[Fresh] Writing Center Interview

Kelly Eastland (kelly.eastland@villanova.edu)
Mon, 04 Oct 2004 15:57:41 -0400

Interview with Ms. Mary Beth Simmons, M.F.A., Director of the Villanova University Writing
Center.

F@N. Can you explain, what is the Writing Center?

Ms. Mary Beth Simmons. The Writing Center is a place for students to get help with any
writing project. Students can bring an outline, rough draft, an assignment or even just
their ideas to meet with a trained tutor. The tutors will work with students at their own
pace.

F@N. This is your fifth year at Villanova and as director of the Writing Center. What
are some of your impressions?

Ms. Mary Beth Simmons. I have been very pleased with the heavy emphasis on writing that I
see here at Villanova. Many of our courses have rigorous writing assignments. The writing
is demanding and it should be. No matter what discipline a student is in, he or she is
going to need to be able to write effectively, so this is something really important for us
to stress.

F@N. So how is the class of 2008 doing on writing? How are their skills?

MBS. For the most part they are good. I see evidence of a lot of solid, traditional
high-school training. Many of our students have mastered the basics and it shows in their
writing. They've got the foundation in place already, and now they are ready to expand and
add new skills. This semester, I am teaching a Core Humanities section and I see the
students work first hand. So far, the first set of papers was really strong, but there is
certainly room for improvement. Making the transition from high school to college writing
is very difficult for some.

F@N. What are their biggest problems?

MBS I would say that the biggest problem they have is a kind of perfectionism. They are
good students and they have high standards for themselves. That is a fine thing but it can
hang them up in a few ways. For some students, there is so much anxiety about writing that
they have a hard time getting started. They sit there staring at a computer screen until
the deadline comes up and then just write something to get the paper done. Another symptom
of perfectionism is that many of our students don't enjoy revising their paper. Once they
have a draft they think, "OK, that's done, on to the next project." They just hate to mess
up that clean sheet with editorial marks. Actually our computers and printers can create a
problem. The papers look so polished when they come off the printer that sometimes students
get the illusion that this is a finished product. What we know, however, is that a good
paper should go through a number of drafts, and to write well students need to start a
project early and be prepared to revise and rewrite. That's where the Writing Center comes
in.

F@N. If I went to the Writing Center, what would I see?

MBS. You'll see a big room, with both work tables and lounge areas. You'd see lots of
student peer tutors working with individual students on writing projects. There are also 7
new computers where students can work with their tutors. It is a happy place and most
people seem to be having a good time. Many of the students have come there voluntarily for
help, and, at any rate, the tutor isn't giving them a grade; for the most part the students
are relaxed but focused on getting the job done.

F@N. How do you train the peer tutors to deal with the problems of perfectionism that you
mentioned earlier?

MBS. For a student who has trouble getting started, we work a lot on prewriting. We have a
few different approaches, depending on the student. In some cases we work with the students
on writing outlines, and that can often jump-start the student to writing a paper. Some
students, however, don't respond well to outlines so we work with them on what we call
clustering. The student starts with an idea, then we help them brainstorm other ideas that
might be related, exploring connections with where that idea might go. Another very
successful technique is "free writing." We'll ask a student to sit down with a piece of
paper or at a terminal and write for ten minutes without editing, just to get their thoughts
out on paper. Sometimes students don't do this on their own because they think it is a
waste of time, but it is a really good way to get started. Often they are surprised by how
much of the paper is already in place.

F@N. Suppose a student brings in a draft of the paper. What are some of the ways the
tutors are trained to help?

MBS. The first thing is that both the tutor and the student read the paper together, so
both are actively visiting the paper and they both have the same frame of reference. Then
we take the student through four steps, looking at the assignment, the thesis, the
organization and development, and finally at the mechanics.

F@N. Lets talk about each one. You mentioned looking at the assignment. What comes up
there?

MBS. Often enough the student will read the assignment and write a draft of the paper,
without rechecking to see if the paper really addresses the assigned topic. By the time the
student has written the paper, the student may have lost sight of what the professor was
actually asking for. Going over it with a tutor is a really helpful exercise and often leads
students to see for themselves that revisions are necessary.

F@N. We've heard a lot about "the thesis-driven essay," and you mentioned that looking at
the thesis was the second step. Tell us more about that.

