By Jessica Citti
Jessica Citti, Ph.D., has tutored in the writing centers at UW-Madison and the University of Iowa, where she also taught composition, rhetoric, and technical communication. She is now the Writing Skills Specialist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, where she provides one-on-one writing consultations for students and coordinates the HSU Writing Studio.
I remember learning the word “volition” in college. A friend used it over the phone (a phone with a cord, attached to a wall) and I was impressed. Volition. A word from the medieval Latin: volō, I wish, I will.
Later, after tutoring in writing centers at large public universities in the midwest, I came to think of this word in relation to writing center visits. While an occasional referral might be appropriate, students should come of their own volition. Stephen North sums up the problem with mandatory visits in “The Idea of a Writing Center,” suggesting that such requirements—while well-intentioned—don’t carry lasting impact: “Occasionally we manage to convert such writers from people who have to see us to people who want to, but most often they either come as if for a kind of detention, or they drift away” (440).
Mandatory whole-class visits can create hardships for the center, the students, and the tutors. First, having a whole class descend upon the writing center could be an administrative nightmare. Students could overwhelm the center with last-minute requests for appointments, turning what was intended to be a positive experience into a decidedly negative one. Secondly, requiring visits within a specific time frame burdens already-overwhelmed students unable to fit an appointment into their schedules.
Another reason to discourage required visits is pedagogical: peer-to-peer tutoring in the writing center relies on “flexibility and interaction” (Harris 29); as North and others suggest, writers who don’t self-select may resist engaging in conversation or accepting feedback. Also, mandatory, whole-class appointments can be hard on tutors: working with large numbers of sometimes reluctant students who continually request documentation can make tutors feel like they are validating parking stubs rather than helping their peers develop as writers.
The Writing Studio at HSU
With this perspective, I joined the writing and learning community at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, California, the northernmost university within the California State (CSU) system. HSU is distinctive among other CSUs given its remote location along the longest undeveloped coastline in the state and among ancient redwood trees that feed on coastal fogs. Many students from southern California are attracted to its strong programs in natural resources and conservation, biological sciences, and art, to name a few. Attending HSU also gives many of these students an opportunity to study as far away from home as possible while remaining in-state.
The Writing Studio, staffed by undergraduate and graduate students from a range of majors, is nestled among other units of the Learning Center (science tutoring, course-specific tutoring, supplemental instruction, study skills tutoring, and math tutoring). Most of the other tutoring is drop-in, for credit, or by prearrangement; the Writing Studio offers some drop-in hours but is primarily appointment-based.
When I learned that some faculty make visiting the Writing Studio a whole-class requirement, alarms sounded in my head: You can’t require such things! They must happen naturally! What about volition? But I was new and wanted to respect current practices; also, I was curious how required visits worked at HSU, a relatively small university.
Not so bad after all?
A quick perusal of the literature challenges the assumption that required whole-class visits to the writing center will result in negative attitudes, unproductive sessions, and one-off visits. Individual studies by Barbara Lynn Gordon, Wendy Bishop, and Irene Lurkis Clark found to varying degrees that requiring whole classes to visit the writing center can positively impact student perceptions of the center as a resource for improving one’s writing skills. For example, Gordon found that almost all students surveyed expressed some willingness to return on their own after a required session (157). Clark even recommends that composition programs consider making required visits a department-wide policy (34).
Required visits may be appropriate for specific student populations. At HSU, over half of this fall’s first-time undergraduates are first-generation college students. In addition, a significant portion of HSU’s first-time undergraduates self-identify as Latino/a. The call for “volition” presupposes individual agency; as Phinney et al. note in their work on peer mentoring, Latino/a students “may need more help in understanding and negotiating the demands of college, especially in their freshman year” (601). Students who feel marginalized within academia often face a number of social, cultural, and affective barriers to seeking out resources on their own. In that case, required visits may form one part of a larger effort toward helping students develop academic self-efficacy.
Two tutors’ perspectives
Curious what our consultants think, I spoke with Laura and Thomas. Laura is a second-year M.A. candidate in the Composition Program who tutors in the Writing Studio and teaches a section of introductory composition. Thomas is a senior English major who tutored in the writing center at a local community college before transferring to HSU and joining the Writing Studio staff.
