What does it mean to satisfy the writing support needs of students? What is the best way for writing to be taught? The College is asking these questions and others about the writing facilities it offers with increasing urgency in the face of a rapidly diversifying student body.
One answer has come in the form of Deborah Schneer, who joined the Academic Resource Center staff as interim writing coordinator beginning this semester. According to Dean Merrill, the Academic Resource Center needed someone to be specifically responsible for overseeing and training Writing Workshop tutors, and also to be a part of a broader discussion about writing at the College.
She comes to the College after teaching courses in English and composition at the University of Massachusetts, University of Montana and Bloomsburg University. Schneer, who grew up in the Berkshires, attended Pine Cobble School, Mt. Greylock Regional High School and the University of Massachusetts, where she earned her Ph.D. in American literature and psychology.
She believes that giving writing tutors the tools they need to help their peers is the first, and most important, step in improving writing and writing resources on campus. As such, her first objective in working with the Writing Workshop is presenting a practicum entitled “Providing Feedback on Student Papers” to its tutors.
“I believe that responding to student papers, like teaching, is an art,” she said. Schneer’s goal is to teach students how to critique papers in a way that is logical and helpful, but that does not obscure the voice of the paper’s original author.
Writing Resource Initiatives
Student coordinators of the Writing Workshop hope to broaden the scope of their organization through two writing resource initiatives. The first, which involves Schneer’s training, is to improve peer tutoring services both for general paper editing during walk-in hours and in more specialized contexts. “There is a feeling that you don’t have enough training, especially with people who have very specific needs,” said Helen Hood ’09, Writing Workshop co-coordinator. “There is a limit to how much you can do.”
Aside from participating in walk-in hours, all tutors are involved in one of five wings of the Writing Workshop which each provide help to a specific audience. They encompass thesis writing; long-term one-on-one tutoring; English as a Second Language; and professional and fellowship application writing. The final wing is affiliated with the Center for Development Economics.
Modeled after Brown University’s Writing Fellows program, the second part of the writing resource initiative calls for tutors to provide constructive criticism to peers for a certain class from beginning to end. The Writing Assistant Program, piloted last semester by Joyce Foster, director of Academic Resources, placed two or three trained students into each of four Writing Intensive courses in varied fields. The writing assistants worked with professors to develop a syllabus that would allow the assistants to monitor student writing and offer advice during the writing process.
These writing resource initiatives come in response to concerns on the part of students, faculty and staff that writing is a very difficult skill to teach, and is becoming even more so as the College’s student body diversifies. “The College has made a commitment to diversify the student body both culturally and financially, so it is important to acknowledge different needs of different cultures,” noted Christine Menard, head of research and reference services at Sawyer Library. “The needs of a native English speaker may be different than those of a student for whom English is not the first language.”
Differences also abound in faculty opinions on writing and pedagogy. For Menard, “Writing is not something you’re born with; it is also not a gift that you have or don’t have,” she said. “Writing can be learned. It is absolutely crucial for the writing skills initiative to be embedded in a curriculum. You can’t teach skills in a vacuum.”
Paul Park, lecturer in English, however, calls for a greater exploration of the writing process in itself. “The effect of the writing requirement in the SATs has engendered a certain kind of rigidity in students about the form that academic essays should take,” he said. For Park, the remedy for this deficiency is classes focused on the skill of writing alone. “I think there’s a need, a desire, a demand, for writing classes,” he said. “I can’t imagine a more useful skill to learn in college than how to write well.”
The College is looking to address the full spectrum of these concerns. “The faculty has intensified its look at how we address writing, and are thinking about what they can do to improve,” Merrill said.