Writing Center Corner
I have been tutoring at the Writing Center for the past three years. Like many of the other tutors, I love my job, and, also like my colleagues, I have often found myself evaluating it. I value the services we provide at the Writing Center, but sometimes it can be difficult to pin down precisely what role we fill at the university. After all, on the surface, the Writing Center looks very much like some other options available to students. A Writing Center session is something like a highly-focused peer review, and something like an individual conference with a professor or TA. What is it, exactly, that makes the Writing Center a unique resource? I would argue that the distinction lies in a kind of rigorous empowerment.
Let me explain what I mean by this. I say “rigorous” because a Writing Center session demands more focused, diligent effort from a student than, say, talking a paper over with a friend. I say “empowerment” because that same session is designed to kindle within the student a spark of self-assuredness, of certainty that his or her voice matters and deserves to be heard. This rigorous empowerment is exactly what students will need to employ in any future interaction in which they must communicate with not only a passive audience, but a receptive and responsive discourse community.
The notion of expecting one’s work to engage in discourse with that of others is central to academia, but it is nonetheless foreign to many students. Having been raised in an educational system which places a high premium on “right” answers, many students find the more flexible nature of writing to be complicated to understand. Certainly, there are plenty of “wrong” ways to communicate through writing, ways which fail, for one reason or another, to make their point clear to the reader.
However, there are also many “right” ways; for any given prompt, there are a vast number of approaches which might serve to satisfy the goal of the assignment while remaining faithful to the student’s argument and voice. For many students, it may be difficult to accept that the goal of academic writing is less to provide a “right” answer and more to contribute thoughtfully to a greater conversation in any ways which serve to further the community’s discussion. Students need to stop thinking of their writing as something which drifts off into the ether as soon as they submit their papers for grading, and learn to think of their work as representing themselves in an ongoing conversation with other scholars and thinkers. But how can we teach students to see their writing in this light?
This is where the Writing Center comes in. The Writing Center offers an atmosphere and philosophy unavailable to students in any other space. Falling midway between the natural ease of a conversation with a peer and the formality of interacting with a professor, a session at the Writing Center can help to situate the student in his or her own thoughts. Working with a tutor is still an academic interaction, and as such it still requires a rigorous level of thought and articulation. However, unlike those of a professor, the comments of a tutor have no weight whatsoever on a student’s grade. This grants the student a kind of freedom he or she likely rarely experiences in his or her academic life: the freedom to discuss one’s own ideas with absolutely no consequences, to explore areas of one’s thinking which may have previously remained obscured, and to practice expressing them, guided by the questions and comments of a tutor.
This type of exchange is at the root of the kind of academic discourse for which the Writing Center is capable of preparing students. Interacting with a tutor can leave a student feeling uniquely heard and understood in a way that may not always occur in a full class. Even in an individual conference with an attentive instructor, the student may be too shy or too intimidated to express his or her thoughts completely. The writing center conference creates a space within which a student is expected to be diligent and thorough, but also unafraid of taking risks, and of potentially making mistakes or encountering setbacks. Armed with that experience, students can feel confident in formulating and developing ideas which provoke interesting discussion, articulating those ideas clearly enough for others to understand them, and then submitting their creations, not just to their instructors, but to a greater discourse community made up of professors, tutors, peers, and anyone else who might come into contact with their work.
The discursive nature of a writing center session can prepare students for the kinds of thoughts and questions that their readers may have, prompting them to think of their papers not just as assignments, but as declarations of claims and ideas, which other scholars may wish to discuss or debate or otherwise respond to. This, then, is the function of the Writing Center: to provide a space in which students can test-drive their ideas and execution, building their confidence and troubleshooting their expression in preparation for engaging with a dynamic, thoughtful, and responsive audience.
Even after having devoted adequate time to his or her writing to craft a strong paper, the student likely still has much to learn, but so does everyone in a scholarly community. The difference is that those who are new to such a community may not yet know how to convey what they do know, while remaining open to comments and connections regarding what they don’t. The Writing Center can help new writers to practice such interactions, becoming acquainted with the idea of writing as a discussion in which their voices are valuable. At the same time, it can also provide a sounding board for experienced writers, allowing them to test out works which may not yet be ready for submission to a broader discussion.
The Writing Center creates a space in which writers of all levels, at all stages, can challenge themselves in a non-threatening, yet non-coddling, environment. By bridging the gap between the privacy of the writer’s mind and the exposure of publication, the Writing Center helps to ensure that every writer has the tools and the confidence to enter new conversations, and to bring something intriguing to the table.
* Rosie Kavanah is Assistant Director of the Writing Center