The Academic Writing Center: Helping GradCats Embrace the Written Word

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

A bearded man stands in front of a brick wall.

Daniel Floyd, PhD, Academic Services Administrator

Dr. Daniel Floyd wants to change the conversation around the writing process. “Think of writing as a social event,” he explains enthusiastically. “What we want to change is the notion that struggling writers are the only writers who need the writing center […] We can all use a bit of conversation, a bit of assistance, and a better understanding of expectations.” Dr. Floyd believes that by challenging the very notion of the “struggling writer” and reframing the writing process as one which inherently involves collaboration, creativity, and continuous revision, we can help students strengthen their own academic identities and gain confidence in an all-too-commonly feared aspect of academia. 

UC’s Academic Writing Center (AWC), which Floyd oversees, is built upon this very foundation of offering collaboration and partnership to empower students within the writing process. While many of us possess a vague, incomplete familiarity with the center’s tutoring services, this constitutes only a small portion of the scope of support that AWC can provide. Read on for more information about AWC’s graduate-specific support, including tutoring options, workshops, and new initiatives/changes that the center is excited to unveil in the coming months.  

Graduate Writing: Diving Deeper 

As graduate students, many of us will embark on writing projects far larger than we have ever attempted before, whether they be dissertations, theses, capstone projects, or even final papers. It can be paralyzing to decide where or how to start a project so extensive or how to go about organizing and completing the tasks. The nature of the writing itself differs, too. Even if we reached a point of tentative confidence in our written ability by the end of undergraduate education, those skills aren't necessarily sufficient for quality graduate work. “A lot of times graduate writing starts to focus in more on the different genres, the field-specific aspects of writing that don’t come through as much in undergraduate writing,” explains Dr. Floyd. “In graduate school, you really want to start to find those different avenues for engaging with the field and joining in that conversation in a way that dovetails with what other scholars and researchers are doing.” 

In addition to increased technicality, part of the graduate writing process involves engaging in analysis at a deeper level than many students are used to. “It’s really important to find places where you can dive a little deeper into that analysis and not just skim the surface but probe, especially just in one specific area, a lot more deeply.” Dr. Floyd acknowledges that many students find these new expectations intimidating but points out that the AWC is well-suited to support students’ adjustment to this new style of writing through graduate-specific services, outlined below.

The Academic Writing Center: Helping GradCats Embrace the Written Word

AWC employs several graduate-level tutors and makes a concerted effort to pair graduate students with these individuals to ensure that both tutor and tutee are on the same page regarding the nature and form of graduate writing. Even if tutors have not themselves written any dissertation work, as graduate students they have a higher level of familiarity with the expectations and demands of the project. The AWC is well-suited to provide dissertation support, but Dr. Floyd points out that many students are still unaware that they can bring dissertation work to tutoring sessions. “We will obviously not get through all of a dissertation in one session,” he explains, “but students are welcome to make multiple appointments, or focus on one section of their dissertation.” Beyond dissertation work, students can bring virtually any non-exam writing project, from a standard term paper to a resume/CV to a scholarship essay, to the AWC. Tutoring sessions are available in four different forms: in person scheduled appointments, online scheduled appointments, in-person drop-in tutoring sessions, and asynchronous tutor feedback. All synchronous sessions take place in one-hour blocks, whereas asynchronous tutor feedback allows students to submit up to 6 pages online. Submissions will be returned with written AWC feedback in roughly 24-48 hours, depending on tutor availability. 

To get the most out of AWC tutoring, Dr. Floyd encourages students to seek feedback on what he terms “higher-order concerns.” Essentially, the AWC should not be primarily viewed as a grammatical proofreading service, but rather a dynamic source of inspiration on content/ideas, structure, analysis and more. “We like to think of the sessions as being more of a conversation. What I’ve found is that most students really get the most out of writing center visits whenever we have discussions about how they can expand on the ideas that they are already working with […] tutors can bring another perspective and ask pointed questions.” However, the AWC is happy to work with students at any point in the writing process. “We work with students before they’ve even begun writing at all,” says Dr. Floyd. 

Workshops and Content 

In addition to tutoring, the AWC provides workshops and content aimed at helping students build their writing skills more broadly. On the AWC website, students can access more than 20 downloadable handouts covering subjects such as writing an abstract and creating a poster presentation. Workshops occur during the academic year and cover general graduate-relevant topics such as graduate reading strategies and graduate writing style, as well as more specific and specialized content including anti-racist writing and crafting diversity statements. The AWC’s workshops team also partners with specific academic departments and classes to create tailored workshops aimed at building some of the field-specific writing and analytic skills mentioned above. Dr. Floyd tells me that these collaborations are an area of increasing emphasis for the AWC as they look to refine their focus, scaling down the quantity of workshops and shifting some sessions to a pre-recorded asynchronous format to free up time for new projects. “We invite ideas from anyone who may be interested in seeing the AWC promote and support graduate student writers,” says Dr. Floyd. “We’re really excited about what we can do.” 

New Initiatives: Graduate Writing Communities and Accessibility  

In addition to shifting its workshop foci, the AWC has a number of exciting other initiatives in development. They hope to create a graduate writing group, hosted by the Writing Center GA and graduate tutors, wherein students will gather weekly for both unstructured and structured writing time. Community and accountability will help participants to gain confidence and commitment in their writing, and tutors will be able to provide additional support. Additionally, in the future the AWC hopes to develop a more structured and intensive graduate student writing bootcamp which would offer students a certificate upon completion. 

While developing the writing community at UC is certainly of great importance, the AWC wants to ensure that their work is accessible to UC’s entire diverse body of students. Dr. Floyd points out that UC’s large body of international and English as a Second Language (ESL) students face unique challenges when it comes to writing. “Obviously there can be linguistic concerns,” he explains. “But I think one of the bigger concerns, and what we're really trying to focus on, are the nuanced differences between expectations in university level writing in other non-US contexts.” Students from other countries may be not only adjusting to writing in a non-native language, but also may be facing vast differences in writing convention from their native country’s educational system. To support these students, Dr. Floyd has implemented international and ESL-specific training for all AWC tutors, and has made a concerted effort to hire tutors with international backgrounds or second language experience.  

Dr. Floyd recognizes that there are other populations of students who may need a bit of extra prioritization in the AWC’s strategic planning. “I was a first-generation [college] student,” he tells me, “Whenever I came in as an undergrad, I remember I didn't know where to go, what resources were available, or anything like that. So that's another thing that we're trying to work on is messaging for populations like first generation students, so that there is just a greater awareness that we are a resource.” 

As Dr. Floyd says, writing is a social event. Everyone faces unique challenges when it comes to writing, and there are times where we all lack confidence in our skills. But if we can shift our understanding of the writing process, perhaps we can grow to see the potential for joy and creativity that lives within writing. “My advice would be that you’re not alone,” he says. “You’re not engaging in this in isolation. It’s best to have open conversations [about writing] with your friends, your classmates, your professors. And that is the very reason we are here, the Academic Writing Center, to present this opportunity to talk through your writing at all stages of the process.”