From the Director

In the past year, we have all learned to live with the realities of a pandemic and tried to understand what we and our students need in order to thrive in uncertain and constantly evolving public health, economic, political, and social contexts. At the same time, we have worked to advance our core Sweetland mission of thoughtfully supporting writers and teachers of writing. 

As Director, I have spent most of the pandemic evaluating how well Sweetland’s Directed Self-Placement for Writing (DSP) works and how it connects with the first-year writing curriculum. I have sought to understand DSP from multiple perspectives. This effort has involved collaboration with Newnan academic advisors, who have raised questions about outcomes for students who do or don’t follow DSP recommendations for first-year writing courses, and who have asked about the reliability of the recommendations. I have also surveyed students in first-year writing courses about their experiences with DSP; I am presently meeting in focus groups with some of those students to learn more about their perceptions of the DSP process. Throughout my assessment of DSP, I’ve worked with a splendid team of graduate student researchers to analyze patterns of DSP recommendations, enrollment, and first-year writing grades. The research team includes Jason Godfrey, Anil Menon, Andrew Moos, Laura Romaine, and Michelle Sprouse. Naomi Silver contributed much to the research project while she was Sweetland’s Associate Director.

Our research has led us to the conclusion that DSP does not function as it’s intended to, so we’re revising the placement method for first-year writing. One important research discovery is that the essay task students complete as part of the DSP process is not consistently used in first-year writing courses, as intended. This makes the essay task a less valuable learning experience than it might be, so we will be eliminating it. A more exciting research finding is that all U-M students—whatever their background or specific experiences as writers—are highly likely to succeed in first-year writing (the failure rate is less than 1%). In the future, we’ll be able to tell all incoming students that we believe they are prepared for first-year writing!

Starting spring 2022, students will select among first-year writing courses by using a new self-placement tool, called UWrite, which consists of an online module to be completed before orientation. Since LSA offers over a dozen first-year writing courses, some of which have dozens or scores of individual sections, it’s difficult and time-consuming at present for students to sift through all the opportunities available to them. UWrite will streamline this process and enable students to pursue their individual interests and to find courses that give them a learning environment that suits them. UWrite will invite students to reflect on their writing experiences and to identify their academic interests and learning preferences. The module will then suggest for each student several first-year courses that might be good fits for them. I’m eager to discover how incoming students see themselves as writers and what courses most interest them. UWrite will increase our knowledge about student writers’ preferences and allow us to bring their voices into discussions about the curriculum.

This research project demonstrates the collaborative, student-centered administrative philosophy I bring to the Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing. It is my great honor to be able to collaborate with academic advisors, graduate students, and undergraduates to improve writers’ first-year experience in LSA.

Theresa Tinkle
Director, Sweetland Center for Writing, Professor of English, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor

Introducing Sweetland’s Interim Associate Director

Dr. Simone Sessolo has generously stepped into the Associate Director position on an interim basis for the 2021-22 academic year, a role Dr. Naomi Silver occupied for the last dozen years. Dr. Sessolo holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin (2012). He joined Sweetland in fall 2012 and has contributed substantially to many initiatives. He has taught Writing 100, 200, and 201; as well as Writing 300 and 301 in the Peer Writing Consultant Program. He also offers classes at the graduate level and has been co-director of the summer Dissertation Writing Institute since 2018. He is also co-director of Sweetland’s Digital Rhetorical Collaborative. For the past few years, he led a group of colleagues in developing The Dissertation ECoach, a messaging tool that provides targeted feedback to writers. Last year, he won the Digital Studies Initiative inaugural teaching award—so he literally set the standard for pedagogical excellence in digital environments!

The Sweetland Director, faculty, and staff are delighted he’s willing to commit his considerable energy, clear thinking, excellent problem-solving skills, outstanding knowledge of writing pedagogy, and splendid organizational abilities to help administer the unit. He brings admirable efficiency and a well-informed perspective to administrative decision making, and we are all happy to work with him in this new role.

Faculty Spotlight: Naomi Silver

In April, 2021, Dr. Naomi Silver stepped down from her position as Associate Director of Sweetland. She became Associate Director in 2007, and her long tenure is testament to her commitment to our unit. Dr. Silver steered Sweetland along several directors and changes, always providing stability and excellence.

Dr. Silver deserves special recognition for her contributions over the years she served as Associate Director. Sweetland is nationally renowned in large part because of Dr. Silver’s leadership. In particular, her initiative and thinking started the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative in 2013, establishing a space for digital rhetoricians to inquire about new ideas, conversations, and activities. Dr. Silver will continue to direct the DRC and work with graduate-student fellows from all over the country.

