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Working in the (Virtual) Writing Center

December 5, 2020

Meredith Warden ’23

Ever since I learned about the Writing Center at Oberlin, I knew that I wanted to work there as a writing associate.

So when I was granted consent to take the RHET 401 training class this past semester, I was excited but still a little apprehensive. Learning how to be a writing associate (WA) is demanding by itself, but it’s even more difficult when the Writing Center is entirely virtual because of the pandemic.

I was nervous— would I be a good writing associate? How would the information we talked about in class, much of which dealt with in-person sessions, translate to online sessions? How could we build a sense of community among the WAs-in-training when we didn’t meet for in-person classes all of the time or work together in the physical Writing Center? These questions, and many more, rattled around in my brain at the beginning of the semester. Ultimately, training to be a WA was a transformative experience for me, and the sense of community and purpose I had from Rhetoric 401 and working as a WA was incredible. 

For context, the basic premise of RHET 401 is this: As you take the class and learn the theory behind writing tutoring, you apply what you learn as a writing associate in the Writing Center, typically working for about 6 hours/week. This concept—using what I was learning as I was learning it—was daunting to me. However, I felt more confident about WAing because of the class community and the conversations we had (a few real sessions in the Writing Center also helped).

Many small, discussion-based classes at Oberlin have a sense of community, but there’s something about working together in class and as WAs at the same time that really bonds people together. In addition to having fantastic class discussions about the theory we were reading, we could also bring up examples from our own sessions and ask each other for advice. Even though we sometimes had class remotely and doing our Writing Center shifts via Zoom meant that we were not in the same room while working, we formed a community through RHET 401. I felt (and still feel, at the end of the semester) a strong sense of camaraderie with my fellow classmates/WAs.

One of the Writing Center’s core tenets is the idea of continual and transformative learning—WAs are not writing experts, and the goal for us is continual learning and self-reflection. This RHET class’s community gave me a tangible experience of this type of learning—as I studied and talked with classmates about new ideas in the morning, I could apply them that night during a Writing Center session. 

Working as a WA in the Writing Center has also been transformative. Of course, a virtual Writing Center can have a whole host of problems, including technological failures, challenges with reading a student’s body language, more distractions, and less sense of a community among writing associates. I’m not going to lie; working virtually in the Writing Center was hard, especially because this was my first semester as a WA, so I had no sense of what a ‘normal’ WA experience was like.

Even so, I often had great conversations with students and got to see so many different types of writing and topics. From helping a student brainstorm ideas about how to analyze an 18th-century painting to working methodically through a more-or-less finished politics paper to see how it ‘flows,’ I have learned from and been inspired by so many students. I was also surprised by how meaningful working as a WA has felt so far.

I enjoy doing academic work for classes, but sometimes it can feel like I spend so much time working on something for it to be tossed into the void after the course ends. As a WA, though, I get to tangibly help students hone their writing and express their ideas, which is valuable even after they finish the piece we’re working on. 

In essence, I am so happy that I got the chance to take RHET 401 and be a WA this semester, even with the pandemic’s challenges. Through WAing, I’ve formed many meaningful connections, concretely helped people, and had interesting and sometimes moving conversations.

These experiences have all been transformative. I know that working in the Writing Center will continue to be exciting and purposeful for me. 

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