Understanding Student Perceptions of the Writing Center–A Conversation Between a Student, a Writing Center Instructor, and a Director/Professor

okuma_tarynBy Taryn Okuma, The Catholic University of America.

Taryn Okuma is Director of the Writing Center and Clinical Assistant Professor of English at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. She received her Ph.D. in Literary Studies from UW-Madison in 2008. While at Madison, she served as the Co-Director of the English 100 Tutorial Program for two years and worked at the Writing Center for four years.

I feel fortunate to be posting after Kristiane, whose thoughtful discussion of transfer with Caroline Levine provides valuable insights to the connections between the work that we do in writing centers, writing across the curriculum, and literature classrooms. I, too, have been thinking a great deal about the intersection of instruction in writing centers and in classrooms. Although we have a moderate amount of traffic at our center, I’m also very aware that we are only seeing a small percentage of the students who could benefit from visiting us. One of the questions that I come back to again and again as a WC director is, “Why aren’t more students visiting the Writing Center at CUA?” And as an English professor, I ask, “Why aren’t more of my students visiting the WC?”

Population-specific Perceptions of the Writing Center

It’s been my experience at CUA that many English majors can be reluctant to visit the WC and, within that student population, students who are also part of the University Honors Program (UHP) are even less likely to come. Although I assumed that this was likely due to the fact that English majors and Honors students tend to have higher levels of confidence in their writing (that are often reinforced by the grades they receive), I wanted to start by asking my questions at the local level. I had a sense that students had misperceptions about the work that we do in the WC, as well as the role that writing plays in their development as students and thinkers. However, I also wanted to find out whether or not I had some misperceptions about these students. I decided that it was necessary for me to gain some understanding of what motivates these students in order to find ways of reaching out to them so that they might reexamine their understanding of how the WC could help them as writers and, I’d argue, their relationship to writing more generally.

A brief note about my interest in Honors students, since there are other student populations that I’d describe as higher priorities for targeted outreach. I’ve been thinking about these students a lot lately because I’ve been at a loss for how to reach them, perhaps precisely because they seem to “need” the WC less than other student populations. Additionally, I’ve worked closely with the UHP and served as a faculty-in-residence for its residential community for three years, so I’ve gotten to know many of the Honors students very well, in addition to teaching many of them in class. As a result of living among and teaching Honors students, I’ve definitively learned one thing that we might otherwise assume: they can all become better writers. But how do we actually convince them of this – how can this idea gain traction with students when they interpret their grades as a message that they already excel? In some ways, English majors and Honors students are unique, but in other ways, they stand in for a more general population of students. Many of the students on our campus, regardless of their major, simply aren’t aware of the ways in which the WC can assist them in becoming stronger writers by helping them to be more reflective about their writing process and challenging them to engage with more complex ideas and arguments.

With these questions in mind, I set about teaching my Senior Seminar course last fall with the goal of connecting all of my students to the WC. The course is a year-long capstone course for the English major, so all of the students in my section were senior year English majors and two-thirds of them also happened to be Honors students. By the end of the semester, all of my students had visited the WC at least once, although it was never a requirement for the course. I wanted to find out why they had gone (since I had taught all of them in previous classes, for which most of them had never visited the WC, in spite of my urging) and how their thoughts about the WC were connected to their thought and attitudes about writing. Last week I sat down for an informal conversation with one of my students, Lindsay, an English major and Honors student, and the WC instructor she worked with, Brian Chappell, who is also the Assistant Director of the WC.

Why Students Don’t Visit the Writing Center

Lindsay

Lindsay

Taryn: Had you been to the Writing Center before this year?

Lindsay: No, I had not.

Taryn: Just out of curiosity, why not?

Lindsay: I think that part of it was that, you know, and maybe this is pretty bad, but I’m pretty confident about my writing and a lot of times I had not left enough time to actually have someone proofread my paper, unless it was a friend, really quickly in an hour. But I think the biggest thing was mostly I had not left enough time when I’m writing papers to do it, to visit.

Brian: That came up in a meeting the other day, speculating that the reason many people don’t go to the Writing Center is that they don’t have time, they’re writing something the night before or two days before or something like that.

Lindsay: Well, and I’ve noticed something about a lot of Honors students that maybe seems paradoxical, but a lot of Honors students do leave papers, you know, more to the last minute than non-Honors because I think most of them are pretty confident about their ability to turn out a paper very quickly that’s okay, maybe “A-“ worthy or something.

Brian: That’s interesting because it’s the opposite of the perception that maybe some teachers have, where the weaker students put it off until the end. But, the talented students can say, “Well, yeah, I’m doing good time management, so I can write it in 24 or 48 hours.”

