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Michelle Buntain: When did you work at the Writing Center, and did you start as a consultant or did you start as an AD [assistant director]?

Barrie Olson: I worked in the Writing Center 2010 to 2012, and I was an AD when I was there.

MB: Okay, so you were hired as an AD then?

BO: I was, yeah.

MB: Who was the director at the time when you were hired?

BO: The first year it was Dr. Rosner, and then she retired. And then Bronwyn took over for the second year.

MB: What were some of your responsibilities as an assistant director?

BO: Obviously consulting was a part of it, but then also working with the writing tutors with their own development. Also helping to facilitate the classes and different training programs. And then also some sort of independent 1:00projects that the ADs got to decide on. My first year with Dr. Rosner, we did a survey outreach research project about faculty to see how we could work with faculty on their own writing -- so, not getting faculty to send their students, but actually get faculty in the door. And then my second year, with Bronwyn, was the year that we piloted the dissertation writing retreat. That was my project, and really a labor of love.


MB: Do you want to talk about that a little bit? How that was created?

BO: Sure, yeah. Bronwyn came in that first year and met with the ADs and we were sort of just talking about what direction we wanted it to be, because with a new director we could kind of change things up a little bit. What are some ways that we can reach people we hadn't reached? I'm not really sure [of] the order of events, but I know that the graduate school -- Beth Boehm had reached out to try and get us to help graduate students more, and that's -- I don't know, I just started thinking about what we could do, and a dissertation writing retreat seemed like such a great idea because I was a PhD student at the time and some of my best writing happened when I was writing with other people. Not necessarily talking about my writing, but [for example] going to a coffee shop and sitting next to a colleague and just saying, "hey, for the next two hours we're just going to write and hold each other accountable to writing." And so that's really where the retreat started from, was just "what would it be like if over a break we got, I don't know, ten to fifteen PhD students in a room and 3:00just said hey, we're going to create an environment where you want to write." And it grew from there. We matched them -- we paired them with consultants, so not only were they writing but they were getting feedback on their writing, and we provided snacks, we provided yoga breaks -- just a place where writing could happen. I hope it's still going. I'm not sure. At least when I was there, and even when I wasn't an AD, I think I continued to be a consultant the following summer, and/or participant. I'll be honest, it's a bit of a blur, writing my dissertation. Anyway, it was really cool. It was a fun time to be a part of the writing center.

MB: I also had in my notes that you were part of starting the writing center blog.

BO: Yes. Gosh, I forgot about that. Again, I was always really interested in 4:00making the writing center more visible to people, so whether it was getting faculty in the door, the dissertation writing retreat --  just trying to bring down that wall that made people uncomfortable. I got started in writing centers when I was working on my masters, but even before then I just worked as an administrative assistant in a writing center during my undergrad time, and everyone who came through the door -- it was like "oh, I'm a really bad writer." I'm sure the narrative hasn't changed much. They were either coming in with this negative vibe, like "I'm really bad at this" and super uncomfortable and not really sure what they were going to get. Or they were being made to come in because it was a requirement from one of their professors. When you're coming in with that feeling, you're not particularly enthusiastic. It's kind of like having to go to the dentist. So part of it was just, "let's make the tutors 5:00visible so that you can see that we're people, and normal people -- not super scary." And then part of it was this educational opportunity for people to learn what the writing center actually is -- that it's not just like, "come, we'll fix your grammar" or "it's only for people who are bad at writing" -- to really showcase it as this place where the very best writers are constantly getting feedback on their writing. Coming to the writing center is a sign of being an awesome writer and an awesome thinker, and so the blog was an attempt at doing that, highlighting different consultants and just getting [writers] in. It's 6:00work that I continue to do in my career now.

MB: Can you talk a little bit about what you do now, and if there's anything that you haven't mentioned already that your experience at the Writing Center really fed into that?

