From the Director

In and out of the workplace, much about 2020 has been disturbing and challenging. Many of us have experienced deep loss and had health worries; we grieve with each other and with students as the coronavirus takes more and more lives. Black Lives Matter protests this year moved us to reaffirm our anti-racist pedagogies and policies, to work actively toward inclusion and justice for all members of the U-M community. As we reflect over the past year in this Newsletter, we honor the extraordinary efforts of students, faculty, and staff to meet new challenges, and to support each other as we do so. 

In March, Sweetland began remote operations, moving all courses, the Peer Writing Consultant program, Writing Workshop, MWrite, unit meetings, and even end-of-term social gatherings online (during one unit meeting we toured a farm remotely, which gave us a much-needed break). We’ve learned a lot this year, far more than I can summarize in this brief introduction. Along with the rest of the world, we’ve become adept at managing Zoom meetings and found new ways to connect with each other and our students. This past spring, I read through students’ end-of-term comments about their winter courses and their Writing Workshop sessions. Over and over again, I witnessed their appreciation of instructors’ concern for them; students appreciated instructors’ necessary and welcome innovations, flexibility in adjusting to new formats and digital environments, and attention to students’ changing needs and difficulties. 

We are all sometimes nervous about meeting new challenges, but we are also driven to keep students at the center of all we do, to concentrate on how we can make new modes of learning work for them, and to try to convey to them how much they matter to us, how important their education is, and how far we will go to support them. This year has given us many opportunities to live our cherished values together.

I am immensely proud of everyone at Sweetland and their work with student writers, and I hope the stories they share in this Newsletter will make you proud as well. 

Theresa Tinkle
Director, Sweetland Center for Writing

Faculty & Staff News

Meet Our New Undergraduate Program Coordinator – Dan Hartlep

Dan Hartlep completed his B.A. in Psychology at the University of Michigan in 2016, and recently earned his M.A. in Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University in April 2020. After giving the hard sciences the good ol’ college try, Dan realized that his calling was in student affairs while serving as a peer advisor in the U-M Psychology office during his senior year. Meeting one-on-one with students, discussing their educational and career goals, and weighing the pros and cons of different academic and experiential courses came so naturally that Dan felt compelled to continue working at the University while furthering his understanding of student development at EMU a few years later. 

Outside of work and school, Dan has the utter joy to spend his evenings with his fiancée Amanda and their 1-year-old Corgi named Pinto. The dog-dad life suits Dan very well and he and P can be found at Swift Run Dog Park most weekends. At home, Dan and Amanda love to cook plant-based meals and find a lot of joy in discovering new restaurants and bars around the metro-Detroit area. 

While having never been in the office, Dan is very excited to be a part of the Sweetland Family and has felt welcome from his very first day on the job — he can’t wait to meet everyone in person!

Meet Our New Faculty – April Conway

In her new position as a Lecturer III, April Conway is responsible for managing Writing 100, including mentoring new course instructors and consulting with Sweetland Director Theresa Tinkle and the graduate student team conducting research on the directed-self placement process.

Now working with graduate students, this fall April taught Writing 993 where she introduced concepts of the labor contract and single point rubrics as alternative assessment methods. Next term she’ll teach the humanities section of Writing 630, Sweetland’s graduate writing course, and continue to run the virtual Write-Togethers.

April has joined university efforts to support parents, including the LEO parents caucus and the faculty and staff ally group to support student parents. She continues her service as a social media content creator for the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, and she continues to volunteer with the non-profit La Conexión Immigrant Solidarity Committee to help publish the organization’s newsletter.

This term, April has been writing a book chapter titled “La Conexión: Advocating for Latinx Immigrants in Northwest Ohio” for the collection Grassroots Activisms: Public Rhetorics in Localized Contexts. She also spends time making art with her daughter, baking, gardening, and walking herself and her dogs while she listens to true crime and other narrative storytelling podcasts.

Faculty News

Julie Babcock

Julie Babcock – Julie’s poetry collection won the 2019 Kithara Book Prize and just came out last week! A poem from the collection “Nothing better than to be alive and open-mouthed” is nominated for a Pushcart.