Having returned to a full-time faculty position, Dr. Silver is excited to teach courses in digital and embodied rhetorics, as well as the seminar in peer-consulting this Winter 2022. She’s been a beacon of stability and resilience as Associate Director for many years, teaching us all at Sweetland what it means to represent this unit with care and distinction. Students at U-M are very lucky that Dr. Silver will share her passion and expertise with them in her wonderful classes.

One way or another, through class observations, discussions, support, and collaboration, Dr. Silver contributed to the development of all of us here at Sweetland. We are thankful she dedicated so many years to serve as Associate Director of Sweetland, and she has our deepest gratitude.

Thank you, Naomi, for your leadership!

Faculty Spotlight: Shelley Manis

Dr. Raechelle (Shelley) Manis deserves special recognition for her contributions over the past few years to both the Minor in Writing (MiW) and the Peer Writing Consultant Program (PWCP). Dr. Manis’s courses cover the first- to the fourth-year curriculum, and all witness to her extraordinary creativity and commitment to each student she meets. She regularly teaches our crucial gateway and capstone courses in the MiW, as well as first-year writing and second-year writing courses for Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts (LSWA).

During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years, she moved into a leadership role for the MiW, while also serving as Interim Director for the PWCP. Her PWCP duties involve teaching a required course (Writing 301), organizing weekly staff meetings, planning for consultants’ professional development, and recruiting new consultants. Not only was this a new program for Dr. Manis, but it was also a program that had to be re-invented for remote teaching and tutoring before again being reinvented this year for in-person activities. Covid courses haven’t been a pedagogical detour for her, however, but an important part of her professional development from which she learns how to improve her teaching using all the tools at her disposal.

Daniel Hartlep, the Undergraduate Program Coordinator who provides staff support for both the MiW and PWCP, greatly appreciates the time Dr. Manis has spent over the past year or so orienting him to his new position, listening to consultants in order to discern and find ways to address their needs, and teaching the students how best to do their work in a remote environment. As he puts it, “she is doing a stellar job.” Her exemplary administrative work, curriculum development, pedagogical innovations, and care for each student she encounters make her well-deserving of particular recognition for her contributions to the Sweetland mission in both the MiW and PWCP.

The Minor in Writing Community

The Sweetland Minor in Writing prioritizes community. While those enrolled in the program each pursue distinct projects of their own design, we believe that those highly individuated pursuits improve by virtue of writers sharing the same procedural space. To exchange ideas, run experiments, try out jokes, consider alternatives, mirror audiences: none of these can be done in isolation, even if so much of the writing itself must be. Given that emphasis on community, being forced into remote learning might seem at first like a potentially insurmountable threat to the very operation of the Minor.

I think the fact that remote learning hasn’t compromised the Minor at all can be attributed to two things. The first is that because the program already requires students to design and enact their writing projects as websites, there’s a way in which meeting via Zoom actually better prepares the students for how potential readers will take up their writing than a traditional classroom experience does. The latter, while possessing all the virtues of direct, in-person engagement, does not actually predict the means by which most readers now encounter either writing or writers. For better or worse, the digitally mitigated space is now the commons, and its challenges and opportunities are those shared not just by students who happen to be enrolled in this program but by all those who participate in digital discourse. Working exclusively in and through that medium, as opposed to working outside of it and then importing the results, offers a more accurate experience relative to the writing and reading tasks at hand. 

The second element that helped the program thrive in the midst of remote learning is, of course, the students themselves. Their empathy for those experiencing the stress of remote learning was immense; the fact that all felt it in their own ways made them more alert to the experiences of their peers, not less. And I think it was also useful for the students to “see” each in their own environments rather than in the allegedly neutral shared space of the classroom. It was a useful reminder that every writer writes from somewhere – literally occupying both a discrete physical space and a unique point of view. To have the occasion to remember that while still finding ways to collaborate and create something shared just demonstrates the kind of commitment our Minors bring to the program and to each other. We are grateful for them and to them for demonstrating how unwanted burdens and crises can make communities even as they challenge them.

Raymond McDaniel
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

Reflections on Writing Workshop

Gina Brandolino

As relieved as I was to learn that much of school would be conducted in person this fall, I was (and remain) a little leery about going back to Writing Workshop in person. Writing Workshop is close quarters, and after more than a year of worrying about close contact—and having reasons to still worry, even if you’re vaccinated—I wasn’t comfortable returning to in-person appointments. But I’ve been delighted to continue conducting my appointments remotely. I used to think there was no substitute for digging into and marking up a physical copy of a paper alongside a student, but I’ve been won over by the ease and convenience of both the student and me being able to see the project we’re working on at the same time—on googledocs or our platform’s whiteboard—without one of us having to crane our neck or strain to see. I’ve also seen a number of students who are first-timers at Writing Workshop and who I sense were perhaps a little shy about visiting us in person; I think for some students, it’s less intimidating to talk with us about their work in the comfort of their own spaces.

