Monday, January 30, 2012

Bridging the Gap

Like mentioned in the previous blog, establishing and maintaining community within a writing center can be difficult regardless of size. But depending on how these centers are structured and how they function, meaningful relationships can be created and long-lived. Possibly the most important reason for these interactions is to serve as resources for consultants. I’ve learned a lot in the past year and a half, and everything I have learned is because of the way the Texas A&M writing center operates. In February of last year, a colleague and I presented “Be a Tool: How to Utilize Your Coworkers As a Valuable Resource” at the SCWCA conference in Houston. The main focus was to discuss several mechanisms that help create collaboration and interaction among coworkers, which in turn facilitates increased knowledge and productivity.  In a way, this is an extension of some of the procedures we touched on at the conference. The conference went well and evoked the type of exchange we hoped it would. Smaller centers were given the opportunity to learn about some of the resources we have here at A&M that are perfect for bridging the gaps, and we learned some unique methods as well.

One of the best programs we have at Texas A&M is Spring Training, which typically focuses on team building. Activities in training are geared toward helping consultants practice concepts of collaboration like communication, team work, and leadership.  At the same time, it is a great way for us to ease back into the semester after the holidays while still managing to have fun and let loose. Consultants and staff are encouraged to intermingle with coworkers they may not have interacted with on a regular basis. At times, our activities are quirky and may seem pointless, but there always seems to be an underlying theme and several additional benefits. Last January, I had the privilege to see 40+ of my colleagues Dougie! (a dance usually reserved for inner-city hip-hop dance teams).  Can you imagine your writing center director, a PHD, doing the Dougie?! It’s these types of activities that make Spring Training one of my favorite things at the UWC. But it’s not all fun and games.  Spring Training made me more comfortable with my superiors; it was even the first time I sat down with my director and had a one-on-one conversation. Training remains one of the most effective tools of initiating community interaction.

Another useful element of the structure at the UWC is training classes. Each semester, for the first three semesters, consultants are enrolled in a set of classes that help enhance their tutoring skills. These classes usually consist of hiring pools, so the same group of students experiences all three classes together. This allows consultants to interact, discuss, and collaborate—all for the purpose of improving tutoring strategies and learning new approaches. Our particular classes are led by directors in the writing center, so the classes are also ideal for making consultants more comfortable with administrators. The main obstacle faced with having such classes is having people that can lead them.

One of the most important work settings at our center are team meetings. Teams are made up of anywhere between 4 and 6 consultants as well as what is known as a “team leader.” The teams are created by grouping tutors and staff members who share similar work schedules.  These meetings facilitate open discussion and collaboration on tutoring experiences and scenarios; each meeting has a central theme or focus. Team meetings are also somewhat of a safe zone for individuals to express their concerns more openly. Because there are fewer number of people, more engagement is possible than at a staff meeting and each person is able to thoroughly express his or her opinions and/or ideas. Because these teams last about a year, a new opportunity arises each new year to create more purposeful relationships.

Of course, depending on the structure and function of each writing center, some of these programs are not realistic. Resources like space, time, and money must be sufficient in order for some mechanisms to operate effectively and efficiently. Also, at A&M we are fortunate to have directors who can focus their time solely on the operation of the center, whereas some centers are directed by professors with divided responsibilities. But regardless of limitations, these resources are extremely valuable and even if they have to be modified, they can help increase productivity and increase a sense of community.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hi, have we met?

Writing centers are responsible for fostering a sense of community, and we call ourselves consultants because of the type of interaction we have with students. After all, sometimes a consultation shows more symptoms of a therapeutic session than a paper revision. But as easy as it is to share a sense of community with our student population, it’s difficult to establish that same environment within the center itself. And there are several aspects to blame, such as center size, scheduling differences and high turnover rates. I don’t want to be misunderstood—I’m not saying that we should be like family, because that is an overused, inaccurate comparison. But as coworkers, we should at least be familiar with one another. Sadly, after working at the center for more than a year, I still (from time to time) exchange the “do I know you?” look with other consultants as if they were strangers. Yet in all seriousness, I have introduced myself to new-hires more than 6 weeks after having worked together.

The dynamic of each center affects how community is established and maintained, and size definitely has an influence on a center’s ability to create an open environment. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one size— large or small—is easier to unite. Smaller centers oftentimes have one tutor or consultant working at a time by him- or herself, which eliminates opportunity for collaboration, but fewer people means—or should mean—that  it’s easier for coworkers to get to know one another beyond scratching the surface. Of course my perspective is skewed towards larger writing centers, such as the one at Texas A&M. We have 41 consultants and several other staff members. One great thing about being a larger center is that our resources are more abundant. Some centers may not have the time, space, or money to come together as a unit on a regular basis. Fortunately, we are able to get everyone in the same place at least once a week, a privilege other centers don’t always have.

