Erin Zimmerman studied English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the idea of becoming a teacher or professor. But after working in a writing center and teaching composition courses in her master’s program at Appalachian State University, she turned the page from literature to rhetoric and composition.
She earned a Ph.D. at Iowa State University, and following a four-year stint at American University of Beirut (AUB), Zimmerman became director of the UNLV Writing Center in July. Today she works with students and faculty to better utilize writing, and its conventions, as a learning tool across disciplines.
What drew you to UNLV?
I met my husband at Iowa State. His degree is in religious studies/Islamic history, and he had spent time in the Middle East. We had talked about the possibility of moving abroad. When I saw the job call for AUB I thought it sounded really cool and in a space that would be interesting to him because of his research and speaking Arabic. It was exciting to experience something totally new.
Last year I went on the job market again, and the UNLV Writing Center job ad jumped out at me. At AUB, I was teaching and directing the Writing Center and the writing across the curriculum program. I had three separate jobs that I was trying to manage on top of being tenure track, so the thought of devoting my energy to just one of these things was super appealing. On the more practical side, in October 2019 there was a revolution in Beirut. People were protesting in the streets because the government was not doing a whole lot to support the population. Then starting in January 2020, the economy crashed entirely.
Everybody at UNLV was so enthusiastic about the Writing Center. They all articulated how important a space it is for (undergrad) students, grad students, and people in the English department who work at the Writing Center who get to gain that experience. It was really a nice shift for me. Las Vegas had the whole package in terms of the job, the people, the location. It wasn’t that difficult a decision.
What has been your biggest surprise about working at UNLV?
It’s hard to say because nothing I’ve done has been under normal circumstances. I have 39 consultants who work for me, and over the course of the (fall) semester, I met two of them (in person). It’s been surprising how challenging things have been. Between July and the start of classes, we thought we were ready and pretty well prepped. Then we got into it, and we really weren’t. That’s been the two-sided coin. (Assistant director) Sara (Tajalli) and others have stepped up to pinch hit and figure things out at the last minute. They’ve been amazing. People really do care about their jobs; they care about helping students become better writers. Because of the pandemic, I’ve seen even more of that.
What would campus be like without the Writing Center?
There’s this perception that writing is easy – either you can do it or you can’t. And if you can’t, why? The Writing Center is a good space to dispel a lot of those myths.
Writing is a skill; it’s not a talent. It is something that you practice. It takes a lot of thought. It’s not just fingers on a keyboard or pencil on paper. You’re synthesizing information, thinking through things that you’ve read, heard, or seen. You’re trying to make sense of those things. Then at the university, you have to cite your sources, think about structure, formatting, and a thesis statement. All of this energy is being put into one task that then you’re going to get graded on to determine whether you’re worthy.
That’s the best part of the Writing Center — we have conversations with writers to say, “Let’s find some of the things you’re good at and try to apply those things. Let’s find some things you’re struggling with and create some strategies to help you improve.” What works in this particular paper isn’t going to work in the next one, so it’s good to have a toolbox ready to go that you can draw from. We help students who aren’t confident know they can do this; we can all do this. Hopefully, the message gets back to faculty as well that positive, supportive feedback can be as impactful to students as critiques.
What is a typical day like running the Writing Center (remotely)?
All the writers who want appointments can schedule online. We have two types of consultations. One, in a normal year, would be face-to-face where they’d come to the center and sit down with a consultant, have their paper and assignment prompt, and chat for 30 minutes. Those are being run on Google Meet. The other type is our online writing lab (OWLs). Those students submit their paper online, and then Sara and I send those out a few times a day to consultants. They have typically 24 hours to give written feedback, send it back to us, and we send those back to the students.
There is a lot of email correspondence and virtual meetings. I get involved if fires need to be put out. Also, we’ve been trying to revamp our handouts and converting some of our workshops into video format so they can live on our website. There’s a lot of reporting and prepping – reworking our plans to figure out how to do them in COVID times.
Have you had any mishaps or funny moments since working remotely?
Sara and I presented at the Administrative Faculty Development Day, and that was the day all my stuff from Beirut was due to arrive. We had shipped our belongings. I decided I was going to campus that day to be in my office because inevitably I knew as soon as it was time for me to present, the movers would show up. I came to campus and got everything all set up. Sara was online; the moderator for our session was online. And, as he starts to introduce me, one of the facilities people walks in the door and says, “Hey, I need to check all the locks.” And I just thought, “Are you kidding me?”
Can you think of the worst advice anyone has ever given you?
I was told to insert commas into your writing where you feel there is a natural pause when you speak. I remember being in my senior year of college when I asked a friend to proofread a paper. After a few minutes she looked at me and said, "I don't know what comma rules you're following in this." I realized I wasn't following any rules and that the mechanics of speaking and writing are different. So that night I looked up the comma rules in my writing handbook and started trying to learn and implement them in my writing. I have never given that advice to anyone else! (And it helps me remember that I was doing stupid things in my writing when I was a senior, so I try to set my judgment aside when reading student writing.)
What’s your biggest peeve at work or in life?
Work-related – lack of communication, lack of respect for the person. Something I tell students is your professors are much more likely to work with you if you let them know beforehand that you have a problem. Don’t wait until two weeks after the assignment was due. Not getting in touch at a reasonable time, ahead of time – that’s my biggest peeve, especially if I’m waiting on you and you don’t show up. Just five minutes ahead of time, that’s all I need.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
All the streaming services, Netflix, Hulu. I’m not one for reality shows, but I’ve gotten into the competition-based ones: RuPaul’s Drag Race – about as guilty a pleasure as you can have when it comes to television -- Project Runway, The Voice.
Do you have a favorite holiday food or unique tradition for your family?
My dad is a Moravian minister. Moravians are a small Protestant denomination that are now primarily in Africa and Central America. There are small populations on the East Coast. They do a candlelight carols service on Christmas Eve. That was a tradition for my family because we were all pretty involved in some aspect of the service whether it was singing or serving. On Christmas Eve, we set up at least half the day; we were at church for hours. Inevitably we’d get home and be exhausted, and my dad would come into my bedroom at 10 p.m. and say, “Here are my presents for Mom. Do you mind wrapping them?” I was like, “Seriously, it’s Christmas Eve night!” That was like every year.