What did you think of it?
May 11, 2011 10:47 AM   Subscribe

What has been your experience with writing centers at graduate school?

If yours had one and you frequented it, how did it go? What do you wish they had done differently?

If yours had one and you didn't frequent it, what kept you from going?

If yours didn't have one and you wish that it had, why?

If your didn't have one and you were glad that they didn't, how come?

Bonus question: If you worked as a writing consultant at a graduate school writing center, how did that go?
Your answers may help to get a fledgling graduate school writing center off the ground and off to a good start.
posted by Jagz-Mario to Education (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I went to one once when I was finishing up my capstone project paper.

It was nice to have someone to read through it with me (also, reading it aloud helped me find some oddly phrased sentences). However, I felt that the person who was helping me seemed less experienced in the type of document I was writing (engineering, technical) and didn't give me a lot of good feedback on structure. They seemed more there for spelling and grammar. I really don't feel like it helped make my paper any stronger.

So, ways to make it better:
  • Have the consultants familiar with paper structure and format requirements for disciplines other than just Liberal Arts.
  • Stress on having multiple sessions with the same consultant. It is hard to really go through a paper thoroughly in a one hour time slot.
  • Have evening and weekend time slots available. (I was also working fulltime. My grad classes are in the evening - why not the supplementary services in the evening as well?)
Good luck to you!
posted by jillithd at 11:06 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's formatting, for me. Theses and dissertations required a trip to the writing center anyway, but mainly for the formatting issues. Bookmarks, et cetera. If you find a way to get people to come to the center to get formatting issues fixed (that paragraph mark won't go away, how do I get rid of this extra page, why won't my columns align the way I want), I know I'd be in there in a heartbeat. That or using some kind of chat service to talk to you.

MS Word is a pain in the ass. And judging by the tons of pages that come up during my myriad of searches to fix every conceivable little weirdness this program can come up with, I'm not the only one who feels that way. Maybe start a program called "Word Hero" or something.
posted by cashman at 11:19 AM on May 11, 2011

This question made me realize that I had no idea whether or not my university has a graduate writing center.

After some searching, I've discovered that they do have a writing center, and that they offer appointments to grad students. First task: making sure students know your service exists!

But even now that I know it exists, I kinda doubt I'll try it. My control of sentence mechanics is fine, so that's not the kind of help I'm looking for. What I mostly need help with is being clear when I explain the more technical aspects of my analyses. Often, however, following the analysis at all (no matter how clearly written) would require at least an undergrad degree's worth of study in my field. I guess it's possible that a really great writing consultant would be able to help me figure out if it's clear despite not knowing the jargon or sharing the underlying assumptions...but I think it's more likely that it would be a frustrating experience. When I work surrounded by my fellow grad students who will happily help me out, why risk wasting an hour of my time?

On preview: If the writing center offered LaTeX troubleshooting, they'd get sick of seeing me there every day. But then, I doubt that's the kind of help a writing center is supposed to provide.
posted by ootandaboot at 11:35 AM on May 11, 2011

Oh god, yes, make sure they know how papers are written in the specific areas they're working with. They made a bunch of people at my law school go to a certain number of writing center consultations this year, which the professors did based on a writing sample. Most people I knew who were referred were told that it was because of their need to develop better structure and argument. The writing center people had no idea how to handle anything more complicated than spelling/grammar. Not that there aren't some people who need the help proofreading, but assume that's not generally true of most. I would say, ideally, try to get the department(s) you're working with to provide examples to the consultants of high-quality work, so that they know what it looks like.