Lindsay: Well, and the Honors students tend to be a lot more involved on campus, so they have these other binds on their time. But O [another Honors student and English major] and I were laughing because in one of our classes last year, one of the non-English major students – and non-Honors – was horrified that we hadn’t started our papers four days before they were due. So, yeah, I really do think that has a lot to do with it, we are probably more confident than we should be. By senior year I think the common perception is – and for me, included – is that if I can’t turn out a 3-4 page paper as an English major in a day or two, then what am I doing?

The Writing Center as a Resource for Other People

Taryn: So what did you know about The Writing Center before this year?

Lindsay: I knew that it was in O’Boyle [where the WC had been located prior to this year’s move to the Pryzbyla Center, the campus student center]. My basic understanding was that you could take your paper to a grad student and a grad student would help you go through the paper for grammatical errors and organization, things that really don’t require content knowledge of whatever you’re writing about. And, for the most part, that seems accurate.

Taryn: Did you have any friends who went to the WC?

Lindsay: [pause] I’ve heard of people going…. I’m sure people have gone.

Brian: Are there pejorative connotations, like “Ooh, she had to go to the Writing Center….”

Lindsay: [quickly] No, definitely not. I don’t think it was – I think it’s just that it wasn’t – a lot of people don’t use – it’s sort of like Career Services, where you kind of go when you need to and you have time and there’s something really pressing happening, but for the most part it’s not a tool that most people take advantage of. I really do think that having it in O’Boyle was part of the issue because it’s kind of far off on campus and a lot of people haven’t ever had class up there.

Motivating Advanced Undergraduate Writers to Visit the Writing Center

Brian Chappell

Brian Chappell

Taryn: So then you have been to the WC now, as a senior. What compelled you to go as a senior?

Lindsay: Well, so I went for the [senior] seminar paper and I think most of the reason I went was because I really wanted to turn in a good paper. I don’t know, it seemed like more was at stake with this paper and it was my last paper as a senior. Then, when you said in class that you would recommend someone that you thought would well with me – you said it to the whole class – “I can recommend someone who would work well with your style” – that gave me a reason to actually contact you because I was worried about getting someone whose style I wouldn’t…you know, I wouldn’t like the stylistic changes they wanted me to make. Your recommendation made a big difference. I don’t know if more professors would be able to do that, you know, being familiar with who’s working at the WC, but that was what actually prompted me to email you to ask who I should talk to there.

Taryn: So part of it was the recommendation, but part of it had nothing to do with the way the WC “markets” itself – it’s that you had a particular orientation to this paper and that made a difference.

Lindsay: Yeah, and I knew that the WC was changing, though I would say that it was the weight of the paper itself and actually wanting to produce something good. But I knew that the WC had moved to Mullen [satellite location in the library] and the Pryz [main location in the student center], so it was much more at the forefront of my mind last semester than it was any other year. I knew a lot more about what was happening with it.

Brian: So, were you concerned that if you came to the WC, the person that you worked with would be a little too hands-on or a little too prescriptive, trying to fix things for you or trying to remold your thesis for you and that caused you to baulk a little bit about seeking help?

Lindsay: I do think so. The possibility of someone not understanding where I was coming from and changing the whole thing and also, I think a lot of Honors students and probably English majors – a lot of people don’t really like peer editing and it almost feels like peer editing, even though you’re grad students and so obviously know a lot more than us. But it still has this bad taste of “what does this person actually know, they’re still learning,” etc. and “I can go to the professor.” That wasn’t my experience, but it was a misconception that I had about it.

Brian: I can see why you say that. I’ve found that when I teach writing courses specifically, in peer review another tendency is to say, “Yeah, ok, everything looks good!”

Lindsay: Right!

Brian: “No problems here, nothing to talk about.”

Lindsay: It stinks when you get paired up with someone who’s not at the same level as you and then you end up having to do a ton of work to their paper and they have no idea how to help you with yours…but as a senior, my relationship to these things is sort of changing because the classes are different. Peer review in seminar is totally different from peer review in ENG 101.

Taryn: Do you think the things that changed your interest in going the WC – some of them are related to awareness: what’s going on, knowing what’s available – but as far as the other things, like your level of investment in the assignment, etc., do you think those are particular to the senior year, or do you think that there’s a way to replicate that across other classes and across other years somehow?

