How does the Writing Center support my teaching?
Let’s start first by ruling out misconceptions. The Writing Center does not help to “tidy up” papers in order to make them more readable for faculty. We aim at supporting the writer in his or her improvement in writing and thinking, not at producing a nice product. We understand writing as a process, normally as a collective process—even, maybe especially, professional writers normally engage with good “first readers” in their drafting and conceptualizing of their writing, so we seek to normalize this process. That said, students who understand their tasks and their thought and language processes often (though not always) produce more comprehensible and sometimes more elegant pieces of writing . . . eventually.
So what does that mean?
In student conferences, we begin work by looking at “global” issues. Does this student have something he or she wants to work on but hasn’t framed well? Is this student starting from too broad a framework for the assignment? Too narrow a framework? Has this student understood the prompt? Read the material she or he is writing about? How might clearer organization or more coherent paragraphs or more explicit transitions present the material most clearly for the most appropriate audience? There’s no sense in polishing the sentence-level grammar of a piece of prose, if the whole has no purpose and direction, or if much of the piece is off-target and will be excised anyway.
While we don’t begin with sentence-level grammar and structure, we do look at them, especially if such details interfere substantially with clarity. In such instances, we work gradually, though—we identify two or three habitual infractions, try to understand why this student has these habits, and explain and work on them just a couple at a time. This means that some will remain unaddressed, if the student comes in only once; if the student returns, or if the teacher takes on the next step, then we address another two or three in the next paper. Trying to address all at once presents too much confusing detail and merely confirms aversion to working on grammar habits in students who already think that language structures are incomprehensible.
What can the Writing Center do for my teaching and my students?
We can help your students engage with writing as a thinking process . . . not as the coda to thinking but as a site where thinking takes place. You can send students to us who have demonstrated that another go at a weak piece of writing would be appropriate . . . or you can send all of your students to us to work on drafts or paper strategies at the beginning of the process. This takes a little planning, so if you are thinking of doing this, of if you would like some tips on ways in which to use writing assignments to teach, contact Carol Martin for more materials and information. You might also consider taking part in the annual Teaching by Writing seminar, a week-long half-day seminar for faculty usually held in May. Contact Carol Martin for more information on this year’s seminar details.