Not what you might expect: Writing Center seeks to end its stigmas

The Writing Center is encouraging students to feel comfortable and confident in making and attending appointments, receiving peer-to-peer feedback and developing the confidence to ask for help. 

The fall 2019 hiring process has given the WC 34 consultants, which is the largest amount of consultants the center has had to date. Writing consultants are hired from across campus, so there are consultants available for a variety of majors. Each hired student specializes in a certain major or has experience in several areas. There are currently consultants available for history, math, biology, spanish, psychology and communication disorders. Students are not just limited to bringing in essays — capstones, lab reports, creative writing, personal statements and citations can also be reviewed. 

Writing Center Director David Leaton said over the course of a year, 1-out-of-5 students visit the WC. International students schedule appointments the most, making up 30% of consultations since 2014. He said these students usually need help with reading and understanding the mechanics of grammar, along with the difficulties of writing in a different language. 

While students can be required to visit the Writing Center by a professor, Leaton said being forced to attend might not always make a student feel enthusiastic or invested in the session. Leaton said students can also procrastinate visiting the WC because they think they don’t need the help and then run out of time to schedule a visit.

A reason why some students might not attend is because there can be a stigma behind asking for help at the university level, Leaton said. 

“There’s always a stigma and I think it’s probably starting to go away, but cultural change is so slow,” Leaton said. “It doesn’t happen at the speed of a single lifetime or a college experience of four years. But slowly over the years people are getting the idea that it doesn’t mean that I suck at writing if I go and get help. Yes, the Writing Center helps. But in some cases we confirm. In some cases we just give more confidence because the writing is working well.”

Writing consultant Jacob Colangelo said evaluation anxiety could also be a reason some students might not use the WC as a resource. Although grades are not given by consultants, Colangelo said the concept of having another individual break down a paper in front of a student can understandably come off as a scary and anxious experience. He said he doesn’t think there’s a problem with people thinking less of anyone that attends the WC. Leaton said he trains all of the consultants to not destroy a student’s self-confidence but rather to help the student realize they have the capability to write excellent papers. 

Colangelo said he doesn’t think students being busy is an issue that affects WC attendance, but that there can be an incorrect perspective behind its purpose as a resource.

“I think people in general just need a better idea of what we do and why it’s helpful for everybody to come and get consultations with your writing and to take a look at what issues you might personally have as a writer because that can differ from everyone else,” Colangelo said. “Everyone has their own unique things they need to work on or struggle with and get better at.”

Christopher Outzen, director of forensics and communication instructor, said he started to implement Writing Center visits into his classes because he believes it’s important for papers to be looked over by more than just the instructor. While the WC can work as a fresh pair of eyes, Outzen said consultants can also help recognize or work through writing patterns or problems that students might experience. He said he has seen changes in students’ writing beyond what he would typically see if they hadn’t used the WC. 

Outzen said a typical misconception about the WC that students might have is that it only functions as a proofreading service. The WC is really a place where students go to hone their skills, and checking their work can be a part of that, Outzen said. 

Leaton said a student only works with one consultant at a time. He said getting help from a student at the WC can be a less stressful experience than approaching a professor because there is not a gap of authority to worry about. 

“When you’re talking to a fellow student, you’re talking to someone who’s going through the same struggles as you,” Leaton said. “These students, in particular, are trained to not try to be the authority in the room but just to be the reader. That’s who you want. It’s not intimidating. It’s not overbearing. The consultation is just good conversation about what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing.”

Leaton said he thinks even English majors should be visiting the WC all the time because they should understand what getting feedback can mean. He said their reluctance could be related to feeling like they’re going up against the rest of the English majors and having to prove they belong in the major. Additionally, not all students have to be English majors or be taking English major classes to get help at the WC. 

Outzen said the amount of comments made by a professor on a paper can sometimes be easily dismissed by a student as the professor being too critical. On the other hand, hearing constructive criticism from peers can be more effective because students can understand and relate to each other through their shared experience at Truman, Outzen said. 

“It’s helpful to me as a professor to have another person, someone who’s closer to a peer status with these students,” Outzen said. “It results in papers that are less about nitpicking and trying to help improve writing mechanics. Truman students have interesting thoughts and that’s exciting, and the more I get to see that unobstructed by writing issues the better the reading experience is and the more I feel like I get to know who our students are.” 

One of the ways the WC tries to reach out to students is by having consultants visit classes. Leaton said consultants will give five to eight minute presentations to writing-heavy classes like Writing as Critical Thinking or Self and Society seminars to explain the importance of getting feedback from a reader before turning a paper in. Something most college students haven’t experienced yet, Leaton said, is having a trained, experienced writer look at their work. 

Not everyone at Truman has the same background in English, which can make the WC a valuable resource to have on campus, Outzen said.

Colangelo said the WC has tried to reach out to the larger student body by putting up posters and having professors talk to their students. The WC would like to project an image that is honest to what they do, but it can be difficult trying to communicate with the larger student body since consultants cannot sit down with every student unless they choose to come in, Colangelo said. 

A possible solution to this, Colangelo said, could be trying to build a bridge between the WC, the professors and the students so there can be a more unified sense of support for one another. 

“It’s about helping students realize that college is one big community and we’re all here to help each other get through the difficulties of being a college student,” Colangelo said. “A lot of students question their sense of belonging. ‘Do I really belong here? Am I really a college person?’ That’s something that needs to be helped and students need to realize ‘Yes, you belong here because you made it here.’”