The 2008 IWCA Summer Institute at UW-Madison: Some Reflections from Lake Mendota

Feb 14th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Reading

By Lisa Ede, Oregon State University, Paula Gillespie, Marquette University, and Brad Hughes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Wow!  This past summer the three of us finished one of the most satisfying experiences of our long writing center careers–co-chairing the 6th Annual IWCA Summer Institute (SI), which was held July 20-25, 2008, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Because the three of us have had the privilege of being involved with five of the six summer institutes, we want to share some highlights of this year’s Institute and offer some thoughts about the exciting future of the IWCA Summer Institute.  It was exhilarating to spend that intensive week learning together with 55 very smart and fun participants from around the United States and from eight other countries.  And it was an honor to plan and lead the institute with seven stellar writing center colleagues from around the US and from South Africa and to have wonderful staff and students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and from Marquette University help lead sessions as well.  This year’s leaders were Sharifa Daniels, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Nancy Grimm, Michigan Tech University; Jenny Jordan, Glenbrook North High School, Illinois; Neal Lerner, MIT; Beverly Moss, The Ohio State University; Jill Pennington, Lansing Community College; and Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Southwestern University.  (For additional information about the SI, including the schedule, please visit www.wisc.edu/writing/institute.)

Since its inception in 2003, the Summer Institute has migrated each year to different sites around the United States–ending up this past July in Madison, Wisconsin, where the first SI was held.  But the SI’s mission, philosophy, and format have remained largely the same.  The Institute brings 8-10 leaders–all top writing center practitioners and scholars–together with 50-55 participants for an intensive week of collaborative learning about the latest in writing center practice, theory, research, and administration.  Even though the Institute’s leaders always bring deep experience in the profession–collectively this year’s leaders and co-chairs brought 202 years of experience in writing centers–the SI co-chairs and leaders view themselves as co-learners along with the participants.  The Institute taps the collective wisdom of participants and leaders by organizing small-group work and discussions within sessions, by giving participants the chance to initiate and lead special-interest group discussions throughout the week, by providing opportunities for participants to share information about their centers, and by having participants and leaders work together in writing groups throughout the Institute.  Those who are interested in knowing more about the philosophy and history of the SI might consult “The Writing Center Summer Institute: Backgrounds, Development, Vision,” by Paula Gillespie, Brad Hughes, Neal Lerner, and Anne Geller.  Those interested in research about the powerful longer-term influence of having participated in the institute should read Anne Geller and Michele Eodice’s “The Rewards of Summer: IWCA Summer Institute.”

One of the central tenets of the Summer Institute is that the Institute belongs to the participants.  The leaders choose session topics only after carefully reviewing information from detailed surveys completed by every participant.  This year that meant reviewing several hundred pages of information about participants’ experience, their centers, their interests, and their familiarity with writing center literature.  This year’s participants—like those every summer—were a fascinating and varied group.  As has increasingly been the case, the SI included participants not only from the United States but also from abroad, including Japan, Malaysia, Canada, Namibia, Egypt, Qatar, England, and Sweden.  There was considerable institutional diversity as well.  Participants came from secondary schools, community colleges, small and medium and large colleges and universities.  What a wonderful opportunity this provided all participants and leaders to learn with and from each other!  Some of these powerful concepts underlying the institute–“collective wisdom” and “the institute belongs to the participants,” for example–come from Frank Christ, whose work with Martha Maxwell designing and leading wonderful learning-center institutes at UC-Berkeley, Cal State-Long Beach, and the University of Arizona is legendary.  Frank Christ’s philosophy of a professional institute makes wonderful reading for anyone interested in designing such a learning experience.

As might be expected, the SI participants arrived with varying degrees of experience and diverse goals. Some participants are long-time writing center directors with 10 or 20 years of experience.  Some are relatively new to writing center work and have served a few years as a director or associate director of a center.  Others are new directors, preparing to start a brand-new center, or others who’ve just finished graduate school and have been hired to direct an existing center.  And still others are graduate students or faculty or staff who aspire to start a new center, the first on their campus–or even the first in their country.  (Participant Rajes Sargunan hopes to open the first writing center in Malaysia, for instance.)  Some of the most experienced participants come looking for new ideas and inspiration.  Some who have experience directing centers want to broaden their horizons by learning about different writing center models and programs.  Some who are new to directing centers often have substantial experience as student-tutors and know much of the tutor-training literature, but want to learn more, much more, about designing tutor education . . . and about assessment and about funding and about leadership.  All the participants are eager to share their experiences, ideas, and questions with others, making for a stimulating, productive, and fun week!