April Conway

April Conway – April joined Sweetland in a new, full time position; a co-authored chapter, “Crossing Divides: Engaging Extracurricular Writing Practices in Graduate Education and Professionalization,” was published in the book Graduate Writing Across the Disciplines: Identifying, Teaching, and Supporting; and a chapter proposal titled “La Conexión: Advocating for Latinx Immigrants in Northwest Ohio” was accepted for the book Grassroots Activisms: Public Rhetorics in Localized Contexts.

Simone Sessolo

Simone Sessolo – In May 2020, Simone was awarded the Inaugural Digital Studies Institute Teaching Award. He also received grants from Rackham, CRLT, and Academic Innovation for his team’s work on the Dissertation eCoach, which started university wide in Fall 2020. In November 2020 he participated as an invited guest speaker in the MiXR Studios Podcast, produced by the Center for Academic Innovation.

Carol Tell

Carol Tell – Last summer Carol was a fellow at the 2020 Institute for the Humanities Summer Fellowship.

Alumni Updates

Here’s the most recent alumni news sent in to us in 2020. All of our alumni updates can be found in the Alumni & Friends section of our website. Sweetland alumni, let us know what you are up to here.

MWrite Fellows Alumni

Mary Kruk • Women’s Studies 2017 • M-Write Fellow for STATS 250

I’m a PhD student in Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State! I’ll be graduating in 2022.

Vineet Chandra • Public Policy 2018 • M-Write Fellow for ECON 101

I came back to the University of Michigan for law school. I graduate in May 2021, and I’ve accepted an offer to return to Boston and start work for a law firm.

Penelope Farris • Biomolecular Science & BCN 2018 • M-Write Fellow for CHEM 216

After graduation, I took a year to work at a management consulting firm that focused on promoting behavior change to improve the environment at corporations. I’m currently living in Brooklyn, NY in my second year of medical school at New York Medical College. I’m hoping to pursue psychiatry and I’m looking forward to rotations next year to get a flavor of different specialties

Charlie Ferreri • Biomolecular Science 2018 • M-Write Fellow for CHEM 216

Following graduation I took a gap year where I worked as a medical scribe for the department of pediatric surgery at Michigan Medicine. I then started medical school in the summer of 2019 at the University of Michigan. I am a current M2 who is looking forward to beginning clinical rotations and interacting with patients.

Abbie Barondess • Neuroscience 2019 • M-Write Fellow for CHEM 216

I work as a college adviser for the University of Michigan College Advising Corps at a high school in Grand Rapids. I work under the national College Advising Corps which is an Americorps program that seeks to increase the number of low income first generation students in higher education!

Robert Dalka • Physics 2019 • M-Write Fellow for PHYSICS 140

After graduating with my degree in Physics, I moved to the Washington, D.C. area to attend the University of Maryland in their Physics PhD program. I am a part of the Physics Education Research Group at UMD. My research focuses on understanding physics departmental culture, how this culture changes, and how students are included in these change efforts.

Camille Phaneuf • Neuroscience, Cognitive Science (Computation Track) 2019 • M-Write Fellow for BIOL 172

After graduating in May 2019, I moved to NYC to start my current position as a lab manager and post-baccalaureate researcher for Dr. Catherine Hartley at NYU. I study the neurodevelopment of value-based learning, memory, and decision-making using behavioral, computational, and neuroimaging methods.

Dominic Polsinelli • Neuroscience and English 2019 • M-Write Fellow for BIOL 172

I currently live in New York City working as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab at Rockefeller University. I’ll be applying to medical school next year.

Brandon Staarmann • Business Administration 2019 • M-Write Fellow for ECON 101

Since graduating from the University of Michigan in 2019, I’ve moved to Washington, D.C., and currently work as a Software Engineer at Capital One at their headquarters in McLean, Virginia.

Sheridan Tobin • Public Health Sciences 2019 • M-Write Fellow for STATS 250

I’m a Genetic Counseling graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and will graduate in 2022.

Emily Africk • Statistics 2020 • M-Write Fellow for STATS 250

I am working as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, DC!

Amanda Bachand • Neuroscience 2020 • M-Write Fellow for STATS 250

Since graduation, I have been working in a middle school math classroom as a Student Success Coach with City Year Detroit, an AmeriCorps program focused on supporting students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. I am also currently in the process of applying to medical school.

Jon Reid • History 2020 • M-Write Fellow for CLIMATE 102

I am attending law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and I live in Philadelphia, PA.

