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WAWriting Center

posted: 3.31.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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We should think more about Writing Centers and WAW.

This is not something I would have expected to hear myself saying even a couple years ago: I am not a “writing center guy.” They’re not my specialty, despite my recognition of them as a unique and useful site of writing instruction. I have not tutored in a writing center in close to fifteen years, and I usually have too much to read in my own areas to keep up with WC theory and praxis. Yet, my job as interim director of composition at Montana State University this year led me to a couple of new-to-me ideas about how WAW comp courses can impact a writing center, and the too-long-in-coming suggestion that writing centers might be a focal point for WAW work on campus.

In my last post, I offered an example of poor writing assignments. Tutors in a WC see these all the time, and in my limited observation, some of the worst come from first-year composition courses:

  • “Read ‘To Light a Fire’ and consider how you might make the best use of a pet in a similar situation.”
  • “In a three-page essay, compare and contrast the ideals in Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with those of Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test.
  • “Identify a value in contemporary America that’s important to you and explain why.”
  • “Make an argument about an article of personal faith.”

Assignments such as these still seem to represent much of the status quo in composition courses. 

What’s interesting about WAW assignments is that they rarely attempt to probe the writer’s psyche for personal values from which to make social statements, and they don’t make uncomfortably subjective judgment calls about how well the student did the assignment. They carry a tangibility and a concreteness that seem to me to be a real blessing for WC tutors: you can read a WAW assignment and tell pretty decisively how well a writer is doing it—or not. I had no idea about this benefit until this year; now I—and my tutors—like it very much. (Of course, given peer tutors’ particular awareness and knowledge of writing studies research and theory from their tutoring and tutor training, it stands to reason that they can give better feedback on the material they’re reading when it’s WAW.  That will be an interesting line of study as time goes on.)

I want to highlight another idea that I actually did have some clue about a long time ago, but find it interesting to see in action and to think through the possibilities. In writing-studies research, much of our best undergraduate research comes out of writing centers. Peer tutors see a lot of writing (that is, data); they think about it a great deal (that is, reflection and theorization); and they’re more engaged than most other undergraduates with the writing research and theory that can help explain what they’re seeing (that is, they’re comparatively well read).

I wonder if undergraduate research originating in writing centers changes when the writing that tutors are seeing is WAW. There seems to be tremendous potential for “leveraging” here in the meeting of smart undergraduate researchers—those from the WAW course, and those in the writing center. There are lots of permutations I haven’t been able to think through yet—I’d love to hear more ideas on them.

It’s possible that other researchers are already hard at work giving the Writing Center its due when it comes to WAW. If not, we should be.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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2 Responses to “WAWriting Center”

  1. Jennifer Wells, Mercy High School Says:

    As a “writing center person” I absolutely agree we can and should think more about WAW and WCs.

    This year, I created a hybrid WAW/peer tutor education course for my high school’s juniors and seniors. I found the WAW approach deepened their understanding of peer tutoring, and the students’ work as peer tutors deepened their understanding of the WAW-based readings.

    I suppose this makes sense since most peer tutor courses have the students reading about peer tutoring, and some of those readings are ones you might find in a WAW course. Thinking about WAW more explicitly helped me design the course; I ultimately was able to pair most of the WAW work with peer tutor work.

    For example, the students wrote their own literacy narratives while they were also reading about how developing writers can be influenced by their past experiences with writing (and writing teachers). As the students were paying attention to how they had been shaped by literacy experiences, they gained more awareness of how their tutees may also have been shaped by literacy experiences. They already knew that they should give their tutees positive reinforcement, but after the unit they really understood why.

    So, I think WAW/peer tutor education can go hand in hand, and would be interested to hear if others are doing similar work.

  2. Becca Block, Daytona State Says:

    Interesting points here – I’ll be teaching a completely WAW course for the first time this fall and, as a director of a writing center (and someone heavily invested in WC theory and praxis), I’ve been trying to figure out how to best merge the two interests. I like the ideas here–I could perhaps give my students the option of coming to observe tutoring sessions, interview tutors, etc. We don’t have a tutor training course here since we’re mostly a 2-year college, but I do wonder if teaching my intro comp course this way may allow me to spot some potential new peer tutors. Thanks for the ideas!