In this episode, Weijia Li, Assistant Editor of the blog chatted with Sarah Rice, Writing Tutor from Dickinson College about Sarah’s Tutor’s Column article titled Navigating the “New Normal” with Abnormal Discourse from the December 2022 issue of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. We hope you enjoy it! Also don’t forget to check out our interview with Kara Wittman on her co-authored article titled The Writing Center is Not a Place also from the December 2022 issue.

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Transcript “Navigating a New Normal with Abnormal Discourse” with WLN Author Sarah Rice

[00:00:00] Intro

[00:00:28] Esther Namubiru: Hello friend. This is a WLN author episode where we feature our authors in the WLN journal. And we asked him to tell us a little bit about the article that they have just published in the journal. We hope you enjoyed this episode.

[00:00:43] Sarah Rice: Hi, I’m Sarah Rice. I’m a third year student at Dickinson College. I’m an English major and I’ve worked for two and a half years now as a writing tutor and writing ta at our school’s Multilingual Writing Center.

[00:00:59] Weijia Li: Sarah, I’m excited to talk to you about your tutor’s column article that just came out in the December, 2022 issue of WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. The title is Navigating the New Normal with Abnormal Discourse.

[00:01:15] Sarah Rice: Yeah, thank you for having me.

[00:01:17] Weijia Li: So, Sarah, what made you decide to write this?

[00:01:23] Sarah Rice: So I have a personal motivation and a general social motivation. in the general sense the combined factors of Covid 19 and the 2020 election, the increased coverage of everyday inequalities, our world really changed a lot in the past two and a half, three years.

[00:01:43] And with these changes we’ve kind of propelled. Certain social justice movements and inclusivity movements and a type of empathetic learning, especially in the academic field. However, as I started to write this article, I noticed that at least my generation of students we started to experience kind of a burnout and a slowdown of these social justice movements.

[00:02:08] as months have passed, we’re all struggling still to deal with the consequences of Covid 19, and we’re still dealing with the consequences of the everyday inequalities we face.

[00:02:20] Sarah Rice: So we’ve kind of slowed down a little bit, I noticed, and I, I think that this, this sense of burnout is to be expected, but I don’t think it should be accepted. on a personal level, I feel very much defined by covid 19, I graduated high school from the class of 2020. I didn’t, really graduate actually. I had, I had no ceremony or anything. My first year of college was all virtual, and I’m so thankful that Dickinson really took Covid seriously, and that our classes, you know, were online and masks were required when we came. So I’m thankful for that, but it was a little bit jarring and upsetting to lose that year of the college experience.

[00:03:04] Weijia Li: Right.

[00:03:04] Sarah Rice: Yeah. So this past year I have kind of gained a greater sense of, you know, the college experience and everything as we do move into this post pandemic world. But kind of navigating it is certainly an interesting experience and a, a learning one at that. So I think my article kind of covers both that personal development I’ve seen as a scholar, as a student, as a writing tutor as well as our, our society in general and the social issues that we’re kind of facing right now.

[00:03:39] Weijia Li: You mentioned the slowing down of social justice movement as well as, empathetic learning. Why they’re slowing down?

[00:03:50] Sarah Rice: Yeah. I think especially right after the pandemic, we were all in lockdown, you know, and we had a lot of free time on our hands, and I think with that free time especially at the beginning, we were able to focus on certain aspects of society, certain aspects of our lives that we usually brush past during the busy everyday life before. So, you know, initially we were able to focus a lot on, you know, abolitionist work

[00:04:22] Sarah Rice: And inclusive feminism. LGBTQ rights, and, you know, disability equity, certain things like that. And as the pandemic wore on though, you know, and as we spend five, six months you know, social distancing. It can get draining. Both, both personally, you know, internally as well as externally with our inner act.

[00:04:42] And I think, like I said earlier, it’s, it makes sense. And it’s not a criticism, I think we do, it’s it’s exhausting. It is. But I think we shouldn’t let it slow down, you know? Yeah. And as we start to get back into this new normal again , it is easy to let all the progress that we achieved in the past two years, kind of go on the back burner.

Weijia: So how would you relate that context to your very first tutoring session You described it as a failed session

[00:05:19] Sarah Rice: yeah. I think if I had, you know, one word to, to describe that feeling after the first session, it would be this, this sense of illegitimacy and. as a tutor.

[00:05:30] You know, I did go through my training

[00:05:32] Weijia Li: mm-hmm.

[00:05:32] Sarah Rice: and I was selected to be a tutor. But my training was over Zoom, like all of our classes. So it’s very different to do a session over Zoom and do it, you know, online. As opposed to sitting face to face with a person. And talking about it, I guess talking about our session and my first session was the first time I’d even been in our school’s library or school’s writing center.

