“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write,” Ernest Hemingway famously said. “Let them think you were born that way.”
A master of clear, precise prose, “Papa” Hemingway probably would have approved of The Writing Center (WC) had he gone to Syracuse University. For it is there, in the sun-splashed corner of Huntington Beard Crouse Hall, that the WC—operated by The Writing Program (WP) in the College of Arts and Sciences for the past 15 years—quietly crackles with activity.
Free to all University students, faculty, and staff, the WC provides individualized instruction in every aspect of the writing process, in almost every genre—academic, professional, creative, and otherwise. The center’s administrator, Ben Erwin, admits he’s seen it all. “Academic and professional writing are the most common genres brought here,” he says, alluding to a passel of research papers, resumes, and graduate and professional school applications. “But we also work on short stories and novels, poems, journals, technical documents, and other types of projects.”
The center’s goal, Erwin says, is to help clients become “rhetorically aware thinkers” who can adapt to a variety of writing situations, expectations, and audiences. “With these broad goals in mind, we can assist with any type of writing,” he says.
By all accounts, the WC seems to have the “write” stuff. During the 2014-15 academic year, the center welcomed more than 2,300 clients, logging upwards of 5,000 appointments. Most of these were face-to-face sessions, but large numbers were carried out via instant messaging or email (a.k.a. “eWC”). Since appointments are geared toward discussing projects at any stage of the writing process—“Even just to talk,” Erwin says—no two meetings are alike.
“The consultants I met with listened to my concerns and really stuck to the assignment requirements,” one student writes. “I feel that I developed relationships with three of my consultants—one, in particular.” Adds another: “They made me feel comfortable, not stupid, which is what I was afraid of.”
The process usually starts with a few questions. “We typically ask clients if they’ve been here before, what the assignment requires, when it’s due, and what they hope to get out of the session,” says Erwin, who also serves as a consultant in the center and a WP composition instructor. “From there, we might prompt them to brainstorm ideas, read a draft aloud or silently, or help them read a source more critically. Our goal is to help students with the more complex and ambiguous principles of writing, such as development, organization, and purposes, before we underline sentence fragments and circle spelling errors. We describe this approach as going from ‘global to local.’”
The idea of housing a center within The Writing Program, which was established by A&S in 1986, is almost as old as the program itself. Louise Wetherbee Phelps, then a professor of writing and rhetoric, envisioned the creation of the center and its goals, but more than a dozen years passed before a space and funding for renovations became a reality.
Meanwhile, the WP inherited a freshman English tutoring program, whose newly rechristened “writing consultants” quietly went about their business in the bowels of H.B. Crouse Hall. “Because there was no allocated space, consultants met with students in the basement lobby, many times sitting on the floor,” remembers George Rhinehart, assistant director for writing technologies and the WC’s inaugural consultant coordinator. “In 1999, there was some money to turn a Mac [computer] cluster in H.B. Crouse into a writing center. After much planning and work, we opened in the fall of 2000, with Bruce Pegg [formerly director of Colgate University’s Writing and Speaking Center] as our first administrator.”
Writing centers arrived on the scene about 80 years ago, and initially functioned as “labs” or “clinics” for future writing professors, who worked with remedial writing students. By the ’70s, this model became passé, as mounting social pressure gave rise to a new kind of facility that produced “better writers,” according to Stephen North, Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University at Albany, “[but] not necessarily—or immediately—better texts.”
With the growing professionalization of writing center staff came a theoretical body of work about the center, itself. An argument could be made that the establishment of Syracuse’s Writing Center—and The Writing Program, in general—reflected a growing trend toward more liberatory teaching practices. This shift has been reinforced by the success of the Composition & Cultural Rhetoric (CCR) Program, founded at the University in 1997 as the first doctoral program of its kind in an independent writing program.
Rhinehart, a long-time WP staffer and the WC’s de facto historian, says consultative teaching is inherently responsive. “It does not impose its own independent goals on the client,” he explains in a WC self-study. “In that sense, the consultant is subordinate to the client; however, the client has sought out the advice, and is, thereby, acknowledging a need, an inability to meet that need without assistance, and the consultant’s authority. This forges an equality in the relationship and possibly even a subordination of the client to the consultant’s expertise.”
Since its inception, the WC has benefited from the vision and leadership of several administrators, including Jason Luther G’16. During his tenure from 2005 to 2011, Luther implemented “eWC” discussions; instant messaging sessions, involving AOL Instant Messenger, iChat, Google Talk, or Cisco Jabber; and a graduate editing service, known as The GEC, which assists with dissertations and master’s theses, scholarly articles, conference presentations, and grant proposals.
