Writing Center consultants help teach students to fish
April 8, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
fellow student in the College’s Writing Center, where consultants
strive to improve students’ writing skills one paper at a time.
Assistant professor of English and Writing Center director John
Kinkade provides training for all writing consultants.
Many a weeknight, Centre College students can be found hunched over their computers, busily writing research papers about everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy to organic chemistry. And there to help any student with his or her paper are the dedicated writing consultants of the College’s Writing Center.
Located in Crounse 301, the Writing Center is open from 7 to 11 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday nights. Here, successful, trained student writers (the “writing consultants” who have been nominated by their professors) work one-on-one with fellow students, helping them through various stages of the writing process.
What the consultants do not do is simply correct errors. Instead, they emphasize the act of writing as a learning process.
“Our goal is to help students become better writers and thinkers,” says Dr. John Kinkade, assistant professor of English and Writing Center director. “Any single piece of writing that a student brings into the Writing Center will almost surely get better if the student takes the time to respond to the discussion that takes place in the consultation. The real benefit of the Writing Center, though, is the intellectual growth that results from thinking seriously about your ideas and becoming engaged in your writing as a process of learning, rather than seeing writing only as a task that you must cross off.”
This mission—helping transform fellow students into successful writers one paper at a time—is what many of the writing consultants enjoy most about their positions.
“The most rewarding thing for me is the give-and-take between the consultant and the consultee,” says Zach Bechtle ’10 of Ft. Thomas, Ky. “I think people who haven't been to the WC might perceive that it entails the consultant telling the student what to add, remove or change. But it’s much more of a give-and-take in which we as consultants ask questions like, ‘Are there any other ways you can think of to organize this paper?’ or, ‘Tell me what you’re trying to accomplish in this paragraph.’ We aren't telling them what to do, which would be exhausting for us and not at all a learning process for them. Instead, we interact and exchange ideas.”
And this interaction between consultant and consultee is a crucial step in the learning process.
“The Writing Center offers students thoughtful feedback on their writing and an opportunity to talk about how to communicate their ideas,” Kinkade says. “It helps students replace the high school intellectual model (being good at doing what you’re told to do) with a collegiate intellectual model (taking control of your own learning) by getting them engaged in talking about their intellectual work with their peers. Even if you’re a student who’s effectively made that transition between mental models of how learning works, you’re still going to benefit from thinking so intensively about your writing with someone else.”
Although students are welcome to visit the Writing Center during any stage of their paper-writing process, they benefit most from sessions that occur during the brainstorming, drafting and revising stages. Working with a student consultant during these stages allows visitors enough time to ponder ideas, claims and evidence without feeling rushed to complete the paper.
“The biggest thing we try to emphasize when we’re consulting is that writing is a process—that is, the best way to produce a paper is to brainstorm, draft and revise,” Bechtle says. “Writing a paper the night before it is due is possible, but it’s not ideal. The best way to view writing is a process with stages.”
Because the goal of the Writing Center is to help students develop and improve their writing skills (rather than receiving a high grade on one specific piece of writing), students are encouraged to visit each time they are assigned a paper. Each visit allows consultants new opportunities to offer advice and assistance, and frequent visits are the key to success.
“For those who habitually come to the WC, there usually is a point where ‘it’ clicks for them,” says Sami Sweis ’10 of Shepherdsville, Ky. “Sitting right beside them, I have a front-row seat to watch that exciting moment, when this look comes across their faces, inevitably followed by a smile. The ‘it’ depends on the student, but most of the time it's an understanding of what ‘analysis’ means in college writing. ‘Analysis’ is simple for those that understand it, but for most students, myself included, we often need a eureka moment before it really makes sense.”
Seeing other students improve is what writing consultant Kathy Martinolich ’10 of Lexington, Ky., enjoys most about working at the center.
“The most rewarding thing is definitely seeing students improve,” she says. “I'll help someone through a really tough consultation, and we'll work on some strategies for the next paper, and then they'll come in during the process of that next paper, and they'll be using those strategies. Hearing them say that the techniques I showed them made life easier is great. It's that whole ‘teach a man to fish’ idea in action—we really try and work on the writing process itself rather than individual papers.”
This year, more students have taken advantage of the Writing Center than ever. Since the beginning of the fall term, the center has seen a remarkable increase in the number of visitors.
“Last year, we had about 700 visits, which was a record,” Kinkade says. “This year, we had 700 consultations by the second week of February.”
And although he attributes some of this increase to improved publicity, he believes that “it’s the good work that our consultants do that keeps people coming in.”