Writing Center, founded to improve U. writing, used mostly by freshmen, fails to reach upperclassmen| Apr 16, 2017
Freshmen often enter the University believing that they know how to write somewhat decently. As a result, it's a big shock when their first paper is returned and it's not the 'A' grade they're accustomed to receiving. That's often when freshmen frantically book an appointment at the Writing Center, part of the University Writing Program that was established in its current form in 2001 to help students learn the rigorous standards of academic writing that the University expects through freshman writing seminars and the Writing Center.
Since its establishment, making an appointment – especially while enrolled in the mandatory freshmen-year writing seminars – has become a rite of passage and appointment numbers are growing each year, according to the Writing Center.
But teaching students to write requires self-discovery, Writing Center fellows attest. They call it a "cooperative learning environment" with students, where the journey is about learning new ideas within a variety of disciplines, while simultaneously developing a solid thesis or well-written paper. The Center works to help writers grow in the long term, beyond the current assignment at hand, by providing budding writers with feedback and analysis.
“I have learned a lot from my experience at the Writing Center,” said Katie Tyler ’18, a head fellow at the Writing Center. “One of the best parts of working at the Writing Center is that students bring in material from all different classes and disciplines – I have worked with first-year students in Writing Seminars and graduate students in science disciplines.”
“Our main goals are to empower students to learn tactics that will help them grow as writers for the long term,” said Gen Creedon, associate director of the Writing Center. “Of course, we are also engaged in helping them in the short term on each particular assignment. We look at a wide range of papers across disciplines at any stage in the writing process, from inception through to final drafts. Our hope is to help make the writing process less of an isolated event."
Since 2001, the center has grown in terms of scheduled appointments and visits.
According to Creedon, the Writing Center has jumped from 2,000 scheduled conferences at its beginning to 5,500 conferences today. These 5,500 appointments have been made by approximately 1,750 individuals.
While the statistics do not contain specific data about the average individual who visits the Writing Center, the average student visited the center three times. In the past three years, however, the top 100 most frequent users have each attended between nine and 44 appointments each year, according to the Writing Center.
“The Writing Center builds on drafting, so you’ll see many students come in two or three times per assignment,” Creedon said. “It really varies. If it is a semester-long project, students come in multiple times, but if it is a short essay, people often stop by once.”
According to further statistics released by the Center, students from all classes of the Princeton community have used the resources of the center. Over the past five years, 55 percent of conferences have been freshmen, 13 percent have been sophomores, 11 percent have been juniors, 12 percent have been seniors, eight percent have been graduate students, and one percent have been either postdocs or alumni. Although the number of juniors and seniors using the Writing Center increased dramatically in 2014, the trend during the past five years shows continued disparity between upperclassmen and underclassmen use.
Creedon explained that the Writing Center offers "support for students writing medical school personal statements and other graduate school statements," for postdocs and alumnus.
Creedon noted that in regards to staffing, the Writing Center hires around 80 fellows, with roughly equal distribution across all classes from sophomores to graduate students. As previously reported by the 'Prince,' the number of fellows has stayed consistent since 2014 at close to 80. This is up from the 15 fellows who were in place 17 years ago.
“It fluctuates per year,” Creedon said about the number of fellows. “Currently, we have a rising senior class of 35 fellows, about a third of the staff. A majority of the staff stay for their entire career at Princeton. The majority are hired as sophomores and stay on.”
The complexity of writing a strong and coherent argument requires well-trained fellows.
"We don’t typically hire many rising seniors, in part because not too many apply, and in part because the time invested in training is just more efficient to hire students earlier on,” Creedon said. "So right now, we have a relatively small sophomore cohort. But I believe it will balance out as the rising senior class graduates.”
Writing fellow candidates experience a rigorous screening process to qualify as fellows for the program.
“People will submit a cover letter that gives us a sense of why they are interested, what their background is, and how they might approach talking to students about writing.” Creedon commented. “We look at their writing samples, we look at their sample feedback – four people will look at each application and then invite people to the interview. The interview process itself is sort of a beginning training moment.”
The Writing Center, Creedon noted, was looking for people who were insightful of diagnosing students’ work while also being accessible, friendly, and constructive.
“The Writing Center is aimed at providing a thoughtful, caring, and insightful reader who can point out where things don’t make sense, where an argument isn’t so convincing, or where things are confusing,” Creedon said about the goal of the center and its fellows.
Writing Center fellows are drawn from a variety of fields, and hail evenly from a variety of disciplines. About one third are STEM concentrators, one third are social science concentrators, and one third are humanities concentrators.
“The makeup of the graduate staff changes from year to year;” the center explained in an email. “We have a stronger representation from humanities and social science disciplines, but we do also have biology and/or chemistry fellows on staff each year.”
Fellows are expected to quickly read papers and swiftly return feedback.
“Working at the Writing Center is challenging and rewarding,” Tyler said, explaining that she has only about 10 minutes to decide a paper's strengths and weaknesses before beginning to advise the student.
“I feel like I have learned a lot about problem solving and communication from this position," Tyler said. "The best part of my job is when I feel like I've empowered a student to convey his or her ideas in a clearer, more convincing manner.”
“Reading different papers and working with student on different problems related to making arguments and writing has also strengthened my own writing in the process," Tyler concluded.
Undergraduate students overwhelmingly agree that the Writing Center has benefited both the quality of their writing and their future writing abilities.
“I went to the Writing Center feeling pretty worried about my paper, but talking it out with my Writing Fellow really forced me to clearly articulate my point and map out my argument.” Carolyn Guan ’20 said.
David Kim ’18 agreed, and added that the Writing Center's programming was a cooperative process that required action and enthusiasm from both fellows and students.
“They are really helpful in helping to organize and think critically about your ideas.” Kim said. “But you need to make sure you are clear in the info you present to them first. They can only help you as well as they understand where you stand and what your topic is.”
Even after nearly 16 years of development and growth, both fellows and staff of the Writing Center acknowledge that there is room for improvement and expansion. Specifically, Creedon speculated about possible ways to get students to visit the Writing Center at many stages of paper writing, rather than at the very end of revision.
“Something we would like to see is probably a more consistent use from sophomores, juniors, and seniors. How do we communicate better with students, how do we get those students to draft ahead of time and use us multiple times?” Creedon said.
She further listed future initiatives to increase cooperation between other tutoring and academic departments.
“The University has seen a proliferation of many support services for students such as McGraw, the Scholars Institute Fellows Program, we have a wide variety of people working to serve students academically," Creedon said. "My hope is that we will reach more students and maybe think of more formats for doing so. Increasing our collaboration with other departments is a horizon we are striving towards.”
Both Creedon and Tyler noted that as the Writing Center continues to evolve with the student body and University, the basic tenets of the institution remain unchanged.
“The Writing Center is not only a place students in writing seminar or who are struggling with writing,” Tyler noted. “Students can come here with anything writing-related – even oral presentations and lab reports. It's also a great resource to help propel students who are already confident in their writing abilities to meet their full potential. Even though I'm a head fellow now, I went to an appointment on Monday to work on my Junior Paper.”
“And as the University continues to grow, we will also continue to grow. History has shown we tend to grow along with the student body as well.” Creedon added, explaining that she didn't think radical changes were needed in the Writing Center's programming because its pedagogy is ultimately strong.