Faculty in Focus: Writing Community

Dr. John Boyd, Director of the Writing Center

In addition to teaching a First-Year Seminar, Writing Communities, Dr. Boyd teaches Writing Center Theory and Practice: A Seminar in Peer Tutoring, the course students take in preparation for working in the Writing Center. There, students learn pedagogical principles related to tutoring and develop a critical framework for responding to other writers. Dr. Boyd is particularly drawn to work in the Writing Center because of the individualized, face-to-face feedback that tutors can provide for other writers. 

In order to write and communicate well, what do students need to do? What are some principles or characteristics of effective writing and related forms of communication that you emphasize in your courses and your work as Director of the Writing Center?

The other people in this series have already given lots of great advice: know your audience, have a purpose, be brave. I suppose what I would add is that writing is a way of doing things, and it’s essentially a social activity. There is always an audience, and you are always trying to convince them of something. I think students really benefit if they begin to think about their writing not just as demonstrating their knowledge or pleasing their professor—but as a means of accomplishing something. I think they can do this even with the simplest of writing assignments. Rather than just checking off boxes, they can ask “Why does my professor want me to do this?” or “What would someone in this field of study want to know?”

In my first-year seminar, Writing Communities, I try to emphasize this social function of writing. We think about the ways that reading and writing shape, nurture, and challenge our bonds with others, and we develop some rhetorical terminology for talking about that. I want students to see that writing isn’t just a skill to be applied in certain situations but an essential means of knowing ourselves and others.

I also think that this social perspective is why I love the work of the Writing Center. Students get to meet face-to-face and talk through what they are thinking. When they meet with a tutor, they get a real audience member who cares about what they have to say. There’s no substitute for that.

What is something you learned about writing as a student that guides you now as a writer and teacher?

My dad was the editor of the local newspaper in the small town where I grew up. Often when he was home in the evenings, he pounded away on a Royal brand manual typewriter, writing stories for the next week’s edition, while the rest of us watched tv in another room. Since I was around writing so much when I was a child, I was determined not to follow in my father’s footsteps.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I was not very open to what teachers had to say about writing for a long time. But, as often happens in life, your experiences come full circle. When I was in college, and later in graduate school, I found things—ideas and books and people—that I cared about and that made me more interested in writing. So, I think the lesson there is that you have to find the things you care about, and the writing follows from that. If there is a writing task that I have to do but that I’m not excited about, I try to find some way of connecting it to things that are meaningful to me, to bring in some of my own interests and passions.

What is something that you learned about writing later in your career and wish that you had been taught earlier as a student?

Despite my initial resistance to writing in school, I definitely did have plenty of good teachers. I think one perception I had, though, was that good writing was about being clever or having a unique or original idea. That stressed me out. Writing can certainly still be stressful and demanding and frustrating, but what I learned later on, especially in the process of finishing my dissertation, is that good academic writing (and probably good writing of all kinds) is about adding to what already exists. It’s about responding to what other writers have said. It’s about saying “OK, this other person’s idea is great. Let me see if I can apply it in my own way.” Or “How about if we looked at this problem in a slightly different way?” Or “Why don’t we combine these two older ideas and see if we get something new?” So, the creative part of writing, to me, is often about moving the existing knowledge around and seeing what is left out or combining things in a slightly different way.

What writer or scholar (any genre or field) would you recommend as a model of a good writer, and why?

If I were to highlight one favorite writer, it would be Toni Morrison. Morrison comes to mind for me because she is so compelling in both a literary and an academic sense—and she demonstrates that those two forms, creative and critical writing, are not mutually exclusive. I recently read The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of essays and speeches from throughout her career. Her writing is clear, incisive, and urgent, but reading it is also like listening to the voice of a caring friend. There is such an unmistakable and individual tone to it. I also enjoy and admire the kind of non-fiction and long-form journalism that you find in publications like The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

What are you currently working on in your own writing and scholarship?

I think of myself as a practitioner-researcher, which is to say that most of the questions I am interested in answering emerge from the work I do in the Writing Center or the classroom. I’m especially interested in the kinds of knowledge that peer tutors need to do their jobs well. Aside from being successful writers in their own majors, what do peer tutors need to know to help other writers? I am also curious about how writers benefit from working with peer tutors and what long-term effects tutoring has on learning to write. It is very hard to know what actually changes after a writer leaves the Writing Center. In a recent project, I had our peer tutors report on what they saw writers doing during their sessions. Were there moments, for instance, when a writer applied some new strategy or knowledge the tutor had shared with them? I compared the tutor observations over the course of a full academic year, and it gave me a better sense of what students who use the Writing Center might be learning.

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