Spotlight on: Course-Embedded Peer Writing Support at Transylvania University with Scott Whiddon

The Publications Committee is pleased to present the fourth entry in a monthly series on SLAC writing programs. The goal of this series, and of the blog in general, is to make more visible the practices and experiences of those working in WPA roles at SLACs so that we might understand the SLAC WPA community more fully as we learn from one another. We thank Scott Whiddon of Transylvania University for his contribution and invite you to look forward to next month’s feature from Julie Christoph of the University of Puget Sound.

The Quick Facts on the Transylvania Writing Center & Course-Embedded Writing Support

Describe your program in 100 words or less.

Scott Whiddon (SW): Founded by professor emeritus and poet Martha Gehinger in the 80s, Transylvania University Writing Center (TUWC) is a key component to our strong campus culture of writing. Staffed by 20-30 undergraduates from a range of majors, all nominated by faculty and who take part in a credit-bearing course in pedagogy, TUWC serves writers across backgrounds and disciplines; staffers also often collaborate with faculty via course-embedded programs or workshops. Staffers also often take on assessment-focused projects – leading to peer-reviewed presentations and publications. Housed in our university library and in partnership with other support offices, TUWC is a site of creativity, collaboration, and community-building.

Describe your role.

SW: Like many SLAC professionals,I serve a number of roles for my campus – teaching classes in both our Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication major and our First Year Seminar program; collaborating with faculty via our Writing Advisory Committee; advising and assisting other campus administrators with institutional research about student writing and programming; overseeing independent student research projects; taking part in various roles in campus governance and service (including serving as program director for the major for over a decade). But my favorite aspect of my life at TU, for the past 16 years, is serving TUWC as director. Writing Center work combines my love of teaching with my deep interests in creative spacemaking, identity branding, and collaborative learning/creating. [Editorial note: And Scott’s work has been recognized widely; he is the recent recipient of the Southeastern Writing Center Association Achievement Award. Congrats, Scott!]

The Interview

What is new and/or distinctive about your program?

An image of Scott Whiddon
Scott Whiddon of the TUWC

SW: Although TUWC has offered course-embedded peer-writing support for several years – in which specific courses are assigned TUWC staffers, allowing time and resources for staffers and faculty to collaborate on assignment design, development, and revision – I’m quite excited by the recent faculty interest in the ways that that writing center work can be more deeply connected to specific classes and course goals.

Since Fall 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, about ⅓ to ½ of our FYS sections have benefited from course-embedded programming; students from these classes work with assigned staffers throughout a term on a range of complex writing tasks. Course-embedded work (often referred to at other colleges as “writing fellows” or “writing associates”) can vary a bit from institution to institution; at Transylvania, course-embedded staffers take on some additional training, meet regularly with their assigned faculty partner, and serve 7-9 students from a single course section for a required number of visits (determined by class type – usually, 2-3 visits per major course task). Staffers also sometimes lead class discussions about readings or assignment clarification.

Much of the foundational scholarship about course-embedded programming was developed at fellow SLACs, and we were incredibly lucky to earn funds to provide a pre-semester workshop for participating faculty and staffers, led by Dr. Pam Bromley (Scripps).

A survey of 65 students enrolled in these courses during Fall 2021 provided strong evidence for the value of sustained peer-to-peer writing support. 82% of students who worked with course-embedded staffers found their services to be quite helpful in the development/revision of their core assignments. 79% of students who worked with course-embedded staffers found their services to be helpful in negotiating stress during a challenging time. And perhaps most telling: 84% of students who worked with course-embedded staffers said they’d recommend our services to friends and peers. In 2018, we were pleased to win the Martinson Award for our course-embedded programming.

What are you especially proud of?

SW: TUWC had not offered a single online-based writing center appointment, event, or program in its entire history before the pandemic; like all other writing centers, and especially writing centers based in SLACs, our program had to quickly learn how the skills we practice every day as collaborators, active listeners, and creative thinkers could transition to online environments; we also had to learn to recognize, both in our patrons and in ourselves, the ever-changing challenges of learning in this moment. Due to close collaborations with campus partners such as our Director of First Year Programming, our librarians, various faculty members, and student organizations – as well as long time friends of our program, such as Dr. Katrina Bell (UCSD) and Dr. Karen Moroski-Rigney (Michigan Tech) – we were able to develop some key skills and maintain our strong support for writers. In Fall 2021, we held over 1000 hours of student writing support – the 2nd most in the history of TUWC. Furthermore, due to the advice of great colleagues at other institutions, we’ve started to realize the ways that online support can allow for more access and inclusivity.

