New center helps to ease the stress of writing
by Jennifer L. Hammond, coordinator of tutoring. Photos by Cindy Davis Meixel.
When I was a student here (when Pennsylvania College of Technology was Williamsport Area Community College), in 1985 and 1986, I tutored English and thought it was the best job I had held so far in my very short working career. I enjoyed meeting interesting students and reading about topics that were often new to me (even if every second process essay was about changing the oil in a Chevy Camaro). And I especially valued the camaraderie we tutors established over several semesters of working together, chatting during the slow times and spending time together outside of work. (Even now, 27 years later, I am still in contact with some of my fellow writing tutors.)
In 1987, I transferred to Indiana University of Pennsylvania and tutored in the Writing Center there. Unlike the Tutoring Center at WACC, where all tutoring happened in one room, the Writing Center at IUP was separate from other tutoring locations. Even then, IUP’s Writing Center had a bank of computers for drafting papers, and it had soft, comfortable couches and chairs for informal meetings between tutors and students. I loved it – that center embodied so much of what I had been reading about in my undergraduate studies in English education, about the importance of conferencing with students about their writing in a comfortable, unintimidating atmosphere. And I held onto the image.
"The center is a place for students to get both academic and emotional support from those who have been trained to assist students in need."
When I returned to Penn College to work as a professional English tutor in 1989, I hoped that Penn College would create a writing center, but space and budgets were limited. I was consoled, though, by the fact that I knew the English tutors were still providing quality writing assistance, even if they were sitting on straight-backed chairs formerly used in the college’s Le Jeune Chef Restaurant and not on overstuffed couches.
Eventually, in 2001, I became the coordinator of tutoring and was still infatuated with the idea of a comfortable, functional writing center. Yet, even as budgets expanded a little, space was still at a premium, and the time was just not right for a writing center.
But two years ago, several converging circumstances created the perfect conditions for establishing a writing center. Penn College had just finished the Foundations of Excellence self-study, and we were trying to rely less on grant funding that restricted student participation in services (usually based on financial or academic criteria).
As a result, the college decided to examine support services. At the request of President Davie Jane Gilmour, a committee began a “comprehensive and systematic re-evaluation of the services that Academic Support Services offers, as well as an exploration of what services a newly envisioned Academic Support Services office might provide to all Penn College students in the future,” as described in the document “Re-Envisioning Academic Support Services at Penn College: A Proposal to Create the Center for Academic Success.”
The committee’s efforts produced several recommendations, including a radical revamping of support services at Penn College that involved changing the department name from Academic Support Services to the Academic Success Center, creating a mentoring program and promoting our new philosophy of “all services to all students.”
In another significant initiative, the committee recommended establishing a writing center. With more bachelor-degree programs requiring senior capstone projects and more programs including writing-enriched courses, the time was absolutely right. Thus, the Penn College Writing Center was born, and it opened for business with the start of the Fall 2010 semester.
The new Writing Center includes many elements of my initial vision: It has a wall of computers, some upholstered furniture, plants on the window sills and usually some candy in a basket to help combat the fatigue brought on by writer’s block.
The writing tutors enjoy the new space and the peaceful quiet it affords them. Don Noviello, a professional writing tutor with 20 years of experience, says the environment welcomes students.
“Our relaxed atmosphere is not intimidating,” he said.
He understands that students who seek help are often under pressure and says: “Relieving stress is a very effective way to keep students on track. The center is a place for students to get both academic and emotional support from those who have been trained to assist students in need.”
Historically, writing tutoring took place in the Tutoring Center, alongside math and science tutoring. And although the quality of tutoring did not necessarily change with a new location, a separate Writing Center devoted solely to writing does offer some important advantages. Access to the computers allows students to work on drafts and make revisions with a tutor present. This practice reinforces the writing process and encourages students to make significant revisions and write multiple drafts.
In addition, several reference librarians are able to spend a couple hours a week in the Writing Center to help students work on research topics. With their expertise, the librarians can help students and tutors search for and document reliable sources more efficiently.
Another welcome addition to our staff is the English faculty volunteers who spend some of their office hours in the Writing Center. This practice creates an opportunity for faculty to see the range of assignments writing tutors face, for tutors and faculty to get to know each other, and for students to work with a greater variety of tutors.
One of the first volunteers, Mark D. Noe, professor of English-composition, explains the value of a separate Writing Center: “The independent Writing Center creates a space devoted to the single, fundamental element of the broader education process, the element that is – theoretically, at least – integrated into every discipline and course: writing.”
And indeed, the Writing Center offers help with writing from all types of courses – everything from social-science writing assignments to senior capstone papers in students’ majors. Writing tutors will help students with writing-related courses such as speech and reading, as well.
Many students use the Writing Center on a regular basis and, as a result, have seen dramatic improvements in their writing. Linda K. Burkholder, who returned to school in 2011 as a pre-practical nursing major and nontraditional student, used the Writing Center weekly for her ENL 111 (English Composition I) assignments. She earned an “A” in that course and claims, “If it wasn’t for the Writing Center, I wouldn’t have succeeded.”
She says she knew what she wanted to write, but sometimes could not get started.
“The tutors helped me think,” Burkholder said. “As I talked to them, the ideas started to come out.”
She credits the “warm and friendly” atmosphere for bringing her back again and again
Some students benefit so much from writing tutoring that they go on to become tutors themselves. Susan E. Kemnitz, the lead professional tutor in the Writing Center, cites these students as “our greatest success stories.” She recalls one such student who frequented the center in her freshman year.
“We used to literally cut her papers up because their organization was so poor,” Kemnitz said. “Eventually her writing improved so much that she became a tutor!”
Writing tutoring does not always produce such obvious results, and evaluating the effect of this service proves challenging sometimes. But the testimony of Judy L. McMullen, a nontraditional human services student, leaves little doubt about the value of the Writing Center.
“In order for me to be successful here at Penn College, I needed to find the help,” she said. “The Writing Center not only helped with my writing but also became a source of support through my college career. The Writing Center helped me develop a skill that will last a lifetime, as well as achieve academic success. If students want to be successful and gain confidence and motivation, the Writing Center can help them.” ■
Jennifer L. Hammond
Jennifer L. Hammond began her employment with the college in 1989 as a part-time tutor of English. She joined the college staff full time in 1992 as an Act 101 instructional specialist and then as an Act 101 academic and career specialist. She has been the college’s coordinator of tutoring since 2001 and has taught English courses as an adjunct instructor since 1993. She holds an associate degree in general studies from Williamsport Area Community College, a bachelor’s degree in English education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a focus on language arts from The Pennsylvania State University. Hammond received a Distinguished Staff Award from Penn College in 2006.