Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

A Space for Grad Students: Peer-to-Peer Collaboration in a Writing Studio Startup

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

A Space for Grad Students: Peer-to-Peer Collaboration in a Writing Studio Startup

Article excerpt

In 2009, I was tasked with envisioning a place at Fresno State University where graduate students could find supplementary writing support. At the time, little had been published on the needs of graduate student writers, and only a handful of universities had established centers devoted solely to graduate student writing. (1) For many years, our campus writing center has been a place where any student enrolled in classes at our university can find help with things like brainstorming, organization, and proofreading strategies, either in small group discussions or one-to-one tutoring. Certainly, our university's graduate students were (and still are) welcomed at the writing center, so why was I asked to start something new? With a nod to Virginia Woolf, why did graduate students need a room of their own?

My envisioning assignment was actually part of a larger institutional accreditation directive from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) to create a stronger "graduate culture" on our campus, one that would support current graduate programs and others slated to launch. In fact, WASC had specifically requested in two previous visits that we demonstrate forward progress in this area. Further, a campus advisory group was calling for "strategies that would encourage student progress" at all levels as part of a statewide push to improve graduation rates. And finally, our President's Plan for Excellence targeted a 20% increase in our number of graduate students, folks who would have different needs in areas like mentoring, research advising, and specifically, "scholarly writing consultation." Clearly, it was time to act, and in a survey disseminated to our graduate students and faculty, they agreed: 82% rated as "important" or "extremely important" the need for a research, writing, and consultation space dedicated graduate students.

Because I was the dissertation and thesis consultant in the Division of Graduate Studies, (2) my dean considered me the most suitable person to provide support for "scholarly writing consultation." After all, I'd been reading student scholarly writing since starting my position in 2003, and I'd worked individually with many graduate students on all kinds of assignments, from short essays to lengthy dissertations. The responsibility of launching a supplementary writing support service for graduate students seemed a good fit, so when the overture moved from envisioning to actual planning and implementation, I agreed.

I started small: picture Lucy Van Pelt in her "Psychiatric Help" booth and you wouldn't be far off. My assigned space was a conference room artificially split by a fabric wall panel that did nothing to ensure privacy. There were no phones and no computers, but I did have a file cabinet with handouts on multiple writing concerns. Outside the door I lined up some chairs where students could sit until their appointment time. It had that waiting-room feel.

I hired three graduate writing consultants--grad students themselves--and we immersed ourselves in literature on writing center pedagogy that we would use as the basis for our work. We interviewed our graduate faculty to get a sense of their expectations. We conducted a thorough best-practice review to see what others were doing. We defined "consultants" as trained, interested readers who would ask the right questions, let pauses be pauses, and allow students to test their ideas in a safe, responsive, and focused environment. We wanted to provide a place where graduate students could engage meaningfully with the issues about which they were writing, and as consultants, we would--per Nancy Sommers--"reflect befuddlement" (155) and guide writers "back into the chaos, back to the point where they were shaping and restructuring their meaning" (154).

We made a door sign that read "Collaboration Happens Here," and in our literature, we billed ourselves as an "empowering service, not an editing service," hoping to debunk the perception of writing centers as places where students with deficiencies get help "fixing" their work. …

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