Benancio Rodriguez • Biochemistry 2020 • M-Write Fellow for BIOL 172

Since graduation in the Spring of 2020, I moved to Los Angeles to start graduate school at UCLA in the field of Molecular Biology.

Harry Wang • Engineering 2020 • M-Write Fellow for STATS 250

I am currently a Computer Science Masters Student at University of Pennsylvania.

Rachi Willard • Anthropology 2020 • M-Write Fellow for CHEM 216

I’m living in SE Michigan and working remotely in a social and behavioral sciences lab at the NIH. In January I’ll be leaving for Italy on a Fulbright research grant! While I’m there I’ll be doing ethnographic research in migrant welcome centers in Palermo, Sicily.

Peer Writing Consultant Alumni

Ana Maria Guay • Classical Languages and Literatures, minor in Translation Studies 2015

After U of M, I received an MPhil in Classics from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge scholar. Although I originally went on to graduate work in Classics at UCLA, my experience with Sweetland had made a life-changing impact. I switched my focus, received a graduate certificate in writing pedagogy from UCLA, and am now a full-time Writing Learning Specialist (including supervising our writing peer tutor program!) at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR.

Minor in Writing Alumni

Kennedy Clark • Sociology 2017
Since graduating, I’ve student-taught in Ann Arbor Public Schools, tutored college writing, and completed my M.A. in Educational Studies from UM. I currently work as an Evaluation and Assessment Coordinator at Western Michigan University’s medical school.

Rachel Hutchings • Screen Arts 2017

Since graduating, I moved to Los Angeles and began a career in the entertainment industry. I currently work at Untitled Entertainment as an assistant to talent managers, where I help clients get cast in upcoming film and television projects, and provide feedback on current scripts in development. I still keep busy with my own writing when I can!

Meagan Malm • Business Administration 2018

My research paper stemming from my Wallenberg Fellowship was published by World Development Perspectives last month. You can access the article online through February 26th. I have a summarized version on my website.

Ashley Preston • Communication Studies 2018

Since graduation, I have been working as a Content Specialist at U-M in the Division of Public Safety and Security. In my role, I write web articles and develop social media posts and campaigns. I have most enjoyed learning ways to capture the stories of my colleagues to share with our community — as I’m sure you can imagine, public safety professionals do some important, thankless work. My MiW experience was very helpful in inspiring me to tell stories in meaningful ways.

Resilient Teaching, Creative Adaptations: Sweetland Faculty and Students Learn and Write Together in Remote Environments

T Hetzel’s Minor in Writing Capstone Class

Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the growing COVID-19 pandemic caused schools and colleges to close, faculty and students around the country entered into “emergency remote teaching” mode as they quickly shifted their in-person, often hands-on, pedagogical strategies to a distance-learning format. Many faculty had never taught in online settings before, and we all scrambled to get up to speed on the affordances of Zoom for online class meetings, of video tools like Kaltura for recording video lessons, and the possibilities of social annotation tools like Perusall and for fostering robust remote discussions of readings. Despite the stress and the real hardships faced by many students and faculty as they transitioned to this “new normal,” silver linings were also discovered as GSIs and faculty created new communities of online practice to share what they were learning about remote teaching and to support each other in making the transition to “resilient” online teaching

Sweetland faculty and student staff made this transition in a variety of ways, and we have gathered here some of their reflections. Shelley Manis and Shuwen Li discuss creative adaptations they made in their teaching plans and student responses to them; Louis Cicciarelli shares the experience of moving the spring Dissertation Writing Institute online; Larissa Sano and Ginger Shultz highlight the innovations made by Sweetland MWrite undergraduate Writing Fellows in their support of students in STEM classes; undergraduate Peer Writing Consultants Jordyn Houle and Julia Van Goor reflect on moving the Sweetland Peer Writing Center online; and April Conway offers appreciations for her students’ resilience and energy in meeting the challenges of this new learning environment.

Naomi Silver
Associate Director, Sweetland Center for Writing

What Worked in Remote Teaching

In Fall 2020, I did two things that made all the difference in terms of student buy-in to courses, their ability to participate in a course community, and their intellectual curiosity:

  1. I gave students as much control over the course content/scope/policies as possible, starting with having them annotate the syllabus & grading contract in a Google Doc, which remained “live” for the whole term. 
  2. Students and I used a running Google Doc of “Collaborative Session Notes.” 

