An Interview with Tracy Santa

Editor’s note: Dr. Tracy Santa’s article on close listening is featured in the May/June issue of the WLN Journal. I asked the director of the writing center at Colorado College to share a bit more of his story and about some of the details his article touches upon.

  • Can you tell me a bit more about yourself and your career in the writing center world?

TracyJune13I attended Georgetown for two years as an undergraduate (pre-writing center academia) and struggled greatly as a writer. I eventually finished a BA and MA in English and creative writing at San Francisco State, fell into teaching in a Bay Area reading program in the mid-1980s, and became curious enough about how to teach more effectively to enroll in the EdM program at Harvard. It was there I was introduced to an entire field of studies previously obscure to me: composition and rhetoric.

While teaching composition at Loyola in New Orleans I was asked in 1992 if I would like to direct the English Lab, a satellite of the WAC Writing Center at Loyola, then directed by Kate Adams. I received a quick education that year in what writing centers could (and could not) do. In 1993 I accepted a position as the Writing Center Director at the United States Air Force Academy, one among the first 16 civilian faculty hired there. The Writing Center at the USAFA was staffed by faculty—a challenging crew, but a great opportunity to have an impact on writing across the curriculum.

In 1997, I took a three year leave from the Academy to direct the Writing Program and Writing Center at the American University in Bulgaria. I went from an all-faculty staff to a peer staff composed exclusively of English Language Learners from six different countries counseling students in an English language medium environment driven by Western rhetorical practices. In my initial semester at AUBG I met Anna Challenger, director of the Writing Center at the American College in Thessaloniki, and we began informally communicating with other writing center directors in southeastern Europe. This informal circle eventually gathered itself into a regional organization coherent enough to petition the NWCA for regional status. At the point this petition was accepted the NWCA became the IWCA, and the EWCA has flourished since under the leadership of European writing center leaders and scholars like Dilek Tokay and Gerd Brauer. I enrolled at IUP during my time abroad, studied with Ben Rafoth, and finished my PhD in comp/rhet in 2005, the year I accepted the position of Writing Center Director at Colorado College.

  • Can you tell us more about your center at Colorado College?

We’ve had a Writing Center on campus since 1981, and the good fortune of Molly Wingate’s dynamic leadership (1986—2001) as the CC Writing Center developed. Thus, the Writing Center had a real history and campus presence when I arrived in 2005. CC has not had a required writing course since 1966—much writing instruction on campus occurs in the Writing Center.

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We are situated in a Learning Commons in our campus library and employee 35 peer consultants. The five members of our professional staff include an Associate Director, an ESL Specialist, and two professional tutors who focus on grant and fellowship writing, senior capstone work, and the needs of students referred to us by our Accessibility Office. Four of our five professional staff members teach credit bearing courses as well, though we do not offer a conventional composition course.

  • Can you tell us more about how your practice of videotaping tutors during training got started?

We offer two required courses prior to coming on staff as a peer consultant, Theory and Practice of Peer Tutoring and Peer Tutoring Practicum. The theory/practice course has been in place since Molly Wingate’s time as director, and we have been videotaping at the end of that course for over 20 years. In a literal sense, I inherited the practice.

Although videotaping tutorials is fairly common practice in writing center training and ongoing staff development, it’s not a practice I had employed to that point. So perhaps I came to the process with fresh eyes. These are tutorials in which apprenticing tutors are tutoring each other, so there’s a degree of familiarity, play-acting, and self-consciousness evident in many of the interactions. There weren’t going to be a lot of surprises in what a writer and tutor talked about, as everyone viewing the tapes was in fact in the process of writing a similar paper. Furthermore—we didn’t have the sort of class time necessary to view a discussion in its entirety, to consider how the interaction unfolded over time. Our viewing of the tapes was more a redundant, visual version of Tom Newkirk’s “The First Five Minutes: Setting the Agenda in a Writing Conference.”

And we needed to move beyond a “let’s look at this and see what happens” approach. So fairly early on, I began asking students to offer a very close reading of the physical interaction between the two participants (at our small residential college, 99% of our tutorials are face-to-face). We’d stop the tape to freeze tutor and writer in a posture, slow the tape down to see who was looking at who, and when, and how, and consistent patterns began to arise.

At the same time, I’d been influenced a great deal by Krista Ratcliffe’s 1999 article on rhetorical listening and subsequent writing on the role of silence and listening in rhetoric by Cheryl Glenn and others. We read and discussed Ratcliffe in our staff development meetings, and I was kind of mystified by her absence in talk and scholarship about writing center work. As rounds of close reading of the first two or three minutes of videotaped tutorials accumulated, I began to develop a sense that there were ways we performed listening in tutorials, especially in crucial opening exchanges, which have bearing on the overall success of an interchange between a writer and consultant. I certainly can’t say I’ve done the research to lock this theory in, but this is where I am as this current essay is published.

I can say that videotaping, our observations of the tapes, and discussion of those observations is a useful way to communicate to a new tutor that your actions—your physical affect from second one—are in fact, under some degree of scrutiny. Writers will be paying attention to the ways in which you are paying attention (read: listening) to them.

  • Some might say that the practice is over examining minutia. (I wouldn’t, of course!) But I’m curious, what would you say to someone like that?

I think this is a perfectly reasonable response, and a response I might have offered myself ten years ago. But in the last ten years, we’ve engaged in some fruitful discussion of how we know what we think we know about writing center work. Stephen North pointed out in his other 1984 essay, “Writing Center Research: Testing Our Assumption,” that we really didn’t have much evidence of what good practice in writing center work looked like. Then we spent the next 20 years kind of ignoring that issue. Or at least in our published scholarship—Rebecca Day Babcock et al’s A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies in Writing Center Tutoring, 1983-2006 makes a good case that the research was being done, but that it resides primarily in unpublished dissertations. In any case, we’ve seen a significant increase in published scholarship in our field which is looking very carefully at what actually happens in tutorials, and I imagine my short essay as nothing more than an invitation to engage in a closer reading of how we actively listen in tutorial practice.

And if you imagine I am dwelling in minutia, like the song says, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The sort of research engaged in by interactional sociologists like Adam Kendon (referenced in my article) rests on very, very closely observed human interaction, painstakingly chronicled and quantified. Reaching outside my comfort zone in this regard stretched my perceptions of our work—and ways in which it might be examined–in a good way.

  • On a similar note, I like how you end your essay with a broader tie-in with dialogue outside the writing center. Can you say any more about that and what you might say the broader applicability/worth of cultivating these practices with your staff?

f07d738014f049130b642ff567dbece4_SI think I’ll decline an invitation to climb on my soapbox over this, but do we not live in a time and culture, national, international, and local, where people just aren’t listening to each other? Two of my IUP mentors, Gian Pagnucci and Claude Hulbert, sat on a 2013 CCCC panel titled the “Tyranny of Argument.” Their take-away: everything is not an argument. I think recent texts like Patrick Sullivan’s A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation and Habits of Mind are inviting welcome reflection on work we can commit to in regard. And I think writing center practitioners are way in front of the herd on this.


Question for Dr. Santa? Comment below!

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