BO: Sure, yeah. I am the director of academic and professional learning for an educational non-profit. Our mission is to create educational equity for students K through 12 and we focus on literacy, supporting teachers, and providing students with authentic disciplinary literacy experiences. The project that I'm currently working on, which is definitely applicable now, is creating a version of the Purdue OWL -- so an online writing lab -- for K through 12 students. Because one of the things that happens when you are bringing in authentic writing products. So our goal -- my goal, at the most basic level when I'm talking to schools and districts and teachers, is stop assigning essays. Because "essay" as a term is really meaningless, and it doesn't tell students anything 7:00about the audience, about the product, about the discourse community it belongs in. So call it a literary analysis, call it a rhetorical analysis, call it a primary source analysis -- not every product has analysis in it, but you get the idea. But one of the things that happens when you do that at the K through 12 level is that people get nervous because they don't know what that means, right? So they go and they look up, what's a historiographical essay? And they can find a ton of information about what a historiographical essay is on just about every 8:00writing center's website, because we all have handouts, we all have information. If they're really lucky, they'll see an example of that essay, a student-written example. The problem is, it's all at the college level. And so that's not really helpful -- it's not even really helpful to a high school teacher, to be honest, and it's certainly not helpful to a fifth grade teacher who isn't teaching a historiographical essay, but is maybe teaching some of the traits of that essay. What I'm working on right now is creating an online space where we break those products down and we talk about the kinds of practices we talk about at the writing center, but at a level that is accessible to both teachers and students who are K through 12. Really breaking down those products -- this is what it might look like in first grade, and this is how it's [going to move] up from first to second to third. And obviously when you're talking about primary and secondary education, we have the common core standards or different state standards to work with, which are their own... hate them, love them, whatever you want, they exist. So also working with that. Anyway, that's what I'm doing now. I can tell you more about that, but from a writing center perspective, how the writing center has influenced me and my career and my thinking, you can 9:00obviously tell it's a huge part of it. When I left university life and started working for this non-profit, I was hired because they needed somebody who could really get into disciplinary literacy, and that is something that I learned about in the writing center. Because we're seeing assignments from every discipline and from undergrad and grad and even faculty. I got a lot of experience looking at it and understanding it, and more importantly understanding how to explain it to somebody who doesn't understand it. So that's still what I do.

MB: That's great, that's really cool. This may be an odd question, but if you could list maybe three things that you have taken away from working at a writing center that have either changed your approach to writing or your approach to students -- something like that.

BO: That's a great question. I think that, first, the term "good writing" is 10:00highly subjective and is something that needs to be defined in every context. Ideally I would say we're just not going to use that term at all, but if we're going to use it we need to define it for both ourselves as educators or policymakers, and then for our students. Because what makes it good -- there are so many things that can make writing "good," and so it's not a useful term, even though that's the term that most students -- that's what they're working for. "I want to be a good writer" -- what's that mean? Do you want to be a good communicator? Do you want to be a good copy editor? There are all these different things, and that's something that came from the writing center 11:00particularly because, at least during my time, that was sort of the drive of why faculty were sending their students, particularly students outside of the composition program. So that's one. I think, related to that, is this idea that you can't expect students to be able to write in your discipline if you're not giving them opportunities to experience your discipline authentically. There's this Elizabeth Wardle article called Mutt Genres, and it's this idea where we're just putting all of these -- we're calling a product a certain discipline-specific product, but it's really a mutt because it's all these different ideas that come into it. I see it all the time in K through 12, where you have a high school English teacher who's like, "oh yeah, I'm teaching them 12:00English," but she's having them write from sources that would be considered one hundred percent social studies or history or whatever. You can have them write that essay, but that's not ELA [English Language Arts], that's not English, and you're not preparing them for the kind of work that they're going to do when they get to the university. Now, to be fair, a lot of composition teachers do this as well, where a composition professor is like, "oh, I can teach them to write in the sciences. I can teach them to write like all these different disciplines." Those were the assignments in the writing center that always seemed to be the trickiest for students and for us as consultants to kind of explain, because it's like, "Well, I actually don't really know what they want you to do or why they want you to do it." I think, bearing in mind that the people who are in the discipline are the ones who are most authentically having 13:00that experience, though they might not have the tools for how to explain the writing that they do because they learned it through an apprenticeship model. By the time you get your PhD, you've done so much writing in it that you've figured it out. So I think the number one thing I learned in the writing center was that our job is to make those moves explicit for students. Don't make them work so hard. They don't need to be an apprentice. We can say "these are the moves and this is how you do it," and they can benefit from that. I think that was three, sort of muddled in one answer.

