Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Collaborative Learning and Peer Tutor Training:
Breaking Waves and Confused Seas
CCCC 2009

“Using Improv to Create Collaborative Space”
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College

We are a small two-year college writing center where peers talk about writing.  We writing center readers want to maintain a vibrant, student-centered collaborative environment: and to us, truly collaborative work must welcome diverse views, voices, and experiences.  We want writing center sessions to be lively, engaging, open exchanges.  In them, we want to provide what Nancy Welch calls a “potential or transitional space” (we use the term “potential space”), where writers and readers can renegotiate meaning and imagine new possibilities.

 According to Nancy Welch, 

A potential or transitional space…exists in the negotiation between desired and sanctioned meanings..., between what one initially thought and what one is starting to recognize now.  Within a transitional space, individuals can take a traditional or an ideal…and negotiate its meaning.

Here is an example Welch provides (in "Playing With Reality") of this kind of negotiation: a discouraged writer, Stacy, begins her work with her tutor by saying, “I am bad at organizing my writing.”  Instead of talking about “how to organize,” the tutor puts Stacy’s statement “into play,” Welch says, with a “let’s investigate this statement” kind of approach.  Shifting away from “the writing problem,” he asks about the student’s other writing, outside of school, and writer and tutor step into a potential space.  There, they negotiate what it means to be “good at organizing writing,” allowing them both to rethink and revise previously “sanctioned meanings.”  When a writer and reader move into a potential space, they question and negotiate the systems in which, or the assumptions under which, they are reading and writing. 

Back to the Welch passage:

Within a transitional space, individuals can also revisit and question initial constructions of a situation: “I was seeing this tutee only as "ESL" or only as “practicality-minded business major” but now as I look back on the story I’ve told about this session, I wonder….” (208)

In these potential spaces, traditions and stories and assumptions and ideals are reconsidered and can be transformed.  Peers collaborate to write and rewrite meaning.

At Whatcom, we agree with Welch that

It’s through creating transitional spaces for questioning, negotiating, and playing with meaning…that individuals become active participants in their realities and address the obstacles, differences, and contradictions they encounter with a sense of zest rather than dismay.  (208)

And the piece of our staff education that we find best prepares us for this kind of work is our playing of improv games.

Each quarter, we spend some of our staff education time playing improv games together and talking about them.  The games we play are always low-key, low-stakes, and for many of them, we work in small groups, rather than performing them for the larger group.  When we do “perform,” we use volunteers only.  Improv, for us, is not about showing off or being funny or clever—it’s about being open, imaginative, creative—and about studying ourselves and our play to learn more about our work and about the potential of a writing center session.

Here’s a quick sample.  Some of you have played with us at previous conferences—and Roberta here has worked quite closely with us at times on this….

One game we play is called “presents.”  We sit in groups of two and give and receive imaginary gifts.  In another game, small groups of 4 become marketing teams.  The larger group invents a product for all of us, and the teams brainstorm marketing ideas, starting each new idea with “Yes, and….”  So they say something like, “YES! And we could advertise it on TV, using avatars!”  Another game is called “one-word letter”: groups of two compose a letter, one word at a time.  Dear…Joe…I…hope…you…will…love…me…one…day….

All of the games we play work best when participants move, when they allow themselves to gesture, to get physically excited and engaged.   They work best when people pay attention, yes yes, make eye contact, accept offers, make their partners look good—all general principles of improv, and of good writing center tutoring.  They work best when we all celebrate the mistakes, don’t even thinking of them as mistakes.  They work best when, when we are afraid, we say so and play anyway.

After each game, we stop and talk—and this is the best part.  We play, and we theorize.  And the undergrads I get to play with regularly have amazing insights, insights that fit very well with the theories our Ph.d.’ed friends are writing about in my favorite writing center books—and insights that often lead us right to those books and ideas, and back to improv again….

Here are just a few quick notes about what the games do for us as we prepare for collaborative work with writers that pushes into potential spaces:

  • Improv games lead us to epiphanies about our own styles and work as individuals, as readers.
  • They put us all on the same level, studying our work together.  We shift from being Sherri-with-the-theory-for-us and we-who-need-the-theory, to all of us exploring the work together.  All of us theorizing in a completely shared context.
  • They lead us to rethink the stories we tell about our work, our sessions with writers.
  • They lead us to challenge our assumptions about the academy and writing and those we work with in the center and much more.

And significantly, through improv games, we have regular, embodied experiences in potential spaces that we are free to play in.  We purposefully enter playful potential spaces together, to see how it feels there, to learn how to share control, to explore our options, and to think, with others, outside the boxes of our traditional and ideal assumptions and ways of being.  According to Patricia Ryan Madson,

In the improv world the working paradigm is one of shared control.  It differs from the “I lead and you follow” model in that both parties must stay alert and energized and actual leadership is likely to change moment by moment.  Both [people] are always responsible, while neither … is “in control” in an absolute sense.  The rule is that all improvisers have the right and responsibility to move the scene forward, adjusting always to what the new reality is. (Improv Wisdom, 127, italics mine)

This is the very short version of what we do with  improv games.  For a more thorough discussion, see my article on the IWCA web site, coming out later this month.  At Whatcom, we use these games to study ourselves and our work; through them, we believe we become more effective collaborators, more alert, thoughtful, open readers.  As a result of our play, we are more likely to move to potential spaces with the writers we meet—and so, with them, to be able to renegotiate the systems in which we are writing and reading together, to make new meaning together.


Works Cited

Grimm, Nancy.  “Attending to the Conceptual Change Potential of Writing Center Narratives.”  Writing Center Journal 28.1 (2008): 3-21.

Madson, Patricia Ryan.  Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.  New York: Bell Tower, 2005.

Welch, Nancy.  “Playing with Reality.”  College Composition and Communication 51 (1999): 51-69.

Welch, Nancy.  “Return of the Suppressed: Tutoring Stories in a Transitional Space.”  Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.  203-220.

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA