What is a writing center?

By GENIE GIAIMO

SARAH FAGAN

I have been in and around educational spaces as a TA, teacher, volunteer, educator and professor for 20 years. Long before I knew that the job of “professor” existed, I was an educator, or, at least, an aspiring one. However, as I was a first-generation college student, writing centers, much like my understanding of academia in general, were on the periphery of my experience.

When I was in college, my school’s writing center was largely unknown to the student body — none of my professors talked about it in class. The center, which had a couple of student workers and offered only a few hours of service a week, sat in the corner of a little-used academic “house.” Instead of attending the writing center, I struggled through my writing on my own or with the support of some very gracious and thoughtful English faculty. While I muddled through, I did not learn much about how to write in academic settings until much later in my academic career. Most of what I picked up about writing was implicit, unconscious.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I worked in my first writing center. As a graduate tutor, I worked primarily with undergraduate students in the first-year writing program. Our main set of attendees were international students whose first language wasn’t English. Since most of the students who attended did so because their faculty demanded they go, it would take another four years for me to realize that writing centers weren’t just punitive spaces where teachers sent their “bad” writers. Later, I was the assistant director of the writing center at Northeastern. During this time, I realized that writing centers were professional spaces where its workers trained to do the very hard, but frequently misperceived, work of teaching writing.

Writing centers, however, are also spaces of social justice that theorize and enact equitable practices around language instruction, especially for first-generation and multilanguage students. They provide more than localized feedback to help a student get a better grade on a paper; they provide a safe and inclusive space for students who might otherwise be reluctant to share their writing and ideas. For many, as I later learned as the director of the writing center at Ohio State, the writing center is the only place where a student will receive feedback on their writing, their ideas, their processes, their struggles, their joys.

A common misconception about writing centers is that only “struggling” students seek them out. But writing centers actually attract high-performing, thoughtful and intentional writers who are motivated to develop their writing skills and knowledge further. I have worked with tenured faculty, postdoctoral fellows and advanced graduate students; often, the higher the stakes of the writing project — grants, manuscripts, journal articles — the more motivated the “client.”

In the eight months that I have been at Middlebury, I have met many faculty who are thoughtful and engaged in the process of teaching writing. I also have met many students who are excited by writing but terrified of “not getting it right.” Lately, given the current world-wide pandemic we are all facing, the phrase “perfect is the enemy of the good” has been circulating in many online spaces. Even before this moment, in my experience, this sentiment has prevented students from fully engaging in the educational process of writing. It has also caused students days, if not weeks, of procrastination, blank pages and scratched-out writing. Students, I promise you, writing doesn’t have to be that stressful.

This is where Middlebury’s own writing center comes into the picture. The Middlebury Writing Center is a space that accepts students on their merit, but also one that tries to tell every student that walks through its doors that they are OK: that their writing and ideas matter. In place of grades, tutors offer qualitative feedback. In place of critique, tutors offer praise. In place of strict edicts, tutors discuss possibilities. The writing center doesn’t follow you throughout your academic career like a millstone around your neck (like GPA blips might). The writing center will (hopefully) never cross out writing and simply write “no” on your essay (yes, I have been there). Instead, writing centers demystify feedback, assignment prompts, specific genres and the writing process in general. They help writers to slow down and think about their writing with little pressure to “get it right.” They are the best-kept secret of most colleges and universities, and I wish, as an undergraduate, that I had known about them and worked with and for them.

Genie Giaimo is a professor of Writing and Rhetoric and the director of the Middlebury Writing Center.

Recently, the Middlebury College Writing Center has launched online tutoring services. For more details, visit the Middlebury Writing Center website.