The very potentially helpful thing I've seen were seminars that were held--with free food, which helped--on writing-related topics. Unfortunately, they were all grammar-related when I saw them done, and they had attendance problems because, again, most graduate-level students are fine on stuff like "how to use a comma". Seminars on things like brainstorming/outlining strategies, how to structure a paper/argument/whatever, persuasive writing strategies, how to use some of the quirkier features in Word like the built-in citations and tables of contents and even section-based page-numbering? Those would be really useful, and provide some general exposure for the writing center to get people in for personal consultations if they needed more specific help.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:51 AM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi! I work at the graduate writing center at my school. I hope that jillithd's experience wasn't representative, as we're not supposed to do copy-editing. I often catch little things when going through papers, but for the most part I work with students at a higher level—making sure their sentences make sense and are expressing their ideas adequately, making sure their paragraphs make logical wholes and aren't some weird hodgepodge with no narrative, making sure that they've got an introduction that sets the stage well (and sets the stage for the paper they've actually written).

But making sure makes it sound a little too much like it's me going through and pointing to things—there's a lot of back and forth, a lot of conversation and pointing out that, hey, this paragraph makes it seem like you're arguing for A, but in your intro and in our conversation it's been clear you want to argue for B, so how can we clarify that? I often find myself asking them what role this paragraph plays in their argument, or how we got there from what they were just talking about, and only then, after that conversation, talking about how to make the connections more clear. I encounter more structure problems than anything else, but a lot of the time the student has a very clear idea of what they're trying to do, they just don't notice that what's completely clear to them is only implicit in what's actually on the page. When we don't have time to get through a whole paper, I often encourage them to try to look over what's left with an unfriendly eye, not granting themselves anything that isn't actually there on the page.

What I do think is representative about jillithd's comment (and now about ootandaboot) is that there can be a gap between the tutor's knowledge base and what the student needs. I've had to figure out a lot of stuff just through repeated experience with students coming in from various departments, but I started with very little training and had to figure out things like literature reviews and organizational change proposals on the fly. Having strong examples of these things—perhaps provided by the various departments that your writing center will be serving?—will be extremely helpful to both students and your fledgling tutors. Another thing that would help is pulling your tutors from various departments and making sure that it's clear on your scheduling software that they have strengths in these different fields. I sympathize with ootandaboot's worries—I'm fairly well-read, and dabble in all sorts of fields, but if someone comes in with a high-level analysis in linguistics I'm not going to be able to offer them the help they need. We do sometimes get emails from students who want to know who would be best suited to deal with their particular topic (history and trauma, say), and the coordinator can steer them towards the tutors who have a background in that or are at least most likely to be helpful.

Speaking of coordinators: you'll definitely need to think a lot about logistics and how you'll manage appointments, student emails, etc. Our graduate writing center just merged with the university writing center, so I've now worked at two places with totally different ways of managing everything. The new place has reservation software, which is great. (see?) It allows students to make one one-hour appointment at a time, and resets as soon as they've had an appointment so that they can book another. This keeps the schedule relatively open, so that it can't get booked up totally in advance and block out students who didn't have the foresight to book a May appointment back in February but now really, really need help. (The old place did all this by hand and had no way of keeping students from booking every appointment possible, which led to lots more work when we had to delete them and email the student and explain policies et cetera et cetera.) However, some students do want repeating appointments, or two hour appointments, so the writing center does allow them. These can't be made automatically but require the student to email the center, fill out a form, and basically sign a contract that says they want this appointment and that they will come to it. Why the paperwork? Because students cancel like crazy, and if they've got this appointment booked it keeps other students from getting an appointment at that time, so they have to be committed to showing up to it on the regular.

Which brings me to a new topic: cancellation policies. How will you manage this? We let students cancel, with no penalty, up to three hours in advance of their appointment (they can do this through the scheduler, too). Less than three hours notice, outright no-shows, and lateness of more than ten minutes earns the student a warning. Three warnings in a semester and they're not allowed to book appointments in advance, but can still have walk-in appointments. (Will you want both scheduled and walk-in appointments? I've noticed that undergrads seem much more likely to try to get walk-in appointments than graduate students do, so it's not that big of a deal—I wouldn't bother having someone there solely to take walk-in appointments—i.e. someone who doesn't appear on the schedule but is nonetheless available for last minute sessions.) Again, this seeming strictness is due to the fact that lots of students want to use the writing center—especially when papers come due at the end of the semester—and having an appointment booked that you're not actually going to attend means that other students can't get the help they want and that your tutor is just there twiddling their thumbs. Repeating and two-hour appointments have cancellation policies that are slightly more strict—I think you lose the repeating appointment after one no-show? (Confession: I love no-shows. They're like tiny snow days, and I always have my own work to do. But that doesn't mean the policy is wrong.)

