“How do I know what I think until I see what I say? ” This statement by E. M. Forster begins to describe the importance of writing, “seeing what is said”. A form and process of communication, writing is an essential part of life. As described by Erika Lindemann in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, “language is indispensable to living in society” (5). Writing is used for socialization, recollection, and organization in people’s lives. Writing is needed. “Using written English language well is a form of power” (Lindemann 4). Using language to create meaning allows society to share experiences and transfer knowledge.
This transfer and representation of knowledge is key to educational success. In 1874, Harvard University introduced an entrance exam that featured a writing requirement (Clark 2). In middle school many students are taught that they need to write well for high school; then students are prepared by teachers to write essays and papers for college. From standardized tests in grade school to entrance requirements for college admission, final project essays for course completion and dissertations mandatory for terminal degrees, writing is at the forefront. As it seems, the world can function a little better because of writing, good writing.
This type of writing gets a message across. Shopping lists, signs, books, policies, emails, text messages – all forms of writing. As Lindemann states, “in our society, putting it in writing has greater force than speaking,” further affirming her notion that well-written English is power (5). James D. Williams asserts that writing is difficult (Clark 8); so how do we achieve this well-written English? More particularly, how do students? Using standard English in writing is something that doesn’t come naturally so students must be taught in English and composition courses.
In the past, as writing became more important, writing classes were developed and “the task of teaching writing was assumed by various educational institutions” (Clark 2). An important goal for a writing course is to help students develop these well-written English skills. Kenneth Bruffee describes students entering college as having difficulty in academic studies. The commonality with these poorly prepared students was that they had difficulty “adapting to the traditional or ‘normal’ conventions of the college classroom” (Olson 3).
One of these conventions of the typical college classroom includes standard English or academic writing. Students go into college unfamiliar with this language. The Writing Center As many English professors struggle with teaching writing, searching for effective strategies, and shaping better writers, it is evident that these teachers of writing can’t do it on their own. Writing requires practice and dialogue. Writing is truly a process. This can be said of any form of learning, there must be a collaborative effort.
In terms of students, teachers, and writing, an outside source is essential to the growth of writing abilities. This introduces another symptom of a traditional convention of the college classroom students are unaware of – help when offered is not a bad thing. Many times students see this help as an extension of work or a remedial type service. To combat this attitude, college and university campuses nationwide employed tutors in Writing Centers to aid in the writing process. The narrative of Writing Centers is one that include various aspects.
In Stephen North’s The Idea of a Writing Center, the writing center is defined as a place that writers use to talk about writing. This dialogue between students and tutors is the basis of building writing skills. “In a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction … our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (North 69). The history or heritage of writing centers can be dated back to classical times in Athens during the time of ancient philosophers.
North equates tutors and students today to Socrates and willing learners from his time. [ln] a busy marketplace a tutor called Socrates set up the same kind of shop: open to all comers, no fees charged, offering, on whatever subject a visitor might propose, a continuous dialectic” (North 78). The same type of interaction is mirrored in writing centers today. One-on-One Tutoring In Writing Centers in Context, ten different colleges and universities describe their particular writing centers. From the history to physical layouts, these schools’ writing centers have a number of things in common. One of the most important aspects of a writing center is the help offered to students.
The majority of writing center work is focused on one-on-one assistance students may receive from tutors – “Writing center professionals across the country believe that they have one-toone peer tutoring in common if nothing else … a writing center is not a writing center without one-to-one tutoring” (McKinney 58). Through peer tutoring the focus is placed on collaboration; “teachers could reach students by organizing them to teach each other” (Olson 4). Through this one-on-one service, writing center tutors and students practice the kind of conversation that academics most value.
In the writing center, tutors are seen as coaches and collaborators, not teachers. Julie Anderson and Susan Murphy describe the tutor and student relationship including words and phrases like “encourage,” “generate questions,” and “suggestions” (Moss, Highberg, and Nicolas 55). According to Gary Olson in Writing Centers: Theory and Administration, writing centers are mastering the art of tutoring. “The chief pedagogy of writing centers recognizes that writing is at once the most personal and the most social task students engage in” (Olson xi). A key part of the composing process for students is constructive dialogue.
