Writing Center Expands Services, Increases Appointments
By Kevin Wu '12, Contributing Writer
Last year, the Writing Center underwent significant organizational changes under the leadership of Professors Michele Barale and Jyl Gentzler. Four Writing Associates and three Writing Fellows were hired to bring fresh and professional perspectives to the College. In the past, the only service available at the Writing Center had been Writing Mentoring — students could have one-on-one discussions with mentors on specific projects. Now, the Center offers workshops on the writing process for both students and members of the faculty. Both English as a Second Language instruction and creative writing instruction have become integral parts of the Center, as has Writing Counseling, which helps students overcome stress and time management issues. These sweeping changes caused the number of visitors to the Center to increase by 47 percent over the course of a single semester.

This year, the Writing Center has concentrated on reaching out to senior thesis writers. Two hundred twenty-one members of the Class of 2009 wrote theses last year, and 45 of those students collectively made 285 appointments at the Writing Center. Two hundred fifty of those appointments were booked in the spring. Of the 250, 183 were booked after spring break.

That is, nearly two-thirds of thesis appointments were fulfilled between March 23 and the deadline, which, for most seniors, fell between April 1 and April 15. It is evident that this last-minute crunch of appointments placed an inordinate amount of stress on both thesis writers and the Writing Center staff, and severely limited the ability of mentors to offer meaningful, substantial assistance to their mentees.

To avoid the same problem this year, the Writing Center has fine-tuned a number of its services for the thesis-writing community. Whereas the standard mentoring session lasts 45 minutes, thesis students can schedule back-to-back appointments for sessions that last up to two hours. During the first hour of these sessions, mentors look over the provided source materials and what the student has already written. The remainder of the session is devoted to the exchange of constructive feedback. Mentors focus first on the development and organization of substance, and, later on, the nuances of presentation and style.

The Center has also been holding a series of interactive workshops geared toward thesis writers. During these group learning sessions, students share strategies, develop crucial skill sets, improve research management, learn to make connections between source materials and work on revision — in short, they put theory into practice.

In addition to placing greater emphasis on the benefits of its Writing Counseling services, the Center has been working on the development of Writing Groups, in which thesis writers from related disciplines can come together to exchange both ideas and feedback. Although the success of these groups will depend largely on student interest and motivation, the staff remains eager to play an important advisory role for thesis writers seeking direction, especially early in the process.

Michael Donovan ’08, a Writing Fellow, is hopeful that this year’s thesis writers will take the initiative to make appointments earlier and more often. “Writing a thesis is unlike any other writing task a student at Amherst can undertake; no previous assignment requires the same time commitment, intellectual discipline, depth of research or sheer number of pages. As a result, many students, in their approach to such a daunting task, find that they must amend their previous writing strategies to deal with the almighty thesis. We encourage students to come see us as they rediscover their writing process so that we can help them along the way … We know how difficult a task writing a thesis can be and, perhaps more importantly, we know that the difficulty pervades every step of producing the final paper, not just the finished product itself.”

Donovan himself wrote a thesis for the LJST department concerning underlying policy problems behind the Native American healthcare crisis. “The process was absolutely brutal for me; nothing can adequately prepare you for it. Unfortunately, I did not use the Writing Center for help on my thesis, which was the result of … my lack of familiarity with the services offered; a good relationship with my faculty advisor and, admittedly, a certain degree of hubris early in the process … I had to figure out a lot of things for myself and develop my own strategies for coping with research and revision. Some of the strategies were very effective … others were the end result of exercises in trial and error involving a lot of error … Looking back, I wish I had made use of the Writing Center at that time, and given the increased offerings of the past two years, I cannot imagine not using the Writing Center if I was working on a thesis now.”

Issue 13, Submitted 2010-02-03 02:59:31