One further logistical consideration: We have front desk staff and tutors; the tutors tutor, the front desk handles checking students in, managing the e-scheduler, emailing students, filing, slapping wrists, explaining policy, et cetera. If you have the budget and space for this, it's great. When the graduate writing center was separate, we did all this ourselves (with one of us paid extra to be the coordinator and do the lion's share) and had a set of shared google docs—one document for each student, updated with a little description of the student's session after each new meeting. These are helpful in knowing what to expect and what has already been gone over when you either haven't met with a student in a while or haven't met with them at all. (Some students like to stick to one tutor, others tutor-hop.) It was totally manageable, though we did have slightly shorter tutoring hours—forty minutes rather than fifty. (As with the analytic hour, tutoring hours are not actually an hour, and leave ten minutes for paperwork, grabbing coffee, going to the bathroom, whatever.)

Additional thoughts upon preview:
We also hold writing seminars like the ones gracedissolved suggests: this semester's list. These are announced via school-wide email, and further advertised by poster.

I don't think the writing center should be for formatting—citation styles, sure, but formatting? I've never encountered anyone there for that, nor noticed it on anyone else's session logs. This doesn't mean it never comes up, but it doesn't seem like a main focus, as we're about writing, not about wrangling the technological presentation of that writing.

Whew! There went my afternoon. I'll check back in later.
posted by felix grundy at 12:11 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh! Make sure you have someone go around to the various departments during their orientation, so that the incoming students (who are most likely to need the writing center and least likely to know about it) know that the writing center exists, what it does, where it is, etc.
posted by felix grundy at 12:12 PM on May 11, 2011

Had one, worked at one. It was a great experience, certainly very enlightening for me and (I hope!) useful for the colleagues I tutored. Our center tried hard to recruit tutors from a variety of different disciplines, so that visitors could be matched with someone who had at least a basic sense of the relevant field-specific conventions; but I generally found that I was able to follow the argument and offer useful critique even when the papers being workshopped were from fields very distant from my own.

One other very helpful thing our writing center did was to offer activities providing writing structure and motivation for graduate students-- like setting up writing support and accountability groups, offering day-long dissertation jump-start sessions, etc. Writing can be such a miserably solitary (and often guilt-ridden) affair in grad school; it's nice to get it out in the open sometimes.
posted by Bardolph at 12:21 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

It depends on who is in charge. My wife was the director of such a writing center for several years; the entire college loved it all across the board.

She left and the replacement director drove it into the ground so badly that there is no longer a writing center, period.

Sad how one person can make such an enormous impact on something like that.
posted by TinWhistle at 12:32 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think my university might have a graduate writing centre. I haven't been to it because I feel as though each discipline has a different monologic or language... I found that I've learned more from reading articles published in my area to gain a feel of how things should be worded and formatted. I have a background in sociology, criminology and women's studies and all three are very different and I doubt that the people helping in the centres would know the differences to be honest.

I have done some professional development courses for graduate students and I found them to be painful for the most part. They were either too broad (made it so broad in hopes of appealing to all disciplines) or too narrow (specific examples for engineers aren't going to help me in the social sciences). I'd be interested in going to sessions directly aimed for those in my field (someone above mentioned that hiring many across disciplines was their goal).

