Rigorous Empowerment: An Intro to the Writing Center

Writing Center Corner

Rosie Kavanah*

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

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5 Responses to Rigorous Empowerment: An Intro to the Writing Center

  1. Gene Hammond says:

    I love Rosie’s concept of what a Writing Center is for. As we do the tougher parts of our jobs, whether teaching or tutoring, it is sustaining to remember that writing “well” is almost always therapeutic for the writer and almost always useful for its readers. Beyond that, as Rosie emphasizes, writing in a public context, as long as the writer has taken multiple views into consideration, enhances the welfare of the whole community. It remains a mystery to me how things as seemingly innocuous as words can do so much good for our bodies. We owe tons to those Africans, Middle-Easterners, and Chinese who invented language and then writing.

  2. Patrizia C. Benolich says:

    My thanks to Rosie for this illuminating, not to mention useful, articulation of the role and mission our writing tutors. I, too, am in love with this concept of a Writing Center… One might even say it does justice to nothing less than our Program’s body politic… So proud of you all!

  3. Cynthia Davidson says:

    Really wonderful post. I think I will share this with my students!

  4. Shyam Sharma says:

    Rosie has really highlighted something that answers some of the seemingly sticky questions that we discussed at the brown bag last week. In particular, her post describes one of the fundamental benefits of the Writing Center for student writers. When a tutor is faced with a student who says that he only wants help with grammar but it is clear to the tutor that the student is yet to develop and organize his ideas well, she may want to persuade the student what he “really” needs to work on. But while there is certainly an immediate benefit of doing this, it may be counterproductive for the student’s development as a writer in the long run.
    First, instead of learning to identify issues that he needs to work on, the student writer may continue to be dependent on others to decide what he needs to work on. Second, the tutor may push the student in a confusing direction (he may have come to the WC wanting to satisfy one expert, and now there is a second expert who seems to drag him in a different direction); whether the student is right or wrong, it is his paper, and he needs to take ownership of the paper and learn to identify what he needs to work on. Third, there is no need to “tell” the student that X or Y is “not” his problem; it is possible to help the student see the other/bigger problems “through” the discussion of grammar/language, and it is also possible to split the time for different issues if the student is okay with it when suggested. Finally, challenging the student could make the situation tense and the session less productive.
    I have found our tutors’ support to my students extremely useful. Some students do come back to say that their session was not very useful; but I have almost always found that when asked to explain why, students end up convincing me (and I then convincing them) that that is what a WC session is supposed to be like. I help my students go/return to the WC with an understanding that Rosie’s post describes in a wonderful way. The WC is a place that helps writers take ownership of their work, to learn to identify challenges, detect patterns or issues, to find an audience, to get feedback… while being in control of the process and product of one’s writing.

  5. klucenko says:

    A great post, Rosie. You’ve given us lots to think about here. I especially appreciate how you highlight “the flexible nature of writing” and the way it contributes to meaning-making within the academic environment. It’s not easy to maintain an “open” and “flexible” mindset when writing an academic essay–your concept of “rigorous empowerment” captures so elegantly the productive tension that makes up that process, and places the Writing Center at the heart of it.

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