Writing Centers Could Always Be More Helpful…

Becky Hallman

Over the past several days, I have been watching responses to an article published about the writing center in the school newspaper at the University of Kentucky. In the 48 responses since the article’s publication six days ago, I’ve been impressed by the range of respondents- from students, tutors, and faculty, and also by the range of emotions- anger, frustration, excitement. While Powell’s article, published Wednesday, November 30 has definitely received a fair share of criticism, some readers seem encouraged by such strong interest in both the writing center itself and also the center’s reputation.

Junior journalism major Amanda Powell begins her article with a description of her own experience in the University of Kentucky writing center. Powell’s frustration with the lack of appointment availability, appointment-length, and progress made in her single 30 minute session is not too far from what most of us tutors experience on a daily basis. We are constantly feeling our schedules slammed with back to back appointments, the time ticking furiously away while we work with students on half-written essays due within hours, and the self-reflective worry that we just didn’t get enough done and we just weren’t helpful enough. Not only do I feel these pressures as a tutor, but I feel them as a graduate student writer myself and as a composition instructor as well.

In perhaps the most problematic of her complaints, Powell asks, “How can students consider the Writing Center a proper program when we can’t even have our six page papers edited?”

To me, this sounds like a valid question. If we think about Amanda as a student-writer facing the same kinds of pressure and time constraints we ourselves as writers face, then her frustration when she finds out that writing centers are not places that “perfect” student papers, but instead work closely with students to make some progress, usually a little at a time, seems valid…even if a little unfair. By voicing her experience and admitting to her perception of the UK writing center, Amanda was, in a sense, asking for feedback and ended up generating a lively online discussion about the role writing centers play in student writing.

I think when we receive feedback about our work in writing centers (both the good and the bad), we should take it. Of course Amanda did not have a good experience in the writing center if she expected someone to work with her the second she walked in for an unlimited amount of time “editing” a six page paper. What seems most problematic to me about Amanda’s response has little to do with what she says and more to do with how those ideas about the writing center got into her head.

It’s important for us to remember that many students and faculty do not really understand the work we do in writing centers. When I think about what exactly it is that I am doing as a tutor and why I approach tutoring the way I do, I find my mind jumping in all sorts of directions. How often do we as writing centers really take the time to develop goals? What do we value most about working one-on-one with students, and what do we want those who work with us on their writing to get out of their time in the WC? Perhaps some of us would find that changing student attitudes not only about the work we do in writing centers, but also about the time, patience, and frustration involved in the writing process could be one of the most valuable and important learning experiences we offer.

I encourage you to check the conversation out for yourself: “UK’s Writing Center Could Be More Helpful.”

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