Writing center helps students polish their papers
In the evening, most of the rooms in Mood Hall are dark. The lights are on in one room, though – the Debby Ellis Writing Center.
Located on the third floor of Mood Hall, the writing center is a place students can go four nights a week for help with a variety of writing, whether it be papers for classes, capstone projects or even scholarship applications.
While writing centers are common at most colleges, one feature of the writing center at Southwestern stands out – the center is staffed entirely by undergraduate students. Eight to 12 students a semester work at the writing center after taking a course on the teaching of writing.
During the 2011-2012 academic year, student consultants provided more than 600 consultations at the writing center, more than double the center’s average from previous years. The center is on track to top that record in 2012-2013, with more than 250 consultations the first half of the fall semester.
“This suggests to me that the work we’ve been doing to build a culture of writing at Southwestern is taking root,” said Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, an associate professor of English who oversees the writing center. Piedmont-Marton was hired in 1999 after a national search to start the writing center. It was named for Debby Ellis, a former professor of medieval literature and founder of the Women’s Studies program, she died suddenly in the fall of 1999.
Piedmont-Marton said most college writing centers expect to see the number of consultations equal to about 15 percent of the student population. In 2011-2012, that figure at Southwestern was nearly 50 percent.
“I think students are having a good experience and coming back,” Piedmont-Marton said.
Piedmont-Marton credits the center’s success to the student consultants. Students have helped her create a Facebook page to promote the center’s services and produced some videos that are posted on YouTube.
The writing center has recently expanded its hours to include morning hours as well as evening hours. Students can schedule appointments online, or just drop in for help. Consultations range anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.
In selecting student consultants, Piedmont-Marton seeks out students from a variety of majors so that students who come in for help can work with someone who is in their same major.
On a recent evening, the center was staffed with a student majoring in education, a student majoring in history, a student majoring in Spanish and a student majoring in science.
Holly Fain, a senior education major who hopes to become a high school English teacher, sat on a couch outside the writing center working on a paper with Emma Lynch, a sophomore education major. Lynch had come to the center seeking help with a paper for her class on programs and services for people with special needs that was due Friday. Fortunately, Fain had previously taken some classes with the same professor.
Lynch had a long list of questions for Fain, including how to title her paper, when to use subheads, where to put in statistics, how to put her own voice in the paper and how to conclude the paper.
Fain spent more than an hour with Lynch, helping her work through the introduction for her paper, the thesis statement, and how to properly cite her sources. Lynch, who had just transferred into the education program, was visibly relieved at the conclusion of the session.
“You’ve been an amazing help,” she told Fain.
For Lynch, this was her second visit to the writing center in two weeks. “I don’t come in for every paper, but it’s great when you need it,” she said.
Melina Cantu, a sophomore communication studies and Spanish major, went to the writing center for help with the two essays she needed to apply for a Gilman international scholarship.
“Everyone I had talked to always told me that the writing center was helpful and even improved the letter grade of their papers,” Cantu said. “Since I was working on my scholarship essays to study abroad, I knew I needed all the help I could get.”
Cantu worked several consultants at the writing center, including David Boutté, a senior philosophy major who is minoring in business, English and religion. Boutté said the professor who taught his Advanced Entry Seminar at Southwestern suggested he work at the writing center after seeing how much he was helping other students in his seminar with their papers.
“Working with David was the best thing that could have happened to me and my essays,” Cantu said. “Not only was he helpful but he also taught me how to write better and figure out my mistakes by myself. Even though I am not an amazing writer, I did feel that I learned a lot and have become a better writer.”
Each year, at least one or two students who work as consultants in the writing center attend conferences to give presentations about their experiences. In February 2012, Boutté and two other students attended the South Central Writing Centers Association Conference in Little Rock, Ark.
“These conferences are a great opportunity because we are usually the only undergraduates presenting papers,” Boutté said. Boutté presented a paper about how he has worked with the Economics and Business Department to help students taking a new class on business writing and research.
