The Illinois Writers Workshop's Carolyn Wisniewski answers 5 questions about the Workshop and shares how writing is an essential part of the research process.
1. How did you get started helping people write?
I’m a little bit unusual in my field, because I started working at a writing center as an in-betweener: not as a student, but in between finishing my undergraduate degree and beginning a master’s program. My first writing center job was at Washington State, where I tutored in the evening after working a day job as a baker. Although I’d been an English major, this tutoring experience was my first taste of teaching writing—and I loved it.
Helping people with their writing made me feel like I was making a real impact, because writing is a tool people use to achieve their goals in academia, e.g., writing papers to achieve a desired course grade; writing application materials for scholarships, graduate programs, or a dream job; or writing to gain disciplinary recognition through publications. I loved feeling like I could help students achieve those goals, and that’s what set me on the path to being a writing center director.
2. "A research university is a writing university" is the Workshop's motto; this might seem counterintuitive to some people.
The Writers Workshop has adopted this motto exactly because it sometimes seems counterintuitive. Students commonly think of writing as coming at the end of a project, but, in fact, it’s part of the research process from the original conception on.
Research gets done through writing, distributed through writing, and assessed through writing. For instance, my colleagues in the Center for Writing Studies have identified an enormous range of genres that professional engineers write: email, lab notes, lab reports, project reports, planning reports, progress reports, professional social media, executive summaries, to name only a few. To be a researcher is to be a writer, and that’s why we make the claim that a research university is inherently a writing university.
3. How has the Workshop adjusted to graduate students' needs since opening 30+ years ago?
The Writers Workshop has evolved with the changing demographics and needs of our graduate students. When the Workshop first opened in 1990, it was intended to support undergraduate students in Composition and Advanced Composition classes. However, even during that first year, we had a little over 100 appointments with graduate students. Grad student use of the Writers Workshop really took off in the early-to-mid 2000s, particularly as the university’s recruitment and enrollment of international students increased, which led to both greater linguistic diversity among students and a greater awareness of that linguistic diversity among faculty and staff, who began recommending the Workshop more often. Now, about 1/3 of our 7600 appointments each year are with graduate students, and about 75% of those students identify as bilingual or multilingual.
Writing centers tend to be institutional spaces that support students who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized in higher education, including first-generation and working-class students, women, international students, and students of color. That’s true of our writing center as well, and that means that in addition to being a site where students can learn about writing and language, the Writers Workshop programming has evolved to address aspects of the graduate student experience like the “hidden curriculum,” imposter syndrome, isolation during the dissertation writing process, and responding to advisor and reviewer feedback.
In practice, the Workshop provides programming aimed at making aspects of graduate writing explicit, such as providing presentations on topics like writing literature reviews, crafting job application materials, and developing healthy and sustainable writing practices. We provide (virtual) writing groups and writing retreats where graduate students can meet their peers across the university and make progress on their writing.
For our consultants, we include training in active listening and motivational scaffolding strategies (like providing effective praise and reinforcing writer’s agency), and graduate students regularly comment in their post-session feedback on how much more confident they feel by the end. In the words of one grad writer, “[The tutor] was extremely helpful and listened carefully to my problem. She helped me come up with ideas for possible master thesis questions based on my interests and the research I have already been doing and working with. She helped me come up with effective ways to discuss my ideas with my advisor and helped me gain confidence to do so.”
4. Can you tell us about the Writers Retreats?
The Writers Workshop hosts week-long writing retreats in May and August, and we often offer shorter versions during Winter Break. During the retreat, we ask graduate students to commit to writing from 9am to 12:30pm each day and provide afternoon workshops on topics like goal-setting, creating a writing schedule, maintaining momentum, and revision strategies.
We also bring in partners from the Thesis Office to discuss the thesis and dissertation process and from the Counseling Center to discuss mental health and wellness during graduate school. In other words, the retreat has three goals: to help graduate students develop sustainable writing habits, gain a toolbox of writing and revision strategies, and connect with a supportive community.
These habits can lead to short- and long-term payoffs: As one participant wrote to me a semester after attending the retreat, “Just a quick update that I thought you’d be happy to hear: I passed my defense with flying colors!! I’m happy to report that since the [retreat], I have been writing ritually. I’m trying to utilize some of the things we discussed at the workshop: planned work schedule and breaks, having a daily plan, learning to let a document go, and overall—I have a more balanced workflow than before. So … yay Writers Workshop!”
5. What kind of Instructor Resources and support are available?
We support instructors both indirectly and directly. Indirectly, in that, we also offer our services to undergraduate students who often first hear about the Writers Workshop from their instructors. More directly, we can visit instructors’ classes to provide a general introduction to the Writers Workshop or a tailored presentation on a writing topic.
We’ve found that students are more likely to visit the Writers Workshop if they have a face to put with the unit’s name, and so those class visits can be very powerful. I also teach instructors strategies for responding to student writing, both at CITL’s Grad Academy offered each August and January and by request of individual departments. Additionally, our colleagues in the Center for Writing Studies provide writing-across-the-curriculum seminars for TAs who want to learn more about creating assignments and assessing student writing.
6. Extra credit. What do you like to do for fun?
I love hiking, and it’s something my husband and I do most weekends with our two dogs, Boogs and Barley. In fact, we like it so much that my husband has created this “Outdoor Alma Illinois” map that has about 100 hikes within about 100 miles of C-U. Some that we especially like are the Middle Fork Forest Preserve, Forest Glen Preserve, and Merwin Nature Preserve.
You can make an appointment with the Writers Workshop, register for an upcoming event, or reach out to them by phone at 217-333-8796 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Workshop is also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Carolyn Wisniewski is the Director of the Writers Workshop and is graduate faculty in the Center for Writing Studies. She holds a PhD in Rhetoric, Writing, and Linguistics from the University of Tennessee and has worked in writing centers for more than 15 years. Her areas of research include online tutorial sessions and tutor and graduate instructor preparation to teach and respond to student writing.