“Please come see us at any point of your writing…we’d love to talk about your ideas, about your work…questions, thoughts, inspirations, frustrations . Come and have a conversation wherever you are in an assignment,” we assure the students listening to the start-of-term orientation. “It’s what we do here!”
Who We Are
All fifty-eight Writing Center coaches at the College of Lake County sit at their session tables during a variety of shifts throughout the week ready to engage with students. Our staff, inclusive of peer tutors enrolled at the college, represents a range of academic degrees and disciplines, and it is this diversity of perspectives and academic backgrounds which provides a rich and varied approach to our conversations. Most writers who are enrolled or who work at the college simply walk in, while others set a session appointment ahead of time. Either way, we are staffed and ready for both, as well as for non-enrolled residents of the larger Lake County community who may avail of two half-hour sessions per semester. The Writing Center is abuzz with activity throughout the semester’s seventeen weeks. In fact, we average over 1,000 unique visits and over 2,000 contact hours of coaching work!
The Writing We Do
Most of our conversations focus on a student’s writing assignments from different subject areas—from English Composition and Psychology to Nursing and Criminal Justice—with lots more in between! Academic writing makes up the bulk of our work, alongside transfer and scholarship or financial aid essays. At any stage of a writer’s work—uncertain beginnings all the way to a revised late draft—our coaching is rooted in a belief that every writer needs a reader. The conversation and reflection that take place in a writing session help both the writer and the coach. It clarifies ways they think about their writing process and opens up space for participants in this dialogue to see their work with fresh eyes.
While a student’s assignment drives the dialogue, a Session Agenda Sheet acts as a starting line of sorts. In that document, writer and coach negotiate to identify the stage of writing the work is in, as well as the objectives to be met in that session: What would you like to do over the next hour? At the end of the session, a coach reflects on the conversation and writes up a session report summarizing what took place and how objectives were met or not met. Coaches are also invited to include any new insights or learning from the session.
Lastly, the emails sent by our Writing Center coordinators also form part of the writing we produce as a group. These are sent to faculty and staff, students, coaches, or prospective coaches and, in the process of communicating writing center “business”, these emails also serve to reinforce the philosophy—the ethos of the group—that we value and respect all writers and their work.
Our Stories (Myths and Narratives in the Work We Do)
According to Craig Smith, “Rhetoric can remake reality and re-create a sense of publicness because it maintains the power of myths. Presenting a narrative of events is important to the message one wishes to convey” (23). What are some of these myths and narratives that reinforce or muddle the understanding of why we do what we do? What stories persist and filter how the public perceives the nature of writing center work?
- The Writing Center as “fix-it” shop: When writers come in only to have their work edited—and only that—instead of investing in a dialogue about the writing, it casts the writing center as a repair shop of “broken” writing, and the writer as one who, without the coach, will only continue to produce inferior work. Also, it oversimplifies the writing process to one dependent only on mechanics.
- The Writing Center as “emergency room”: A variety of the fix-it shop, a panicked writer with only 15 minutes before an assignment is due, rushes in to “see what can be done” because it will surely still earn a better grade than it would have in its current state. Coaches do not see themselves as grade boosters. Instead of perpetuating the myth of “instant” improvement, coaches work to emphasize the benefits of revision.
- The Writing Center as counseling office: While it is true that the coaching session may share in the openness and non-judgmental regard for another from which every counselor approaches their counselee, a writing center coach continues to focus conversation to a student’s work. If a writer has tendency to veer off into more personal matters, diplomacy on the part of the coach should “rein in” the interaction to refocus on the work. The personal may seep into the conversation in the normal course of events, but it should not take over the session.
- The Writing Center as extension of the professor: When students remain confused about the assignment and do not seek out their instructors to clarify matters, relying solely on the coach’s interpretation of the assignment, it perpetuates this myth. A student’s agency—their capacity to take action or “get things done”—is diminished. The same happens when a student and coach base their dialogue only on “what does the teacher want to see?” Clearly, it is complicated because completing the assignment will require that the student determine assignment expectations, placing much of the power on the side of the teacher. However, if the coaching session helps students situate themselves in the context of the written work while meeting its requirements, then a productive balance is reached.
- The Writing Center as a student ally: This myth is corollary to the previous and is equally restrictive in its view. The session, as it aims to reinforce a writer as owner of the work, should not mislead a student into feeling a false sense of power without acknowledging the need to balance forces acting on the writer and the work.
The Rhetorical Situation and Strategies Applied
In “Aristotle’s Rhetoric”, Craig Smith presents rhetoric as being “a set of generative principles that produce a specific speech that adapts a particular message to a particular audience, speaker, and situation”. He highlights “the changing nature of the audience, the malleability of the message…the diversity of the speaker…” (70). It is this need to consider the uniqueness of the audience and the adaptability of the message that finds significant relevance in writing center interaction. A diverse group of writers with a range of concerns and objectives avail of writing center services, and as coaches, we need to be profoundly aware of this every time we begin a session. The dialogue that ensues is unique to the participants of the session, so much so that a coach’s response cannot be considered standard. Though it is the same coach, the interaction that follows is a product of the content discussed, the rapport built between coach and writer, and the circumstances surrounding the student, as well as the coach.
Peter Drucker’s “Functioning Communication” is echoed in most writing center sessions. Drucker argues that communication fails “unless we first know what the recipient, the true communicator, can see and why” (263). Every writer is considered the “communicator” as each brings to a session a unique set of ideas and circumstances that must be unpacked if the coach aims to be effective.
Our coaching session may also be viewed using the framework of Lloyd Bitzer’s concepts of exigence, audience, and constraints (222). Our coaches exert every effort to make a case for writing as a worthwhile investment of time and effort (exigence) and keep this goal in mind throughout a session. We are faced with writers who have the capacity to grow and remain engaged (audience) provided the sessions remain attuned to their concerns and aspirations. This audience brings a unique set of constraints which act upon the situation. The coach also is surrounded by a unique set of constraints—the mix of personalities, background knowledge of both participants, the writer’s perception of school, the coach’s perception of the writer, health and physical attributes—all of these exert their influence on the interaction or the rhetorical situation.
Thus, a coach is called upon to be nimble enough to respond appropriately to emphasize trust and credibility (ethos), support and understanding that make productivity possible (pathos), and a reasonable degree of expertise on the specifics of the work (logos). When these strategies are applied, a writing center session is likely to be effective and it responds to what Peter Drucker calls the “demands” of communication (264). It acknowledges that the recipient “has been somebody” thus making a change possible (265). It may result in the writer beginning to understand that, as owner of the work, it takes time, effort, and thought to grow.
Authentic Communication and the Coaching Session
In a session, if all goes well, both coach and writer place their “truths” on the table. These truths, as described by Sheryl Sandberg are unique and complex, so engaging with these truths does not necessarily result in consistent agreement. In fact, there might be a fair amount of divergence between a student’s approach and a coach’s methods because we all think in a variety of ways. It is in this messy complexity where attunement to perceptions, values, and beliefs is what allows the conversation to proceed. A commitment to being “authentically” attuned in our sessions creates possibilities.
Four years of coaching have encouraged me to consider the nature of writing center work in certain ways. The many conversations at the session table, listening to and discussing a student’s questions, thoughts, inspirations, frustrations have produced insight as well as further inquiry on my role as writing coach. While I am far from what I would consider an expert, those hours of dialogue shape my understanding of this role, and every time I sit at my table for a session, I am invited to grow along in the process.