Scholarly self-portrait

My scholarly trajectory has mostly been guided by my pedagogical circumstances. When I left my position as a high school English teacher and department chair in 2003 to pursue my MA at the University of Nevada, I took with me many of the questions that plagued me during those three years at Maple Grove High – from teaching the research paper to 11th and 12th graders, to leading (seemingly) successful classroom discussions about literature. While taking a linguistics course, for example, I barrowed methodologies from discourse analyses to patch together my own analysis of one group of tenth graders’ classroom discussion to see how certain discussion strategies might provoke more authentic dialogue. In my final professional paper to complete the MA, I used work by Freire, Dewy, and John Bean to argue for embedding Ken Macrorie’s I-Search Paper within a larger curriculum of inquiry at the high school level. NCTE published a condensed version of that manuscript last March in the English Journal.

Of course I also spent those two years seizing opportunities to branch out, studying cross-curricular writing theories, building a stronger foundation in modern and post-modern critical theory, experimenting with subgenres of creative nonfiction, and examining socio-cultural concerns in education. But when I completed my degree in the spring of 2005, my intent was to return to New York and teach high school again in order to support my wife’s graduate work here. I was looking forward to taking many of the ideas I read and studied and applying them to the secondary setting.

Coming to S.U., then, was a pivotal moment for me. Accepting my current position as Writing Center Administrator meant having to become acquainted with writing center scholarship mostly on my own. I had worked part time in a writing center during the two years I was at Nevada, but the only related scholarship I studied was some WAC theory. I knew very little about writing program administration, tutor training, second language acquisition, grammar instruction, collaborative theories of writing, or the history of writing centers. While I’ve made attempts to familiarize myself with some of those topics throughout these last two years, much of my supposed area of expertise remains gray. I’ve read, assigned, and discussed several articles with consultants in the writing center and with students in WRT 331, the peer consultant practicum, but – ironically – I haven’t had much of a chance to synthesize those sources though my ow writing.

So in terms of next steps, I’d like to become more knowledgeable about writing centers in general and try to do something with that knowledge. Specifically, I’d like to study practices of consulting and tutor/teacher training – some of which will no doubt go beyond the writing center setting. In fact, I wonder how those practices could be expanded from the realm of writing centers and used in the composition classroom. Could some tutor-training methods, for example, be used with freshmen in WRT 105? How do dialogic settings – large group discussions, one-to-one conferences – affect the ways students approach their writing? Should different collaborative methods be used at different stages of a students’ process?

Part of becoming more proficient in this area of comp/rhet means knowing how the idea of writing centers was formed in the first place. I’m hoping I’ll be able to look into the histories of writing clinics/labs/centers by asking: How have they been defined? How have scholars shaped writing center history and why has it been shaped as such? How has the concept of the center evolved through time? How has that evolution been linked to larger movements in the discipline? If these questions are too broad for now (and I’m afraid they are), it might be worthwhile to focus in on certain aspects of centers. For example, how have championed methods of tutoring changed through time? Specifically, when and why did the predominant method change from directive to nondirective to something more nuanced? (What might be difficult about generalizing answers from these questions are the variables. On one campus a “writing center” might operate out of an English department while on another, a “learning center” might work out of student services. The disciplinary difference will probably be noteworthy as the former is usually borne out of comp/rhet while the latter out of schools of ed.)

Outside of the world of writing centers, but still closely related, are issues regarding cross-curricular writing theory. Specifically, I wonder what kinds of curricula can be designed to best match the diverse needs of our students? What characteristics of writing and thinking are shared across the curriculum? (Has educational psychology been helpful in answering this question?) As teachers and consultants, how can we tap into those similarities? I’m ultimately curious about how different writing programs account for disciplinary difference. Would writing instructors be more effective if they came from the same discourse communities as their students (likewise, I wonder if consultants might be more effective if operated under the same disciplines)?

Further still, I’m interested in returning to issues of teaching writing at the high school level. I don’t know what kind of scholarship exists on understanding the gaps between high school writers and those in college, but I’d be interested exploring it. I’d like to know if writing center scholarship might propose some solutions for the achievement gaps that currently exist. For example, there are community writing centers for kids in cities across the US. Are those centers working to help produce more college-bound students?

I know scholarship on most of these issues is out there to build upon – I’ve skimmed some books, seen articles anthologized, etc. – but I’m hoping this course will not only give me the opportunity to plow through some of that work, but that it will also suggest tools or methodologies for picking out what’s significant, what’s missing, and analyze it all to answer the toughest question – so what?