~ By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

The Fresno State faculty who are teaching in the Rhetoric & Writing Studies program in the Department of English are working to change the conversation about writing on campus, in the community, and beyond. This fall, we will introduce you to these professors and tell you about the ways in which their research, teaching, and service to both the university and to the discipline intersect.

In our sixth and final installment, meet Dr. Magda Gilewicz, a professor of English who came to Fresno State in 1990. She directs the university’s Writing Center, supported by the College of Arts and Humanities.

Question: What is your area of focus within Rhetoric & Writing Studies, and how does that inform your teaching of writing?

Answer: I’ve been directing our university’s Writing Center for the past 20-plus years. My main interest lies in teaching writing and teaching tutors how to teach writing in small groups or individually, i.e. not guided and restricted by syllabi, schedules and content to cover, and aiming for some collective learning outcomes, but approaching teaching from the other end, so to speak. This offers the freedom to find out where writers are and guide them through their learning.

I discovered that it is more fruitful to teach writers how to be more discerning readers, how to gauge the demands and expectations of their audience, and how to respond to writing than to instruct them in the “proper” ways of writing. If students are guided to discover how writing works rhetorically and how it works on them as an audience (even on an emotional level), and if they learn what language (discourse) to engage to formulate and articulate their responses, they can then be more aware and strategic as writers.

In a survey, students told us that the two areas of writing they find most difficult are starting to write and revising. That is why in tutorials both students and tutors write a lot and, in fact, communicate through writing.

One of the battle cries of the writing centers used to be that writing centers are places where students come to talk about writing. We found through our own research, though, that talking often deters from writing and perpetuates inequalities, traps students in repeating received, unexamined formulas, and overall doesn’t lead to meaningful revision or desire to write or revise.

So, through a slow process of observing how our tutorial groups behave, we’ve developed in our Writing Center an alternative pedagogy to how writing is often taught in a classroom and also treated in most writing centers. The satisfying outcome is that our methods percolate into writing classrooms as our tutors take on teaching positions at this university, colleges and high schools.

There is still very little in writing theory and pedagogy about how to respond to writing in ways that don’t evaluate and don’t measure up a draft against certain norms. To make writing and responding to writing meaningful to the writers, at the Writing Center we teach and practice with students’ different ways of viewing writing that also generate a different language of response that they can engage better and find more meaningful.

We also use language that re-phrases normative categories often found on grading rubrics into parallel, more reader-response concerns, so writers see the response as coming from a reader’s need to understand, rather than some abstract, arbitrary criteria that straight-jacket their thinking and written expression.

To transfer what we do into a classroom context, my advice would be write a lot, create a classroom conversation through and in writing (never graded and used only for immediate communication), and give students language to respond to writing (and in writing) that allows them to focus, not evaluate, and act as an interested audience, rather than proxy assessors.

Q: How does your research and work as a teacher/scholar engage the campus, community, and the discipline as a whole, on the conversation about how and why we write?

A: The Writing Center works with students from all disciplines and all academic levels. Tutors work in semester-long writing groups with about 700 students a year and about twice as many in individual tutorials. I also work closely with the newly reinstated Writing Across the Curriculum program coordinated by Dr. Tom McNamara, who joined our Rhetoric and Writing Studies faculty last year and already engaged dozens of new and senior faculty across campus. The tutors also ran workshops in classes.

The question “how we write” is often answered by examining features of writing that are valued or prescribed within disciplines. But that question also means something much more, perhaps more mundane but more essential for writers. How do I start writing? How do I sustain it? How do I know what to change? Where do I write? etc.

In spite of theoretically taking writing out of the lonely “garret” about three decades ago and “constructing” writing socially, the field still treats and teaches writing as something done “apart,” in the “privacy” (or, should we say, loneliness) of individual space. We may talk about doing writing in classrooms more now and assign more of it, but writing-as-a-verb still doesn’t happen much in classrooms, in conferences with instructors or tutors. That’s why the primary goal for engaging the question “how we write” is to write in classrooms, tutorials; to write in individual conferences with students and, yes, in faculty meetings.

Imagine giving out a new assignment and starting writing right then and there, on the spot; or, posing a question about a draft and writing with the writer and other readers the response (let’s say to the question: What do I hear this draft trying to say overall?), and then reading your responses, instead of talking them. That’s what engages writing-as-a-verb and as a communal act, not writing behind closed doors, solo, to nobody in particular, haunted by vicious judges with red pens. Those are the foundations on which we can change the attitudes and practices about writing, not just theories.

Q: How do you involve or impact students, both graduate and undergraduate, in your research work and projects?

A: I think I’ve been answering this question indirectly all along, but another concrete way we use research in the Writing Center is by observing and recording tutorial sessions in our small groups.

Tutors have made recordings for the past 18 years and created a huge database for research. They transcribe the recordings using rich transcription system that is now adopted in the field of the writing center studies from an article I published with a colleague in Linguistics called Close Vertical Transcription. Those rich transcripts give us a wealth of information about group behavior, negotiation, discourse of response, etc. They lead us in developing new and honing old methods of training tutors, responding to writing, using writing as a tool to build conversation and mediate group dynamic.

Q: What are your other research interests?

A: I’m not exclusively a composition and rhetoric person. I teach both literature courses and writing, so my research follows those two paths.

I’ve done a lot of work in translation. I compiled an anthology of medieval Polish drama in English translation. I’m also interested now in exploring the idea of using writing as a form of meditation. There is a lot of talk in teaching right now about “mindful schools” and mindful practices, and I believe that the way we train tutors at our Writing Center to use writing (yes, writing-as-a-verb) has been rooted in such practices for years. I’ve started to explore that area now.