I have been involved in writing center work for the past seven years. It all started when I was a sophomore in college in need of a part-time job. The university I was attending at the time had a student worker position available in the writing center. I had no idea what a writing center was but, as an English major, it at least seemed in line with my future career goals (not that I was entirely sure what those were yet). My job was simple: answer phones, make appointments, and be personable. The job really wasn’t all that hard. In fact, more than anything, it was fun. The writing center seemed like a locus of interaction for all the members of the campus community. On any given day I would be involved in conversations with college freshman barely younger than myself, upper-graduates getting ready to graduate, graduate students powering through theses and dissertations, faculty members publishing scholarly articles or taking their classes on writing center tours, foreign exchange students from Japan. And the list goes on. It seemed as though everyone used the writing center. Everyone, that is, except me.
I admit, I was guilty of the cardinal sin of writing centers. I was an English major. As an English major I certainly didn’t need help with my writing. Yes, despite the fact that I saw plenty of English majors, graduate students (including those in the English department), and faculty members come through our doors for a writing consultation, I couldn’t seem to understand that I too might benefit from some time spent working with a writing consultant. The thought of making an appointment didn’t even dawn on me until the day when a regular client of ours (a graduate student working on her dissertation) came in to show the consultant she’d worked with for the last two years the finished product, all bound in leather. She was so excited and, more than anything, thankful for the time the consultant had spent with her over the last sixteen months. Her enthusiasm for the work this consultant had done was contagious. If this consultant could help a graduate student in chemical engineering, what might she do for me?
And so, my first appointment was made. I was nervous (as so many first-time attendees are). Would the consultant judge me? Would she secretly think I was a terrible writer and had no right to be an English major? Would she talk about me with the other consultants when I wasn’t around? I had been in the writing center for long enough at this point that I should have known better. But, for me at least, emotion usually trumps reason and so I went into the consultation nervous. The nervousness didn’t last long however. The consultant quickly put me at ease and I walked away from the session a better writer with better writing.
I have spent the last five years as a writing center consultant myself and I love writing center work as a consultant for the same reasons I loved it as a student. For me, the writing center is one of the few places on campus where you can get help with your writing in a completely non-evaluative space. Writing center consultants aren’t there to judge your work or to assign it a grade. In fact, I can speak for myself and, I imagine, most of the consultants out there in saying that we never think of your work in terms of a grade. We think of it in terms of potential. How can your ideas be clearer, more powerful, more persuasive? How can we help you be the writer you envision being?
I also love writing center work because, more than anything, it is a conversation about your writing. As a writer, I know how much time and effort can go into completing a writing task, even a task you aren’t that interested or invested in (and yes, we all have tasks like that). Any writing task is a product of our labors and, after spending all that time and energy on writing, how nice it is to be able to talk about it. To be able to talk about it and have someone interested in and listening to what we have to say. A writing center consultation isn’t spent with the consultant offering the client a set of skills or rules to make him or her a better writer. It is spent with the writer talking to the consultant about his or her writing.
And this brings me to the final reason (at least for this post) on why I love writing center work. It’s all about the writer talking to the consultant and not the other way around. The writer, not the consultant, sets the agenda for the conference. Don’t worry. This isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. If you don’t know what you want to talk about, or where to start with your paper, that’s fine. But what I found as both a student using the writing center and as a consultant working with other writers, is that we know more about our own writing than we might think. We just don’t get very many opportunities to practice articulating and showing what we know with others.
I’ll get off my soapbox now. I hope that, if you’ve been to the writing center before, what I’ve said here rings true. If it doesn’t, I hope you’ll give us another shot to show you what it is we do. And, if you’ve never stopped by before, how about checking us out? Whatever your situation, I hope you feel motivated to leave us some comments. What was your first consultation like? Is there anything unique or special about the writing center that I didn’t mention (I’m sure there is!)?
Hope to see you soon!