Assistant Director Justin B. Hopkins ’06 and former Tutor and Workshop Co-Coordinator Valeri Harteg ’11 reminisce about the workshop program.
I remember my first workshop. It seems a long time ago, the pilot year of the program. George W. Bush had recently been re-elected, and the Boston Red Sox had just won the World Series. I was a junior, working with another tutor, senior Amanda Sahl. We put together "Forty Pointers for Powerful Personal Statements," which we delivered to a room full of would-be doctors. We each took twenty tips, trading quips back and forth to (try to) keep from being boring. A few students asked questions. All in all, I guess it probably lasted half an hour. I couldn’t have imagined then that five years later I’d still be leading workshops!
The French have a saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, meaning, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The workshop program has certainly changed a lot, yet in essentials it remains remarkably close to the vision that initially inspired it. In 2004, then Head Tutor Sara Ritter ’05 and Director Dan Frick noticed that more and more professors were requiring their students to come to the Writing Center. Hardly a problem, of course—we’re here and happy to serve—but why not take the initiative and ask those professors if we could come to their classes as well? If, for example, a professor was concerned about students’ ability to craft a compelling thesis statement, we might present a PowerPoint covering do’s and don’t’s, examples, and exercises. Ideally, we’d get the students working on their own thesis statements in mini-tutorials. Basically, we would be bringing the Center to the classroom.
The response was extremely positive. Sara remembers the faculty’s enthusiastic support: “They gave us a starting point for the content of the presentations, and they provided word of mouth advertising.” Indeed, there was sufficient interest to justify the creation of the position of Workshop Coordinator, though at first it was only part-time. Still, Sara took the title and led the Center through its first full year of the program in 2005–06, running sixty-five workshops for twenty-nine professors from across the curriculum. For her success, Sara modestly credits close collaboration with the tutors: “we were lucky to have a great group who were interested in helping out.” Some of us remember, however, how hard Sara worked building a loyal clientele base and the beginnings of a fine and enduring repertoire of workshop topics. For instance, Professor Mitchell has invited us to her HIS/WGS seminar to point out the pitfalls of passive voice every year since—well, except when she was on sabbatical, of course!
The part-time nature of the job pretty much ensured it would also be temporary. The plan was to recruit replacements from the graduating tutors, if at all possible, and the first passing of the torch went off without a hitch. When Amanda Blewitt ’06 became the second Workshop Coordinator, she was just hoping “not to mess up” the foundation Sara had laid. She didn’t. Instead, she built on that foundation, expanding and diversifying the program. Thanks to her intense investment, the total count for workshops rose to just under 100. Amanda continued expanding the library of topics, adding subjects and including new faculty from multiple disciplines to our schedules. Perhaps most notably, the program engaged higher-level classes, following the Center’s guiding philosophy of reaching out to writers at every stage of development. Amanda fondly recalls challenging the assumption that introductory courses profit most from the workshops. She brought workshops to several research seminars, and she came prepared, not with an MLA handbook or a Chicago style manual, but with an alternative approach: “we used a children’s Sesame Street book to demonstrate how students could find productive analytical avenues for writing about Moby Dick. The students were pretty skeptical that Grover and Elmo could have anything to do with Herman Melville at first, but almost all of them had generated new and promising ideas for paper topics by the end.” Whatever works, right? And Amanda’s approach to the program certainly worked, nearly doubling the number of workshops in her two-year tenure from Fall 2006 to Spring 2008.
So, just as Amanda had been about following Sara, I was nervous about living up to the high standards set by my predecessor. But hey-ho, I rolled up my sleeves, stuck out my chin, and set a goal of triple digits. It was a time of transition, and the Center was changing around me. Literally, actually, since we started the year by moving from our former home in the attic-like corners of Keiper Hall to the beautiful open space of Diagnothian 200. The plentiful natural light illuminated welcome shifts in Center culture, towards a more communal feel. And the work went on, busier than ever. Again, literally, actually, since we surpassed the previous record of tutoring appointments by over 400—nearly 25%. In the midst of this traffic, it was occasionally tough to fit in the workshops, but between the tutors’ perseverance and my own scrambling efforts, we served another 1000 students, and when the dust settled, we found we had scored our century—102 workshops, to be precise.
