Committee evaluates writing support structures and resources

As the year winds to an end, students and faculty continue developing writing resources.

The Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), Academic Resources and other groups have been gathering to discuss and rework the writing intensive course requirement as well as to develop ways to offer support to faculty teaching these courses. In addition, the Ad Hoc Committee on a Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) issued a report last week that outlines a series of recommendations to strengthen and enrich institutional pedagogy at the College.

The Ad Hoc Committee, chaired by Ray Bradburd, professor of political science, serves to determine whether to establish a Teaching and Learning Center for faculty discussions and student academic support.
The committee also offered a list of three low-cost initiatives that serve as priorities for the College in the near future. Among these three initiatives, one proposed in the report is to “provide additional professional support for student writing and the teaching of writing” through the hiring of a full-time permanent director of writing and rhetoric, who would take on the responsibilities of the current writing coordinator as well as “provide support to faculty and staff instructors in the teaching of writing and [serve] on the Teaching and Learning Committee.”

Deborah Schneer was appointed the interim writing coordinator for the College last year. Initially a one-year position, Schneer’s position has now been extended for the 2009-10 academic year, with the possibility of making the position under the newly created position of director of writing and rhetoric essentially permanent. Over the past year, Schneer has worked to improve and expand the writing program by working with the student coordinators and tutors at the Writing Workshop and implementing the writing assistant pilot program.

In addition to working with the student coordinators on a regular basis to discuss any issues or events occurring at the Workshop, she conducted a weekly workshop with the new tutors during the fall that focused on the communication process that goes on during a tutoring session and how best to offer feedback to the tutee.

“Students who are writing tutors are excellent writers and will have many good ideas about strengths and weaknesses of student writing and little difficulty articulating their ideas,” Schneer said. “So what I emphasize in the new tutor workshops is the art of the response – the idea is for the tutor to provide feedback, stimulate conversation about the paper and support the student so he or she can take responsibility for his or her work.”

The writing assistants pilot program has been perhaps Schneer’s crucial short-term accomplishment as the program matches faculty members with specialized tutors who assist students with their papers in individual classes. To expand the program, Schneer taught a Winter Study course, the Peer Writing Tutor Workshop, where she trained 14 new assistants for the program. Twenty students have been placed with nine faculty members this past January.

However, the program still doesn’t have enough students as writing assistants. “The student availability in the fall is less than it is in the spring, as some students study abroad and the recruitment process for new assistants is not until late fall, just prior to the Winter Study course,” she said. “My hope is to work out these kinks so that writing assistants are available for every appropriate class.”

“The goal is to maintain the high quality of the Writing Workshop and to keep the writing pilot up and running,” she said. “The broader goal is to foster constructive and supportive conversations about writing as a regular feature of campus culture – informal discussions as well as structured.”

Still, challenges arise out of the tutoring process, which some feel call for attention. Among some of the writing tutors, there is a consensus that the inherent difficulty of tutoring is both a challenge and a point of frustration that needs to be abated.

“I’m sympathetic to how difficult it is to standardize the tutoring of someone’s paper,” said Jay Cox-Chapman ’09, one Writing Workshop tutor.

“In as much as we can help as a forum, it’s always counterintuitive to have someone help you for 20 to 40 minutes and [yet] still get a bad grade,” said Kwame Poku ’11, a Writing Workshop tutor.
One method to improve the Writing Workshop, Cox-Chapman suggested, is “creating a peer-mentorship training period, where new tutors sit in with older tutors.” Another is to establish an evaluation sheet for tutors, much like the system in place for the tour guiding program, “that might be a way to improve the quality overall [at the Workshop].”

Schneer believes that another difficulty of the program is the stressful academic culture at Williams: “I think that the intense pressures on students create an atmosphere that undermines the intrinsic rewards of learning and the true value of a liberal arts education,” Schneer said. “Any remedy would have to take into account the competitive nature of our society and how the campus culture reflects that. I do believe it is possible to create alternative models. To make such a model work would require the full support of the faculty.”

With her position extended through the next academic year, Schneer is optimistic about the prospects of the program: “I think the program is evolving in a positive direction. As the faculty become more involved with the pilot, the Writing Workshop and the work of the TLC, the writing process will play a more central role in pedagogy.”