Exploring “The Wonderful World of Writing Centers”: Reflections on the IWCA/NCPTW 2014 Conference

While my conference experience got off to a rather inauspicious start (no one from the 1st panel I tried to attend on assessment was there to present) the rest of my experience was engaging, thought-provoking, informative and exciting. I saw presentations from a diverse group of people from the current editor of College English to a high school junior peer tutor. The dizzying range of presenters had me fluctuating from focused practice-based concerns like strategies for working with anxious students, to larger theoretical concerns like addressing white privilege in the writing center. My experience over those three days has reminded me of the necessity of constant conversation and negotiation between practice and theory in writing center studies, and the need for conversation and negotiation between researchers and scholars and those doing work on the ground day-in and day-out, namely tutors. Of course this concept isn’t new; composition studies rests on a negotiation between researcher and instructor. Yet, the fact that many practitioners within writing centers are students themselves presents an interesting perspective.

One of my favorite panels of the conference focused on speaking tutoring. We first heard from a scholar, parsing out the similarities between writing and speaking and speaking and taking. Then we heard from a director of a speaking tutoring program grounding speech tutoring in rhetorical tradition and theory. Finally we heard from an undergraduate speech tutor reflecting on how her strategies differed when tutoring oral presentations versus writing. It was a great example of clear conversation between theory and practice existing within a single center.

I also appreciated a paper discussing a very localized practice, namely revising and updating the center’s worksheets, but doing so with a much bigger picture in mind. Those updating the handouts were very mindful of identity, working to eliminate stereotypes and include subjects that reflect diversity and reject heteronormativity. It’s a small step that epitomized for me the idea of writing centers as agents for change.

The keynote speech delivered by Beth Boquet asked us specifically to engage in this idea as she framed her discussion of activities of her writing center with events like the shooting of Trayvon Martin and Sandyhook. Her talk centered on Mary Rose O’Reilly’s question, “is it possible to teach English so people stop killing each other?” What an important question to ponder.

In addition to thinking deeply about the larger project of writing centers, I also left with specific suggestions of supporting reading as well as writing, working with STEM writing, and negotiating a career in writing centers when you’re not tenure track. This conference was a treasure trove of great information, and I am s glad I had the opportunity to attend.

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