Editor’s Note: I chatted with Dr. Julie Christoph, the chair of this year’s National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW), about her work, the theme of this year’s NCPTW, and what we can expect from the conference. The NCPTW will take place November 4-6 at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Interested in submitting a proposal? You can find a link to the CFP at the bottom of this post!
Hi Julie! Can you tell us about yourself and your work?
I’m currently Professor of English and Director of the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching at the University of Puget Sound, which is a small liberal arts college in Tacoma, Washington. I developed my love for writing centers as an undergraduate writing center tutor at Carleton College, and I later went on to do my doctoral work in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I taught in the writing center and also served as an early assistant director of the Undergraduate Writing Fellows Program. Though writing centers are what brought me to the field of writing studies, my position as writing center director is relatively new. I have spent most of my career teaching courses in writing, rhetoric, and culture in the English department; consequently, my research agenda is eclectic. My primary area of research explores what is personal to writers about their argumentative writing: how does a writer as a living, breathing person appear on the pages of academic writing? How do writers’ personal histories, predilections, and prejudices enter into their academic writing? To what extent are writers able to be transparent about their personal history and biases in their writing—and to what extent do readers’ responses to writing exceed the limits of what writers have knowingly represented about themselves? As my teaching load has evolved into the writing center, I’ve increasingly moved toward thinking about writer identity in the writing center, and I’m going to be spending part of my sabbatical next year in at Goethe University in Germany doing a contrastive study with some writing center colleagues there.
The theme for this year’s conference is “It’s for Everyone: The Inclusive Writing Center.” Can you tell us about how this theme was chosen?
The theme of this year’s NCPTW is an extension of work we’ve been doing at the University of Puget Sound’s writing center (or, more accurately, the Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching). As is the case throughout higher education, our enrollment demographics are changing. Our campus is becoming more racially, economically, and neurologically diverse, and we’ve been making concerted efforts to adapt and change our writing center to meet the needs and interests of our students.
In the last four years, we have refocused our mission around anti-racist and inclusive practices. We’ve had some tremendously useful conversations around concepts like Claude Steele’s “stereotype threat,” and the ideas in the collection Writing Centers and the New Racism. We’d love to continue the conversation with a wider circle of people, so it seemed natural to extend these themes to the conference itself.
What kinds of conversations surrounding writing center work do you hope will be prevalent at this year’s NCPTW?
We’re hoping to hear lots of perspectives on how writing centers can be more inclusive, how we can be more intentional about the subconscious messages we send, both individually and as institutions, about who belongs in the Center—by whom we employ, how we organize the physical space, and how we think and talk about ourselves on our various campuses. Sometimes conversations about inclusion or identity can seem very subjective, and we’re actively thinking about how writing centers might combine the one-to-one models for which we’re known with the data-informed context that surrounds us in higher ed. We’re hoping to see proposals that combine research with reflection, and introspection with data. At the conference, we want to think inclusively about what “inclusion” means, and our conference activities are designed to promote thinking about universal design, about racial diversity, about gender and sexuality, and other aspects of identity that affect writing center work.
Can you tell us about how NCPTW supports and showcases the work of current peer tutors?
NCPTW is a really special conference. I love how prominent the voices of peer tutors are and how seriously their work is taken. Most of the presentations at the conference are by peer tutors, and the conference offers an opportunity for them to delve into ideas from tutor education and to explore them in more depth—sometimes even in the same room as writing center theorists they’re citing. The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project has illuminated how being a peer tutor can be a transformative experience, and I’ve found that NCPTW is often an important part of that transformation. It takes commitment to do the work necessary to present at a national conference—especially on a topic that is often outside of our peer tutors’ majors and areas of academic emphasis. But the conference proposal process and the community at the conference supports tutors in identifying and pursuing areas of research that are important to them. Peer tutors from Puget Sound have learned so much from presenting and attending sessions at NCPTW; it all feels very relevant to their own work, and they come to see that their work is connected to a much wider community of practice and inquiry. And, as a director, I find that presenters at NCPTW push me to think in new ways about my work. It’s a very generative and engaged conference.
What are some of the main things that you hope attendees will gain from this year’s conference?
First and foremost, we want attendees of this conference to learn from each other’s research and to get some ideas for their own writing center praxis. We’re hoping that, throughout the conference, attendees will also make connections across campuses and meet some new colleagues. Some of the best conferences I’ve attended have been ones where conference activities are designed to promote engaged conversation, and we’re trying to build the conference program to do that.
We’re also planning to showcase some of our local specialties. On the opening day of the conference, we’ll be on the campus of Puget Sound, where we can benefit from working with students and faculty who are involved in Puget Sound’s Race and Pedagogy Institute and where we can have panels and workshops in some of the small classroom spaces that are designed for collaborative learning. That evening, we’ll be at the Museum of Glass, and we’ll have interactive art-making activities that build on our regional expertise in glass-blowing and letter-press printing. Later in the conference, we’ll have spoken word poetry performances, and peer-tutor led trivia (including “action trivia” and other forms of trivia that exercise all facets of embodied knowing).
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
The conference will offer a variety of ways to grow in our writing center work. Come prepared to think hard, to be challenged, to have fun, and to learn more about the Pacific Northwest!
Proposals for NCPTW are due on April 15, 2016. You can take a look at the CFP here!