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At Skidmore, writing matters
By Maryann Teale Snell
At first glance Skidmore’s Writing Center is unremarkable. The third-floor space in Ladd Hall is equipped with a handful of computers and pairs of mahogany-colored desks and chairs arranged to separate but not seclude. It is agreeably cramped—somewhere between a library nook and a tidy office. Just inside the door is a table with a big yellow bowl of bite-size candies. And a large box of Kleenex.
A whiteboard on the wall shows the day’s schedule of tutoring sessions, the names of tutors (four) who are willing to read twenty-plus-page papers, and the “word of the day”: novemdecillion (“the number one followed by sixty zeroes”). Stuck to the opposite wall are some reminders: Avoid clichés like the plague. The end of a sentence is not a place to put your prepositions at. Casual language in formal writing sucks.
For the hundreds of students who come to the Writing Center each semester, its homely, welcoming feel is all-important. This is the place where people come to talk about their writing assignments, on the road to becoming more confident and proficient writers. And lest anyone think there is a stigma attached to coming here, tutor Nick Upton ’07 sets the record straight: “It’s not just a remedial program. We see seniors and experienced writers—I myself went for a session a few weeks ago—and they find it helpful too.”
The Writing Center was started in 1981. Directed by English professor Phil Boshoff and staffed by paid student tutors, its stated goal is simple: “to help you become a better writer.” Tutors help their peers with drafts, revisions, and even ideas for papers. According to the WC’s Web site, they assist with “analysis, argumentation, and critical thinking,” as well as “organization, style, grammar, and punctuation.” It is clearly noted that “tutors will not write, edit, or proofread papers, and they do not discuss grades.”
Recommended by professors based on their writing strengths and communications abilities, all tutors must complete EN303H, the English honors course “Peer Tutoring Project in Expository Writing.” For the spring 2007 semester, the tutors were mostly seniors (fourteen), plus some sophomores (four) and juniors (two); slightly less than half were male. Many also work in Palamountain Hall’s Lanzit Center, helping students in the intro writing seminar, EN103.
Writers who visit the WC may be referred there by a professor, but many go of their own accord. They can opt to have the center inform their professors that they’ve worked with a tutor, or not. Most say OK. (“This looks good for them,” admits head tutor Peter Zogas ’07, while not implying they get Brownie points.) Students—or anyone else on campus, for that matter—can schedule an appointment at the WC twenty-four hours in advance or just drop in during open hours, which are most afternoons till midnight. An average tutoring session runs about thirty minutes.
In the last several years, the WC has averaged more than 700 appointments annually, including repeat customers. For 2006–07 that number reached an all-time high of 1,036. “We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that we help students,” says Boshoff, who is impressed with “how extremely dedicated the tutors are; they put in long hours, handle complex tutoring assignments, keep track of our daily operation—all while excelling at their own work.”
Writing Center tutors exude a pleasing confidence—without a hint of cockiness. In conversation with their peers, they choose their words and comments thoughtfully. They ask writers for more information if they don’t understand something. They make suggestions. But students who come to the WC can’t freeload; they have to think and explain their choice of words and presentation of material.
Upton, an English major who’s been working on a Skidmore Student’s Guide to Writing for his senior project, says he enjoys critiquing other students’ papers. Most are written for EN105 or Scribner Seminars. “But I’ve worked with students on cover letters, lab reports, personal statements for grad-school applications, creative nonfiction essays, and business proposals,” he says. Tutoring “really improves my own writing,” he adds. “It’s also good practice for teaching, which is what I plan to do.”
English major and dance minor Dyani Johns ’07, who also intends to become a college professor, says the WC’s collaborative atmosphere “gets students talking about their projects” instead of feeling intimidated. French and English double-major Emily Cahill ’07, who regularly works with students for whom English is a second language, often suggests that students read their papers aloud, “to pick up on issues such as redundancy or awkward phrasing. We want to teach them to recognize these problems on their own,” she says. “ESL is pretty challenging work,” adds Zogas, an English major and American studies minor. “Mainly because you have to go back to basics. Things that come easily to native speakers—subject-verb agreement and articles, for example—are often very difficult for ESL students to learn. They’re really smart, so it’s frustrating for them to struggle with writing.”
English professor Linda Simon, who once directed Harvard’s writing center, says at some colleges “going to the writing center carries a stigma. At Skidmore, it’s a place where good writers can help improve everyone’s writing.” Just as professors get feedback on their work from colleagues, young writers can benefit from the critiques of fellow classmates, she says. Peer tutors facilitate conversation, and “when students begin to think and talk clearly, their writing improves.”
Michael Marx requires students in his EN103 seminar to meet weekly with a WC tutor. “Detractors and skeptics may liken peer tutoring to the blind leading the blind,” he says, but he has faith in the value of Skidmore’s WC. It’s not a substitute for a conference with a professor, he adds—but for many students, talking things over with a peer tutor is a “lower-risk” undertaking. And Linda Hall, who will fill in as WC director when Phil Boshoff is on sabbatical next spring, says peer critiques can carry more credibility—or at least not fall on deaf ears. “When a professor notes that the tone of a paper is ‘too informal,’ she may be dismissed as a schoolmarm or a fogy. But when a student points out the same problem, she stands a much better chance of being taken seriously.” Catherine Golden, who recommends the center to all her classes, says tutoring sessions help writers “understand the dynamics of an assignment and the process of revision. It is an invaluable service for all levels of writers across the disciplines.”
Hall says tutoring also “does marvelous things” for the tutors. “They are tactful editors, shrewd readers, and resilient writers. They’re not tortured artists, and yet they have a clear and mature understanding of what Elizabeth Hardwick called ‘the cold hardship of writing.’” For tutor Dyani Johns, it’s “a partnership. A good session is like a conversation about strategies.” Nick Upton says “there are ways to tell in the short term” if his efforts are paying off, like noticing “how interested students seem in what you’re saying, if they start making connections, if they’re not glancing at the clock every fifteen seconds.” The long-term effects are harder to gauge, he says. “But a student did stop me on the sidewalk once, to tell me how much his writing improved. I chalk that up as a win.”