Lindsay: I think it’s more particular to the senior year, but I do think a lot of students do feel a desire to do well on a really big paper. Especially when students are thinking about turning it into a conference paper, which some students do to, though I wouldn’t say that that’s a huge cross-section. I think it was also really your emphasis at the beginning of the year, when you said, you know “You really want this to be a great paper, this is one of your last opportunities,” so it had a lot to do with the professor, but if there were a way for students to have that sort of mind-set, if they could be hearing that they should want to do something great for their paper. There’s just more emphasis on those last papers.

How the Writing Center Can Benefit a More Advanced Undergraduate Writer

Taryn: So, given some of the ideas that you had about going to the WC and even some of the reservations you had, what was it like when you finally went?

"It helped me to see what I was actually interested in"

"It helped me to see what I was actually interested in"

Lindsay: It was good, I worked with Brian and it was nice because you obviously know what works well, you know, in terms of organization and diction and things like that, so it was good to hear your feedback about how things were flowing logically within the paper. I think that was one of the biggest things, just seeing if an outside pair of eyes that doesn’t actually know the topic at all can understand what I’m saying, whether it’s clear. That was nice. I think some of the issues were scheduling, and that was my fault because I could only come during drop-in hours so then people were dropping in and then you don’t have as much time as you would like to work together. Overall, though, my experience was pretty positive. I did get good feedback on how the paper was structured and what ideas I should pursue more. There were some sections of my paper that I wasn’t pushing enough and you could see that and would say, “follow up with this idea.”

Brian: That’s something that I struggle with, when I started to work with more advanced students like you guys in the senior seminar or with graduate students, is that each idea that you present within the paper suggests a dozen other ideas that you could possibly address. So, within the session, on the one hand I’d like to show you that that’s the case – that this idea suggests all these others – but then trying to calibrate the extent to which you should pursue those other ideas and go do more reading…. I’m often anxious that students have left our session saying, “I have so much more work to do now” and I’m going off on a tangent with all these irrelevant ideas. And with you, specifically, I thought, oh gosh, she’s all worried about identity, nationality, globalization, all this – and the argument she’s actually trying to make is getting lost in the mix. In the end, did you feel like you got lost in all the further research you could have done, or were you able to nail down your argument and find the right way to talk about it?

Lindsay: Eventually my argument shifted slightly to the right, so I was still writing about the same topic, but I was approaching it from a different angle. So I wouldn’t say that I got lost working with you in the WC, because it helped me to see what I was actually interested in and where I could push a little bit further. I just had to see how to shift it.

Taryn: My impression was that this work was also important because it gave you a fuller sense of the scope of all those other ideas and made it pretty clear to you, that you realized, I can’t possibly address all of these, so I need to either reign it in or I need to shift what the focus is somehow.

Lindsay: Yes. Absolutely.

Taryn: So then how do you think your experience of visiting the WC fit into your overall experience of writing this paper?

Lindsay: It definitely helped the ideas to mature. You [Brian] were able to help me push some of those ideas in ways that I hadn’t thought of and I think it was good just to have an extra set of eyes that I wouldn’t have had anyways. I couldn’t have asked my friends because they were all doing the same thing and no one had time.

Taryn: Did it cause you to think about where you were with your writing as a senior?

Lindsay: Oh, yeah.

Taryn: In what ways?

Lindsay: It’s a little sad. Now that I have this almost-degree in Literature, which implies that I can write as well, I see that my writing just isn’t where I want it to be. Working with an advanced writer or professor helps you to see where it’s really lacking. I make so many stupid and silly errors in papers in terms of lines of reasoning and not pushing things where I should, still, and I think that’s mostly because I don’t allow myself enough time to write the papers.
So meeting with you [Brian] helped me to see some of those flaws that would have sat in the paper.

The Importance of Faculty Support

Taryn: So do you think it would be valuable for students like you to go into the WC earlier in their college careers?

Lindsay: Oh, yeah, I do.

Taryn: And how would you convince you, as a freshman or a sophomore, to do that? What would have to happen in order to convince yourself.

Lindsay: For me, I’m highly conscious of expectations and so when you develop a really good relationship with a professor, you want to rise to what that professor expects and please the professor. So it makes a difference if they say to you, “I really want to read a really good paper from you.” I think the professors need to promote it more. Some do, but if a professor said, “Look, I know you could write a really great final paper and maybe you want to think about going to the WC because I think it would really help…” that would send me there. I think it comes in developing a relationship with the students and that’s hard because it’s not easy to do, but if professors did push it a little more, for students like me I think it would make a difference. Just give us a push in that direction.

Taryn: And thinking about what you said earlier about time constraints, part of it is also constructing assignments that…

Lindsay: Yes – forcing us to do drafts! Terrible as it is, that does help. And I am glad now that I have had to write papers with drafts and as a future teacher, I think about that and how I will talk to students about writing. I fully intend to make my students write drafts.