Given how much the participants varied in their experience and knowledge, it was, frankly, a challenge to design a program that extended what experienced participants already knew, while welcoming and building a strong foundation for those newer to writing center work.  As co-chairs we wrestled with a number of difficult issues and questions.  Building upon and addressing the diversity of experience among participants was key. But we were also concerned with how to balance “showing” versus “telling,” how to balance discussions of theory and of practice, how to use the expertise of the leaders most productively, how to offer and share practical advice while maintaining a critical perspective, how to balance time for writing and reflection with time for sessions, etc.

With careful and thoughtful planning, it is, however, possible to strike the right balance, and the detailed evaluations completed by this year’s participants suggest that, as in the past, the SI managed to accomplish the semi-impossible.  Plenary sessions this year offered the latest thinking about foundational topics that cut across all writing centers (tutor education, the uses of theory in writing center work, the effective use of space, assessment, diversity, technology, preparing tutors to work with multilingual writers, current writing center literature, partnerships, perspectives from tutors and student-writers, and more).  Specialized topics were offered in breakout sessions–some led by specialists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Writing Center: these sessions included strategic planning, research, writing center classes, writing fellows, podcasts, funding, publicity, community writing centers, tenure and promotion, writing centers and learning centers, student-leadership positions in writing centers, WAC and writing centers, building community within centers, and developing computer simulations for use in tutor education. A plenary session with tutors, writing fellows, and a writing center user, drawn from UW-Madison and from Marquette, gave participants a chance to engage in a dialogue with those vital members of our communities.

Writing is of course central to writing center work and life, so throughout the week both leaders and participants worked on and responded to each others’ writing in small writing groups.  One group worked on creating podcasts instead of texts, including a wonderful podcast about the SI [http://www.wisc.edu/writing/institute/about.html#podcast].

We wanted to give participants and leaders a creative outlet during the week, so we instituted (no pun) an open mic night. We knew that any group as large as ours was would have some awesome talent, and we were not disappointed. It was fun! And we had other kinds of fun: a cruise on Lake Mendota and an optional trip to a professional outdoor theatre in nearby Spring Green for an outstanding performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Our venue at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered us other opportunities we were eager to share with both participants and leaders. UW-Madison’s large writing center employs a number of career professional staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students who generously shared their expertise with us. Annette Vee co-led a plenary with Brad on online tutoring. Terry Maggio, Emily Hall, Melissa Tedrowe, Nancy Linh Karls, Rasha Diab, Beth Godbee, and many other graduate and undergraduate students helped lead breakouts on writing center classes, writing fellows, diversity, podcasting (a wonderfully popular topic–it was offered as a SIG as well), computer simulations for tutor education, publicity, community writing centers (co-led by a public librarian), student leadership positions in writing centers; and a panel of undergraduate Writing Fellows presented their research on writing centers. There were additional sessions as well, including a thought-provoking lecture on “Writing Over Reading” by noted rhetoric and writing scholar Deborah Brandt. We were also able to attend a demonstration of a program for educational research called Transana (http://www.transana.org/), developed at UW-Madison, a program which makes transcription easier and facilitates coding of videos. We were able to see this program in action and talk with the developer. In addition, Jason Mayland, the director of Institutional Effectiveness and Research at Lansing Community College, attended a few days of the Institute and demonstrated ways that assessment can be very functional and accessible. These professionals and their participation added a great deal to the depth and to our enjoyment of the SI.

The 2008 Institute aimed to integrate technology–especially web 2.0 technologies–before, during, and after the institute.  In addition to an extensive website, the institute featured a blog written by institute leaders (wcsi.blogspot.com), which drew comments from current and past institute participants, an electronic forum for institute participants and leaders, and a photo-sharing website (http://www.flickr.com/photos/uwwritingcenter/) which features hundreds of photos posted by participants and local volunteer photographers.  Participants posted daily updates on WCenter, an institute tradition begun at the first institute in 2003.  On Wednesday morning, July 23rd, the institute sponsored a live webcast of a plenary institute session, featuring three institute participants talking about the experience of the institute and a lively presentation about current writing center research by Neal Lerner and Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton.  The webcast was watched by writing center professionals around the world, who sent in live questions and comments by email, some of which were included in the discussion period.  During the first part of Neal’s and Elisabeth’s presentation, the audience in Madison used clickers to respond to a quiz about past and current writing center literature.  The archived webcast is now available to watch (http://mediasite.ics.uwex.edu/pyle4/Catalog/?cid=918b448e-8417-4e20-aea6-f58a1d44a7b3). In addition to the podcasts created by institute participants, Jill Pennington recorded an extended interview about writing center assessment with Jason Mayland and Neal Lerner; that podcast has been published on the UW-Madison Writing Center website (www.wisc.edu/writing; click on “podcasts”).

As we look ahead to future summer institutes, what would we like to see? On the final day we gave all participants a survey to fill out and we eagerly read and re-read them. What have participants suggested to us? Even within the same surveys they have asked for more time in sessions, less time in sessions, more plenaries, fewer plenaries, more time for reflection and writing, more down time, more breakouts (the smaller size appealed to some), but only if they could attend all of them. No one asked for less of anything, as our math worked out–all of the requests required more time, not less. We could see that our difficult choices led to the kinds of responses we expected.

Is it possible to add one optional day on either end of the Institute, a full day for new folks at the beginning–a day before the others begin–and a day at the end to focus in depth on research and publication? A full day of Writing Centers 101 would allow newcomers to make the kinds of introductions to one another that would explain and describe their goals, their institutions, and their constraints. If we had a full day for newcomers, we could include demonstrations and/or videotapes of tutoring, with analyses of sessions, and some practice tutoring–not role play, but one-to-one tutoring on a piece of writing participants would bring.

And at the end could there be a full additional day or two devoted to research and publication? One participant suggested that we query participants prior to the SI, asking for their research interests, fields of background study, and that, using this information, set up research sessions geared to particular interests. If participants have already paid for their transportation costs, why not add a day or two if it would make the experience even more rewarding? Not all leaders would be expected to take part in these extra days, but there could be an extra charge, such as there is for CCCC or IWCA preconference workshops or SIGS.

Is it possible that there could be a Summer Institute devoted solely to research? Research and publication are extremely important in some institutions for the tenure and/or promotion of writing center professionals, but even when it is not, understanding institutional research and the benefits it can offer a center could be vital to its success.

In addition to pointing the SI to some interesting future directions, we were buoyed by the overwhelmingly positive responses of participants in their evaluations.  Perhaps the best way to conclude our reflections is to present the voices of some participants from last summer’s Institute.
**This experience was what I needed to rethink where our writing center is going.  I learned so much that is truly beneficial.  I think my head hurts—but in a good way.
**Both the plenary sessions and the breakout groups were very helpful, but the most useful element was the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with both leaders and participants in an open and supportive atmosphere—and the feeling I’m sure most of us have that we can go on exchanging ideas for a long time.
**I especially appreciated learning how much practices vary from institution to institution.  I take so many ideas back with me, and I’m just overflowing with ideas I can use in our writing center.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, I will take back with me the friendship and professional contacts from this institute.  I now feel that I have a community I can continue to talk and collaborate with in the future.
**This was a wonderful, wonderful experience.  Thanks to all of the organizers for their careful and thoughtful planning—there were no bad moments!  I really appreciated the critical nature of our conversation, and the attempt to be self-questioning and to dispel myths and romanticisms.
In closing, the three of us want to express our deep appreciation to IWCA and to the Institute leaders and participants for giving us the chance to lead what was an amazing learning experience for us.  We’ve also cherished working closely together for over a year and learning so much from each other.

Works Cited

Christ, Frank.  “What Is the Winter Institute Philosophy?” Learning Support Centers in Higher Education. N.p. 29 May 2008. Web. 1 December 2008.    <http://www.pvc.maricopa.edu/~lsche/wiarchives/about_philosophy.htm>
Geller, Anne Ellen, and Michele Eodice. “The Rewards of Summer: IWCA Institute.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 29.7 (2005): 6-7.
Gillespie, Paula, Brad Hughes, Neal Lerner, and Anne Geller. “The Writing Center Summer Institute: Backgrounds, Development, Vision.” The Writing Center Director’s Resource Book. Ed. Christina Murphy and Byron Stay. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2006. 33-43.

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