In writing centers, tutors are trained and knowledgeable of procedures needed to listen and engage with students. Writing Centers as Cozy Places Another characteristic uniform throughout writing centers is the atmosphere. Jackie McKinney surveyed writing center professionals and found in the open-ended responses that individuals described writing centers as a “place, space, or environment [that was] “safe, comfortable, or friendly” (63). Many writing centers have comfortable seating areas, low or dim lighting, and coffee tables complete with centerpieces.
The cozy, warm space is inviting for students. Joyce Kinkead and Jeanette Harris noticed in their study of ten writing centers, the most common thing connecting the centers was a coffee pot. They say, “as we read these descriptions, every once in a while we think we come across a characteristic that crosses the board. Coffee – instant, brewed, or cafe latte – seems almost universal” (236). Having coffee pots, comfortable chairs, and plants in the writing center distinguishes it from classrooms and other institutional spaces. It is purposeful that writing centers give off a “homey” vibe.
The conscious decisions of writing center staff to create a space that is welcoming and comforting for students is an effort to dispel beliefs that writing centers are for students with issues or problems. Elizabeth Boquet characterizes writing center spaces as “non-threatening” and encourages directors to “fill them with creature comforts – couches, plants, coffee pots, posters” (51). In the International Writing Center Association (IWCA)’s online toolkit for starting a new writing center, Muriel Harris’s “SLATE Statement: The Concept of a Writing Center” mentions what individuals should account for in the initial budget.
Harris states, “To ensure that the writing center is an informal, friendly place, the room benefits from plants, a coffee pot, tables where students can sit side-by-side, and dictionaries and other reference books to use while writing” (33). Harris advises how to set the mood (plants and coffee) and why (for a friendly place). The idea of a writing center as a cozy place is a crucial part of the narrative of all writing centers. Beyond the Center With their comfortable atmospheres and collaborative learning spaces complete with engaging tutors, the writing center and its narrative goes beyond the actual location, or center itself.
At many colleges and universities, writing center staff leaves their comfortable, coffee-scented abodes and ventures out onto their campuses. Through class presentations, tutors and staff members make themselves visible to students. This forms a connection with the writing center and the students before they step one foot into the writing center’s doors. In a typical class presentation, tutors sort of “sell” their center, giving information like location, hours, staff members, and a general overview and purpose of the writing center.
On some campuses, like the University of Toledo, presentations are structured around a particular class’s writing assignment. The instructor provides the presenter with a sample paper, students read and analyze it collaboratively, and then devise strategies for their own papers. In these presentations, instructors also learn “the real difficulties students have with the assignments” (Kinkead and Harris 65). Another way writing centers assist their campuses is by providing various workshops throughout the academic year. These workshops cover a wide range of topics from grammar to citation and organization to vocabulary.
Usually an hour long or less, workshops provide further assistance to students with their writing. This is also another way to promote the overall writing center and gain advocates from the student population. “We distribute relevant handouts, give general advice on the workshop topic, and invite students to come by with specific concerns”, says Linda Simon, past director of Harvard University’s Writing Center (Kinkead and Harris 123). At many of these workshops, like the ones held on Harvard’s campus, new writing center clients are attracted
One of the most important methods writing centers utilize to go beyond their actual centers is partnering with faculty members. Beyond the class presentations, many writing centers engage with and assist in their university’s Writing Across the Curriculum programs According to Ray Wallace in The Writing Center’s Role in the Writing Across the Curriculum Program: Theory and Practice, “the writing center, both in theory and practice, can play an important role in the implementation of writing across the curriculum at any institution” (407).
In some of these programs, tutors are linked to particular classes and dialogue with professors about the course, syllabus, and assignments. Some tutors attend the class and offer specialized tutoring sessions in the writing center. The goal is to provide additional support to professors, as well as students, to help improve writing skills. Tutors also receive mentorship and guidance from instructors on becoming better tutors and writers, as well. Also in working so closely with faculty members and departments across campus, writing centers hope to lessen the common misunderstandings of the writing center and the services offered.