We celebrated our successes, but the end of 2008–09 brought the end of an era as well. As I prepared to move on, Dan and I debated the possibilities for keeping the program going. We yearned for the resources to create a full-time, salaried position, but we realized that would not be possible at that time. Ultimately, we chose to shelve the model of hiring a recent graduate to run the workshops, instead deciding to divide the responsibility amongst several senior tutors: Leigh McCurdy ’10, Lauren Neal ’10, and Krystin Biscardi ’10. These three became the first student Co-Coordinators. We knew the tutors wouldn’t have the time to manage the quantity of workshops offered in the past two years, but we trusted their ability to maintain the quality of the Program.
And we were right.
Honestly, one did have to look very closely to notice that the tutors now charged with leading the program had their own apprehensions. It wasn’t until I moved into a co-Coordinator position the following year that I realized the hefty responsibility my senior colleagues shared during that first year of a tutor-led workshop program. Leigh McCurdy reflects, “I was honestly a little bit skeptical that the other tutors and I, juggling school, senior nights, and plans for the future, would be able to create a streamlined process for accommodating all workshops.” Still, she found time and energy not only to work with her fellow coordinators to secure a successful year of workshopping but also to appreciate her own surprise at students’ engagement with material that she could most likely reproduce in her sleep. With a mixture of astonishment and relief, she remarks, “I would walk away from those sessions feeling like the concept really got through, and I didn’t even have to deviate from the routine.”
Certainly, Leigh, Lauren, and Krystin did more than merely ensure the program survived. It thrived, and, what’s more, it proved its own independence; a little chaos on the planning end of things didn’t translate into workshop mayhem at all. As a presenter, I was repeatedly impressed with the level of organization and consideration that informed each e-mailed assignment. When Judith Stapleton ’12 and I assumed leadership in the fall of 2010, I remember hoping that we could inspire the same confidence in my fellow tutors.
As Judith and I initiated year two of a student-led program, we shared anxieties not unlike those that plagued our predecessors, yet slightly less intense. We knew the model worked, but after digesting Leigh’s reflections, it’s easy for me to see that Judith and I were suffering from a similar tension; we wanted to, as Leigh shares, “do more to revamp the presentations but knew that it would probably require more time than we realistically had.” We made it a priority to update as many of the oft-requested presentations as possible, though there was always a lingering desire to do more. Indeed, we wanted to uphold the high-quality standards that previous leaders had established; now, however, I get the sense that we didn’t allow enough room for the program to take its natural shape. Because each year—and each semester for that matter—brings new tutors and, with them, new ideas and styles, a workshop can never be delivered in the same way twice. What’s more, the program itself will never look the same from one year to the next. What I began to realize during my second semester as co-Coordinator with Amy Blakemore ‘13, and now see more clearly than ever, is that this dynamism is healthy. While the tutor training program, as well as the veteran tutors’ experience, help to maintain the time-tested pillars of workshop quality, fresh perspectives from new tutors, as well as new faculty and student clients, are absolutely necessary for the program to grow in the impressive way that it has. So, I say to future program leaders: don’t be afraid to challenge what is customary if it doesn’t seem to be working!
Well, I’m back. Old Main approved the creation of a full-time Assistant Director of the Writing Center. The responsibilities include teaching English 105, editing the Center newsletter, providing administrative support as needed—and running the workshop program. Ever since Sara Ritter helped found the program, she (and we along the way) hoped eventually to see “a salaried staff member taking the helm.” Done. We’re expecting and excited for our busiest year yet, and we’re confident it will only get better!
Reflecting on the seven-year history of the workshop program, I’m struck by two things. First, the devotion of the Center staff at each step of the way to satisfy the demand for workshops, and second, the demand itself! By now it’s no surprise, but it’s always a pleasure to receive the rush of requests for workshops. Faculty who championed the program at the start still bring us back, and new professors express their delight that the service exists. The Assistant Director position acknowledges a need for writing support in the classroom, a need recognized and addressed by the Writing Center. We are here and happy to serve, yes, but now we can be out there too!