The first was meant to be as inclusive as possible but also turned out to help students internalize and take ownership of the syllabus and grading structure. I made my syllabus in a Google Doc and gave students editorial access, asking them to comment on it as well as offer suggestions (in “suggesting” mode): What excited them about the course (and why) as well as what worried or confused/troubled them (and why). I will never go back. They had long conversations with each other in the margins, answered many of each other’s questions, and made some wonderful suggestions that enriched the course. 

The collaborative session notes became a lively record of our class discussions, full of relevant hyperlinks and a site where I could also offer formative assessment via commenting on their breakout room discussions and notes and/or offering general feedback based on what I’ve been seeing in class and in their offline work. These notes also allowed me to gauge how their breakout room discussions were going: I could watch them populate their room’s ideas and questions. Almost every single student told me they loved the breakout room time, and the vibrancy of their discussions attests to that.

Shelley Manis
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

Dissertation Writing Institute Goes Remote

Our 18th Dissertation Writing Institute continued through the pandemic this spring despite missing one critical component:  office space. Before this year, the DWI has always provided fellows office space in which to write and work on their dissertations. This space has been a mainstay of our program. DWI fellows put in six hours each day, five days a week, thirty hours each week for the eight-week program. What would the DWI look like without the office space where these writers work? 

This year we had to make a quick and vital decision with limited information.

Shortly after the university announced the decision to move to remote classes on March 11,  2020, Sweetland director, Tessa Tinkle, emailed our 24 fellows to assure them about the upcoming spring institute. The DWI would continue.  Fellows would still receive stipends. 

We still had to sort out what we would do, what the DWI might look like, without much to go on.  

Katie Dimmery

“DWI’s decision to go virtual happened before there were any established norms around what going virtual would mean,” Katie Dimmery, a dual degree student in Asian Languages and Cultures wrote me. “Though I don’t think any of the students knew quite what to expect, the combination of weekly group meetings, frequent one-on-one meetings with instructors, and ongoing group conversations about ‘creating a dissertation writing space’ were really effective for me. I didn’t have an office on campus, but it kinda felt like I did. Didn’t get to hang out in person with any of the other students or instructors, but I felt that I got to know them and to share the writing process with them. AND I made about three chapters.”

And even without the actual office space of past years, we were able to continue, as best we could, providing important program features. 

…having an academic workshop with an amazing group of graduate students from different disciplines made my work better. Their feedback was invaluable.

Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes, a doctoral candidate in the School of Education defending his dissertation in the Winter 21, wrote me that “Despite not meeting in person, being a part of the DWI remotely was great. Two things that made the experience great were first being able to meet with my leader frequently. I am at my best when I have to produce writing and get constant feedback. I was able to get that through the institute. Second, having an academic workshop with an amazing group of graduate students from different disciplines made my work better. Their feedback was invaluable. Considering how successful the program was remote, I can only imagine how beneficial it would have been if it were in person. The structure and people at DWI are built for anyone working on their dissertation to make significant progress!”

Writing from home has its distractions.
Photo credit:
Kate Dimmery

Although the DWI could not provide the physical office space for our fellows this year, we made our best efforts—via BlueJeans and Zoom—to provide them with other program features we know matter to dissertation writers. We maintained one-to-one feedback opportunities for fellows to share their in-progress writing and talk about their work with DWI faculty, and we continued offering small interdisciplinary group workshops for each writer.  

While we know what we did miss by not being together this past spring—the informal knowledge sharing, community building, friendships, the printers, and much more—the DWI was able to endure with the help of willing fellows and a swift decision to be supportive and creative in reimagining the DWI, relying on what we could provide fellows, in the strange space and time we all found ourselves this spring.

Louis Cicciarelli
Co-Director, Dissertation Writing Institute
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

A Technical Communication Project during COVID-19

In March 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted our life; however, my students and I found a precious opportunity of practicing tactical technical communication in Writing 200, Writing with Digital and Social Media: Technical Writing

Coined by the technical communication scholar Miles Kimball (2006, 2017), tactical technical communication refers to unpacking complex information and radically sharing it in extra-institutional settings. For example, a YouTuber or a blogger can teach you how to fix your dishwasher. Different from the traditional technical communication, tactical technical communication allows ordinary consumers of information to act as experts and use their (sometimes cunning) wisdom to discover, shape, and disseminate information that could benefit their target audience. Such a way of “massaging” (in McLuhan’s terms) information became particularly important in the early stage of the pandemic when people were anxiously trying to understand how they should act. 