MB: It doesn't have to be three.

BO: You're taking me down memory lane! You get it all.

MB: Well that was really well-put. So who were some of the other tutors or consultants that you worked with? How many were there? What was the space like? Can you just talk about that a little bit?


BO: Sure. So the space when I was there was upstairs in the library. We used to call it the tree house because it had that wall of windows, and when you were up there and you were sitting, all you saw were the branches from the trees in the quad, and it was a really awesome space in that sense. Other writing centers where I've worked were like basements, or no windows, or corner of the library. And at least at that time -- I believe you guys have moved -- at that time it was that big open space with the round tables, where you would do the workshops with students. But then it seemed even bigger than it was because you had these 15:00giant floor to ceiling windows. And then you went around the corner and there was kind of a space with a big table where Bronwyn would run his seminars for the consultants, or we would have workshops. And then behind that was another room with computers, which was where the consultants were. The ADs had a separate office when you first walked in, so it was the two ADs and then the virtual AD as well. So that was the space. When I was there the other AD was Laura Detmering, which was really nice because I was sort of in a unique position because I started my PhD at U of L [University of Louisville], and my first semester there I was also an AD at the writing center. So I was brand new, didn't know U of L very well -- normally those positions go to second, third and fourth years, and it just so happened that they didn't have someone that year and I had writing center experience, so Dr. Rosner asked me if I would do it. And so she sort of gave me the lay of the land, you could say. And then my second year, when Bronwyn took over, I was working with Ashly Bender, which was 16:00really awesome because she was and remains one of my closest colleagues when it comes to this kind of work. She and I work well together and really fed off of each other, especially when we were thinking about things like the dissertation writing retreat and the blog, and how to make the writing center accessible to people. And then, so many consultants [laughs]. I mean I can give you names -- it's crazy now because I remember, and it's not even like I was that old, but I was a first or second year PhD student, and when you're a second year PhD student they were first year MA students, so they seemed like -- I don't mean this in a pejorative way -- but they seemed like babies, because they were brand new to rhet/comp [rhetoric and composition] and they were brand new to this whole thing, and now I know that they're all professors at universities as well. And I'm just like, but you were this person who was really nervous about starting consulting, and didn't know what you were doing and were afraid and 17:00you'd come into my office and be like, "hey, this appointment went really badly, can you help me?" or like, "I don't know what this teacher is asking, can you look at this assignment?" And now they're the professor sending their students to the writing center.

MB: Right.

BO: I think I hit everything right? Who I worked with, what the space was like.

MB: Yeah -- if you could guess-timate maybe how many tutors or consultants at the time -- were they called tutors when you were there?

BO: I saw that question in your list, and I was like, I have no idea. I want to say we called them consultants. It's hard because I worked in a couple different writing centers, so that's part of the problem too. I want to say they were consultants, and I would say during my time we had probably twelve to fifteen, 18:00because it was also a seminar, so they signed up for it. I'm thinking about the big square table that we sat at when Bronwyn would teach, and it was probably three to four to a side? Yeah, like twelve. Twelve max.

MB: Okay. So the seminar you're talking about -- what is that?

