Writing support

It’s another Sunday night in Schow Science Library, which, for me at least, means another visit to the Writing Workshop. After preparing a cappuccino in the high-ceilinged atrium I walk down the twisting stairs, past the glass doors and into the massive lobby, where I print out a copy of a paper that’s due on Monday. When I maneuver through the shelves and finally gain sight of two writing tutors in one of Schow’s study rooms, I stop in to drop off my paper. Leaving, I wonder: Do the tutors I’m placing my faith in have the institutional support they need to do the best jobs they can?

Taking this familiar route through Schow, I would venture that its twenty-first century brilliance, in contrast to the 70s-era pallor (however endearing) of Sawyer, might lead the casual observer to assume that Williams invests far more in its Division III academic services than in those of Divisions I and II combined. Such an assumption would be unwarranted, but should not be unexpected. The Math and Science Resource Center (MSRC) gets its share of praise from the general Williams community, as support programs and initiatives in our institution’s third division often do.

Proud as I am of the College’s Division III strengths, we needn’t be reminded that the academic resources at Williams also include writing support. The intellectual work conducted in courses within Divisions I and II is heavily based in writing, and the support services here largely consist of aid on term papers. Hence we have the Writing Workshop, whose 60-plus employees form an integral part of the College’s academic support services. With nightly outposts Sunday through Thursday, the Workshop should expect the same kind of faculty support that the MSRC does.

Yet it was not until this Winter Study that a new writing services initiative, couched within the Workshop, took form. The current Writing Assistant pilot program here at Williams is framed after the writing programs of peer institutions, where writing tutors enjoy working with an instructor on papers assigned in a single course. The tutors in such programs benefit from consistent communication both with their coordinating instructors as well as with their tutees, whose writing progress might thus be monitored more precisely.

At present, Writing Assistants at Williams have been assigned in pairs to five courses, in departments ranging from art history to chemistry. The more all-encompassing Writing Workshop also welcomes papers from all divisions, but does not currently enjoy the same kind of faculty input that the Writing Assistants do. Tutors in the Workshop work hard to improve their own tutoring skills, the Workshop coordinators do what they can to boost input from outside sources – and still the program reigns disadvantageously autonomous.
It’s time for the Writing Workshop to get the kind of faculty support it deserves, the kind of faculty support that the MRSC already enjoys: the kind of faculty support found in the Writing Assistant pilot program. This does not mean that such support would come easily. Writing is an art, and helpful solutions could not be offered for term papers as easily as they could for problem sets. But the earlier department chairs set down a series of academic division-wide writing objectives, the better.

For about a decade, the training received by Williams writing tutors was administered in a highly subjective fashion. Dean Peter Grudin was alone in selecting and training new writing tutors for just under a decade. After Dean Grudin’s retirement last year, the Workshop remained headless, and students from within the Workshop had to step in and formulate selection and training processes from scratch. Hence last spring was the first time tutors were involved in selecting their new Workshop colleagues, and this fall marked the first time a non-faculty member was in charge of new tutor training. These processes were quite enlightening for the tutors involved, but sorely lacked the kinds of insights post-graduates might have offered.

Anyone walking near Sawyer Library can’t help but notice the banging and bulldozing involved with raising the new Stetson-Sawyer complex. This commotion bodes well for the future resources in academic Divisions I and II. But what counts most for Williams is the quality of writing instruction, not the quality of the walls that will ensconce it. As dilapidated Sawyer Library will be replaced by a state-of-the-art complex, so, too, should the Writing Workshop be renovated in accordance with the writing services that avail our academic competitors quite well.

I understand that much has to be done in order to mobilize these services, and the support of faculty throughout all three academic divisions is absolutely vital. Hopefully, cross-disciplinary expectations as well as more specific standards of writing excellence could emerge. Then it would seem less daunting to hire a writing professional with experience relevant to integrating faculty input with the goings-on of the Workshop and other writing support services.

Programs of this quality are a reality at other institutions – why not here?

Andrés López ’09 is an English and philosophy major from El Paso, Texas, and is a tutor at the Writing Workshop.