Laura, who requires her composition students to visit the Studio for an assignment of their choosing at least once, supports the idea that required visits can help students hesitant to seek out resources on their own. She sees required visits as a “nudge” that “clears up the mystery, the ambiguity” about what happens in the Writing Studio, likening the experience to taking the bus for the first time: “scary at first, but then you get the hang of it.” When individual students are sent here, it can feel like a punishment, she says, but having a whole class come can help “build a community of writers.” She’s seen writers from the same class wave at one another from across the room while working with consultants. “No one feels alienated or scared because they’re all in it together,” she says. She has encountered some students who treat the appointment “like another hoop to jump through,” but attributes that attitude more toward the class or college in general than the Studio itself. She stresses that required visits seem more appropriate for first-year students than upper-division ones, and believes that required visits early on will lead to self-motivated visits in the future.
Thomas, while generally positive about required visits, has seen writers who, as North says, view a required visit to the Writing Studio as punitive. In these situations, Thomas starts by acknowledging the writer’s annoyance at being there and then uses questions to draw the writer’s attention to the draft: “I approach it by saying, ‘Well, you’re here, so let’s see what we can do.” Thomas sometimes asks, “What is your goal when you get through this class?” to help the writer see the assignment within the larger context of his or her academic and professional objectives. By tapping into the writer’s intrinsic motivations (and encouraging optimism by saying “when” rather than “if”), Thomas is usually able to help the writer focus on the draft and the session will end positively.
A few impressions so far
Though I have been at HSU for less than a year, I too have seen how required visits can benefit student-writers, tutors, and faculty. My experience so far has underscored the following:
- The most successful whole-class visits come with their own scaffolding. For example, faculty in the Composition Program ask students to fill out self-reflection sheets ahead of their appointments; visits to the Writing Studio become another step in the larger program-supported process of receiving and responding to feedback from multiple readers. Requiring visits (or extra credit for visits) has also provided opportunities to help faculty in other departments integrate writing into their courses more intentionally. This fall, I worked with faculty members teaching support courses for traditionally underrepresented and low income students in the social sciences to develop a Writing Studio session goal form that walks writers through preparing for the appointment, identifying strengths, setting an agenda, and, together with the consultant, planning for revision post-session. Such scaffolding, while useful for all writers, is especially appropriate for Generation 1.5 learners who may benefit from explicit introduction to the metalanguage and conventions of the writing center session and the writing process as a whole (Thonus 18).
- The most successful whole-class visits rely on collaboration between faculty members, tutors, and administrative staff. This fall, faculty who required visits or made them extra credit attended one of our staff meetings to explain their expectations for their writing assignments. Previously, a professor teaching a senior seminar in the Art Department met with the staff to discuss the rhetorical conventions of artist statements. Active communication and advanced planning help us avoid the administrative hazards that can accompany required appointments. In addition, such close contacts strengthen the relationship between the faculty and the Studio, which is especially important in a writing center not connected to an academic department.
- We can embrace creative ways to document these appointments that add to the community of the Writing Studio. Rather than requiring a consultant signature, some faculty members in the Composition Program request “Writing Studio Selfies”: a photo taken by the writer with his or her writing consultant. The consultants welcomed this idea and purchased props that writers and consultants are encouraged to don when taking these selfies. On our “Meet our Staff” photo board consultants sport an array of these props, from false mustaches and glasses to hats and monocles, bringing a little community-building playfulness into the Studio.
Gordon offers a number of other strategies for avoiding the pitfalls that come with required visits. Together with other forms of outreach, including classroom visits and regular contact with faculty, obliging specific whole-class visits to the writing center might be worth considering depending on institutional context. While required visits are not for all centers or all classes, I’ve come to see that they shouldn’t be dismissed outright: in some cases, a little nudge might be necessary.
Bishop, Wendy. “Bring Writers to the Center: Some Survey Results, Surmises, and Suggestions.” The Writing Center Journal 10.2 (1990): 31-45. Print.
Clark, Irene Lurkis. “Leading the Horse: The Writing Center and Required Visits.” The Writing Center Journal 5.2/6.1 (1985): 31-34. Print.
Gordon, Barbara Lynn. “Requiring First-Year Writing Classes to Visit the Writing Center: Bad Attitudes or Positive Results?.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 36.2 (2008): 154-163.
Harris, Muriel. “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors.” College English 57.1 (1995): 27-42. Print.
North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English 46 (1984): 433-46. Print.
Phinney, Jean S., Cidhinnia M. Torres Campos, Delia M. Padilla Kallemeyn, and Chami Kim. “Processes and Outcomes of a Mentoring Program for Latino College Freshmen.” Journal of Social Issues 67.3 (2011): 599-621. Print.
Thonus, Terese. “Serving Generation 1.5 Learners in the University Writing Center.” TESOL Journal 12.1 (2003): 17-24. Print.
Photo credit for featured photo: Flickr/Creative Commons/Michael Balint/Via/https://flic.kr/p/e9XxNw