Editorial: Making the most of the Writing Center

Posted by the Editorial Board

Command of the English language is something all Skidmore graduates should have within their grasp. Every department here requires solid writing abilities, and those who cannot write fluently will, and should, find themselves frustrated no matter their field of study.

While introductory English classes aim to teach remedial skills, and grammar workshops improve our campus-wide comma and colon use, true proficiency is achieved only through constant and deliberative effort. For students interested in putting in this effort, the Writing Center offers a promising, if potentially frustrating, avenue to lucid prose.

As part of the general renovations of Scribner Library, the Writing Center moved to the fourth floor in a new, larger space replete with computers, desks, and an office for ESL Specialist Thaddeus Niles, hired last year as part of an attempt to make Skidmore more friendly to non-native English speakers. In addition, the Writing Center has online appointments with specific tutors, whose specialties are listed, giving students a greater degree of control over their sessions.

These changes come at a time when the Center is seeing consistent growth in attendance. In the 2010-2011 academic year, the Center posted 2,623 tutoring sessions, an increase of more than 20% over the previous year, perhaps as a result of its growing visibility on campus.

The Writing Center plays an imperative role here. Students uninterested in pursuing English beyond their single semester of expository writing may not know how to improve their composition. As the expectations of professors creeps upward each year, students may find themselves overwhelmed. The Writing Center should be the first place these students turn for help.

Rather than editing or marking up papers, tutors sit with students and attempt to help them grow as writers, whatever their level of proficiency may be. Tutors will not simply correct your grammatical and syntactic mistakes, and thus will not be of much help to unmotivated students only attending to appease their professor. These more basic and tedious services are better supplied by the workshops and introductory English classes.

But students looking to improve their writing ability for the long-term will find a good deal of assistance without the performance anxiety that comes from working personally with a professor. This makes the Writing Center the ideal destination for students who lack confidence in their writing abilities.

However, some changes must still be made. First, a simple yet persistent miscommunication must be addressed. Far too often, students come hours before a paper is due, looking for help ironing out the last grammatical errors, and find themselves stuck in an hour-long conversation about organization, clarity and flow. Tutors are not editors, experts, or encyclopedias, but students still arrive with such expectations. It should be the goal of the Writing Center staff going forward to better communicate their purpose to the student body.

Aside from more effective communication, the Writing Center should aim to improve the breadth and customization of its services. The addition of Niles to the staff was definitely an important first step, giving ESL students the chance to participate in the tutoring process.

But there are several ways in which the center could go further: creative writing, for example, is handled no differently than analytical work, without specialized tutors. The addition of one or two students able to specifically evaluate such creative work would give creative writers a sorely needed audience to approach with rougher writing.

While Student Academic Services offers tutors trained to help students with their science or mathematics work, longer papers and lab reports could still benefit from a specialized Writing Center tutor, if such a tutor had been trained in the discipline. Increasing the number of specialized tutors would not only increase the number of students who could use the Center affectively, it might also eliminate the kind of failed session that students complain about - one in which the tutor and tutee are simply on different wavelengths. Opening earlier and increasing the number of tutoring hours offered during exam weeks would also strengthen the dependability of the Writing Center, making its services available even (and especially) at those times when they are most needed.

For Skidmore to produce graduates who think critically – the College's stated mission – students must graduate with a proficiency in the English language. Few skills picked up in college so firmly bridge the gap between the liberal arts and the professional world. By renovating the Writing Center, and continuing its improvement, the administration has shown a dedication to this objective. While some nuts and bolts remain to be tightened up in the Center, students should not hesitate to improve their writing skills, so crucial to success in their studies and beyond.


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