Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?
by Ben Rafoth
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Writing spaces : readings on writing. Volume 1 / edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-60235-184-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-1-60235-185-1 (adobe ebook)
1. College readers. 2. English language--Rhetoric. I. Lowe, Charles, 1965- II. Zemliansky, Pavel.
PE1417.W735 2010 808’.0427--dc22 Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?
Ben Rafoth There is something about the experience of speaking with someone one-on-one—the facial expressions, enunciations, gestures—that makes us feel alive and energized.* Who we talk with can matter more than the topic itself, but either way most people love a good conversation. Among strangers traveling through an airport or waiting in a doctor’s office, words seem to gather like stones in a pool. People gravitate to conversations so naturally that they make time and travel far to experience them. When time is short and travel impractical, people buy conversations by the minute.
Conversation is the key idea behind writing centers, and it’s the number one reason why it pays to visit your campus writing center.
Writing is too hard to do alone, and writing center tutors can help. I asked several tutors from different writing centers to tell me how students benefit from the writing center, and I hope you will find what they said as convincing as I did.
Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center? 147 for the first time. They usually say something like, “I need someone to look at my paper.” They don’t literally mean they want someone to look at the paper and that’s all. They want someone to spend time with them, read the paper carefully, show appreciation, and say what they think about it. They also don’t merely want to hear what a tutor thinks about the paper. They want to ask questions, explain what they’ve written, and see how the tutor reacts. They want a conversation that
revolves around questions such as:
What do you think about my paper? Is it any good?
What do you think my instructor and my classmates will think about it? Does it need to be improved? And how would I go about that?
A conversation develops around these and other questions, writer and tutor sitting in chairs or on a couch, pages fanned out on the table before them. The tutor might invite the writer to read the paper aloud, but that’s not a requirement; tutors also like to read the paper silently and absorb its content, structure, and stylistic nuances.
Reflecting back on her senior year as a tutor at Niles West High School’s Literacy Center in Chicago, Susan Borkowski told me, I quickly learned that a tutoring session is mostly about asking questions. Writing is a way to communicate thoughts. It follows naturally that in order to produce good writing, we have to start by stimulating our minds to think deeply about our topics. So often we think we’ve pushed our minds to the limit and can’t see a way to make a thesis any deeper or more complex... until someone asks a question about it.
We think we’ve explained ourselves as much as we can because we are only thinking about it in a limited way. But when someone else asks a question, we start talking out loud and soon we find that we’re thinking in completely different ways about a concept we thought we had already flushed out completely.
Susan tutored her classmates in a place where every day, hundreds of students stop by on their own to write and read and talk and listen.
Literacy Center tutors would be the first to acknowledge that not everyone leaves one hundred percent satisfied, but the many students 148 Ben Rafoth who keep coming back for help says something about the good things that happen there. Could these students do as well by themselves, sitting alone in front of a computer and waiting for inspiration? I tell my students to try it sometime, and when that doesn’t work, visit the writing center.
Tutors try to focus on things that are important to the writer: the challenge of the assignment, the ideas there seem to be no words for, the little editing stuff that attracts red ink. Tutors encourage writers to take notes and start writing when the ideas begin to flow. Tutors are usually paid by the hour, so they’ll wait while you write. The important thing is to build enough momentum so that when you go home to finish the paper, you’ll already be on a roll.
Anthony, a first-year undergraduate from Philadelphia, had been coming to the Writing Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where I teach, three to four times per week to write a rhetorical analysis for his freshman writing class. At first, he only wanted help in finding examples to illustrate logos, ethos, and pathos in an article he was assigned to read. It was a good session, and Anthony got the examples he wanted. Then he told his tutor that this was a hard assignment because all of the examples in the article seemed to fit more than one element. This observation might have ended then and there, but his tutor urged him to say more about the overlap. They talked for another fifteen minutes or so, and on his next paper, Anthony focused on the overlap in his thesis, claiming that logos, ethos, and pathos are not distinct elements in persuasive writing. Anthony was one of the few students in the class who wrote about the overlap, and when the instructor read his paper aloud in class, he looked pretty smart. He thought of the overlap on his own, but it took a conversation with a tutor to see how he could go in that direction and still stay within guidelines of the assignment.
