Tribal Meetings

As the state rep to our regional writing center association my job, among other things, is to hold events in the state.  Since I inherited this job from the fabulous Dr. Phoenix, there was already an established pattern of spring professional development events for directors, and fall events that include tutors. This spring our director’s event had to be postponed, so last Friday a few writing center directors from around the state gathered at our school. We had each read either Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers by Jackie Grutsch-McKinney, or Building Writing Center Assessments that Matter by Ellen Schendel and William J. Macauley Jr.  For the morning we split up into small groups to discuss the books, and then after lunch we all gathered together to share our small group discussions with each other. Throughout the conversation I was struck by two things: the isolation of the work we do, and the way these two texts complimented each other.

Given my current reporting structure it might not be surprising, but apparently the isolation I often feel, as the lone writing person in a tutoring center that specializes in Chemistry, Math, and Physics, has become just a part of the back drop. During my first two years in this position I know I felt acutely alone, and while the situation has not changed, the relationships I’ve built around campus have.  My working relationships, and my friendships, with colleagues in the First Year Writing Program have developed to the point that – even if I only see them once or twice a semester – I have at least developed a sense of belonging somewhere. My new sense of belonging somewhere on campus, if only tangentially, meant I was taken aback during our small and large group discussions by how cathartic and important it felt to be in a room with other people who really understood what I do.

The very first thing in Grutsch McKinney’s book is the following list of all the things a writing center director might do in a day.

  • Writing job ads, positing job ads, answering questions about job ads, asking for references for applicants, interviewing applicants, hiring applicants
  • Preparing for staff meetings, discussing tutoring needs with staff, finding guest speakers
  • Training tutors, observing tutors, giving tutors suggestions for improving practices, locating readings for tutors, distributing copies to tutors, listening to tutors’ self-assessment and their suggestions for improving the writing center
  • Answering questions about commas or APA or kairos while walking past a tutoring session, answering questions about commas or APA or kairos while getting mail in the faculty mailroom or at retirement dinners or on airplanes
  • Writing or proofing copy for writing center advertisements, giving an interview to the school paper on the usefulness of a writing center
  • Writing conference proposals or presentations, drafting articles, track down out-of-print books for interlibrary loan
  • Coaching tutors or graduate students in writing proposals, articles, theses, dissertations, or job letters
  • Meeting with student groups and faculty who want to know how the writing center help them, meeting with student groups and faculty who want to know all the “secrets” to being good writers in an hour or less
  • Writing memos articulating needs for more space, better equipment, more tutoring bodies; writing reports on utilization of space, equipment, and tutoring bodies
  • Scheduling tutors, rescheduling tutors, taking calls from sick and delayed tutors, finding replacements, telling students their tutor is late or their tutor is not coming
  • Tutoring student writers from all levels on all sorts of projects, consciously hoping to model “good tutoring practices” to others in the room
  • Answering emails and phone calls from disappointed students who want more appointments, answering emails and phone calls from faculty members who want miracles
  • Meetings: all kinds
  • Delegating: as much as possible
  • Reading the latest (or thereabout) issues of the Writing Center Journal, the Writing Lab Newsletter, Praxis, College Composition and Communication, College English, and other related publications
  • Maintaining careful records; maintaining the writing center website, blog, Twitter, and Facebook
  • Ordering supplies, books, equipment, furniture, pens, bookmarks
  • Meeting with students or faculty who are researching student writers in the writing center, discussing ethical research practices, methodologies, and historical approaches to writing center research
  • Troubleshooting computer problems, software problems, network problems
  • Responding to posts from other writing center professionals on WCENTER
  • Running for a regional writing center associations board, voting in board elections, hosting regional or national writing center conferences, packing up for travel to a city-wide, mini-regional, regional, national, or international meeting with other writing center professionals
  • Cleaning tables, chairs, keyboards; tidying up resources and desk drawers
  • Meeting with university assessment and accreditation committees to negotiate assessment plans
  • Talking with tutors and students about their weekends, classes, money and relationship problems, and favorite YouTube videos
  • Worrying about what is not getting done, what is not getting done well, or what the university’s financial crisis might mean for the students, tutors, and you

Grutsch McKinney provides this list because she wants to highlight the difference between what writing center director’s do, and how they talk about their work, which does not typically include the above list. I am providing this list to bring to light the differences that go unspoken between my first year writing colleagues and I. My administrator friends have, I think, the best idea of what I do, but if they were to make a similar list I guarantee it would be just as long, and no two bullets would be the same — except the one about meetings. So, being in a room with three – eight other people to whom I didn’t have to explain any of these bullets, or why our different institutional positions meant dealing with these bullets represented a unique challenge for each of us, was powerful. {And yes, that is another post.}

As her title foreshadows, Grutsch McKinney wants us to think critically about the stories we tell about our work, because she’s right – we don’t tell anyone about the real list. In the other book Schendel and Macauley gave us practical ways to approach and assess the results of that critical thinking. Don’t worry, there won’t be a long quotation from that book.  It was good, but what was even better were the conversations our two book groups were able to have about these two texts. I think we each left energized for lists of things facing us when we returned to campus. We need these spring meetings because it is too easy on our own campuses to hide the list from our colleagues, and to feel isolated because of it.  Yearly regional and national conferences are nice, but the small gatherings we can have within the state are even more important because they remind me about the people behind the WCENTER emails, the people who are as one director described it our tribe.


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