space.

The other location has four individual glass enclosed carrels. Each one contains a desk, computer, resources and room enough for just two chairs. This set up is excellent for privacy, which is definitely not the case at the previous location. Having this privacy, however, also means that the consultation takes place in complete isolation and without the possibility of collaboration with other consultants. Although we have been trained, and even encouraged, to ask fellow consultants questions during consultations, the carrels are just not conducive to this. On occasion, I have gotten up, excused myself from the consultation and exited the carrel to ask a fellow consultant a question, but it is definitely more of a discouraging hassle. In this situation the client might feel awkward left in the carrel by himself or the formality of bringing in another consultant into the consultation might make the client doubt his consultant’s competency. Even if collaboration does occur, it is definitely less natural and seems more like an intervention than a conversation. In fact, it might even cause a student to question any previous advice.

I believe that collaboration should have an important role in Writing Center consultations. I know that I learned a lot from my collaborative experience because I was able to appreciate completely different tutoring styles, ways of approaching a prompt, and ideas on writing. In this way, more than serving just this one particular student, collaborative learning enhances consultant training, which, in turn, benefits every client. And our Writing Center should strive to make collaboration possible in not just one, but both of our locations.

The ideal space would allow for both privacy and collaboration; a possible set up being an open space with separate tables where individual consultations could take place inaudibly to others but one which allows easy verbal and nonverbal communication between consultants.