BO: It had to have happened when Dr. Rosner was there too, where they had a class associated with consulting. So that's what I'm calling the seminar. When Dr. Rosner taught it we had nothing to do with it. I have no idea what she did, we never went back there -- no clue. When Bronwyn was teaching it, the ADs were all assigned -- I would say like two weeks, not in a row, but basically two 19:00weeks, two topics, two readings or something where we were supposed to sort of lead the discussion. And so that was part of the work that we did. And Adam Robinson was also there, and he was the associate director, I think was probably his title. And he worked very closely with us as well and he really supported us in a lot of the projects that the AD -- I mean obviously Bronwyn and Dr. Rosner did, but Adam was sort of the -- just knew everything that was going on, and he was in the office. Bronwyn was in the writing center sometimes, sometimes he was in his office, sometimes he was teaching. Adam was there nine to five, every day. So he was your point of contact.


MB: Okay. There's a question here that says, "what population of students did you work with?" I imagine it's not too dissimilar from what we have today, but if you could just mention that.

BO: Yeah, I mean I feel like we saw a ton of comp [composition] students, and I think that was partly because the comp professors and TAs [teaching assistants] were -- encouraged their students to attend in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it was extra credit, sometimes it was like, "you must attend the writing center before the second or third assignment." And it was all well-meaning, right -- 21:00the goal was to get them into the writing center so they can realize how awesome it is. But as a result, that was a lot of what we saw, and I remember especially with the "you must do it by the second or third assignment," all of a sudden we'd have this rush at the end of the semester, or the end of -- in October, why do we suddenly have a request for like sixty people who need to get in this one week? And it's because they didn't come in earlier. So we saw a lot of that. I saw, actually, a lot of graduate students who had English as a second, third, fourth language who were there, who were really looking for more feedback on sentence structure, fluency, that sort of thing. And then everyone in between. But for me I feel like it was either English as a second language or composition students were really the bulk of who I was seeing.

MB: Okay. So how did you approach working with writers? What kind of training did you have? What strategies did you utilize the most often?

BO: I'll start with training. My training didn't happen at U of L, just because 22:00I came in as an AD. So my training happened at the University of Nevada - Reno, and the way that we did it there was -- so first, as an undergrad, you could sort of be like a -- if you were a senior, you could take this upper-level class where you basically had to write the kinds of assignments that you would see in the writing center. So a lot of the comp-type assignments, and then have that experience, go through that experience and workshop them to kind of get used to giving feedback. So that was the first thing I did. Then when I was getting my masters, you sort of -- the way they train you is your first few weeks in the writing center, one of the more senior writing center consultants would observe 23:00you when you were consulting and then give you feedback. And then you're sort of left on your own, unless there was ever a problem. So that's where my training came from. What was the second part of the question?

MB: Sorry, I'm asking you too many questions at one time -- any particular strategies that you utilized?

BO: I always like to start with why the student is here, and what their understanding of the assignment or their needs are, because I don't want to make assumptions about what their needs are. In an ideal world, after we've established that and we go through their writing, what I think their needs are match what they think their needs are. But that's not always the case, or sometimes what they're saying they need is true, but there's maybe a more global issue that needs to be addressed first. But I also think that letting them have room to talk hopefully makes them feel a little more comfortable. Not always -- 24:00some students feel really on the spot because they're nervous talking to a stranger about their writing, which is really vulnerable anyway. I do that, and then at a basic level I always like to have students read their paper out loud to me, as opposed to me reading out loud or reading it silently -- although I always made that a choice, not a requirement. But I, as a writer, think that reading your own stuff aloud makes you catch a lot of things, so that was helpful. And then really trying to ask more questions than giving directives, so that it's as collaborative a process as possible while also recognizing that I don't want to make them work too hard to get to what we think or what I think is the strategy that they should be employing so they can improve their writing. I kind of think of it, the way I talk to students about transition sentences -- you put in these transition sentences because it helps your reader not have to 25:00work so hard to connect points. I would ask students a lot of questions, but I'm not going to ask so many leading questions to get them somewhere when I could have just said "hey, this is what I think." So just finding that balance. I would say those were my, and continue to be my strategies on working with writers.

