WHEN WRITING FELLOWS BECOME READING FELLOWS: CREATIVE STRATEGIES FOR CRITICAL READING AND WRITING IN A COURSE-BASED TUTORING PROGRAM

Melissa Bugdal
The University of Connecticut
melissa.bugdal@uconn.edu

Ricky Holtz
The University of California, Berkeley
ricky.holtz@ischool.berkeley.edu

We learn from Candace Spigelman and Laurie Grobman in their introduction to the edited collection On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring that course-embedded fellows programs “must be understood by all stakeholders as a distinct form of writing support” (2), and that a writing fellows program is designed “with its dual emphases on peership and the social construction of knowledge” (4). Spigelman and Grobman also point out that

 

Like writing itself, this scene of writing rehearses the often uncertain, recursive operations of discourse production, from inventing to composing to reviewing to revising. Like other writing acts, classroom-based tutoring is apt to be chaotic, even messy. Yet within this turbulent, hybrid classroom tutoring space, students, teachers, and tutors can locate themselves as writers. (6)

This “turbulent, hybrid classroom tutoring space” became readily apparent to Melissa, the fellows coordinator of the program discussed in this article, and the five undergraduate writing fellows during the fall 2013 semester when, in a weekly meeting early in the semester, one of the fellows noted, “I knew I would be spending a lot of time as a writing fellow, but I didn’t realize how much of my time would also be spent as a reading fellow.”

Initially, this comment left us all perplexed. Melissa served as a course-embedded writing fellow when she was an undergraduate student, Ricky served as a writing fellow in the University of Connecticut (UConn) program the previous fall semester, and all of the fellows were experienced tutors prepared to graduate that academic year. With our various majors, experiences, and involvement as tutors and fellows, we began giving serious thought to the role of discussing reading during fellows’ sessions. Thus began a semester-long driving question for all of us: How can writing fellows work with students to think about reading in ways that will lead to deeper engagement with writing?

 In response, the fellows began utilizing creative methods for engaging students in critical reading practices while also working to translate those practices into writing. These methods, which we came to call pivot points, encouraged students to understand how their own ideas and voices can converse with the voices of others as part of a broader academic Burkean parlor. While we might typically think of pivot points as being mechanical, in our fellows program, we use the metaphor of the pivot in the most literal sense—the act of turning and approaching from a new angle. Consequently, these pivot points challenged students to think about reading and writing in holistic ways by exploring texts from both inside and outside the First-Year Writing (FYW) classroom during fellows workshops.

Here, we provide a brief description of the course-embedded fellows program at UConn, an overview of the training and support network provided to fellows working in this program, and a more detailed explanation of how these pivot point sessions evolved and helped students engage with the critical reading, writing, and thinking they were being asked to do in their FYW courses.

The University of Connecticut Writing Fellows Program

The course-embedded Writing Fellows program at UConn began in 2008 as a partnership between the University Writing Center, the FYW program, and the Student Support Services (SSS) office. According to the SSS website, this “is a TRIO program that increases access to the University of Connecticut for first-generation, low-income and/or underrepresented students with the goal of their retention and graduation. Each year, approximately 300 students are accepted to UConn through SSS” (Center for Academic Programs). Many students in the SSS program also enroll in a six-week summer program prior to their freshman year, and several complete a basic writing course. While all students enrolled at UConn must meet a FYW requirement, students in the SSS program are enrolled in FYW courses designated with an “S” (i.e. English 1010S), which indicates these as classes with embedded writing fellow support. During the fall 2013 semester, five sections of the course were offered, each paired with one fellow.

In our program, each fellow attends one FYW class per week and then leads three mandatory, 50-minute small-group workshops each Friday that function like labs or discussion sections—the fifteen students in each course enroll in a five-person section, and the fellow runs the same workshop for each of the sections. These workshops place fellows at the intersection of an instructor and peer tutor, having a degree of autonomy to devise lesson plans for workshops while also striving to extend dialogue about course texts and projects.

