Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Libbie Morley Visit

Background Information

Libbie Morley taught undergraduate writing classes at the University of Kentucky and later went back while teaching to get her doctorate in educational policy in 2005. Before coming to University of Illinois, she worked at the writing center at the University of Kentucky for several years.

A writing center at the University of Illinois was created in the late 1940s as a consequence of a large influx of students after World War II lacking formal preparation for college and strong writing skills. In the 1980s, the writing center was called the Writing Clinic, and in 1989 the Center for Writing Studies was formed as a unit of the English Department, which took the administrative reins of the Writing Clinic. In 1990, the Writer’s Workshop opened its office in the Undergraduate Library, and since then has added locations in Grainger Library and Weston Hall. Until 2000, the Workshop was funded by the Provost. Today, the finances of the Writer’s Workshop are run by the Center for Writing Studies, with some funding from the College of LAS.

The purpose of the Writer’s Workshop is to provide writing assistance to anyone in the campus community. Although students often come in wanting someone to edit and proofread their writing, the consultants focus on helping with the more basic elements of following the writing prompt, organization of ideas, incorporating sources to support evidence for a thesis, and if there is time taking a look at grammar. The Workshop emphasizes the complete involvement of the student in improving his own writing. In a session, the consultant will take notes on what is said, but no marks are made on the writing--that is the responsibility of the writer. The writer can make changes or reject changes based on consultant suggestions. Sometimes the best result of the consultation is that the writer can verbalize ideas more easily than write them, and the consultant can guide the student to identify on their own what is missing in the writing.

It is necessary to schedule an appointment for the Writer’s Workshop, as consultants do not leave open time for walk-ins. The computerized scheduling system of the Writer’s Workshop, Tutor Trak, is a valuable tool for administrators like Libbie to be able to assess the effectiveness of the organization. This commercial scheduling software compiles such information as the student’s level in school, what type of writing the student has, if he or she is a native English speaker, and a list of additional demographic information. At the close of each month or semester, Tutor Track can report the number of students served, the number of repeat visits, demographic information, and tutor utilization. For example, around 85% of graduate students and 50% of undergraduates that come to the Workshop are non-native English speaking. Tutor utilization--the number of hours used of those available from consultants--is usually high (90-95%) compared to similar writing centers at other universities which may have an average of 75% tutor utilization.

Training the Consultants

The graduate student consultant training for the Writer’s Workshop consists of a two-day workshop before the semester begins. During this workshop, practice sessions are performed and questions are answered. The primary trainer is Libbie Morley, who assisted by returning grad student consultants. The two-day workshop is followed by 1-2 weeks of the trainee consultants observing veteran consultants’ sessions. Additionally, consultants are given some student papers to read and critique over the summer preceding their consulting semester. With these two activities, consultants are given experience in both face-to-face interactions with students as well as experience in improving papers.

The undergraduate student consultant training is similar to the grad consultant training, except that the undergrads are taking the consulting job for course credit, forcing all training sessions to be during the semester. In this case, a week’s worth of classes are devoted to consultant training. During the next one or two weeks (depending on the consultant’s experience,) the undergraduate consultants participate in co-consulting with a veteran consultant, participating in the consulting work but relying on the veteran consultant for direction.

In all cases, training sessions are concluded with a survey where trainees input their thoughts on the training sessions and how they can be improved. (It should be noted that these surveys are not ICES forms. Instead, they are short-answer surveys, allowing for a greater amount of response information to be collected.)

Volunteer workers are generally not accepted as consultants, unless they are returning consultants that Libbie Morley personally trusts. This is because there is no room for absences: if a volunteer worker decides not to come in one day, an entire day’s worth of appointments have to be canceled.

Grad students work as consultants as part of their graduate fellowship, and generally undergraduate students are compensated for their consulting work with course credit.

Other Details

Libbie’s favorite part about the Writer’s Workshop is working with consultants and writers. Her least favorite part, though, is not having the resources to help everyone. The statistics kept on the Writer’s Workshop show that the Writer’s Workshop could grow substantially and still have the same high rate of utilization. The main constraints in expanding the Writer’s Workshop are money and space.

The monetary constraint stands in the way of additional hours, more consultants, and extra services. Aside from the consultants and Libbie, the Writer’s Workshop also employs an office manager and two student workers. If the Writer’s Workshop offered more hours, the non-consultant employees would need to be paid for more hours. Currently, one reason the Writer’s Workshop cannot afford to be open over the summer instruction periods is because it cannot afford its auxiliary employees. Libbie admits that if the Writer’s Workshop received the funds to expand, she would like to have an assistant so that she could dedicate more of her time to the Writer’s Workshop instead of administrative duties. Adding more consultants would require the University to give more/larger assistanceships and course credit. Hiring more consultants, though, would be beneficial to the Writer’s Workshop in that more students could be served in better ways. More students could be served if the Writer’s Workshop could increase the number of consultants (or the number of hours) it has at satellite locations. Students could be served better with the addition of specifically graduate consultants because then graduate consultants could work exclusively with grad students and undergraduate consultants exclusively with undergraduates. Also, having more consultants available would allow the Writer’s Workshop to host special presentations both to specific organizations and to the general campus population, have walk-in hours, and do more “fun stuff.” Libbie refers to “fun stuff” as special events the Writer’s Workshop could host addressing items unrelated to writing for classes—such as creative writing seminars, personal writing seminars, general writing-improvement seminars, etc. Finally, the Writer’s Workshop does not offer very much, if any, professional development for its consultants. Libbie believes that consultants would benefit from being observed/taped and then having meetings to discuss their feedback. She believes this would help consultants with their consulting skills, personal growth, and professional presence. Naturally, longer hours staffed with more consultants would result in a need for additional space.

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