[00:05:58] Weijia Li: I understand that feeling. It’s like, I don’t know where I am. I, I need to find my way.

[00:06:04] Sarah Rice: you know, I was a sophomore, but I felt like a freshman.

[00:06:06] Weijia Li: It was your first time being on campus. Really.

[00:06:10] Sarah Rice: Yeah. So, you know, I had this I called her Mary in the article. She was a freshman and we did establish, you know, a little bit of repertoire at the beginning of our. and it was impossible to avoid the obvious, you know, situation mm-hmm. as we’re sitting there wearing our K95 masks. And she, I kinda asked how she was doing and I really applaud her honesty. She was definitely expressing a lot of concern and stress and anxiety.

[00:06:40] Sarah Rice: about college and, and starting it her senior year was just like my freshman year all online. And she hadn’t had a lot of social interactions, so she was telling me about how she was really nervous about juggling everything in college and kind of making that transition from high school to college.

[00:06:58] Sarah Rice: And while that wasn’t necessarily related to the writing she brought in, it was, you know, a part of our conversation and I unfortunately, I panicked. I really did. Because she was expressing all this concern about her freshman year, and she even asked me for some advice and I didn’t really know how to respond. You know, my freshman year was spent sitting in my room

[00:07:23] Sarah Rice: With all my family, you know, doing their own thing,

[00:07:26] Weijia Li: right.

[00:07:26] Sarah Rice: And I felt kind of like a failure that I couldn’t give her the advice she needed. Because during my tutor training my instructor, Noreen Lape, she really emphasized this idea of building relationship with the writers who come in, you know, so it’s not just about the paper. And I felt like I, I was struggling to kind of build that relationship just because I couldn’t really relate to this freshman year experience.

[00:07:50] Sarah Rice: So, you know, we had a, a short, like I said, a brief conversation about that, and then I did make a push to kind of, you know, jump into the paper to the work that she was bringing. And from there we had, we had a we had a good session regarding her academic. . We went through and, and we did her paper and we looked over it and we had a plan then when we finished the session for her to go forward. So under normal standards, I guess it, it should have been a successful session academically at least. Unfortunately I felt like it was a failure socially because of my inability to help her out with these concerns. She brought. and I don’t wanna be just a tutor who can help with your writing or with your academic performance. You know, the, the benefit of a student, a peer tutor is that they are also in the same boat as you.

[00:08:42] Sarah Rice: You know, they can help you manage the college experience. They can relate to you. And I thought I was just completely missing that because of my covid experience and my, my lack of a traditional first year of college.

Weijia: You used Richard Rorty’s abnormal discourse as, as a lens to reflect the, very first session that you just. described., to highlight the importance of pushing the boundaries of traditional academic discourse. Now, after you kind of just gave me a refresher of that session, I feel like maybe what you’re trying to say is the traditional academic discourse is all about the work itself.

Sarah Rice: Yeah, so personally I struggled to even understand the term discourse. I feel like it’s one of those academic buzzwords. And everyone loves to use it. But not everyone loves to explain it. So thankfully while working on this article, I was able to better understand what discourse was and the different types of it. So, like you said, this normal or academic discourse what I would use to describe, you know, the, the literal work done in a session related to the academic assignment. And in that sense, if we look back at my first session, I, I was successful in doing that normal academic discourse.

[00:10:07] On the contrast though, we have this abnormal discourse. And unfortunately, abnormal is a very abstract general term, and I. . You know what? It actually, not unfortunately that the fact that it is this abstract term means that it does have this, this sense of being different for every situation.

[00:10:28] You know, you can pull what you want from it depending on who you are or who you’re working with. So for me at least, I see abnormal discourse more as a focus on, on mental and emotional wellbeing and empathetic understanding and learning. . So that kind of relates back to these social issues I was mentioning earlier that were kind of brought to our attention as Covid first entered our world, and then kind of dissipated as time went on.

[00:10:59] Weijia Li: Yeah, I was gonna say, oh, it’s, it just ties back to what you said at the beginning the broader context.

[00:11:07] Sarah Rice: Yeah.

[00:11:08] Weijia Li: it seems like you’ve learned that an uncomfortable session had more potential to help you grow personally, and you explained in the article and I quote, “I began to realize that my most effective and enjoyable sessions were not the ones in which I avoided all personal topics of covid 19. Instead, the sessions that evolved open and honest conversations about the effects of Covid 19 helped the most success.” Now imagine you are speaking to students in a tutor training course. How would you define a successful session to them now?

[00:11:47] Sarah Rice: Just like abnormal discourse is different from person to person, a successful tutor session is different from person to person based on what the writer needs and what the tutor has to bring to the table.

