Wonderful’s IWCA Experience – Be an Accomplice, Not an Ally: Reflections on the 2017 IWCA Keynote

The 2017 IWCA Conference was a conference of firsts. For the first time in the history of this conference, the Keynote speaker was and African American woman. Since much of my own research focuses on writing center theory, race, and pedagogy, I center this response to IWCA2017 on the Keynote speech of Neisha Ann-Green. Her speech used personal stories from her time as a writing center director to articulate and nuance the various instances of racism she experienced at the institution where she worked. These instances included rotten bananas being thrown at black students or hung from nooses with the name “Harambe” written on them.

Confederate flags hung around campus with cotton stuck to them while they all sat collectively at a formal townhall to talk about the new antiracist center. The pain of racism and the work of undoing it are commodities for which the institution profits. However, the symbolism of an antiracist institution situated on a campus that allows confederate flags, bananas in nooses, etc. expose the dissonance between seeming antiracist, while ensuring racist iconography remains on campus—a perfect metaphor for neoliberalism (a space to promote freedom of speech, while we “consider” both sides, staking a stance on neither). It is from this point that Neisha asked that we not be allies who set up separate, and at times, segregated spaces where Colored bodies go to express their concerns of racism to Chief Diversity Officers hamstrung by limited resources and institutional policies. Neisha called on us as writing center directors, consultants, staff, etc. to not be allies, but to be an accomplice in undoing both systemic racism in education and individual racism that occurs on college campuses. To be an accomplice is to call out racism or racist acts; it’s to explain to family and friends why racism and racist rhetoric should neither tolerable in private nor public spaces; it’s to do the work and not just creating monuments to those who have done the work.

Her keynote asks questions not only relevant to writing centers, but to institutes of higher education: how do we become accomplices to historically marginalized populations and how do we ensure that the facilities we build for them work towards their intended goals?

Written by Wonderful Faison

Elise’s IWCA Experience: Becoming a Seasoned IWCA Pro

I went to my first IWCA a couple years ago in Pittsburgh. You can read about it here. At that point, it was the largest conference I had ever been to, and my first international conference. Since then, I’ve been to two more IWCAs and I think I’ve reached a point where the conference is just as much a space of learning as it is a space for getting to know colleagues, and myself a little better.

This year, I roomed with Hannah Espinoza (find her post here), and we opted to stay in the conference hotel so we wouldn’t have to take Lyfts everywhere and so we could take naps between sessions. Best idea ever! I learned that recharging is an important part of conferencing, especially when you need to be “on” the whole time. Taking breaks between sessions allowed me to be more social and engaged throughout the conference, which helped me meet some important people and make new friends.

This year, I also gave myself permission to skip sessions in favor of networking and meeting new people. For example, while I love the Queer SIG the most, I opted to miss it this year in order to grab lunch with some people I had only ever met on Twitter to get to know them better. I know I would have gained some valuable insights during the SIG, but I also got a chance to get to know some people on a personal level and plug the special issue I am editing alongside Rachel Robinson for TPR. In fact, a lot of the friends I made and people I met and reconnected with occurred because I gave myself permission to miss some sessions. People always say that networking is the most important part of conferencing, but networking is hard when you go to every session and exhaust yourself!

I guess my point is, the more I attend this conference, the more comfortable I become, the less official “conferencing” I do, and the more I get out of it. I’m sure some years I will attend more sessions than others, but I know now from experience that getting the most out of a conference requires a balance of work and play.

Written by Elise Dixon

Raquel’s IWCA Experience

Being a first year MA student, there are still many firsts that I’m experiencing in the academy. One of those was IWCA, which was my first international conference. Incidentally, it was also the first snowfall of the year. The new snow and old friends made for an incredible environment full of love, learning, and laughter.

I didn’t know what to expect for my first presentation at an international conference, but what I learned was that everyone was so immediately intimate, ready to participate, and ready to listen. I presented a round table with three of my colleagues about how, as peer tutors, we do emotional labor in every single session, emotional labor that we aren’t necessarily prepared or trained for. We talked through scenarios that most tutors grapple with like disengaged students, students worried about grades, students dealing with grief, and students whose anger towards school becomes channeled at us. We discussed how we dealt with those students and how we wished we would have dealt with them knowing what we know now. Ultimately, my colleagues and I decided to create a workshop that administrators can use to train tutors on emotional labor, especially in online sessions, where we don’t have the affordance of face to face intimacy.

A part of the conference that I wasn’t prepared for was the deconstruction of an over enthusiastic mindset I had. I went into the conference thinking I would attend every single session on every single day, attend all the Special Interest Groups, and still have time to relax in a beautiful city with my friends from all across the country. What I quickly learned was that conferences are not designed that way. I learned that the sessions I was most interested in weren’t the same sessions that my friends were interested in. I went alone to the sessions that were most important to me and I made new friends. And most importantly, I spent dinners pouring over what my friends learned in their sessions and growing emotionally and intellectually with them.