To find peace in ourselves and help others surrounding us, we quickly executed a tactical technical project in the last few days in Writing 200. Students actively proposed problems they would like to solve (e.g., offering instructions for wearing masks and completing grocery shopping online), identified their target audience (e.g., low-income people and seniors), located the platforms for disseminating their works (e.g., a blog or a vlog), and efficiently gathered the most needed information for their target audience. Their final projects include blog articles, vlogs, flyers, and infographics. 

by Eman Azrak
by Courtney Fortin
by Andrea Wegner and Shanley Corvite

To help those struggling financially, in the form of a blog article, Sarah Pyykkonen instructed people about how to file for unemployment, while Andrea Wegner and Shanley Corvite explained what a “stimulus check” is and who is eligible for it. Caring for another vulnerable group, Courtney Fortin designed an infographic displaying some simple steps for mental care, and Jordyn Staff compiled a flyer offering comprehensive resources for mental health. From a more practical perspective, Eman Azrak taught people how to create proper homemade masks in her Tumblr page, and Elizabeth Grass shared in her vlog what she did to find everyday joy while “staying at home.” Furthermore, some students took a forward-thinking approach. For example, while we were still in the early stage of the pandemic, Miranda Shilling explained the procedure of anti-body tests in order to help people safely return to their workplaces. Even more radically, Matthew Lesha wrote a blog article, demanding Melania Trump educate the country about safe and responsible grocery shopping, following the campaigns launched by Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama. 

Even though the unexpected natural crisis did not allow those students to polish their works, we could clearly see how they discovered, shaped, and disseminated information in two typical technical communication genres—technical description and technical instructions. Most importantly, their goodwill as technical communicators shone. 

In Chinese the word “crisis” carries two dimensions: risk and opportunity. Despite the extreme stress imposed on us in this unusual year, I witnessed new opportunities in teaching technical writing and communication. From here, I hope more students could see technical writing and communication as a skill that everyone needs for themselves and for people they care about. 

Shuwen Li
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

A Shout Out to Writing 100 Students

Despite the challenges of remote instruction, students in my Writing 100 class have done very well to engage in their learning by working with each other and reading and writing in meaningful ways. What follows is shout out to my students and their ongoing, insightful, and differently demonstrated participation throughout the term. 

This is a shout out to students like Gail and Maya whose willingness to voice questions, offer answers, and venture guesses during class created momentum for our learning. There are also those students who looked out for each other, or looked to each other, for their learning, like Mary and Jack. This also a shout out to students like Lesley, Bradley, and Emily who attended office hours or sent emails to advocate for their own learning.

By the end of an exhausting and unsettling semester, it was difficult for students to feel connected to the class, so those who attempted connections, like Ari, who has a pit bull, and Clayton, the only student with a country music submission to our course playlist (see below), made things feel more personable. Kim was the only student who kept her camera on during class meetings. Though I don’t require students to appear onscreen, it was still a little sad to see so many black squares, so Kim made remote teaching feel more connective. 

This is also a shout out to students like Rebecca and Shaila who wrote such thoughtful annotations in the shared readings that they elevated coursework marginalia to a craft. 

This is also for those students whose writing and research really stood out: from Doane’s laugh-out-loud literacy narrative, to Rushil’s exceptional analysis; from Nick’s unique subject for his research paper, to Olivia’s innovative take on the clapback as a rhetorical device; from Rylie’s nuanced analysis of social media, Christian values, and the presidential election, to Max’s clear practice of establishing positionality in academic writing. 

In sum, we had a successful semester.

April Conway
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

MWrite Goes Remote: In Praise of the Fellows

It goes without saying that this has been a semester like no other. From the transition to remote learning to strikes on campus to the outbreaks and impacts of COVID-19, U-M students have contended with a lot.  

Given all of these challenges, we at Sweetland are grateful for what we can view as successes of the semester, including our ability to help faculty implement writing-to-learn assignments in their MWrite courses. The MWrite program focuses on deepening student learning by using content-based writing assignments as well as a writing process of drafting, peer reviewing, and revising.