Institutional Context

Each undergraduate student who serves as a writing fellow has worked at the University Writing Center for at least one full academic year. During fall 2013, the five undergraduate fellows had majors in Political Science and Human Rights, Political Science and Anthropology, Biology and English, Molecular and Cellular Biology and Music, and Individualized Studies in Social Interaction and New Media.

Prior to the start of the semester, the fellows coordinator paired each instructor and fellow based on each individual’s schedule for the semester, and the pair communicated their expectations for the role of the fellow in the course. While the writing center prepares an internal handbook addressing questions instructors and fellows might have about their roles, the ways in which this involvement develops over the semester is largely up to the discretion of the classroom instructor and fellow. At UConn, FYW instructors, primarily graduate students enrolled in the English MA or Ph.D. program, have the opportunity to choose their course themes and design their syllabi, so fellows were embedded in courses with wide ranging content.

Support for fellows in the program remains ongoing, with an orientation prior to the start of the semester and weekly meetings with the fellows coordinator. Fellows also check in on a weekly basis with the course instructor, and the fellows coordinator stays in touch with the instructors throughout the semester, holding an extended, in-person meeting around midterm. Fellows compose summaries after each discussion session, summarizing the goals and outcomes of that particular workshop, and share their summary with the course instructor, students, and fellows coordinator, adding an additional layer of communication.

Discussing Course Texts

During their weekly sessions, fellows found that their first-year writers had plenty to say about that week’s readings; however, a difficulty arose when students were asked to articulate a stance on a piece that didn’t present a clear dichotomy of good or bad. Students would often overlook the nuance in a text as they sought out a correct answer; rather than embracing complexity or developing a critically informed opinion, they seemed more interested in reading for the purpose of providing clear, widely accepted answers. As one fellow explained in her end-of-the-year fellows’ reflection, “as Writing Fellows, we were preparing lessons on thesis statements and transition sentences, but quickly realized that many of the writing issues were actually rooted in a lack of comprehension of the assigned readings. We then shifted our focus to critical reading before moving on to the mechanics of writing.”

Initially, fellows observed that students wrote homogenous texts manifesting some degree of groupthink from the early fellows sessions. Fellows also noted that students were eager to polarize and develop a cohesive opinion on an issue, but didn’t seem to value the process of challenging the group’s initial opinion or their own. This resistance highlights a number of interesting issues in the teaching of FYW: first, the deification of instructors as arbiters of academic excellence; and second, the acceptance of authors as oracles of truth. Rather than challenging the texts under consideration, students passively absorbed the information, and seemed to view texts as flawless.

This lack of engagement made sense, to an extent. Writers were faced with complex texts written in unfamiliar styles. Coupled with a lack of confidence in the writers’ own voices, a writing style emerged that was dutiful but trite. Writers seemed eager to emulate the voices to which they were being exposed, because it seemed natural to assume that the works they were reading exemplified academic writing, regardless of whether this was actually the case. In some sense, writers seemed to devalue their own voice because they did not perceive themselves as equal authorities with the voices to which they were being exposed.

The myriad issues surrounding reading presented the writing fellows with a variety of challenges. The challenge of developing critical reading skills also extended to assignment prompts, where writers often found themselves unclear on what a prompt was asking them to do. Rather than getting directly to the typical skills of writing—that is, as rhetors generating texts—the fellows more often found themselves focusing on critical reading skills and encouraging students to assume an appropriate degree of confidence and writerly authority. This consideration of reading ensured that, when students prepared to pivot to the role of a writer, they could produce content that was true to the prompt, honest to their perspective, and relevant to broader conversations with and around these texts. Perhaps most importantly, however, this idea of a conversation made the concept of voice particularly salient as, from workshop to workshop, writers worked to navigate the divides between the voices and ideas of published writers and their own.