Taryn: So, what do you think the WC can offer students like you, who probably would be fine – you know, you probably could have gotten through four years here, you had gotten through three years, your papers were fine – so what’s the value, what’s the gain?

Lindsay: The gain is that I could have been writing much better papers. I wrote fine papers, but I know that they were kind of terrible and I think the ultimate shame is that if a professor had ever written on one of my papers “A-/B+, you should have visited the Writing Center” then I probably would have walked straight up to O’Boyle. For me, it really has to do with those relationships and Honors students love professor-student relationships. They really, really hang on to those and half of them probably want to be professors one day. So if we had professors who actually said, “You should have had someone work with you on this – this is good, but it could have been even better,” that’s what would have helped me.

The Link Between Student and Faculty Perception

One thing that emerged from the conversation with Lindsay and Brian was the crucial role that faculty engagement plays in student perceptions of the WC. While I knew this to be the case, I had not thought as deeply or explicitly as I could about the extent to which I, as a faculty member, could encourage students to visit the WC not just by helping them to be better informed, but through the construction of my writing assignments and the larger design of the course. I began by thinking in particular about student populations I encounter the most frequently in my own classrooms – English majors and Honors students – but I think that many of the insights I’ve drawn from the conversation could also inform a more general approach to targeting other student groups we’d like to see more frequently in our WC.

Peer review in senior seminar

Peer review in senior seminar

This semester, in addition to the second half of the senior seminar, I’ve been teaching a 300-level majors-only course on The History of the Novel that is largely populated by sophomores and juniors. It’s a class that I’ve been teaching at CUA for four years and has allowed me the opportunity to experiment with different strategies I can use to motivate them to visit the WC and, more generally, to encourage them to think more explicitly about themselves as writers. In addition to extending the timeline for their writing assignments in order to allow for drafts and paper conferences, I’ve been framing their essays not just as significant portions of their final grades or “practice” for senior seminar papers, but as opportunities for developing their abilities to interrogate a text and each other as fellow readers. In other words, I’ve been trying to find ways that I can bring practices and philosophies that regularly inform WC work and the composition classroom into my literature classroom (where they seem to belong, but in our literature curriculum can be too often pushed aside or deemphasized).

Going forward, I wonder how else can we challenge students – and not just English majors or Honors students – to think beyond their grades and raise the stakes for their own educations? At institutions, such as CUA, that do not have any formal support for writing across the curriculum, how do we practically work toward a culture of writing in our departments and across our campuses that supports and challenges each individual writer? How to we talk not only to students, but their instructors?

7 thoughts on “Understanding Student Perceptions of the Writing Center–A Conversation Between a Student, a Writing Center Instructor, and a Director/Professor

  1. Taryn, thanks for the thoughtful post: it gives me plenty to consider in how I teach majors and encourage them to make use of the WC on my own campus!

  2. While a great many interesting things were said in this discussion, I’d like to focus on how student perceptions of “stakes” in writing impact their decision to seek feedback. It seems to me, from Lindsay’s comments, that coursework she had done earlier in her college career — even in her major — was low stakes in that there were several 3-4 page opportunities, on top of class participation and tests, to demonstrate she had mastered the material. As an honors student and capable writer, these assignments weren’t really that big of a deal. Then, hit with senior seminar, suddenly the stakes went up, given the importance of the seminar paper and her own motivation to produce a strong piece of writing, not simply an “A” paper. As an undergraduate, this was my experience as well: although I knew the writing center director at my college, I never went to the center until I started writing my thesis. It was suddenly important to me that an uninvested third party understood and was compelled by my argument.

    I think that asking “what’s at stake for students in their writing?” could help address the needs of individuals in a population with a diverse level of preparedness and facility in writing. For some students, the stakes of their freshman composition papers means being taken seriously or as a belonging member of the academic community; for others, it might be achieving a level of clarity that allows them to be evaluated on the strength of their ideas instead of their syntax; and for others, it might be writing to transition from a position as a student to a position as a scholar, as Lindsay seems to have been doing. By thinking about what’s at stake in a piece of writing, writing centers can approach students and faculty in outreach efforts to address the reasons why students may or may not be willing to seek feedback.

    Thanks for this excellent post, Taryn!

  3. Thanks for this post, Taryn! Your conversation with Lindsay and Brian has me thinking about ways I can encourage my own students to use our Writing Studio, but it’s also making me wonder how we can get more faculty across campus to nudge their students in our direction in productive ways.