MB: Great. What do you think that the writing center did effectively, sort of as a whole when you were there? If that makes sense.

BO: I think certainly during my second year, really reaching out to graduate students and getting graduate students in the door was something that we did really well. And that was primarily through the dissertation writing retreat, but that was because -- especially depending when the retreat was, they would come for the retreat but then the semester would continue after the break and 26:00they would continue coming because they'd established a relationship with a consultant. It got to the point where we had to turn people away for the retreat because there was too much interest, and so those people were coming in the door because they couldn't do the retreat but they wanted that feedback. And I think that was a cool moment for us because so often writing centers are portrayed as for struggling writers or kids who are new to college who didn't have a great 27:00writing program in high school and they need help. So when you have PhD students, who by all accounts are super successful in their field -- talking about people who get PhDs, it's like less than one percent of the population -- when they're coming in, and they're like, this is a valuable resource, I think it's a great showcase of the kind of work the writing center does.

MB: Awesome. We talked about the dissertation retreat earlier, but could you just walk me through what a day in the retreat looked like?

BO: A day in the retreat, I want to say -- I can't remember if they came in and they started writing right away, or if we had some kind of little workshop in the beginning. And the kinds of workshops we had were things like how to 28:00overcome writer's block and stuff like that. Just little strategies. So we would do that and then we would write, and I'm pretty sure that we had some kind of timer. Not necessarily like it's going to buzz for everyone, but we set times when they were going to write and times when we would have breaks -- sort of chunk it out and really encourage people -- like I said with going to the coffee shop -- for the next two hours, we're just going to write. Don't worry about it, just write. And it was always fun, because then a break would come and there would always be the person who was like, "I can't stop writing, I'm on a roll!" Or you'd have people writing and then someone else stretching or doing yoga in the corner because they just needed to get their body moving. And then it was lunch, and then it was writing some more. And then staggered throughout the day you had a meeting with your consultant where you'd go over what you had written that day, or plans or just a brainstorming session. That's what I remember. 29:00There was probably more to it, probably a morning consultation and an afternoon -- I don't know, I remember the writing, and I remember the writing because I think I must have attended, I must have done the dissertation writing retreat at some point when I was writing my dissertation.

MB: Yeah, looking over your blog posts, I think one of them you talk about participating.

BO: I should have read my blog posts, then I would know what I did! Yeah, so I feel like -- because that's the other thing is I remember attending, and just getting so much writing done. Like more writing done during the retreat than like, the entire time that I was writing my dissertation. That's what I remember.

MB: Can you talk a little bit about the transition from the initial director of 30:00the writing center that you had to Bronwyn -- what was that like? 

30:39 BO: This is very political.

MB: Just basic, you know, I'm talking administrative little things.

BO: So I was in the writing center -- it was Dr. Rosner's last year before she retired. She took a very hands-off approach-- [31:10-31:52 removed at request of interviewee]-- When Bronwyn took over, it was really, for me as an AD, amazing, because here was someone who had a clear direction. He had a reason for doing 31:00things the way he did them and he made sure to share that with us.. So there was an intentionality to everything that he [Bronwyn] approached in the writing center and it never really felt like a top-down situation. It wasn't like, Bronwyn said we're doing this and everyone just has to get in line and do it. It felt very collaborative and conversational across all levels of experience and hierarchy. I don't think I would assume a consultant would say the same thing that I'm saying as an AD, that Adam would have said as the associate director. So I think that was a change. I also think -- and I don't know if this was just something that, because Dr. Rosner didn't share as much, just wasn't visible or if it's something that really started when Bronwyn came in, but you started to 32:00feel that the writing center was being politicized as part of broader conversations in the university. Suddenly it was conversations about funding, it was conversations about location because Bronwyn did not want to move the writing center. Again, I don't know if that was just timing and it started his first year, or if it just became visible to me as an AD his first year because he shared it. But that was a shift, because my first year it was like, "oh, we're this altruistic center that's helping students with their writing, isn't that great?" And then my second year, becoming really aware -- and this is not unique to U of L by any means -- but sort of the political climate that surrounds a writing center, and really that surrounds any resource that university leadership view as helping remedial students. Which is not how we 33:00view ourselves, or should view ourselves at all, but is how, often, universities see places like us. So that was a shift. But also what was really amazing was watching a director who was going to fight tooth and nail for the writing center, for the resources, and was really, really inspiring.