In October 2012, Piedmont-Marton is taking students Andrea Gannon and Devin Corbitt with her to the International Writing Centers Association Conference in San Diego. Gannon is one of two students who serve as assistant directors of the center, and Corbitt has been handling the center’s social media presence.
Serving as a consultant at the writing center has led to careers for several Southwestern graduates.
Stephen Fontenot, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in English and a minor in Spanish, was one of the first group of students who were trained to be consultants at the writing center.
“I got involved with it because it seemed to take my knowledge base and things I was good at, and give them an application that could be useful post-graduation,” Fontenot said.
After graduating from Southwestern, Fontenot worked as a newsdesk and sportsdesk editor and columnist at the Waco Tribune-Herald for seven years and then served as a sportsdesk editor and columnist at the San Antonio Express-News. He recently took a new position as a marketing copywriter for a technology company in San Antonio.
“At the writing center, I was working alongside writers to help them better communicate their ideas. Each of my jobs in the past 12 years has been about that same concept: improving others’ written communication as well as crafting my own,” Fontenot said. “Even if you’re already a good writer, you don’t necessarily know how to show anyone else how to refine their own work. Working as a writing consultant sharpens that skill, and it’s something I’ve applied in every role since.”
Tricia (Mein) Bruce, a 2001 graduate, was also among the first cohort of writing consultants. She has since earned her Ph.D. in sociology and is now a professor at Maryville College in Maryville, Tenn. She said she continues to use what she learned at the writing center.
“My work in the writing center helped me to see writing as a process and writing feedback as something that goes far beyond the dreaded ‘red pen,’” Bruce said. “Now as a professor myself, I incorporate this same philosophy in working with my students to strengthen their writing abilities. Writing is central to the discipline of sociology and I encourage students to see writing as a tool for building shared understanding, not just a test of grammatical ‘correctness.’”
Rachel Rigdon, who was assistant director of the writing center in 2008-2009, spent a year working with AmeriCorps after she graduated, first as an editor and writer for a college youth program and then as a mentor and tutor for at-risk children in a middle school. She recently completed her master’s degree in rhetoric and public culture from Northwestern University and will be returning to Northwestern in the spring to pursue her Ph.D.
When she returns to Northwestern in the spring, Rigdon said she has been selected to teach a junior-level writing and research seminar for undergraduates that is similar to the capstone at Southwestern. “Getting to teach these courses is quite competitive and I’m the only first-year Ph.D. in my program to have earned the opportunity,” Rigdon said. “I definitely relied upon what I learned in Teaching of Writing and the DEWC to help me construct and pitch the course. Pretty much every approach I’ve taken to my own writing and research and teaching has been influenced by my time at the DEWC. I would never have felt confident enough to teach this level course so early on in my career if I hadn’t had such great training from Southwestern.”
Several former student consultants are now pursuing careers specifically related to writing centers.
Morgan Gross, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in English, is now an assistant director of the writing center at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan. She said her experience in the Teaching of Writing class with Piedmont-Marton and her work as a student consultant influenced her to pursue a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition at Texas State University. She hopes to eventually return to school for a Ph.D. and then become a writing center director at a different university.
“I’m grateful for the preparation that Southwestern gave me because it has directly helped me get to where I am now in terms of work and education,” Gross said.
Graham Oliver, a 2011 graduate who served as assistant director of the writing center his senior year, is currently working on his master’s degree in rhetoric and composition at Texas State. After he finishes that degree, he hopes to teach composition at the college level full-time.
“I had no idea there were degrees available in rhetoric and composition before I started working at the writing center,” Oliver said. “The writing center introduced me to the program I’m in now.”
Both Gross and Oliver said their experience at the Debby Ellis Writing Center helped them land jobs at the writing center at Texas State. Gross also was able to work as a teaching assistant and had three composition classes.
Andrea Gannon, one of the current student co-directors of the writing center, hopes to follow in the same footsteps.
“I’ve known since 7th grade that I wanted to be an English major, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that major,” Gannon said. “After working at the writing center, I knew I liked helping people with their essays. It’s really wonderful to watch people’s writing improve over the course of the semester.”