IWCA 2015 -- A Reflection

Having just returned from the 2015 International Writing Centers Association conference in Pittsburgh, PA and now enough recovered from eating sandwiches piled high with French fries and cole slaw (!--but seriously, if you're in Pittsburgh, go to Primanti Bros.) to compose coherent thoughts, I wanted to devote this week’s blog to reflecting on some of the stellar work I saw and heard and my experience of IWCA. I’m still processing all of the top-notch research, panels, and people I encountered, but I can say I'm confident that writing center studies are headed in some exciting directions, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to publish some of the fine work that’s being done.

The theme of the conference was writing center (r)evolutions, and this played out in many of the conference presentations but especially in the keynote address by Indiana University Pennsylvania’s Dr. Ben Rafoth. When thinking about writing center (r)evolutions, one point that Dr. Rafoth made was that we as writing center consultants should feel freer to go against the traditions and epistemological assumptions we have about writing center work. Taking Pittsburgh’s own Andy Warhol museum as an extended metaphor for experimentation and unorthodoxy, Dr. Rafoth raised suggestions—perhaps to the shock of some—that asked us to think outside of our accepted ways of consulting. Asking questions and pushing against accepted norms were themes that weaved their way through many of the weekend’s talks and discussions as participants asked not only “What should we do?” but “What do we do and does it work?”

My own purpose in attending IWCA was to present about Praxis on a panel alongside editors representing The Writing Center Journal, WLN, PeerCentered, and the newly formed The Peer Review. Our task was to provide an overview of our journals and talk about the submission process to help demystify the understandably anxiety-inducing process of trying to publish. As the new managing editor for Praxis (and newest to editing), I was a bit nervous to talk about a job I’ve only been doing for six weeks, but the talk itself went well, and it was really great to see how Praxis fits in not only with these other journals that are doing some especially fine work, but also some ways Praxis can distinguish itself in serving the writing center community at large. A special thanks to IWCA Secretary Alanna Bitzel for putting the panel together and everyone who participated and attended!

Among the many excellent panels I attended, I wanted to draw attention to a few in particular. When choosing which panels to attend, my goal was to find talks that would be relevant not only to me as an editor but also to recent events in our own UWC. Two panels, especially, interested me for those reasons. The first was Maggie Herb and Lindsay Sabatino’s “Turf wars, culture clashes, and genuine collaboration: rEvolutionizing writing center/library partnerships.” As many of you know from our blog updates, the University Writing Center has recently moved from the Flawn Academic Center into the Perry Castaneda Library, and while that transition has been generally good and our fellow library occupants have been quite welcoming, we’ve all still had to navigate a necessary adjustment period as we’ve moved in together.  During the session, Herb and Sabatino asked audience members to write their positive and negative experiences on sheets of paper hung from the walls, and they used the points the audience compiled to facilitate a discussion. We heard from a number of participants from writing centers of a variety of sizes and institutions, and the wide-ranging conversation covered everything from institutional concerns such as how to retain your autonomy and identity as a writing center while respecting the library’s rules and navigating the new institutional power dynamics that accompany moving into a pre-existing space like the library, to more practical concerns like how to deal with the often exponentially-increased flow of traffic and how to handle food. 

As we (here at UT) begin experimenting with methods of online consultation, I was also struck by Robbie Nadler, Lindsay Harding, and Joshua King’s presentation “Digitalpoetics: A Map for Writing Centers Encountering a Virtual Frontier.” While certainly concerned with writing center (r)evolution, their presentation cautioned against assuming that digital and face-to-face consultations function in the same ways. Digital consultations, they insisted, come with their own unusual challenges that must be navigated—from the way a digital consultation changes the interpersonal interaction between consultant and student to the way the consultation software can either improve or inhibit the student’s involvement in the consultation. At the heart of each paper was a concern with improving the student experience within digital consultations to ensure that each student is as comfortable as possible during the session and that the digital format of the consultation does not impede the student’s receiving assistance with the assignment. Nadler, Harding, and King did a fantastic job of raising a number of concerns and opportunities that might otherwise go unnoticed if we too eagerly rush forward with digital writing center consultations.

Finally, some shameless, nepotistic lauding of my own colleagues: My writing center’s program director, Alice Batt, and assistant directors Courtney Massie and Brianna Hyslop, presented on some of the recent developments in UT Austin’s University Writing Center, detailing some of our most significant infrastructural developments (our new certification program for student consultants). Our own Mary Hedengren also presented about the experience of developing and implementing a plan to tutor graduate students, as well (and another shameless plug: check out Mary’s podcast Mere Rhetoric—Mary provides engaging and enjoyable synopses of a variety of rhetorical texts, and they’re really useful if you’re studying for comprehensive exams).           

Without a doubt, getting to attend IWCA was an exciting experience, and I’m eagerly awaiting next year’s conference. A special thanks to President Kevin Dvorak, Vice President Shareen Grogan, and everyone involved in making IWCA 2015 a smashing success. Also, an extra special thanks to the staff at the Wyndham Grand for being gracious and helpful, and providing a rainbow of Red Bull flavors on day 2. As a new editor for Praxis, I think getting to attend during my first semester has put me off to a great start, as I’m now thinking about some exciting special issues and guest blogs for the future (no spoilers). Thanks for reading, and if you had a particularly meaningful or enlightening (or both!) experience at the conference, leave a comment below and tell us about it!