When I asked tutors why they believe students benefit from visiting the writing center, it would have been perfect if they had all said, “It’s the quality of the conversations we have here” because that’s my thesis. Instead, they gave richer and more interesting answers. One wrote to me from a pool where he was lifeguarding, another wrote during downtime while working at the writing center, and another used a mobile phone on the road. All responses exuded the passion that leaps out from people who are totally committed to what they do, whether they make any money at it or not.
Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center? 149 Daniel Phillips tutors in the Writing Studio at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. Anyone who has ever seriously considered a career with Armani or Chanel or Claiborne would soon find that FIT is the first step to landing a job with these top tier design houses, and while there they learn that fashion designers spend a lot of
time writing. Daniel said:
When I sit down with a student for the first time, there’s always a brief and slightly awkward introduction, and then we talk for a few minutes about their major, what they do, their assignment, the food they’re eating hurriedly (“I’m so sorry, but I never get time for lunch”). And then for me comes the challenge. This is a new person. I have no idea how they learn, what works for them, if I should speak more or sit and listen, if I should focus on their grammar or on making the subject of their essay more focused and apparent. For you the student, it is a game of expectation. You want us to help you with your writing, probably. For us, it is a matter of pedagogy, the way we can teach you what you’re asking to learn, but without simply laying it out for you to gather up.
Sometimes in a session, I make almost no statements.
I simply ask questions. We are not so much tutors as we are a presence that encourages you to write, to question your own logic, to revise, to reconsider.
How does it happen, this conversation that leads to better writing?
There are many ways, but it starts with getting ideas out of your head, through your lips, and into someone else’s head. When you verbalize
something you have been thinking, several things happen:
Each of these has consequences for thinking and writing. Erica Bazemore, a tutor at the University of Iowa, pinpoints some of the consequences when she says: “I have had numerous occasions when I couldn’t quite put into words what I wanted to say, and it only took a conversation with a professor or a colleague in my department to help me put on to paper what I have been grappling with in my head.” Founded in 1934 by a professor of Communications, Iowa’s Writing Center may be the first center in the nation. Working at a place with such a long and distinguished history of helping students to write, Erica understands the relationship between conversation and writing.
Students go to the writing center not only because they are looking for ways to put their thoughts into words but also because they want reassurance. Daniel Phillips, the FIT tutor, wrote, “Sometimes we are there to tell you how good your writing already is (and it probably is already pretty good) and that you don’t need to change much at all. It’s different with every student and every session.” I’ve never met anyone who went to a writing center to feel bad about themselves; there’s ninth grade for that. Hearing that your writing is good and that you don’t need to change what you have written is actually quite valuable.
Yecca Zeng, at FIT, told me, I can see an instant confidence arise when students walk through the door and find other students with whom they may discuss any idea, any step, any type of writing that they may be having trouble with.
When students realize their peers are the ones who are helping, it is easier for them to relax and be more outgoing and elaborate on exactly what they want to accomplish.
Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center? 151 Sometimes tutors can cure a case of cold feet, as when students invest time in a topic and even write most of their paper before they decide to change the topic and write about something else. Such last-minute, impulsive topic changes are usually a mistake. Most students would be better off if they had had the confidence to keep what they had written and sought input from others about how to revise it. “I have not come near to outgrowing the need to share my writing with a responsive, receptive person who can provide feedback and engage me in a discussion about how to move forward with revision,” said Sam Van Horne of the University of Iowa.
On the east coast, at Loyola University in Baltimore, Paige Godfrey put it this way:
Ever since I started working in the writing center, I have had a student who always requests a consultation with me. Being that there are so many wonderful consultants in the writing center, I always questioned what it was that made this student a “regular.” At the end of the semester, the student pulled me aside to thank me for all that I had done to help her throughout the year. She stated that the most helpful thing I had done for her was make her feel more confident about her writing. Rather than pointing out the areas that needed improvement, I like to focus on the areas full of strength and work off of them to improve the weaker areas. There is no doubt that many students need improvement with their papers—I am certainly not Shakespeare myself. However, if you show them their own potential, it allows them to look deeper inside themselves as writers and grow from it.
For many people, the hardest part is showing their writing to someone else.
According to a popular website for health information, WebMD (http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-socialanxiety-disorder), the most common situations in which people feel
anxiety due to potentially negative judgments from others are:
• Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties
• Asking questions or giving reports in groups
• Using public toilets
• Talking on the telephone
• Writing or working in front of others Most people are okay with toilets and telephones, but who hasn’t experienced writing anxiety? The important thing is to reduce the
feeling of vulnerability. Here is the University of Iowa’s Erica Bazemore again: