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Of Want and Caprice

Proper approaches to writing centers

By Haddon Smead

Writing centers are, beyond any reasonable debate, a valuable asset on any college campus and pose a great boon to any student willing to make proper use of them: note, however, the term “proper use”—indeed, there are some manners of use, with regards to a writing-center, that are altogether-improper and inappropriate to a considerable degree, whether known to be so or not. Such transgressions in utilization of such facilities are, oft, conducted by both unwitting tutors and uninformed tutees; while scarcely a man alive could lay harsh blame upon either party, the mistakes being so common and innocent in intent, they are flaws in using a writing center, nonetheless, and are as follows: using the writing-center as a means of opting out of work, using the writing center as a “content-mill,” and using the writing-center as an editor’s office.

Some students make the mistake of viewing a writing center as an institution such as a fast food venue, which will take an order and promptly issue a paper with minimal student-involvement, being careful to hang on every word and decree of the consumer. This is a misguided view, to say the least of it, though not completely devoid of a margin for understanding: a student may very well be inclined to view a writing center as exactly such a service, if the writing center itself does not make efforts to dispel such a myth and to make it abundantly clear to all that it is more akin to a instrument for tuning, rather than an assembly-line. The student is required to work: there is no skirting that fact. A student’s obligation is to approach a session having put in, at minimum, careful thought with regards to the project and some attempt at beginning; but it would be a true shame to forget the roll of a tutor, as well! The tutor, not unlike the tutee, is also bound by some measure of inevitable obligation (though a happy enough obligation it is), their particular task being comprised of aiding the student in organizing the paper and properly executing the writing of it, to some degree. A tutor is not to do all of the work for the student—if the tutor writes the paper for the tutee, the tutee is left without any personal betterment and is deprived the ability to rightfully own the work; the tutor is left tired and having compromised their own integrity as a representative of the institution; and the paper is left in an awkward state of disarray, perhaps not in noticeable form, but with regards to rightful ownership and the ability to be morally and soundly utilized in a course. Whereas completely (or even mostly) writing a paper for a tutee is out of the question, and neither the tutor nor the tutee should have any expectation of doing such, there are two, particularly-lesser writing-center transgressions which might be more prone to occur, due to the lesser degree of their objectionability.

The first of these two is, of course, viewing the writing center as a “content-mill”: a student might be very willing to work hard and to write a thorough and time-consuming paper, but, alas, be left wanting in the realm of inspiration, and in desperate search of this invaluable and nonexpendable resource for any writer.

The writing center can aid with regards to, perhaps, helping to spark inspiration for the writer; but it cannot, under any circumstances, create it, and any anticipation or expectation of the instant gratification of inspiration is unrealistic to the highest degree. Inspiration cannot be created by the writer (at least, not easily and consistently, to the best of the author’s awareness)—it can be induced and certain practices are conducive to it—but inspiration for a work is something which arises in the heart and mind of the author, and, as such, is relatively incapable of being created intentionally and certainly by any other. Certain methods, such as brainstorming, listing ideas, making a web-like cluster of ideas by linking one to another in a cause-and-effect manner—all of these methods are staple manners of attempting to induce inspiration, and to spark a creative idea or an uncanny observation in the mind of the prospective author of a work (other methods might include organizing events chronologically in order to search for connections between them or ranking ideas, events, and/or objects in accordance to importance). The notion that a writing-center can spin up content for a paper or use some arcane art to impart inspired ideas, and then the student simply write them out, of-course, does not follow logically from the information already given here about inspiration: the student must either come with their own ideas and those ideas be built upon, or come to seek advice about what practices may be conducive to inspiration and finding good ideas and topics to write about. The writing center is more than capable of furnishing good practices to find inspiration and good ideas, but is not a factory for them, in other words, and the student still retains the responsibility for their own ideas that is inherent to writing.

The last of this terrific trio of writing-center misconceptions is the notion that the writing-center is little more than an editorial institution, fit only for reviewing papers and ensuring good grades. The writing-center does, it must be admitted, engage in some editorial practices, but only marginally so: for example, if a student’s paper is rife with poor capitalization, spelling, punctuation, or grammar, the tutor should, by all means, alert the student to this fact (though kindly and exceedingly-tactfully), and should engage the student with a few examples of each—the tutor is not, however, to correct each and every error in the paper, by any means…that is the student’s affair, and not the task of a tutor. If the student has a specific question, then answer it, of-course, but do not take up the mantle of editor in its full weight and magnitude. If a student is to succeed, they must be taught by example, and not by having everything corrected and completed for them.

It is of vital importance to all parties that the writing center is not viewed as a consumeristic service which churns out papers, is not viewed as a “content-mill” for the dispensing of creative concepts at the public’s caprice, and is not viewed as an editing installation eagerly waiting hand-and-foot on the whim of all students. A writing center should aim to be an aid, a guide, and a place of sound advice, rather than a dial-up satisfaction of students nearing their deadlines without having so much as jotted a word in the pursuit of the ever-elusive A+ evaluation. If a student is carried through their classes by tutors, their odds of success are lessened that much more—but if they are carefully taught and provided proper support…well…their chances of receiving that A+, if they are willing to work for it, just become considerably higher….


Haddon is a junior English education major and is available for sessions on Mondays from 3-5 PM.

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