Early Fellows Sessions

While many of the students had already spent several weeks in a collegiate environment with the SSS summer program, they were still making the transition from high school to college, in terms of both campus life and academic achievement. Students were starting to think critically about challenging, complex issues, but often lacked a sense of agency and full control over that thinking. Fellows noted that in discussion sessions, this lack of a sense of agency resulted in a superficial and cautious engagement with course texts. Rather than fully engaging and challenging the ideas and texts presented to them, writers would try to find a way to deal with texts in the “right” way. They were less interested in their own thinking as it related to the text, and instead wanted to find the one right answer, the definitive form of thinking about the text. For example, fellows often found their writers combing texts to find select quotes or passages around which they could craft an argument. Rather than treating course texts holistically, writers would resort to cherry-picking quotes or ideas to simplify their sources and align their papers to be in perfect agreement (or disagreement) with the text.

Initially, this analysis appeared to be a great opportunity to discuss writing techniques like counterarguments or adding layers to a thesis. While discussing the program in weekly fellows meetings, however, we started to understand that this issue could also be appropriately addressed by empowering the writers to develop arguments that demonstrated complexity and originality—and, by extension, empowering the writers to read critically and respond honestly. The fellows’ job shifted from attempting to instruct writers in the methods of “academic writing” and instead showing them that good academic writing relies on reading critically, thinking in ways that embrace complexity, and assuming some degree of writerly authority.

Pivot Points

At mid-semester, fellows were continuing to think through ways to work with writers on the complexities of reading, writing, and finding their own writerly voices. Fellows began considering pragmatic ways that they could show, and not just tell, students how to work in the ways academic writing requires. Sometimes, this move involved extending discussion of classroom texts, but often the desire to show students how to make rhetorical moves in their writing both enabled and required fellows to bring new materials to discussion sessions. At this mid-point in the semester, a series of what we came to call pivot points emerged. When fellows brought to discussions the types of session plans we discuss below—thought experiments, multimedia materials, power freewrites, and mini field trips—students were asked to consider their topics and class discussions anew, and to pivot in order to consider ideas in different ways, and thus add layers of complexity to their writing.

Thought Experiments

Sometimes, fellows started the workshop with a philosophical thought experiment. These thought experiments served as a sort of mental sandbox in which writers could think about problems that very clearly had no good answer and no immediately clear connection to the content of the course, but that could still be applied in abstract, productive, and relevant ways.

Examples of these exercises can be found in armchair philosophy books such as The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and The Duck that Won the Lottery. One popular experiment was the U-View project, in which a person perceives color on an inverted spectrum—her red is everyone else’s blue. Yet, she only realizes it after putting on a machine that allows her to see precisely as another person sees. After presenting this thought experiment, fellows pointed out that it serves as an excellent frame of reference for the concept of a literary lens, in which a Marxist author and a feminist author will both read the same text and have wildly divergent—yet equally valid—understandings of that text.        

Such thought experiments were ideal for framing the workshop content on a few different levels. First, they encouraged students away from the stress of their grade and trying to interpret the text “correctly.” The aforementioned thought experiment had nothing to do with the course texts, and so students could comment on the assumptions and claims being made in it without fear of getting it wrong, as no right or wrong answer exists. When students pivoted to consider thought experiments in relation to the positions they were taking in their own papers, these activities helped ease into that critical space. When the workshop then moved towards the classroom concepts, students had a theoretical point of reference over which they had control, and a willingness to take risks in their writing that they otherwise might have avoided.

Multimedia

Fellows also frequently incorporated multimedia into their workshops, with a heavy emphasis on pop culture. Multimedia could be used to provide new texts to examine and new examples to apply to classroom discussions. Fellows asked writers to explore multimedia in a number of ways, from synthesizing six-second clips from the video site Vine, to investigating the objectification of women in Super Bowl ads, and even considering the epistemological quandary and Foucault.

