Amy Nichols, Consultant
As I think about my experiences as a college-level writing tutor so far, it’s impossible not to compare it with one of my previous jobs. A few years ago, a rural Kentucky high school gave me the chance to be a part-time writing coach, working in partnership with teachers to give students more individualized writing instruction. I jumped in, all passion and no knowledge, and spent a year learning, breaking up the occasional fight, and teaching lessons in everything from how to write a complete sentence to how to best present oneself in a college admission essay.
At the University of Louisville Writing Center, things are a bit different. More of my sessions tend to focus on higher-order concerns, such as organization and the conventions of each discipline. I no longer regularly present students with prompts involving the inner politics of bull-riding or the finer points of vehicle maintenance to catch their interest, and I have not had to break up any fights so far. However, there has been some continuity in the lessons I have learned and am learning from both experiences.
Writers Need to Be Heard.
At the high school level, this was something I learned very quickly. Students who complained that they “hated” writing often surprised me with their ability to articulate eloquent verbal arguments, even when they were unable to transition those thoughts onto paper. If I could shut off my own agenda long enough to hear their ideas, I could often use that eloquence of thought to help them create a writing strategy that would work for the individual, rather than always using something from my stock selection of handouts.
At the Writing Center, I’ve tried to keep this in mind, and have been surprised again, not by the fact that writers have amazing ideas, but that, when I really listen, it suddenly becomes easier to be creative in helping them articulate those ideas.
I still hear students say, “I had a teacher/professor who told me *insert inflexible writing rule here*.” These sets of rules, these ‘do and do not’ lists for writing are truly valuable for the framework they give learning writers. A student cannot write a coherent argument about bull-riding if she or he does not know what it means to make an argument in writing in the first place.
While these frameworks are beneficial, I’ve also learned that it’s important to know when to nuance these frameworks for writers who are ready to move on. Saying, “Well, your thesis doesn’t always have to come at the end of the introductory paragraph” can cause frustration if a student is still learning how to structure an essay. Given at the right moment, however, a student might suddenly understand not only why the rule was there, but also how and when to bend or break it.
Writing is Communal.
For many of my students at the high school, our sessions were the first time they had actually sat down individually to talk about their own writing process. For some of the writers coming to the Writing Center, the story is the same. When faced with a daunting assignment sheet, it is so easy to forget that writing is, at its heart, communication with a community.
I am still personally learning this lesson as I grow as a writer and consultant. The faculty and staff at the writing center and my fellow GTA’s are the strongest resources I have as I make my own transition into graduate studies and into helping writers at the college level. And perhaps this is the final lesson I feel like any writing center, wherever it is, at whatever level, is uniquely situated to teach: no one always has to write alone.