by Jenae Cohn
Jenae Cohn is a PhD candidate pursuing a Designated Emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition in the English department at the University of California, Davis. She is a graduate writing fellow through the University Writing Program’s Writing Across the Curriculum program and her research interests include digital rhetoric, materiality, and the history of the book. She can be contacted via e-mail, Twitter, and her personal website.
Never before had I seen an article filled with more numbers than words on one page. I was in the second-year of my PhD program in English and was working as a graduate writing consultant (“tutor”) through my university’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.
As someone who had trained as a tutor in an undergraduate writing center in college, I knew the techniques for skimming a long paper, seeking out the main points, and identifying the areas of higher-order concerns. In college, I had dealt with a variety of papers from disciplines across the curriculum, operating under the assumption that, as Pemberton (1995) puts it, “many aspects of text production… are ‘generic’ in nature and, for the most part, extend across disciplinary boundaries” (p. 367). Yet for the first time, I was confronted with the fact that there were disciplinary differences – and big ones – that I had never encountered before. I didn’t know what to do. After all, I was new to WAC as a pedagogy to use in tutoring and I didn’t thinking that my writing center knowledge alone was enough to equip me for the new challenges of reading and commenting upon the conventions of academic disciplinary prose at the graduate level.
I took a deep breath, turned to the student and confessed: “I don’t know a thing about chemistry, but,” I continued, cautiously. “I know a lot about writing. Can you walk me through this article and help me understand what you want it to accomplish?”
At first, he hesitated. But then he started talking. As he got into explaining his project more, his enthusiasm became palpable. When he explained what kinds of molecule bonds he was studying, I stopped him, asking him to clarify the relationships he described. He immediately took out a sheet of paper and drew a graphical representation of his research.
This modeling of his knowledge helped immediately. For graduate students (and perhaps even for faculty), it is a rare opportunity to make legible a discipline-specific, and often technical idea, to someone outside of the discipline. Though explaining a complex, academic idea is undoubtedly helpful for any learner, learning how to talk about discipline-specific content to a non-specialist audience is particularly important for graduate students who may not only go on to become professionals, but also public intellectuals.
This experience within my graduate writing consultation, then, made me wonder if a partnership between a WAC program and a graduate writing center could support graduate students in a number of productive ways: first, by offering them a space to share ideas in a low-stakes environment with non-subject specialists, but second, by offering graduate WAC fellows themselves the opportunity to practice WAC pedagogies in a context where the stakes of discipline-specific writing are much higher than in an undergraduate context.
Much has already been written about intersections between writing centers and WAC (Gamtso et. al 2013, Good et. al 2013, Pemberton 1995, Dinitz et. al 1989), but the research on this partnership focuses on undergraduate writing centers and WAC resources. The dialogue within this research also primarily remains focused on discussing the value of this partnership in an undergraduate context. For example, Pemberton (1995) argues that the underlying epistemologies of writing center and WAC practice differ because WAC pedagogies tend to “address the needs of multiple discourse communities, situated knowledge, and complex, socially-constructed conventions of language as if it were a separate entity with its own set of practices to be explored” (p. 117). Good and Barganier (2013) similarly speak to the different kinds of training that writing center tutors and WAC interns receive; that is, WAC interns typically receive training based off of their subject-area expertise while writing center tutors are trained to think about universal writing concerns.
In spite of these potential concerns, partnerships between undergraduate writing centers and WAC programs are quite common. In their 2010 survey of WAC programs nationwide, for example, Thaiss and Porter (2010) found that 70% of all reported WAC programs include writing center participation (p. 552). Better yet, they found that all of the respondents who commented upon the WAC and writing center partnership, reported compatibility of the two programs (p. 552). Chanock (2004) also found that the shared goals of writing centers and WAC programs to “help students learn how to write effectively across the curriculum” can also facilitate collaboration towards helping students understand academic purpose in their disciplines more clearly (p. 19). These kinds of findings suggest that, while the pedagogies of WAC and writing centers may intrinsically differ, their shared goals and purposes can foster positive relationships.