Over four years we have been running MWrite, we have learned a lot about how writing-to-learn pedagogies can help with student learning in a range of courses and disciplines. Our research indicates that these assignments can support conceptual learning and disciplinary thinking, while also helping students identify that what they are learning is relevant beyond an academic context (see Finkenstaedt-Quinn et al. JCE 2017; Halim et al. CBE 2018; Watts et al. CERP 2020). With the pandemic, we have learned something new: these assignments translate well to remote learning and provide an important opportunity for students to engage with each other by giving and receiving peer feedback

None of our success this semester would have been possible without our undergraduate Writing Fellows. Writing Fellows are the heart of the MWrite Program and work throughout the semester to help students in their courses.  The work that Writing Fellows do is complex, as it requires not only a solid understanding of assignment content but also ideas for how to explain the material to other students. Although Writing Fellows receive a stipend for their efforts, they often say their favorite part of the experience is the chance to help other students. Fellows are incredibly committed to helping the students in their courses and have noted how much they gain from being a Fellow, especially an appreciation for all of the different ways that students approach their assignment and useful skills in giving feedback and working as part of an instructional team. This semester, Sweetland supported 63 Writing Fellows in 8 different courses, including high enrollment courses such as Stats 250 (Introduction to Statistics) and Math 216 (Differential Equations). We were also able to expand our efforts to the School of Nursing, by working with Professor Megan Eagle on using MWrite in Nursing 420 (Introduction to Global Health). 

CH 216 fellows meeting the afternoon of the Wednesday U-M officially went remote.
Photo credit: Ginger Shultz

Despite the challenges of the semester, the Writing Fellows more than rose to the occasion by investing additional time and energy into their efforts. The Writing Fellows not only did more to hold their remote office hours by learning the ins and outs of Zoom, but also spent more time attending weekly meetings to coordinate our efforts. Writing Fellows were there to help answer student’s questions via email and Piazza and were more than willing to make accommodations when students had emergencies. 

Even more remarkable, the Writing Fellows did all of this while contending with their own challenges related to online learning, COVID outbreaks, and working from different parts of the country and even the world. Our experience this semester just confirmed what we already knew about our Writing Fellows—they represent the best of us and make us proud to Go Blue every day. We are wowed by their perseverance, their compassion, and their work ethic and are so grateful to have the opportunity to work with such a fine group of students.

Through this trying time, we can say this for certain: we have never been more proud of U-M students, for showing up and giving it their all. And we are especially grateful for the work of our Writing Fellows, who not only persevered under such trying circumstances but excelled. We thank each and every one of them for their help in making this semester a success.  

Works Cited

Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., Halim, A. S., Chambers, T. G., Moon, A., Goldman, R. S., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2017).  Investigation of the influence of a writing-to-learn assignment on student understanding of polymer properties. Journal of Chemical Education, 94(11), 1610-1617.

Halim, A. S., Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., Olsen, L. J., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2018).  Identifying and remediating student misconceptions in introductory biology via writing-to-learn assignments and peer review. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(2), ar28.

Watts, F. M., Schmidt-McCormack, J. A., Wilhelm, C. A., Karlin, A., Sattar, A., Thompson, B. C., … & Shultz, G. V. (2020).  What students write about when students write about mechanisms: analysis of features present in students’ written descriptions of an organic reaction mechanism. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 21(4), 1148-1172.

Larissa Sano
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing
Faculty Director – Writing in STEM

Ginger Shultz
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry
MWrite Co-Principal Investigator

Meet our New Program Assistants: Reflections on Being an Online Writing Consultant

Peer Writing Center Program Assistants: Julia Van Goor & Jordyn Houle

When we started this position as Program Assistants in the Sweetland Peer Writing Center (PWC), neither of us were quite sure what to expect. The job was new, the virtual environment was new, and the people we would be working most closely with were new. But over the course of the semester we learned firsthand that the uncertainty of the semester made space for invention.