Structure and function, like size, contribute to maintaining community; scheduling differences have the potential to make or break a center’s ability to establish purposeful relationships between coworkers. At A&M, the scheduling system is fixed, so consultants work the same hours each week, which means working with the same colleagues each shift. With that in mind, it’s possible consultants may never see one another (if their shifts do not overlap). But like mentioned earlier, this concept isn’t isolated to large centers , because smaller ones are more likely to have individuals work by themselves. A more fluid system, where students pick up shifts or are assigned schedules may be harder to maintain. There are rational reasons for each system though, and the design of each center may dictate how the scheduling system is managed. Each has its benefits: while a fixed schedule has kept me from working with a variety of new people, it has also led me to create strong, long-lasting relationships. In fact, it’s this scheduling system that has allowed me to make close friendships that go beyond the center. Furthermore, our schedules change each semester, so after establishing a good relationship with some coworkers, a new opportunity is created for new relationships with others. From personal experience, work schedules are one of the best ways to create meaningful, purposeful relationships with colleagues, and directors can use the schedule as a tool to ensure new-hires have mentors they can use as guides in the learning process.   

Lastly, potentially one of the primary challenges for both consultants and directors is high turnover rate. At A&M, undergraduates make up about 80% of our consultant population. Most students are hired after their freshman year and stay until graduation (about three years). However, in some cases, consultants are hired as juniors or seniors, which results in a lifespan lasting less than three years. This is definitely something directors have to take into consideration, because, just like with any business, turnover rates affect productivity, training finances, expertise, etc. With each new year, some consultants leave while new ones come in, which somewhat interrupts progress of bringing a center closer together. This repetitive cycle of creating and maintain community shows to be a never-ending struggle all writing centers face.

As I take these observations into consideration, I have to remind myself that my experience is limited while the variation of centers is unlimited. I understand that each center will have different systems and operating methods, consultant types (graduate vs. undergrad), and strategies, but regardless of structure, social interface is vital to any center. However, there are methods and programs that can be utilized in order to support a fluctuating system.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Writing Centers in the 2-Year College: A Free Online Talk-Time Conference [Updated]

[Updated 1/24/2012]

The program for the online talk-time conference Writing Centers in the 2-Year College is set!  For more information about conference attendance, please visit .  The information isn’t up yet, but should be shortly.  I’ll be sure to update you all when it is up.  It is going to be an excellent conference!  I am particularly pleased by the number of sessions being lead by community college peer tutors.   It will be an excellent way to kick of International Writing Centers Week 2012 (Feb 12-18).

Here is the unedited schedule [with links to the online conference rooms] to whet your appetites:

Note: Rooms will be open for admission 30 minutes before each session.
1:00-2:00 pm EST
“Two Year College Writing Centers ‘By the Numbers’”
Jill Reglin, Lansing Community College
3:00-4:00 pm EST
“What We Do, What We Have Done, and What We Should Do: A Sabbatical-Long Look into a Community College Writing Center Boiled Down to a Palatable Size”
Megan Schutte, Community College of Baltimore County

1:00-2:00 pm EST
“Does the Lab Look Like Me?  Exploring the Experiences of Diverse Populations”
Kellie Roblin, Corrine Cozzaglio, Peer Writing Tutors, Grand Rapids Community College
2:30-3:30 pm EST
“Our Turn to Serve: Equipping Veterans for Academic Victory”
Ian Ferraris, Peer Writing Consultant, Illinois Central College
3:30-4:30 pm EST
“Enriching Cultural Experience Through Conversation Partners at a Two-Year College” (30 mins)  Karyn Phillips, Peer Writing Consultant, Illinois Central College
“Making a Challenge a Practice” (30 mins)
Vlora Ademi, Peer Consultant, Illinois Central College

1:00-2:00 pm EST
“Writing into the 21st Century” – Facilitated Discussion
Darryl Mangles, Peer Writing Tutor, Lansing Community College
2:30-3:30 pm EST
“Online Writing Workshops”
Daphne Figueroa, Amy Beeman, Kim Kennelly, San Diego Miramar College
4:00-5:00 pm EST
Takes place in Second Life
 “Tutoring in Second Life: Writing Center Practices in an Online Virtual Reality Environment”
Larry Giddings, Roxanne Yelvington, Pikes Peak Community College, Boulder, CO
Note: One hour pre-session orientation required. Contact Larry Giddings.

2:00-3:00pm EST

“How to Support a Writer Struggling with Self-Doubt” (30 mins)
Kelsey Phillis, Peer Writing Consultant, Illinois Central College
“Learning From Our Stories: Tutoring Against Stereotypes” (30 mins)
Anjali Jaiman, Britney Francis, Shazia Alam, Peer Tutors , Bronx Community College
3:30-4:30pm EST
“Boundaries and Authority”
Stephanie K. Brub, Carissa K. Nakamura, Peer Tutors, Leeward Community College
12:00-1:00 pm

“Pens and Needles: Creating a Health Career Student Focused Peer-Tutor Based Writing Program”
Edward Nehrig, Peer Writing Consultant, Illinois Central College
1:30-2:30 pm EST
“Change on a Shoe String”
Daphne Figueroa, Cheryl Reed, Matthew White, San Diego Miramar College

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Ron Maxwell's Advice to Tutors

At the 2011 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing held in Miami, Florida, Jon Olson shared a video clip of the late Ron Maxwell's advice to peer tutors.  Jon kindly sent the video clip to PeerCentered:

Your Written Voice Matters: Embracing Writing Language against the Standards of the Academy

In consultations as a tutor, I notice students struggle with their own written language based on the demands of the academy. Many students e...