Life in the College Writing Center

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Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.

I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.

Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.

What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.

My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.

Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.

What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.

As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this. Your comments are always welcome.

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