  4. Great post, Taryn.

    This term, I’ve tried to encourage some of my advanced writers into our Writing Center. Ironically, many of advanced students are panicked about writing research papers because they are aware that–having tested out of the first quarter of DU’s two-quarter first-year writing sequence–their research and writing skills are weaker than their peers’.

    I sent another one of my students to the Writing Center for a novel reason, though. In her essay cover letter, she told me that she has a strong peer review network of friends who edit her papers (I ask my students to reveal outside peer reviewers and their contributions in their letters). I knew she had to have such a network, because the final drafts she turned in belied skills far beyond the writing I’d seen in class and in rough drafts. In my office, I asked her if she understood the line drawn by the University regarding plagiarism, and after deep discussion, she felt she did not understand this boundary and had perhaps violated it. I suggested that visiting the Writing Center could teach her not only the power of having outside readers of one’s work (a value she was already aware of), but strategies that experienced peer reviewers use to respond to peers’ writing without taking it over, without crossing that line into authorship.

    This was a great conversation and one more way that Writing Centers help students acclimate to new, daunting writing rules and traditions.

  5. This post is amazing, Taryn. Thanks so much for giving us your student’s perspective in her own words. I’m going to be thinking about your conversation with her for a long time. Mitch’s comment about stakes touches on a point that really stood out for me, too–especially as Mitch highlights what’s behind Lindsay’s words: there are *multiple* opportunities for the student to show mastery, and (thus?) writing those 3-4-page essays is low-stakes. I know that in my first-year writing & rhetoric classes–populated mostly by non-English majors–I require several papers not only to focus skills but also to keep the stakes somewhat low — on purpose! I worry about frightening my students with high-stakes assignments. And yet, semester after semester, in their final portfolio cover letters they tell me that they are most proud of their research papers, the longest and most time-consuming ones, which are also weighted more heavily than the others (with the research paper counting for 30% of the total semester grade). Now I’m wondering whether it might be a good idea to decrease the number of papers in that final portfolio and require students to decide early (midterm?) which papers they really want to matter, where they want the stakes to be high. Maybe a portfolio with only two or three papers in it is the way to go. And maybe I need to cut down on the number of assignments overall, giving my students time to visit the WC even as I give them motivation for doing so. This is a technique that could work in any discipline, to help students focus their energy and time in such a way as to encourage excellence–to encourage ambition, that is, to move beyond the comfort zones of typical approaches to writing assignments. Lindsay is in a way confirming what we guess already, that confident students rely on certain approaches to papers that work, approaches that any senior English major would find familiar, but these approaches keep students’ work at a certain limited level of creativity and complexity. Fewer, higher-stakes assignments, completed in more parts (drafts!), encouraging more fine-tuning, may be the way to go in general.

    .

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and the subsequent conversation. The conversation was so honest between you, Lindsay, and Brian, and it shed a lot of light on how our advanced students think about using the Writing Center and the classroom practices we can incorporate to motivate them and provide them with opportunities to use it– I love Beth’s suggestions right above me!

    I’m especially intrigued by the idea of how to encourage Writing Center use without a formal program to support outreach and writing across the curriculum– maybe because I’m so used to relying on our resources! With limited outreach capabilities, I feel like focusing on the professors would, as this interview shows through your influence on Lindsay’s perception of your Writing Center, have the best benefit on student practices. I taught our new “Introduction to the Writing Center” workshop this year, and I found that the clips of past conferences were the most effective part of the workshop because they gave students such a clear sense of the kind of work we could and would do with them.

    Are there any opportunities to run similar “Introduction” style workshops with professors? Or perhaps you could show a few clips of Writing Center conferences (maybe one with a struggling student and one with a student confident in their writing abilities?) at a faculty orientation or a department meeting so that they have a better sense of the work that we do?

    Thank you so much for this, Taryn!

  7. Great post, Taryn! Like many others, the conversation with an Honors student has me thinking about how, when a student is really invested in a piece of writing–whether that be a cover letter or a dissertation–we are more likely to see them in the Writing Center at UW. We read so many application essays and work with so many graduate students on dissertations, conference papers, and fellowship applications, and then get to work with undergraduates concerned about their first papers in their Intro English lectures, but we rarely see these Honors students.

    As someone who came to teaching through my undergrad experience as a Writing Center tutor, I always promote the Writing Center in my classroom. Some of my students go, and I ask them to give testimonials about their experiences, which I think helps, but I’ve always wanted to be more successful. This post shows me that Writing Center attendance is related to how invested I am able to get students in their assignments. Yes, stakes are important, as others have mentioned, but investment is what brought Lindsay in for her senior thesis. Just goes to show the intimate connection between the classroom and the Center.

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