MBS. Rather than asking what the thesis is, we have the tutor pick out what he or she
thinks the thesis is. If the thesis is strong, the reader should have no trouble picking it
out. We also check to see if the thesis is thought-provoking, and we try to steer students
away from a more generic thesis. At the high school level, a good thesis can sometimes be a
summary. This won't cut it in college, and it is a big jump for first year students.

F@N. What about organization and development? How does that play out?

MBS. The tutors try to check whether the logic of the paper supports the topic. We check
to see if the paper goes from easier requirements to more difficult ones, and we look at the
transitions and the use of evidence. One of the things we try to help students understand
is that learning to be a good writer is a life-long process. Last week, one of our
professors came into the Writing Center for help. He had sent an article to a journal and
gotten some suggested changes from the editors; he wanted a writing center tutor to help him
revise his article. (I put him with one of our most experienced tutors and they worked very
well together). I really appreciated his visit because it helps make our point that good
writers are always working on developing their writing, and that even for someone with a
Ph.D., writing is process that can benefit from collaboration with others.

F@N. What about mechanics and proofreading?

MBS. We do go over the spelling and punctuation, but we try to put it in context. For
some of our students, being a good writer means being able to spell and punctuate. They
think, "If you can help me fix my commas I will have a good paper." We'll help them with
mechanics, but we'll also help them understand that there is much more to it than submitting
a paper with no grammatical errors. As Stephen North has written, our task is to produce a
better writer, not a better text.

F@N. How are the students doing with their citations?

MBS. Many students struggle with citations. Overall, students need to pay more attention
to details. They should ask their professor specific questions about what is expected.
Depending on the teacher, students will be required to cite their sources using a number of
different styles. If for example, a professor wants the citations in MLA style and the
students used APA style in high school, the student can feel overwhelmed. All freshman
students are required to purchase “A Writer’s Reference” by Diane Hacker for their Core
Humanities seminar. This reference book outlines the various styles of citation including
APA, MLA, Chicago style and CBE. This reference book is tremendously helpful and very easy
to use. If students have questions, we’re more than happy to assist them.

F@N. Do many students take advantage of the Writing Center?

MBS. Absolutely!!! We see about 4,500 visits per academic year. We've been extremely
busy lately given that students are in the middle of mid-terms. Students should call ahead
to make an appointment because the schedule fills up quickly.

F@N. Wow! So you must have a large number of student tutors?
MBS. We have 35 undergraduate tutors and 12 graduate student tutors. They’ve been well
trained and are really helpful!

F@N. What can parents do to help?

MBS. Parents can encourage students to come to the writing center. The best thing is for a
student to call us at 610-519-4604 to make an appointment, but we'll also try to help
students who just drop in. Parents can help with student perfectionism, by reinforcing the
message that learning to write is a life long process. I would also encourage parents to
read some of their students' written work, if the students are comfortable sharing it. If
the student says he or she did a good job on a paper, the parent might ask the student to
send it as an e-mail attachment. Many of the papers we see are very thought-provoking and
would make for great conversations. There are a number of interesting books out there,
that parents might enjoy reading themselves or recommending to students. Some books I like
are: "If You Can Talk, You Can Write" by Joel Saltzman, "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott and
"Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg.
I am just looking at a new book called 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss. She gives
a lot of practical advice in a humorous fashion. Who knew a book on punctuation could be
fun!
I think what parents will find is that the field has come a long way since the classics such
as "Elements of Style." "Elements" is a wonderful book, of course, but a formal discussion
of writing often doesn't speak to the student who most needs help. Parents can find more
about the Center by visiting our website at: http://www.writingcenter.villanova.edu/.

F@N What about becoming a writing center tutor? Is that something members of the class of
2008 should think about?

MBS. Absolutely. Nothing helps a student improve writing more than helping others to
write. Students who are interested take a training course during their sophomore year and
then become writing center tutors. They are paid for their work, so it is a great way to
combine learning and earning. It isn't too early to start thinking about it, so a student
who is interested should contact me for more information, either by calling at 610-519-5358,
by email: marybeth.simmons@villanova.edu, or by stopping by the center to make an
appointment. Our hours are: Sunday: 3:30-7:30 , Monday - Thursday 11:30-7:30 and Friday
11:30-3:30.

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