Much of this work, along with the emergence of writing workshops, community outreach, and a strategic marketing campaign, stemmed from a WC committee that Luther led for several years. The improvements have not been lost on clients.
“The most useful part of The Writing Center is the option to chat with someone from your computer,” writes a student. “A lot of us work in the wee hours of the morning, so it’s helpful to have someone to IM and look over, in real time, what we’re doing.”
Luther also leaned heavily on assessment data to fine-tune his strategies, operations, and programs. One survey, conducted by the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment in 2009-10, still stands out from the rest. “The only negative thing students communicated [to us] was that we weren’t more available—that is, we were too busy,” says Luther, a WP teaching assistant, GEC editor, and CCR student. “Even though this data is several years old, it proves that we’ve been doing great work for years.”
Much has been written about the impact of technology on the teaching and practice of writing. One school of thought purports that the widespread use of computers, phones, and video games hinders one’s ability to think critically and write effectively. Another argues that technology helps people organize their sources and dictate their ideas more effectively.
Erwin obviously falls into the latter camp, extolling the merits of WC technology on everything from scheduling and collecting usage data and input from clients, to the consultative process itself. “Technology makes both synchronous and asynchronous online consulting possible, enabling us to serve clients in a wider range of capacities,” he says. “It also allows greater access to online resources and helps with the sharing of documents.”
Christina Feikes G’92, a senior lecturer in the WP and a WC consultant, says technology is reimagining the center’s possibilities. “Students have a beautiful, conveniently located place to study, work with consultants, and use well-equipped computers,” she says, referring to the bright, airy, glass-walled structure that faces the Kenneth A. Shaw Quadrangle. “During a typical session, a client and consultant might access the University Libraries’ databases, Blackboard software, the Purdue OWL [a repository of writing resources and instructional material], or some other digital resource. We’re always busy.”
Some professors believe that writing competence and technological skill are virtually inseparable. One of them is Eileen Schell, an associate professor of writing and rhetoric, as well as the Laura and L. Douglas Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence. "Many of the assignments we now see in The Writing Center involve research practices connected to technology," she says. "Students often struggle with how to find credible information, and are overwhelmed by all they can uncover and access through library databases and Google searches."
The infusion of technology into instruction is certainly changing the way the WC functions. The result is a growing "mix of students" (particularly international ones, Feikes says) that gives the center a kind of global, inclusive feel. Case in point: More than 50 percent of all WC clients list their home language as one other than English (e.g., Chinese, Korean, and Spanish)—a 10-percent increase from 2014. A third of these clients are sophomores, with first-year students running a close second.
"The myth is that only struggling students come to The Writing Center," adds Schell, a former WP chair who has worked on and off in the center since it opened. "We do serve some of that population, but some of the writing in The Writing Center is the strongest I've seen in my career. These students are polishing honors thesis projects or finishing up dissertations. I've even, on rare occasions, consulted with faculty working on projects."
Erwin thinks all this is a reflection of the WC’s evolving teaching strategies. But as writing centers become more commonplace, they are invariably staffed by graduate students and undergraduates. Not Syracuse’s, he says. “We’re one of a small number of universities in the country using professional writing instructors from our writing program, in addition to graduate consultants and undergraduate peer consultants,” Erwin says. “The presence of professional consultants makes us unique.”
Agnew says the level of professional expertise provided by the consultants is virtually unmatched. “In helping clients respond effectively to writing assignments across a wide range of disciplines, The Writing Center supports them in developing the communication skills and intellectual agility that are central to the WP's goals and objectives.
And this has ramifications for the entire University. On average, the WC serves undergraduates from more than 120 majors across campus. The most popular ones using the WC are biology, engineering, economics, international relations, and political science; however, Erwin says he is seeing a growing number of clients from Newhouse and the School of Architecture.
“I don’t think anyone ever leaves a session feeling like it’s been a waste of time,” Voorheis says. “Whether you’re just getting started on an assignment, or you need a little push to avoid procrastinating, or you have written three paragraphs and hit a wall, or you’ve gotten some negative feedback on a paper, please come.”
Leave it to Erwin to have the proverbial last word. “In lieu of simply helping people revise or edit their texts, our goal is to produce better writers,” he says. “Since every consultant in The Writing Center is also a composition instructor, there is congruence between the center and The Writing Program.”