I've always found that proofreading my essays out loud has always worked better than going to a writing centre (I went once in undergrad) or hiring proofreaders.
posted by DorothySmith at 12:51 PM on May 11, 2011

Response by poster: Love the answers. Would mark some as best but my blackberry won't let me. Thanks a million. I may share some answers with committee.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 3:01 PM on May 11, 2011

I worked at an undergrad writing center when I was a grad student. Grad students sometimes came for help and they were referred to me or to the other grad student. (All the rest of the writing tutors were undergrads.) Most of those who asked for help were foreign students whose English was usually excellent but they still needed a little help with grammar and subtleties of word usage.
posted by mareli at 3:10 PM on May 11, 2011

My fiance and I work for (different) college writing centers. Mine has very few graduate students coming through, probably because it is staffed mostly be undergraduates and located in the academic support building, where remedial classes are held. His has many more, mostly ESL students but some native speakers as well. What has really helped with the longer papers is a provision for working at home. He'll meet with the student a number of times over the days or weeks that the process takes, but then work on the actual editing at home using track changes. That way when he meets with the students they can talk about the changes and structure, rather than slog through it.

My center makes us read everything out loud, which is helpful for lower-level students with short papers, but terribly annoying for longer ones.
posted by charmcityblues at 4:59 PM on May 11, 2011

I worked in an undergraduate writing center as a graduate student.

The biggest problems were a) students coming in with nothing but the assignment itself and expecting us to write the paper for them and b) students coming in with something that resembled a "finished" paper and expecting us to work as copy-editors.

My boss tried to make the place more of an incubator for developing solid thesis statements and working on the "high end" structural and logical issues, as opposed to "sentence level" things like punctuation, spelling, and grammar.

Believe me, you can never be at this meta-level with American undergraduates ca. 2011. We were trying to turn them into sprinters when most of them couldn't walk yet.

I made some extra cash but overall the experience wasn't that great. The director had good intentions but totally misunderstood the students' actual needs. She thought they were all aspiring NYRB contributors and would love -- just love! -- to discuss things like paragraph structure and nuanced thesis statements and gracefully acknowledging potential counter-arguments.

What the kids needed was a kick in the butt to stop being so lazy and to start treating their own writing seriously and pre-professionaly. (This was at a pretty good state university, for what it's worth.)

This was also about seven years ago. I shudder to think how much texting and IM'ing has further wrecked the written abilities of American teens and 20-somethings since then.
posted by bardic at 12:14 AM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: I just sent you a memail with the contact information for someone who might be able to help, but I also wanted to include these resources for you.

The International Writing Centers Association has this Starting a Writing Center reference page with some basic steps and a bibliography (helpful if you need academic research to support your cause on your campus).

Their Summer Institute has a good reputation for helping people get writing centers off the ground. If you, a colleague, or another administrator could attend this year or next, you'd really get a lot out of it.

If you can't attend the institute, a national conference (not until Oct. 2012, unfortunately) or a regional conference can be a great place to pick people's brains, network, and share resources. Some regions have bigger/better conferences. I've attended the East Central regional conference a few times and it's always been a solid mix of pragmatic advice and theoretical underpinnings. The National Conference on Peer Tutoring might be another option.

In general, you'll find that writing center people are very willing to share their expertise, so put yourself in a place where you can pick their brains and you'll find a lot of great ideas (and some that just won't work for your situation, but you can sort those out).
posted by BlooPen at 10:08 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: BlooPen, thanks for the links to the IWCA pages. I do worry that some of the decision-makers in this process will be working under the assumption that a writing center can function well if you just station some good writers in a room and let them "mentor from the gut." The bibliography on the Starting a Writing Center page may help to push back against those ideas.

I agree with you about the Summer Institute and the regional conferences. I went to the Summer Institute in 2007 at OSU and have presented at the Northeast Writing Centers Association each year since 07. I'm always amazed at how great writing center people are at mentoring young recruits and sharing their expertise.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 1:25 PM on May 12, 2011

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