Transitions, Fit, & the Writing Center

11 Oct

Transitioning to college writing ain’t easy. Heck, the transition to college overall can be fraught with challenges and prone to failure for those not familiar with the cultural and academic practices found on university campuses.

Once students reach college, the best campuses work tirelessly to help students find their fit. This is predominantly sought through social and civic engagement opportunities that push students to form peer groups. To form these peer groups, many schools build first-year experiences or introduction weeks that pair students in small groups with experienced students, faculty, and staff who introduce the recently admitted students to their new home. Behind the obvious R word goals (retention), there’s also a selfless attempt to help students make the best of their choice to attend college. On my campus, Mississippi College, our Blue & Gold program helps students negotiate their arrival on campus, including introducing them to student services like the MC Writing Center.

Writing centers have their origins in remediation, but as a discipline, writing center studies doesn’t much like seeing itself in this old light, and writing centers have done much to distance themselves from the remediation models of the past, crafting a broader mission that identifies the benefits of one-on-one, peer tutoring for all writers. UM’s Oxford Campus Writing Center proudly affirms that they offer writing consultants “specially trained to work with [students] on any writing project in any major at any stage of the writing process.” It’s a worthy objective, and it’s one that elevates the inclusive goals of higher education, helping students find their fit.

Living within these new directions for writing centers is a commitment to help students acclimate to college. Specifically, writing centers who use peer tutors or recent graduates provide students with the opportunity to meet other writers who have already acclimated to college. When new writers meet these tutors during sessions or class visits, they are given the chance to see how others have made the transition from incoming first-years to successful college students employed as educators within the university.

When I reflect on this process, I’m reminded of an old David Bartholomae article, “Inventing the University.” In it, Bartholomae highlights how first-year students are challenged to create an understanding of higher education’s imposing discourse community whenever they create academic texts. With this auspicious backdrop, it’s no wonder that college writing courses are so complicated for first-years, especially those who are less familiar with university culture, such as poverty and first-generation students. But in a writing center, college students new and old are given the chance to negotiate their understandings of the university and collegiate writing when they collaborate with a tutor.

When I reflect on the factors that could be helping students make the transition from secondary to collegiate writing, I see no service or resource better positioned to negotiate their academic fit in terms of writing than the friendly neighborhood writing center with its trained and experienced peer tutors ready to offer their accrued institutional wisdom.

If you’re a secondary Language Arts teacher and the writing center sounds like a promising resource to help your students negotiate the transition from your classroom to mine, then I’ve got one problem that if addressed might help make this transition a little smoother: we often struggle to get newly admitted students to use the writing center, and you can help us give students positive reasons to make use of writing centers. In short, writing center professionals are confident we can work with students to make the transition, but we’re not always capable of getting the students through the door.

While college access has increased, those who gain access to college are usually the students who performed well in high school. These students found ways to navigate the challenges of synthesizing informational texts into coherent academic arguments, but at most schools in Mississippi, they did this in the absence of writing center support. As such, first-year students often perceive the writing center as a foreign place where remedial or struggling students go, so they avoid it because they don’t want to be perceived as someone who doesn’t fit into the university.

So how do we help first-year writers identify the writing center as a place that can help them negotiate the transition to college writing? Ideally, we open a writing center in every high school across Mississippi, and while there are those already working toward it within the state, it’s idealistic at best due to budgetary and staffing constraints. Realistically, if we can overtly take writing center pedagogy and practices into Language Arts classrooms, we can achieve the same objective while building a critical mass of interest in writing centers across the state.

If this idea sounds appealing to you, I hope you’ll join me on Friday, October 20th at 1:30 in the Jackson Avenue Center in Oxford, MS as we’ll examine how to practically transition peer review into peer tutoring within the Language Arts classroom. By exposing students to writing center pedagogy while still in high school, incoming first-years will be more likely to avail themselves of their college or university’s writing center, increasing the number of students who find their fit and successfully make the transition to college and college writing.

Daniel J. White

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