MB: Was WC Online [Writing Center Online] part of the writing center at that point? 

BO: The virtual sessions? Or the appointment system?

MB: Yeah, the appointment system and the virtual sessions as well.

BO: So we had virtual sessions. I have no recollection of WC Online, so I'm going to say no. I've never even heard that URL before. If we had it then I'm either having a serious memory lapse or I was completely in my own world, 34:00because I don't think we had it.

MB: Okay, so how did students sign up for appointments, and how did the virtual sessions work?

BO: For appointments they could either walk in or they could call. Virtual sessions -- so we had a virtual assistant director as well. I don't know if you guys still have one of those -- so there were two ADs and the virtual. And the virtual appointments -- I'll be honest, I don't really know how they worked, because the virtual AD was sort of always just separate. They worked on their computer, they did their thing. So they weren't really involved. I do know that they had Skype-like appointments, because I remember Drew with his headphones and his microphone, over in the corner talking to people. But I feel like email may have also been an option, getting feedback that way. But I really don't know.

MB: Okay. We already talked about this a little bit, but did you ever do any 35:00class presentations or workshops? You mentioned creating some kind of programming for outreach and that kind of thing.

BO: Yeah, so we did class presentations. Maybe the number one presentation that we did was professors, namely comp instructors, who had been in the writing center themselves asking us to come and just explain what the writing center is and put a face on the writing center. I just remember at the beginning of every semester Ashly and I just doing a ton of those. And then every once in a while there would be a workshop, often like citation or something like that where we'd go and do that. I think that's mostly what we did. And then we would 36:00occasionally do presentations for the consultants themselves, like if we were going to talk about a certain product in a certain discipline to make sure that they're familiar with it, because we knew we were going to get a bunch of students coming in with this weird kind of lab report or something, just to give them that support if they'd never seen it. But that was about it.

MB: I'm also supposed to ask you if you have any pictures or documents you would like to share.

BO: Not really. I wish I had pictures, especially because of what the space used to look like. I don't think so. I may have our IRB [Institutional Review Board] 37:00application for that faculty survey that we did with Dr. Rosner. If you wanted that I can look. But no, I don't really think I do. You have my blogs, apparently, which I didn't even know were still alive.

MB: There's still up, they're still live! That's pretty much all I've got. Is there anything else you remember or anything else you think is important to share about U of L's writing center in your experience?

BO: I think what makes U of L's writing center special, and I think it's what's special about a lot of writing centers at universities, is that we talk a lot about what students get from it, what faculty get from it, but I think what people often miss is that for consultants, the writing center is the gateway into thinking about writing in this very particular way. Certainly under 38:00Bronwyn's leadership, I think that writing centers are where you're training the next generation of writing teachers, writing tutors, comp professors -- this is where they're getting their foundation. That's -- one, really important because what is that foundation you're setting? but two, an often overlooked aspect of how we're training and educating the next generation of people who are thinking about writing from all of these different angles. When I think back on my writing center experience and the experiences that I'm still trying to create with my current writing center projects, that's what I'm thinking about. If 39:00these are the people who are going to go out and talk to other students about their writing, what is it I want them to know? What do I want them to care about? What do I want them to think about? Because you can't undo a foundation. You can challenge a foundation, you can expand a foundation, but wherever you start people is going to influence every thought, decision, direction that they take from then on. It's just another way that writing centers are really important and that we don't always think about. I'll end there.

MB: All right, well that's all I've got. Thank you so much for your time.

BO: No problem! Please tell Bronwyn I say hello.