In an oft-cited essay, Stephen North argues that the “job” of writing centers “is to produce better writers, not better writing” (438). As a writing center director, I encourage my tutors to consider the action of writing (how a student puts words on the page) as much as the product of writing (the essay). Treating writing as a verb, not a noun, means adopting an attitude that all writing is writing in progress. It means focusing on the development of a student writer over the course of a semester. When I teach classes, I try to keep this attitude in mind and find that it changes the way I approach student work. Here I share some writing center practices that instructors can use when they are commenting on students’ work, conducting one-on-one sessions, and teaching in the classroom.
Commenting on Students’ Work
In the writing center, we of course work on helping students improve by examining and commenting on their writing products, but we do it with an eye toward helping the students develop as writers. When commenting on a final paper, instructors might ask themselves, How can I push the student to work on this writing challenge beyond the current paper? If the student has more writing assignments for that class, the student’s writing is still in progress—even if that one paper is finished.
When I am reviewing students’ work, though I may find a dozen or more items that deserve attention, my training in writing centers has taught me that students can reasonably address only a few writing challenges at a time. So I train my tutors to address the two or three most important areas for improvement. This approach also takes the pressure off the tutor to cover everything in one session. It acknowledges that learning takes time and that explaining concepts well does too.
Faculty members at my college who have adopted this writing center technique have told me they find it freeing. Acknowledging that a student can reasonably address only a few concepts at a time releases them from the burden of correcting every perceived error or misguided remark. Identifying two or three problems that the student can think about for future papers—and perhaps providing a short explanation or a link to one—can also take less time than marking every area for improvement in a piece of writing.
Our sessions end with a note from the tutor that includes a summary of what was discussed and a plan of action that a student can take up after the session. If instructors provide action steps instead of simply commenting on what has gone wrong in a piece of writing, they will push students to start thinking about what can be done in the future rather than about what went wrong in the past. Attaching a short list of actions gives students a plan to follow when they attack their next draft or assignment.
Conducting One-on-One Meetings
Writing about the connections between teacher training and writing centers, Peggy F. Broder notes that taking a conversational approach when meeting with students individually can help instructors switch “from evaluator to coach” (42). This shift is useful in one-on-one meetings, where the goal is usually helping students improve their work, not necessarily grading.
The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors offers the following advice for starting a tutoring session:
- Introduce yourself.
- Sit side-by-side.
- Give the student control of the paper.
- Keep resources and tools nearby. (Ryan and Zimmerelli 18)
This advice is also useful for instructors meeting individually with students during office hours or at other times throughout the semester.
You will not need to introduce yourself if a student knows you from class, but you might start off a meeting by getting to know your student better. Tutors often spend the first five minutes of writing center sessions introducing themselves, making small talk, establishing rapport, and asking what the writer wants to work on.
Too often, when I’m wearing my teacher hat, I walk into student meetings with my own priorities for a student’s piece of writing; I have assignment objectives I hope my students will meet. When I launch straight into a monologue about what needs to be improved, though, students seem overwhelmed. But when I put my writing center hat back on and ask my students what they think—and to point to the parts of the paper that are strong, the parts they are worried about—I notice that, more often than not, the meeting turns into a real conversation.
Writing center practices can guide and shape this conversation. Sitting side by side, rather than behind a desk, signals collaboration. Asking the student to help set the agenda for the meeting and keeping the pen in the student’s hand (so that it is the student, not I, who marks up the paper) put the student in the driver’s seat and imbue the student with a sense of ownership of the words and ideas. Turning to resources such as the MLA Handbook, rather than supplying quick answers for every inquiry, allows instructors to model ways of seeking information.
Teaching in the Classroom
Most good writing center sessions are really just good conversations. When I train tutors, I ask them to practice turning statements and yes-no questions into open-ended questions using the words how and why. Asking open-ended questions invites a range of responses and creates conversation.
When student writers are at a loss, they often fall silent—both in class discussion and in tutorials. Tutors are trained not only to wait through the silence but also to reframe questions, to give students time for sorting out their ideas in writing, and to offer a range of possible answers. Tutors then discuss with students the pros and cons of each answer instead of simply supplying one answer and shutting down discussion. In all the good discussions I’ve seen in college classrooms, instructors have used all these techniques.
In many ways, adopting writing center practices when commenting on drafts, conducting one-on-one meetings, and teaching in the classroom might not really be about adopting writing center practices at all but rather about focusing on shared priorities in teaching and learning. I know that as an instructor, when I teach by letting my writing center ethos guide me, my teaching improves.
Broder, Peggy F. “Writing Centers and Teacher Training.” WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 13, no. 3, 1990, pp. 37–45.
North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433–46.
Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Bedford, 2010.