Written by Raquel Wright-Márquez

Anicca’s IWCA Experience

IWCA 2017 was my first International Writing Center Conference event. I presented with a former colleague about a classroom-based tutoring program I had administered for three years at my former institution and which she had taken over administration of as the faculty writing center director in the last two years. I love collaborating with others in conference spaces and though we presented late in the day on Sunday, we had a few participants attend (some MSU folks included!). In many ways I think our presentation was a prefiguring moment for a potential project we’ll work on together in the future. And so in that capacity, it acted as a exploratory, audience engaged, workshop format more than a paper presentation moment. It was positive to see the ways in which MSU’s writing center culture is already acting on my pedagogy: we had people visualize and draw their own institutional configurations, we asked participants to help us build new knowledge and ask questions of us. In this way, it helped me better understand my own meaning making around the reflective moments of a conference presentation.

I also attended a session that was highly feedback based. Because the national conferences I have attended are CCCC and WPA, I wasn’t familiar with their format here. They are called “In-Progress” sessions and this means that participants have submitted in process work to each other before the conference and received feedback from one another. Then, in the session, they briefly outline their paper and the other participants verbalize feedback while the “audience” observes. It mirrors something I do in my first-year writing courses called a “fishbowl” where students observe feedback taking place and then have a space where they can also offer questions or thoughts. Sharing your work is an intimate, vulnerable space and it struck me what a supportive, generative environment this session felt like, overall. It is a thing I would definitely apply to participate in in the future to share my own work.

I also found myself reflecting, during the conference, on the differences between “Cs” and a conference like this. Cs is very big, bustling and fast. It feels like a marathon of interaction in sessions, hallways, after conference events and networking/working moments. In contrast, IWCA felt very quiet, calm, and in some ways, more intimate. I was happy to see several people I see at Cs, to share meals or tea with them and catch up but in general, I spent my time with MSU colleagues, how cool! In general, conference spaces are a nice place for me to feel connected to the larger field. For many, myself included in the past, these conferences are often very important places to step out of isolation in the English departments we frequently find ourselves working in as compositionists. I felt a strong sense of connection to MSU and our ethos as a program. I’m so thrilled to be a part of such an engaged, thoughtful, dynamic group of learners and practitioners.

Written by Anicca Cox

Hannah’s IWCA Experience: Studying the Studio


While I have worked in the Writing Center part time for a few years now, this was the first year that I attended a writing center related conference when I went to IWCA in Chicago, IL. I presented some of my thoughts about our Lyman-Briggs Studio program and was impressed by the positive and constructive feedback I received, even from a small crowd on the last morning of the conference! However, the best thing about this conference was what I learned from other writing center directors and staff who are practicing studio sessions in several exciting ways!

In a particularly compelling Sunday session, Michelle Marie from Oregon State talked about her center’s full switch to a studio model in their new library space. She described the way that students come into the center and are encouraged to make their own goals and use the space to actually write while tutors check in and offer feedback where desired. She also talked about the ways that her brave tutors were working to retrain themselves to step back, set short-term writing goals, and allow their clients the space or assistance that they wanted. I see in this practice emphasis on writing practice and the fluidity that comes with the writing process, which I find exciting when thinking about unique ways to use a writing center space. I hope that I can carry some of these ideas with me in our own tutor trainings and practices!

Written by Hannah Espinoza

When Non-directive Tutoring Fails

You’re likely familiar with the concept of non-directivity, even if you don’t know the word for it. A lot of writing center scholars call for tutors to be non-directive with their clients. This mainly means, avoiding telling the client what to say or specifically what to add or delete to a paper. Some ways to be non-directive might be avoiding ever holding the pen, making sure the student is the only one to write on the their paper, or when a client asks you how to do something, you might respond with “Well, what do you think?” These strategies sometimes work very well for clients and tutors. However, instead of thinking of non-directivity as one strategy of many, a great deal of writing centers in universities around the US teach and talk about non-directivity as the only way to be student-centered, another writing center buzzword that means being focused entirely on the needs and well-being of the client.

The trouble here is that almost every tutor has had a session where non-directive methods don’t work. Perhaps the student really needs to be told and shown a particular kind of writing move than she just doesn’t know. Or perhaps a student has come in asking only for help with grammar. Regardless of the reason, when a session isn’t working, and the only thing a tutor has been taught is that non-directive tutoring is the only way to tutor the “right way,” we run into trouble because they tutor is immobilized and the client doesn’t know what to do. That’s what my presentation was about. I presented, at least partially, on a study I performed at Ohio University, where I surveyed writing center consultants about when they felt guilt as tutors in the center. An overwhelming number said they felt guilt when they thought they were being too directive. This, to me, is a serious bummer, because non-directivity is but one strategy of many, and we as tutors should feel confident in our ability to shift our methods as needed in a session without worrying if we’re breaking the rules or ruining a client for life.

At this year’s IWCA conference, the keynote speaker, Ben Rafoth, the writing center director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discussed the importance of deviating away from Northian tradition in order to meet the needs of all students coming to the Writing Center. Rafoth’s suggestion is all at once revolutionary, and also part of a conversation that has been going on for years among writing center circles, a conversation that I added to in my presentation: “The (R)evolutionary Space Between: Considering the Conflation of Non-directivity and Student-Centeredness.” Thinking about these ideas at IWCA prompted me to share a little with other writing center consultants.

A little on Northian tradition. In 1984, Stephen North’s essay “The Idea of the Writing Center” was published in The English Journal, and in this essay, North coined the oft-cited (and likely at least a little familiar to most tutors) statement “Our job is to make better writers, not better writing.” This statement, along with the rest of his essay, has been highly revered and elevated to near holy-status by many writing center scholars as the main ethos of the writing center world. That ethos is, essentially, that the writing center is not a fix-it-shop but rather a place where tutors help clients with their papers through conversation, and guide clients to make their own writing choices, rather than telling the clients what to do. This facilitative, conversational philosophy, then, has also paved the way for non-directive tutoring to become the main strategy taught to tutors.

I was pleased to see that at IWCA, many others besides me and Dr. Rafoth discussed the importance of diversifying tutoring methods and reorienting ourselves to our relationship to key scholarship that informs those methods. Many of these sessions focused specifically on identity as well—for if we only have one tutoring method for all different kinds of people from all different subject positions, we are likely not serving quite a few student populations as well as we could. Seeing these presentations was refreshing because I was able to see a shift in thought about what the “rules” for tutoring are or should be—I hope next year’s IWCA conference can continue the conversation.

IWCA: A Place for Emerging Scholars

IWCA_logoWhen I was at IWCA a few weeks ago to present on “What Makes a Space Raced: Exploring Whiteness in the Writing Center,” I noticed how conferences—despite the tales of elitist performances and pretentious discourse—provide young and emerging scholars a space to present their research and receive productive feedback. In my rush to get published, I find that conferences allow me to think about my research, to explore ways to expand and exhaust the research, and to nuance the arguments I posit. In other words, conferences allow me to continue being student, which I believe is integral to both teaching, research, and scholarship. Publishing never feels like a learning practice. It feels like a finality: an imagined end goal. Publishing functions as a way of (1) Espousing knowledge, (2) Critiquing knowledge, or (3) Drawing attention to new knowledges. It is a space for experts, not necessarily learners.

What conferences provide young and emerging scholars that is much like the publishing process— if a manuscript reaches external review—is an instant type of peer review. Young, emerging, and established scholars all attend conferences and tend to attend panels in which they are interested. Therefore, what happens when young scholars present is a type of low-risk (ideally) review that can further push and urge a scholar to explore, nuance, and better articulate their research and ideas. For more established scholars, hearing from young and emerging researchers can also serve as a way to better refine, rethink, and nuance their current research. As someone interested in Writing Center research, as well as research in Comp/Rhet, the IWCA conference is an ideal space to present research concerning race, language, and identity in writing center spaces. I never leave a presentation unsatisfied as the questions, suggestions, and resources audience members provide are invaluable in this early stage of my research.

The Wonderful World of Writing Centers: An International Peer Tutoring Conference at Disney World

Just a month ago, I went to my fourthor is it my fifth now?Writing Center conference. But this one was a little different than ones past. This conference wasn’t just for writing centers in the state of Michigan or the Midwest region. This time, it was international. And instead of running from building to building trying to minimize my time in the cold, brisk, cloudy Midwest weather, I was in the sunny and breezy Orlando, Florida climate at none other than Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort. And it was refreshing for body, mind, and soul.

The International Writing Center Association conference provided fascinating perspectives and unique presenting opportunities for Writing Center faculty and peer tutors from around the world. My coworkers and I held a panel about tutoring practices with English Language Learners and the research we’ve done here at MSU’s Writing Center to better understand ELL students’ educational experiences. While that was totally interesting and all, what was really special was presenting alongside a woman from Saudi Arabia, who started one of the first (and few) writing centers in her country just a couple years back with outstanding results. How humbling to be grouped together with someone from across the world, joined together by our shared goal and passion: making better writers.

It reminds me that the work we do here at The Writing Center at MSU is bigger than the 50-minute sessions and 3 cups of coffee a shift.

To connect with others through words is a global mission, a multicultural practice, and one that can unite tutors from around the world by their desire to help others. Maybe the act of writing comes in different languages, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It can transcend borders of nations and the borders between one mind and another.

Maybe the pixie dust just hasn’t worn off, but I’d say the work we doconsultants and clients in tandemreally is something magical.