A Safe Space to Geek Out About Writing

The Chicago Land Writing Center Conference! It was held this past weekend at North Park University and was filled with interactive discussions on tutoring people with learning disabilities or ADHD, round robin tables on topics ranging from community building to transitioning from working at one writing center to another, conversation cafes, and a discussion panel with Harold Washington’s all professional-tutoring staff.

Getting to know the other people at the conference was fun, because for me it is always fun to find new people to geek-out with about writing. I’ve done a few conversation cafes at UCWbL events, such as All Staff Orientation and the Winter Retreat, but doing it this time with people who do the same kind of work as me, and enjoy it like I do, but I don’t actually work with was interesting because it gave me the opportunity to see the vast differences that appear from writing center to writing center. I had never realized how different writing centers could be from location to location in terms of how they function. Some are just walk-in based, many don’t have different kinds of appointments but only have in the center appointments; most of them call their workers writing consultants rather than tutors in order to prevent writers from believing they have to be stupid or remedial to use the writing center as a resource. However, despite all of our differences we were, in many ways, the same. We all cared about writing and helping our clients, as well as ourselves, through our work. And most importantly, we all love what we do.

I met so many different people, from new tutors who started college when they were 13, and are now 17, to adjunct professors moonlighting as tutors because they love to help, to graduate students just in love with writing. Everyone there had something to offer, something to bring to the table to learn from, whether that was a new perspective or approach, or tips and tricks for handling particularly difficult appointments. During the panel discussion, strategies were offered such as taking scissors and cutting each paragraph out of a paper and having a writer say what the main topic and point of each paragraph was, and then separating them into piles in cases where looking at the paper as a whole has become too frustrating, overwhelming, or distracting (a strategy I may use in my own writing when I run into the same problem). Another panel member talked about how it is important to always be conscious of the fact that ELL students might not always understand what you are saying to them, so making sure that they do by having them repeat what you said, or having them show you they understand a grammar rule by applying it, is always a good idea. Another panel member talked about how making a writer feel welcome and relaxed is just as important as walking away and taking a break during an appointment, and can be a very useful thing.

These are all things that I believe we forget from time to time when working with writers. We are usually fighting against the clock, trying to get through as much as we can with them in the time allotted, so taking a break might seem counterproductive at times. But the truth is, if you are overwhelming the writer, or stressing yourself out trying to cram everything in, then things are not going to come across as clearly, nor are they going to stick in the writer’s mind as long because they are getting an information overload. With ELL students, in any appointment from conversation partners to face-to-face appointments, we are usually throwing a lot of information at these writers at once, and we are telling them what they need to change or work on before they turn their papers in. What we tend not to do is really make sure that these students are writing down what their next steps are, so they know exactly where they should go with their paper once they leave the writing center. And this applies not only to ELL students, but to all our appointments, because anyone can forget what they learned between the time they leave their appointment and get back to their apartment. I know I would.

I probably never would have thought of these more hands on approaches to tutoring, that don’t cross the line into editing, without collaborating with other tutors. It’s important to talk to people that do what we do but do not necessarily work with us because that is how we grow and learn and get better at what we do. So if you go to the next writing center conference, go into it with an open mind and maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn something.