I still think we need to acknowledge, however, that the conversation about the intersection between writing centers and WAC changes at the graduate level. At the graduate level, I argue that the strategies employed by an independent writing center space is not enough; graduate writing centers need to think in terms of disciplinary writing strategies in the ways that WAC pedagogies promote. For graduate students, understanding the particular moves practiced within academic discourse communities matters much more than it does for undergraduates because graduate students are claiming professional places within their disciplines.
With all of that said, a writing center space still allows graduate students to engage in conversations about effective practices that transcend disciplinarity and encourage effective public engagement in academic research. The peer-to-peer space of a graduate writing center founded in a WAC program gives graduate student consultants the best of both worlds: the opportunity to dialogue with peers about their writing with the knowledge of disciplinary differences and distinctions that shape their communication. In short, the partnership between a WAC program and a graduate writing center is undoubtedly valuable.
This is not to say that no one has explored the value of a graduate writing space. In writing center literature in particular, there has been increased exploration of graduate writing support. For example, Vorhies (2015) has written about the ways that writing centers can facilitate academic professionalization and Powers (2014) explored the possibilities of forming peer dissertation “bootcamps.” In 2014, there were also calls for papers about graduate writing support in both The Writing Lab Newsletter and Across the Disciplines, though special issues about graduate writing support have yet to be released in both publications. These recent publications and calls for papers suggest growing interest in graduate writing support both in WAC and writing center literature.
As a lead graduate writing fellow in my university’s WAC program this year, I’m organizing the other fellows’ professional development, combing through books and articles for ideas of what kind of knowledge they should acquire to understand what WAC theory can do. I’ve been able to find ample resources to this end, but it has become increasingly clear that as scholars, we could do more to think through the value of roles like graduate writing fellows in WAC programs nationwide. Even Condon and Rutz’s (2012) extensive taxonomy of WAC programs nation-wide does not include a space for considering how and where graduate student support may exist.
Ultimately, I’m surprised that partnerships between WAC programs and graduate writing centers have not been discussed much in the literature. I would love to hear more from The Writing Campus readers and contributors on how their institutions provide graduate writing support and what that looks like for them!
Chanock, K. (2004). A Shared Focus for WAC, Writing Tutors and EAP: Identifying the “Academic Purposes” in Writing Across the Curriculum. The WAC Journal, 15(1), 19-32.
Condon, W. & Rutz, C. (2012). A Taxonomy of Writing Across the Curriculum Programs: Evolving to Serve Broader Agendas. College Composition and Communication, 64(2), 357-382.
Dinitz, S., & Howe, D. (1989). Writing Centers and Writing-across-the-Curriculum: An Evolving Partnership. Writing Center Journal, 10(1), 45-51.
Gamtso, C.W., Chartier, N., Fensom, G., Glisson, N., Jefferson, J., and Sherman, D. (2013). Research Mentoring: Expanding the Role of Writing Tutors. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 38(1), 10-13.
Good, J. and Barganier, S. (2013). The Balancing Act: Creating New Academic Support in Writing While Honoring the Old. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10(2), 1-5.
Pemberton, M. A. (1995). Rethinking the WAC/Writing Center Connection. Writing Center Journal, 15(2), 116-33.
Powers, E. (2014). Tutor’s Column: “Dissercamp: Dissertation Boot Camp ‘Lite’” The Writing Lab Newsletter, 38(5-6), 14-16.
Thaiss, C., & Porter, T. (2010). The State of WAC/WID in 2010: Methods and Results of the U.S. Survey of the International WAC/WID Mapping Project. College Composition and Communication, 61(3), 534-570.
Vorhies, H.B. (2015). Building Professional Scholars: The Writing Center at the Graduate Level. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 39(1-2), 6-10