I’m also incredibly proud of how TUWC staffers have developed a voice as researchers. In recent years, staffers have presented work (either online or in-person) at IWCA, SWCA, and Pedagogicon; they’ve also shared their experiences at local events with nearby writing centers such as UK, EKU, and Berea College. Our staffers have investigated concerns such as course-embedded pedagogy and the impact of writing center service in terms of post-graduate employment and personal development. Staffers have also published work in journals such as Southern Discourse in the Center. Such professional engagement reflects the value of their experiences as writers, thinkers, and collaborators.

Finally, I’m most proud of our staffers themselves. They do amazing work for writing support and creative culture at Transylvania. They excel in the classroom, on the performance stage, and in athletics. They are often selected for other campus leadership roles, such as admissions ambassadors or RAs. We’ve been lucky to have two staffers recognized with Southeastern Writing Center Association Undergraduate Tutor Awards, and multiple staffers have won SWCA Christine Cozzens Research and Initiative Grants/Awards. And they’re some of the best folks I know, indeed.

What sorts of challenges does working within a SLAC present for your program? What sorts of opportunities does it offer?

SW: Although I am quite encouraged by recent developments in recruiting/admissions at SLACs, the historic nature of most small/private colleges often presents difficult challenges when it comes to diversity and inclusion, broad scope – in ways ranging, but not limited to, race, economic background, gender inclusivity, etc.

On other fronts, many SLACs also require faculty to take on significant roles simultaneously, which makes the careful, reflective work of teaching – and teaching writing, perhaps especially – perhaps even more challenging.

But, I’d also argue that the close nature of SLACs – smaller populations, seasoned faculty, potentially more opportunities for co-curricular engagement with students, etc – allows for incredible possibilities that speak to core liberal arts practices: close reading, complex writing, engaged conversation about difficult questions – all in the service of learning what it means to be human. TUWC staffers are recognized as key players in such campus conversations.

As you’ve developed your program, what has been your most productive collaboration with another group or office on your campus—and how have you built that relationship?

SW: All writing center success is based, to some degree, on cross-campus partnerships – with students, with faculty, with other offices and support programs, and/or deans and other officials. I’d be remiss in not noting how our sustained collaborations with First Year Writing, and with our campus Writing Advisory Committee and our growing Digital Liberal Arts initiatives, allow for meaningful outcomes in terms of student writing as well as faculty development.

One partnership that we always look forward to in TUWC is our Pre-Health Career Workshop Series. Each Fall, TUWC staffers partner with our career development office and TU librarians to work with students in the process of applying to medical school (or other related health care professional postgraduate programs). Many students attend TU because of our strong Biology and Chemistry programs; working with these junior and senior level students, in developing personal statements and other documents, has allowed for amazing cross-campus collaboration and wonderful conversation – even when we had to reimagine the workshop series for online platforms. Faculty from these and other programs have long noted the role that our workshops play into admission to highly-ranked medical programs.

What specific readings, activities, or practices would you recommend to directors who may be working with programs similar to yours?

SW: That’s a tough question! No matter how long I’ve worked with writers and writing centers, I’ve always been excited and encouraged about what’s being written about how peer-writing support can help foster and extend a creative campus culture. And even when days can seem daunting, the conversations that happen in the writing center – online or in person – remind me of what I find most valuable about how we learn, and how we learn to write for various audiences and purposes.

But if I were to hand faculty or administrators a single text that could be read in a sitting, it’s likely Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail’s “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.” This piece highlights, in both qualitative and quantitative ways, the deep impact of writing center work on tutors themselves. Even long after graduation, staffer alums who took part in this study offered strong evidence for the impressive ways that their work in writing centers played in their own writing ability, metacognition, leadership growth, and even employment (regardless of careers chosen). Furthermore, this piece helps showcase not only the ways that writing centers provide a service to a college, but also how writing center work can be reframed as a site of recruitment, student development, and liberal education as a whole.

The other thing I’d recommend to read has absolutely nothing to do with writing centers, or even academia. A Year With Swollen Appendices by Brian Eno (musician, producer/engineer, environmental activist, etc) is one of my single favorite books on creativity and creative process. You can almost randomly flip to any page and find insights into how we make things and why we make things.

Questions curated by the SLAC-WPA Executive Board and the Publications Committee.

Comments 2

  • It’s inspiring to see how many consultants are involved in your program, Scott. How do you go about recruiting them?

  • Hi Chris! Great to hear from you. Our staffers are all recruited via faculty — which is a great way of helping with branding across campus, too. Twice a year, we put out a call to faculty to recommend names. I then contact those students to submit a writing sample and a cover letter. From there, a select group from that list is invited to take our training class, which can count for either .5 credits (no overload fee) or a full credit (additional research tasks that often lead to conference presentations, etc). Having faculty play a role in recruitment makes good sense, given the close nature of SLACs. Thanks for the question!

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