For example, one fellow modeled the concept of a thesis statement using an opening sequence of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. At the beginning of each episode, a main character offers an insightful commentary that foreshadows what issue the viewer is going to face, which also proves useful when attempting to convey the idea of a thesis to a group of first-year writers. By noting how this commentary steers the episode of the show, students constructed similar steering sentences as working thesis statements to explain the direction of their own projects.

The inclusion of multimedia uses a source that feels familiar and then expands the relevancy of a particular rhetorical move. The above example, for instance, shows how the thesis isn’t just a technique used when writing a paper for English classes—it’s a powerful rhetorical technique that guides audiences and gives them context for any media they’re going to consume. This pivot strove to demonstrate that critical reading was a skill that could be applied to any idea—and by extension, writers started to understand the importance of engaging in good analysis.

Power Freewrites

In a startlingly obvious yet effective approach, some fellows turned to freewriting exercises as a way to encourage their writers to produce unfiltered content. While freewriting itself is not a new concept in FYW classrooms, and students engaged in freewriting activities during class time, reinforcing the value of freewriting and the rhetorical canon of invention in fellows sessions was a meaningful experience for students and fellows alike.

One particularly effective power freewriting activity asked students to take a few minutes to describe the argument presented in a course text in writing. Then students were asked to construct a counter-argument. Next, students were asked to construct a rebuttal of that counterargument. This activity helped students think through their critical reading practices while also allowing the writing fellows to provide real-time feedback in process.

While some fellows used more or less structured approaches to freewriting in sessions, students were consistently challenged to go with their gut and just start writing. Furthermore, this exercise translated to even broader concepts in writing, like the power of revision; writers got a closer look at the process of writing, and began to understand that the seed of an idea didn’t have to be as polished as the course texts. Instead, writers learned that they needed to focus on taking those ideas and developing them into a compelling argument.

Field Trips

The writing fellows also began to think outside of the classroom space itself and embarked on various mini campus field trips for their workshops. These excursions helped to create salient experiences around writing by leveraging space and getting writers fully immersed in the workshop. It was no longer a classroom experience, but a full-body one.

One such field trip was a walk around a well-known part of campus, which served as a way of breaking away from the classroom and creating an environment that could spark conversation. Other field trips were to UConn’s Greek Amphitheatre (Paideia Theatre) and the campus art museum. In these cases, the location was tightly integrated into the subject of the workshop (relativistic thinking and finding sources, respectively). These trips were also important because of the relative unfamiliarity these students had with their campus. Again, the students were in their first year at the university, and so the fellows worked with students to establish a connection with their school.

In the context of writing, mini campus field trips revealed that academic thinking, and by extension writing, happen everywhere. There’s no one time or place, and there’s not even necessarily a right answer. Instead, there’s a conversation that persists across time and space and across big and small ideas, and encouraging students to explore their new campus helped to show students, rather than tell them, that these conversations could truly happen anywhere.

Late Semester Sessions

While our pivot point discussion sessions began several weeks into the semester, they did not have a discrete end-point. Rather, fellows continued to employ pivot point workshops, strategically aligning them when relevant for course content, goals, or clarification during the remainder of the workshops in the semester. What we discuss here are the changes fellows noted across the chronology of fellows sessions from the first weeks to the final weeks.

Most noticeably, the fellows began to see writers developing a personal investment in their ideas, and students’ writing began to deal with subjects of personal interest while engaging conversationally with course materials. The writers began to realize that writing wasn’t an isolated endeavor, and as their investment in their own ideas grew, they began to see themselves as active contributors to conversations in which they were previously spectators. Many fellows noted that their writers’ work began to take on more distinct flavors, and bits of the writers’ personalities began to flow into their writing.

The personal interest that writers were taking in their writing also demonstrated that they were beginning to formulate their own questions, which were often offshoots of questions found in the assignment prompts. The sophistication of writers’ questions was particularly evident because it evolved from, “What is the correct answer to the prompt?” to “How does this text have the potential to change the way we think about the world?” Furthermore, the writers began producing more elegant arguments and counterarguments, and formulated ideas that accounted for varied points of view. Rather than cherry picking from the texts, writers wrestled with contrary evidence and synthesized disparate sources. It became evident that the writers were willing to critique their texts in productive and conscious ways.

