SWCA Conference 2017: Reflections

From February 15th to 18th, I had the pleasure of representing my writing center at the Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) Conference at the University of Mississippi. Over the course of the conference, I attended wonderful presentations and heard accounts of the great work happening at writing centers all over the region. Using one of the keynote addresses as my lens, I will offer a brief recap of some of my experiences at this great conference.


During her keynote address, Lisa Zimmerelli of the University of Maryland offered a wide-ranging account of the ways in which writing centers have always been multimodal. Tracing a history of rhetoric and composition from the ancient Greeks to blogs, Zimmerelli  showed how the work done in writing centers is, and always has been, “much fuller than the technology that enables it.” The ancients were, after all, concerned with “effectiveness over modes.” She also rightly broadened the conception of what constitutes the multimodal to include what she cleverly termed, “the available means of persuasion.” The work done in writing center emerges as multimodal in ways that do not mobilize new media. Tutoring emerges as a linguisticauralgesturalvisual, and spatial form of instruction that is not contingent upon the new technologies that might spring to mind when one hears the term “multimodal.”

This broad definition of the multimodal/multimodality was present throughout the conference. Bowie Hagan of Georgia State University, for example, presented his quantitative study on “Assessing the Demand for a Multimodal Writing Center.” By tracking the frequency with which writing consultants used or discussed different modes of composition – ranging from MS Word to social media to blog posts – Hagan traced just how ubiquitous modes of composition are at his institution. I was particularly struck by the distinction between using a particular mode or just discussing it. Hagan’s qualification reminded me of my own current research project on the idea of mobilizing new genres of composition without new media/modes that house them.

Representatives from Auburn University’s Miller Writing Center also examined this idea but in a different register. In “Video Killed the Radio Star: Old and New Media in the Writing Center,” Phineas DowlingDavid Vinson, and Jakob Geiger discussed their writing center’s podcast and instructional videos. During podcasts, the WC staff interview faculty, discuss pop culture topics, and/or address particular grammatical or analytical concepts. In addition to modeling a form of analytical inquiry and offering an additional avenue through which to connect to students, the podcast also raises an interesting question: can we discuss, or address, compositional issues through a non-visual medium such as a podcast?

Jakob Geiger also shared a video designed to help guide students through the research process. Fun and engaging, the video showed that instructional materials are also implicit advertisements for the great, and highly creative, people who work in our centers.

Trey Hall from Virginia Commonwealth University pushed the conference theme in a different direction in his talk, “Analog Multimodality & Artist Statements.” In contrast to many of the presenters at the conference, Hall focused on how artists must use text to pitch work in another medium. In order to find display space or secure funding, artists must write a statement that offers a brief biography, an account of how the piece came to be, and a statement of purpose (or as much of one as possible in art). Hall’s work sits at the crossroads of multiple media and reinforces the fact that, despite new modes and new literacies, textual composition remains central.

Lambija Grbic and Safiyah Bharwani from Emory University broadened the conversation regarding multimodal approaches to literacy to include non-native English speakers. Their presentation, “”I Just Want to Focus on Grammar”: Navigating Non-Native and Native English Speakers’ Sentence Level Concerns,” discussed the importance of balancing high and low order concerns during writing center consultations. I found the discussion of consultation sessions becoming “task-oriented” to be particularly interesting. Like the presenters, I have experienced the ways in which non-native English speakers keep us honest because they are so comfortable with grammatical and compositional nomenclature. The presenters shared some useful tips to make sure writing center consultants do not overlook larger conceptual issues during sessions where students seek to focus on local grammatical issues.

In my next post, I will discuss more panels and the ways in which I am implementing the lessons from the conference at my own center.

ConferencesRandall Sessler