Jimmy Brancho

I’m feeling much relieved to be back in the office for our Writing Workshop. I feel like I’m a more effective consultant in person. Walking up to the door to greet the student and do a little chit-chat to warm up as we walk back has always felt like a critical part of the routine for me. Reading body language is more difficult over the computer. I read a lot faster and more attentively off a physical page. But, perhaps the most important part is the free-form nature of making annotations and experimenting with structure. I’m often drawing or prompting students to draw sketches of their organization or arrows about how they might connect ideas or move text around. To me, leaving feedback online feels too organized. The comparative freedom I feel in the in-person conference is worth the risk, and I hope it’s worth the extra effort for the students too.

Dissertation Writing Groups

For the first time, Sweetland offered Dissertation Writing Groups for the 2021 spring/summer terms. From anecdotal evidence, Sweetland faculty learned graduate students appreciated the flexibility of remote learning; we also surmised that some students were location-bound across the world due to COVID travel restrictions, family care, and research initiatives. We supposed that even “post pandemic,” many graduate students would appreciate the accountability of a writing group while they travelled for research, family, work, or leisure during the summer.

There was a high application turnout, though we also saw attrition. We were unable to survey participants who dropped out to learn why, but a couple students received funding later than expected, some students likely realized they needed a break from remote work, and, as during the academic school year, others prioritized different responsibilities. 

Nonetheless, we learned a lot from the spring/summer DWG, and we had several success stories, including groups that reapplied to work together during Fall 2021 and leaders who reapplied to lead new groups. We also revised the application to accommodate students who wanted to meet remotely or only in-person. There were enough students seeking to reconnect face-to-face that we created three such groups for Fall 2021.

April Conway
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing


For the 2020-2021 academic year, Write-Togethers moved online. To protect the privacy and data of students, sessions were hosted in a Google doc. Each week, a new writing strategy and its source were summarized and cited and students were invited to post pre- and post-writing session goals and reflections. Students could sign up for a 10-minute Zoom appointment with a faculty consultant to ask questions about a current project. 

Weekly participants ranged from 1-10, though participants were usually regulars. For instance, I met with one participant weekly as she worked on her dissertation and job application materials. This student invited me to her dissertation defense (I attended!) and she accepted a postdoc fellowship at UC Berkeley. It was a pleasure to witness the student’s hard work and its payoff.   

Winter 2021 Write-Together participants were surveyed and they expressed continued interest in remote sessions, so this remains the current iteration of the Write-Togethers. 

From these pandemic-led initiatives, we discovered that students appreciate flexibility and continued support in multiple modes and from a variety of people. Moving forward, we can create more opportunities for graduate students to support each other, perhaps as writing consultants, and continue to provide in-person, remote, and hybrid modes of collaboration. As faculty, we continue to revisit what data we want to collect to make these programs benefit students. 

April Conway
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

Increasing Accessibility in the Peer Writing Center

As we’re slowly moving back to operating mostly in person, this past year has taught us some beneficial things about how our center can be more accessible to more people. Being wholly remote for the 2020-21 school year has made us more intentional. It’s shown us ways to welcome more students to the center; it’s made staff meetings more inclusive; and it’s leveraged the affordances of online spaces to reimagine what it means to stay true to the PWC’s vision, mission, and guiding principles.

Our peer writing consultants take these things seriously, and everyone has worked hard to ensure our remote protocols make space for as many people in as many ways as possible. It can be easy to forget that not everyone in our University community has the ability to “pop on over” to an on-campus location. But we’ve learned that we can work around physical limitations. We did some self-reflection, and we asked ourselves some hard questions: Can anyone access any campus location on crutches in the ice, for example? Can you believe we ever lived in a world where someone had to go to a writing center session while ill rather than lose their chance to get help? We can overcome scheduling limitations. Not all of our students are “simply” students. Shouldn’t commuting students and/or those who work for a living have access to synchronous sessions? Shouldn’t consultants who work multiple jobs have some agency over how they “clock in?” 

Likewise, while the energy of full staff meetings is different when we’re not in a shared physical space, several more introverted consultants contributed actively to staff conversations in the Zoom chat when they might have been reticent to speak in a room full of people: we actually heard from more people than we might have in person. So, our community has grown. Our ability to add to the ways we follow the guiding principles of accessibility and inclusion and “learning through dialogue” has also grown. Since more of our consultants worked asynchronously than in “normal times,” we’ve also expanded our ideas about how we can make asynchronous feedback conversational even in a situation that seems one-directional at first glance. Finally, more of our PWCs are working on how to reach students we still haven’t reached. In short, the PWC continues to push pre-pandemic limits of accessibility made clear in lockdown. We’re committed to understanding each other’s varied experiences of being students at U-M and to providing ongoing flexibility in how we serve each other.

Shelley Manis
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing
Interim Director of the Sweetland Peer Writing Consultant Program