Implications for Writers and Fellows

During the fall 2013 semester, we explored fellows discussion sessions that presented reading and writing as overlapping and complimentary activities, and this aligns with Spigelman and Grobman’s points about fellows’ “dual emphases on peership and the social construction of knowledge” (4). Furthermore, this social construction of knowledge extends beyond the productivity of the classroom-based tutoring situation or fellows discussion sessions and into the experiences the fellows themselves derive from this work. As Melissa’s conversations with the fellows spilled into the spring semester, long after the tutors’ obligations as classroom fellows had ended, the productive space of the pivot points highlighted here was becoming increasingly apparent.

The fellows’ lesson plans for pivot point discussion sessions were included in our fellows handbook to share with future writing fellows, creating a space for considering critical reading practices during weekly fellows meetings from the outset of the semester. Additionally, conversations surrounding reading assignment prompts became an added layer of discussion between the writing center and FYW when fellows and other writing center tutors began talking with FYW instructors on the types of questions students have about assignment prompts. Conversations about critical reading and writing in response to assignment prompts are continuing and extending into cross-disciplinary spaces, encouraging additional moments of pivoting to occur for students, fellows, and instructors within and beyond the program.

At the end of the academic year, Melissa asked fellows to write a reflection on their work. In their responses, fellows noted their experiences as synthesizing moments in their work as writing center tutors, and more broadly, as undergraduate students. Here, we quote from Ricky’s reflection, noting how his college experience seemed to come full-circle in working as a fellow:

 

Working alongside the writing center staff and the course instructor plays a key role in the writing fellows experience. I found myself engaged with a course, which gave me moments to reflect on my own introduction to college courses. Then, I got to work behind the scenes with people who were actually in charge of the coursework that I previously consumed. I didn’t need to develop a full curriculum (my workshops were generally reactions to problems that arose in the course) but I was still challenged to create content, and the whole process was fulfilling. It’s great to see multiple philosophies, and to act as a link in the bridge between a university service and an actual university classroom. Furthermore, this created a synergy between the writing center and the department of English as ideologies spread between tutors and instructors.

Spigelman and Grobman discuss the classroom-based tutor as existing in a “hybrid classroom tutoring space” where “students, teachers, and tutors can locate themselves as writers” (6), which is just the type of experience Ricky articulates here. At the same time, Ricky’s reflection also speaks to the bigger metacognitive experience serving as a writing fellow can have for a tutor. As a graduating senior going on to graduate school, he had the opportunity of knowing the instructor’s side of the classroom, but also the more esoteric applications of concepts gleaned from writing. Developing and discussing the workshops established an understanding of rhetorical strategies that will serve him in future professional and academic contexts.

While Melissa and the fellows spent most meetings discussing pivot points for students enrolled in the FYW course, equally as important are the benefits of writing fellows designing, employing, and reflecting upon their own experiences making pivots in their own tutoring practices. We continue to look to the act of pivoting in moving forward with our fellows program. We hope to continue exploring methods for strengthening the link between reading and writing practices while creating spaces for writers’ voices to emerge in creative and dynamic ways.

Works Cited

Baggini, Julian. The Duck That Won the Lottery: and 99 Other Bad Arguments. New York: Plume, 2009. Print.

Baggini, Julian. The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. New York: Plume, 2006. Print.

Center for Academic Programs. Student Support Services. University of Connecticut. n.d. Web. 15 July 2014.

Center for Hellenic Studies. Paideia Theater. University of Connecticut. n.d. Web. 15 July 2014.

Spigelman, Candace, and Laurie Grobman, eds. On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring. Logan: Utah State, 2005. Print.