Welcome to Praxis: Interview with Tristin Hooker

Hi Tristin! Welcome to your first Axis post. You’ll be spending the next two years with us here at Praxis, but let’s start by looking backwards. Where are you from, and how did you end up here at the University of Texas at Austin?

An English friend tells me he’s always amused with how reliably Americans ask each other where they’re from when they first meet: “you take for granted that knowing where someone is from means you’ll know something about them.” But I like this question! Like a lot of people, I discovered writing center work (and Rhetoric and Composition, for that matter) when I thought I was on my way toward something else. And I’m not sure I would have found either without where I’m from!

I was actually born in Texas--In Fort Worth--and I lived there till I was twelve. My mother taught Speech at Tarrant County Junior College (They’re just TCC, now), so I can’t remember a time when college campuses and people writing things for them weren’t part of my life.

When she retired, my parents moved to the Missouri Ozarks, where she was from. Specifically, we lived in Branson, Missouri, a place that some of our readers might have heard of (if only as a vacation spot for The Simpsons: “Vegas run by Ned Flanders”). It’s a small place with a tourist economy, and where I lived was quite rural, When I left for college, like a lot of small-town kids, I didn’t think I would return. I went to the same tiny liberal arts college my mother had gone to in Kansas City, William Jewell College, and within a semester I knew I wanted to major in English. At the time, my focus was literature, and as part of my program I got to spend a year enrolled in a college of Oxford University, convincing myself further that I wanted to be a medievalist in the process.

Yet, when the time came to apply to grad school, some health crises (and one very bad car crash) sent me back home to the Ozarks, where I would remain for the next several years, reconnecting with my hometown and coming to see it not just as a place to be “frum” as Flannary O’Connor put it, but to be part of. I applied to an MAT program through the University of Southern California, with the intention of working as a high school English teacher, but by the time I graduated the recession had made jobs for first year teachers relatively scarce. Instead, I found a job teaching Developmental Reading and Basic Writing at Ozarks Technical Community College, which was opening a campus in my hometown. And so in a way, I came full circle: I was once again back on a community college campus, teaching night school this time, instead of sitting in my mother’s classes.

I loved working at OTC. Most of my students were first generation college students. Many students were people who had not experienced success in previous schooling, but who wanted to change their relationship to education, their lives, or their family trees. I could not have asked for a better, more integrated with the community, or more inspiring first teaching job. While working there I eventually went on to teach a near full load of Composition and Reading courses, eventually being hired as a lecturer, and finally being promoted to found and create a Writing Center, oversee all other tutoring, testing services, and Disability Support on our campus.

But while teaching at OTC, I also began my second MA, this time aiming again (at the beginning) for literature, at Missouri State University. However, within one semester, the Composition director, Kenneth Gillam, pulled me aside. Based on the paper I had written for his class, one that touched on issues of rural education and identity construction, I would be a fool not to switch from literature to Composition and Rhetoric. I finished my MA and taught FYC, Basic Writing, and Creative Non-Fiction while at MSU and still working at OTC (they’re about thirty miles apart, so I spent a lot of time on the highway during this time!). While I loved teaching and even surprised myself by enjoying administration, I also wanted to decided during that time that I wanted to continue on to PhD work, to keep researching and writing. When I was accepted to UT, I couldn’t imagine saying no. And now I’m here in Austin!

And how about the University Writing Center? What is it that drew you to writing center theory and pedagogy? Have you spent a lot of time in Writing Centers before now?

Well, the simple answer to this is that one of my mentors during my MA, Margaret Weaver, was the former director of the writing center at Missouri State, and during my coursework I was able to encounter writing center pedagogy in courses on basic writing theory and writing center theory and practice. Tutoring students and developing peer tutors was an important part of the pedagogy we were encouraged to practice. At that point, I had also been teaching developmental education courses at the community college for a long time, and found that implementing writing center theory in the classroom as much as possible improved my students’ confidence as writers and higher ed students, as well as their success with the course.

I was really thrown into the deep end, though, when I was asked to set up and direct the first writing center at the campus where I worked (and as you can see above, there were a few more important duties attached to that position!). When the community college moved away from mandated remediation for some students to guided self-placement, there was a general impetus for creating more academic support outside of the classroom. I was excited to put some of the things I had learned into practice, but it was daunting, as well. I learned a lot about the structures that writing center administrators have to work with in a short time. But my team had great support from our dean and from the faculty, and pretty soon we had a welcoming community space that I think really served our small campus.

Looking back over that answer, I realize that it seems like I’m addressing the idea of a writing center as part of remediation. But of course, I know it is so much more than that. In truth, when I think about my own undergraduate education, while I was never directed to the writing center on campus, and certainly had not begun to think about teaching or studying writing as a career), the most effective classes I had were the ones were taught in the Oxbridge tutorial style, meeting one-on-one with the professor to talk about my argument. Nobody called this writing center pedagogy, and to say the least there are some differences between a peer consultant and the professor in the course! But what worked for me in that setting was the concept that my ideas were worth talking about, and that those conversations where my thinking both began and continued. That’s what I want my students to feel, and that’s part of what I always wanted to foster in the writing center.   

Are there any especially memorable moments from your time working in Writing Centers that our readers might find interesting?

It’s hard to pick out an individual moment, but what I loved most about working in the writing center at my old campus was watching it become a place that students incorporated into their plans and thought of as part of their process.

We were tiny--there were hundreds of students on campus, not tens of thousands as there are here at UT. So we were able to adopt policies that would not be reasonable for dealing with volume at a major university writing center like this (though we were serving close to twenty percent of our student body by the end of our first semester, which makes me proud). So we welcomed students to form and host their own peer study groups in our space, as well as meeting with consultants. I think it was especially moving because many of the students at the campus really were students who came into college feeling conflicted or uncomfortable with schooling. One of the best and most important things about that campus was the commitment to making new students feel welcome and included in the academic process. Community is an over-used term in writing center work, and it deserves the investigation and push-back it receives. All the same, I was pleased and surprised at how quickly our center began to feel like a community in itself and like an important member of the campus community as a whole.

You’ve only been on the job here at Praxis for a couple of weeks, but what are you looking forward to the most? What do you hope to get out of this editorship?

I’m looking forward to reading and thinking about the important thought and research in writing center work that we will be receiving, and to getting more experience with the inner workings of an academic journal! I’m also looking forward to getting to know the UWC here at UT Austin better, and seeing how an established writing center of this size really operates from the inside. And, most immediately, of course, I’m looking forward to representing Praxis SCWCA in Conway, Arkansas with my co-editor Sarah Riddick next month. If you see us there, don’t hesitate to say hello!