In August, we quickly learned that we were not alone in working to adapt the PWC to the virtual environment. After virtually consulting all summer, we had both experienced difficulties working with the PWC Online platform. With the support of the wonderful Sweetland community, we were encouraged to revamp our virtual consulting protocol for the semester. Jordyn had the idea of switching to Google Meet and Google Docs and worked to rewrite the consultant appointment protocol to fit the new system. Julia worked to update the wording for writers on the PWC website and appointment form accordingly. After some fine tuning with Interim PWC Faculty Director Shelley Manis and Program Administrator Dan Hartlep, we settled on a new system of virtual consulting for the term and planned a training session to familiarize all current consultants with the updated procedures as well as best practices and advice.

We found that despite occasional technical difficulties, the new system seemed to serve both writers and consultants well. Staff meeting presentations about inclusivity from fellow consultants further reinforced the importance of the closed captioning function on Google Meet and the addition of preferred pronouns to the appointment form. Thanks to the efforts of Shelley and Dan, and of course all of the amazing peer writing consultants, our semester was successful and productive.

Nevertheless, we (and several other consultants) concluded the semester feeling disconnected despite our productivity. Moving forward to next semester, we are working to find ways of building the community that we believe forms the backbone of Sweetland’s greatness. With the input of other consultants, we are finding ways of re-introducing informality to otherwise impersonal zoom meetings and brainstorming new ways to foster friendships within the writing center. We are excited to help bring these ideas to fruition next semester.

Assessing the Assessment: Directed Self-Placement for Writing

After two decades and two revisions, the Directed Self-Placement (DSP) process is once again being asked a hard question: is it supporting all students in becoming successful college writers? In a collaborative effort to answer this question, our research team is listening to the many voices that play a role in the DSP process—students, advisors, and instructors—as well as data past and present. Our team includes Tessa Tinkle (SCW Director), who first implemented the DSP at Sweetland in 1998, Colleen Lapere (SCW Chief Administrator), Naomi Silver (SCW Associate Director), and graduate students Jason Godfrey, Anil Menon, Andrew Moos, Laura Romaine, and Michelle Sprouse.

The DSP process impacts most incoming students at the University, including those in LSA, Architecture, Stamps School of Art & Design, Kinesiology, Nursing, Ross Business School, and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. The process begins with students writing an essay in response to a reading and answering questions about their past writing experiences. Then, when they meet with their first-year advisors, they see the recommendation the DSP program generated: either a first-year writing requirement course or an ungraded transitional writing course. Unlike traditional models that place students according to a test score, the DSP gives students agency over their own placement—students may choose not to follow the recommendation. The DSP treats students as the experts of their own learning and lives, and respects their desire for support through additional coursework, or their priority of a fast track to degree.

To test the equity and benefits of the DSP process, we need to answer foundational questions: Is the DSP making recommendations that are helping students? How are students choosing their courses, making their decisions? How do instructors use the DSP essay? How do advisors use the DSP questions? Does the DSP process have a disparate impact on specific racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups?

These questions have taken our DSP research in exciting new directions. 

We are tracking student success through first-year writing courses, upper-level writing courses, and graduation. We are discovering what student choices, what courses, what trends, are helping and hurting students. 

Through student demographic data, we’re finding not only who is struggling in their writing careers at Michigan, but precisely where in the process some of these inequities emerge. Research in education has shown a concerning pattern of marginalized populations being put at a disadvantage throughout their college careers. Our research enables us to see where the system is failing some students: specifically, an essay prompt that asks for an unfamiliar genre, a reading that requires a particular American cultural context to understand, a course enrollment decision that is difficult to make without the advice of college-educated parents.

Advisors, who are an enormously important part of the course decision process for incoming students, have not been consulted in past research on DSP. For the first time, the benefit of their experience and expertise in the crucial moments of student decision making are guiding our assessment. Thank you, Newnan Advising Center!

Feedback from students, instructors, and advisors is revealing more about the unique experiences of transfer students and English language learners. Our current structures could do more to accommodate their specific needs in the program.

New ways to use the DSP data and essays are emerging in conversations with the English Department Writing Program. The rhetorical patterns of incoming student writing can help inform instructors, and in-class use of the DSP essays and questionnaires offer excellent prospects for students to reflect on how they are learning to write and what works best for them. 

By the end of this two-year project, we hope to maximize the DSP’s potential to be an equitable, inclusive, and helpful educational tool for first-year writing students. 

Laura Romaine
Graduate Student Research Assistant, Sweetland Center for Writing; PhD Candidate, English Language and Literature; Graduate Student Instructor, English Department Writing Program