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Writing assistants present research at national conference

| Alison Wagener

When students visit the UW-Eau Claire Center for Writing Excellence for help with their writing assignments, they collaborate with a peer writing assistant to brainstorm, organize their ideas and revise their papers.

Sounds simple, right? Don’t be so quick to assume. Research on writing center theory and practice says otherwise, and Blugolds are becoming critical contributors to the field.

This fall UW-Eau Claire student writing assistants Brenna Daley, David Kocik, Mark Priebe and Jake Worley – all English majors – were invited to present their research on writing center theory and practice at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring and Writing, one of only two major writing center conferences in the nation.

The annual conference attracts more than 1,000 students, professional writing tutors and scholars in the field to explore the nuanced dynamics of what happens when students advise their peers on best writing practices.

The theme of this year’s NCPTW was “(De)Center: Testing Assumptions about Peer Tutoring and Writing Centers.” The conference encouraged researchers to investigate assumptions about the writing center held by not only students seeking help, but also writing center tutors, directors and others in the field.

Brenna Daley, Rochester, Minn., is a senior English scientific and technical writing major and organizational communication minor. During her time as a writing assistant at the center, she’s noticed that students assume the sole purpose of writing center sessions is to revise what they’ve already written. 

Daley’s observation inspired her to research how to get students to visit the writing center for prewriting, which she defined as simply “any way that you can take your ideas and document them” before creating a first draft. Daley’s research also explored why students don’t utilize effective prewriting strategies and how writing assistants can teach them during writing center sessions.

David Kocik, a junior English education major and music minor from Hudson; Mark Priebe, a senior psychology and English literature double major from Wausau; and Jake Worley, a senior English creative writing major and sociology minor from Hudson, conducted collaborative research on how the writing center accommodates writing assistants with disabilities. Each were awarded a travel grant for their presentation.

The trio conducted and presented their research with Dr. Christa Tiernan, former assistant director of the Center for Writing Excellence. Tiernan is now director of the Writing and Media Center at Iowa State University.

The team chose to take an interdisciplinary approach to their research, with each team member pursuing a different focus of interest. For Kocik, this was the concept of passing. Passing theories assert that within the public sphere, people in the minority acquire ways to “pass” as the majority in order to reap its societal benefits.

“I focused a lot on how tutors with mental illnesses pass and present themselves as ‘normal,’ competent tutors for their writing center sessions,” Kocik said. “Writing assistants want to appear to be smart, which sounds really simple. But if you compromise that by admitting your mental illness, it throws what everybody thinks up into the air.”

Priebe contributed research on how a writing assistant’s mental disability can lead to a more equal power distribution between tutor and tutee. He said that a tutor admitting their disability can make the student they’re working with perceive them to be less of an authority figure and expert at writing.

Worley’s focus was on languages and practices of the writing center, specifically on what types of students are hired and how writing assistants are sometimes viewed as strictly employees instead of collaborative members of the writing center.

The team said that their research filled an important gap in writing center studies.

“Writing center discourse has looked at students with disabilities and what writing centers can do to support them, but not the writing assistants themselves,” Worley said.

Dr. Alan Benson, assistant professor of English and director of the UW-Eau Claire Center for Writing Excellence, said that the center hopes to continually foster writing assistants’ interest in conducting and presenting research.

“I always encourage writing assistants to ask questions about what we do, how we do it and how we can improve,” Benson said. “I also urge them to follow their curiosity and take advantage of our support for research.”

Daley said that presenting at the conference was an opportunity for her to not only share her own research, but to learn from fellow writing assistants from around the country.

“Writing center pedagogy in general is based on working as peers, peers working with peers. We try really hard to eliminate any type of hierarchy or power dynamic,” Daley said. “The fact that we go participate and learn a lot, I think that’s beneficial to everyone involved.”

Kocik added that NCPTW gave him confidence in his ability to present research alongside professionals in the field.

“It was nice to be on the other side and to know it’s not as scary as I thought it was, to know that it’s not that daunting to put yourself out there with your research,” Kocik said. “I think a lot of students have this idea that we’re on one side of a huge gap, and professors and researchers are on the other side. I think I found the bridge.”

Photo captions:

Top photo: Student writing assistants David Kocik and Brenna Daley collaborate in the Center for Writing Excellence.

Photo within story: From left: Brenna Daley, Mark Priebe, Jake Worley, Christa Tiernan and David Kocik share their Blugold pride at NCPTW.