[00:12:00] A successful session isn’t about the work that has been completed or what is to show at the end of the session, but rather it’s based on two different things: one being how the writer feels leaving the session, and two being what the writer’s plan is going forward after the session. I love to end a session by asking, you know, what the writer is doing after the session regarding , their other academic work, the assignment they brought to me and even regarding their social plans. Because I think this question helps us gauge where the writer is emotionally and, mentally following the session. And it also helps us develop a plan to continue working on their assignment. So I think that question kind of addresses both things, both aspects of a successful session. And it does help us, like I said, step away from how many paragraphs did we get through during our session? You know, how many, how many grammatical errors did we. stuff like that.

[00:13:00] Weijia Li: So it sounds like you are advocating for a more holistic way to view what is a successful session instead of just saying, oh, you need to have concrete progress, measurable, things like that it’s more like the overall I guess how the writer is feeling. And then whether they they have, they’re certain about what they’re gonna do next, and it’s just the wellbeing. Right?

[00:13:30] Sarah Rice: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s again, tying it right back to Covid, you know, that’s the wellbeing I think that we’ve started to lose sight of as we go back into our busy lives and, and go back into the post pandemic, I guess.

[00:13:43] Weijia Li: I was an academic coach, as a grad student for, a couple years, so it sounds like, how you feel about your yourself as a person in this world has a lot to do with how they’re doing in their classes and so on. And sometimes things in one’s personal life can have a tremendous effect on their academic, Right?

[00:14:08] Sarah Rice: Yeah. And I think it would be, you know, a disservice to the, the students as well as the, the community in general to not address or acknowledge the fact that those personal issues do coincide and affect academic performance, you know, mental wellbeing. It’s all tied together and it would be ignorant to assume that it’s not just for the sake of easy conversations, comfortable conversations yeah. As writing tutors we can really use our position to, like you said, kind of show that the students, you know, they are humans and they have lives outside of their work, but so are the professors. it’s just this empathic understanding that we are all kind of going through this together.

[00:14:54] We all have different experiences of course, but we’re all kind of experiencing slightly just a, a different, a new normal. Yeah.

[00:15:05] Weijia Li: Yeah, exactly. We are coming to an end. Is there something that you wanted to share in the article that you didn’t have the time or space to include? Or any new insights you’ve gained after taking time away from the piece?

[00:15:24] Sarah Rice: Yeah, so I did write this piece about six or seven months ago. That means I’ve had six or seven months of more tutoring practice, right. I can truly say I have had more fun tutoring since starting to embrace this idea of abnormal discourse. These more uncomfortable, sometimes more personal conversations with the writers who come in. With that, I’ve noticed when I’m having more fun, the writers having more fun.

[00:15:56] Sarah Rice: And we do tend to get more done. And I have started to learn more, not just about writing and, and ways of, of tutoring, but just about the community I’m in and the community at Dickinson. And I think that would happen for all tutors, you know, who start to embrace a more abnormal discourse. You’re not just learning about you know, ways to communicate, ways to write, ways to improve yourself as a student but you’re learning about the people around you and your similarities and your differences.

[00:16:29] Sarah Rice: and ways that you can support each other. And I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned since then. I’m not just a tutor. I like to think of myself as a support system as well and I think that takes some of the pressure off. You know, being this perfect academic guide. That’s not our job as tutors. Our job as tutors is to support the entire person who’s coming in to receive help.

[00:16:54] We’re not just there to support their writing, whether to support their academic wellbeing, their mental wellbeing, their emotional wellbeing. . And if we can’t do that, it’s our job then to find resources for them or let people know who, who can do that. I think it’s, it’s just about facilitating community and I’ve learned that to do that, you know, you do have to have those uncomfortable conversations, but there are massive benefits from it, so it’s totally worth it.

[00:17:18] Weijia Li: Well thank you so much, Sarah, for talking to me about your article.

[00:17:24] Sarah Rice: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I had a great time.

[00:17:28] Weijia Li: Listeners, the conversation you just heard was with WLN author Sarah Rice from Dickinson College. Her tutor’s column article titled Navigating the New Normal with Abnormal Discourse was recently published in a December 2022. Issue of WLN A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship. We hope you’ll check it out.

[00:17:49] Outro: That’s it for today’s episode. Thanks to our guest for the insightful discussion. We would also like to thank our listeners and blog subscribers for supporting us, and a special thanks to Emmanuel Mubiru who provided our theme song. For notes and resources mentioned today, visit the Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders blog at wln

The “Slow Agency” Podcast

Created and hosted by your CWCAB editors, the goal of this podcast is to open up time and space in this productivity-saturated culture to slow down and dialogue with leading thinkers and practitioners in writing studies worldwide. The title of the podcast is inspired by Micciche, L. (2011) For slow agency. Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, 35 (1), 73-90. Our inaugural episode features WLN’s journal editors whose wisdom and hard work make this journal and the blog possible.

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