How Oregon’s Writing Center Uses Peer Tutors to Engage Reluctant Writers

Everyone takes writing for granted.

Well, not really. It doesn’t take long for faculty to complain about the quality of student writing. Many lament that students would rather learn fun technologies – the Snapchats and the InDesigns – than perfect their grammar and sentence structure. And faculty aren’t the only ones who care. Employers consistently tell us and our colleagues at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication that they need stronger writers. Even in this multimedia world, writing is a core skill; our photojournalism instructors, for instance, constantly stress the need for photographers to write strong cutlines and clean email pitches. But it does feel, sometimes, that writing is an afterthought, something we expect students to know when they get to J-school. As journalism and communications curricula expand – social media, entrepreneurship, data, design – it’s hard to find the time to focus on writing in the
even in core courses. Two years ago, we co-taught a large introduction to media class that brought this issue to a head. And we came up with a program that has made a difference for students – and for us, as educators. What it is: Writing Central, a peer writing support program that is specific to journalism and communications classes. What we do: With a staff of seven trained, paid coaches – all undergraduates, juniors or seniors – we offer daily drop-in hours and one-on-one appointments for writers of all abilities within the school to get the additional attention they need to improve. We also offer cookies. (More on that later.) If this idea doesn’t sound novel, it’s because it’s not. Many universities have peer writing centers that help with everything from chemistry lab reports to essays on 20th century French existentialism. The University of Oregon, in fact, offers a great student support resource called the Teaching and Learning Center where students can get, among other things, one-on-one peer writing tutoring. But we need to educate our students to write in ways that are notably different. We have many, oftentimes highly specific, audiences. We write in AP style, not APA or MLA. And our writing needs a professional level of polish that isn’t always addressed at university-wide writing centers, where the focus is often more on higher-order skills and clarity of thought. Because of this, creating an in-house peer writing resource made sense. We’ve been working on Writing Central for nearly a year and a half now, and we’ve learned a lot about the writing process, how j-schools teach writing and what we as teachers can do to help students improve. Here are the highlights:

Students can drop in to Writing Central or make a one-on-one appointment with coaches; we have found different types of student prefer one to the other. Photo: Rachel Harbison/Allen Hall Public Relations

Lower the Barrier to Entry

This is where the cookies come in. Coffee, too. We wanted to create a welcoming space where students could feel comfortable and enjoy hanging out. Hot coffee and freshly baked cookies started as a way to incentivize students to come in; now it’s part of our culture. Students (and faculty, too) come in for a quick pick-me-up — and we’re OK with that. As we say, “Come for the cookies; stay for the coaching.” Speaking of “coaching,” we chose that term deliberately. We felt that the term “tutoring” implied a sort of power imbalance that would deter students from seeking out peer feedback. We recognize that the students we train to serve as coaches for our program are not perfect writers — neither are we — and we want to underscore the notion that everyone needs feedback to become better at their craft. An important part of lowering that barrier to entry was using the right language.

Meet students where they are

All of the major assignments for our Gateway to Media class are due at 11:59 p.m. Sunday. So Writing Central is open for drop-ins not just during the week, when classes are in session, but on Sundays from 7-9 p.m. We also allow students to make one-on-one appointments with our coaches, and we have found that each option attracts a specific kind of student. Often, we see students develop rapport with a particular coach and specifically seek out that coach for appointments.

Empower — and listen to — your students

Our writing coaches have an ear to the ground in a way we, as faculty, simply can’t. So we listen to them. Our coaches notice things we don’t: Why no one showed up for drop-ins during Week Five, for example. (Midterm exams. Duh.) They suggest ideas that make big differences in the way we operate: Why not drop-in hours on Friday mornings, before the weekend gets started? We’re trying it. They identify words and phrases that confuse students whose first language isn’t English. Their perspective is invaluable to the success of our writing center. Our coaches also tell us that talking through writing issues with their peers is helping them grow. They are smarter thinkers, better leaders and stronger writers. Being teachers has changed our own writing for the better. We’re thrilled to see our coaches taking similar journeys.

Our coaches have found that their experience working with Writing Central has made them stronger writers, as well. Here, senior coach Rachel LaChapelle works with a writer during drop-in hours. Photo: Rachel Harbison/Allen Hall Public Relations

Focus on the writer, not the writing

Often students know what they want to say; they just can’t quite write it the way they want or we want them to. So our coaches don’t start with the piece of writing. They start with a conversation: Why did you pick this topic?
What interests you about it?
How did you report or research it?
Who are you trying to reach?
What is the single most important thing you’re trying to say?
By talking to writers and sorting through their thinking, our coaches are able to identify larger issues and patterns that inform their feedback. And establishing a connection enables coaches to tailor their suggestions to the specific writer.

Set realistic goals

We send writers away with Post-it notes that fit perfectly next to a laptop’s track pad. On the Post-it: three key things to to focus on. Maybe it’s commas after introductory clauses, AP style for numbers and eliminating opinion adjectives. Or perhaps it’s subject-verb agreement, developing shorter paragraphs and interviewing more people. Students can’t improve everything at once; nor can they process a lot of heavy feedback in one sitting. Steady improvement is the goal.

On promotional materials, we emphasize that becoming a better writer is a journey, not a destination.

Stress the Process

As instructors, we are up-front with coaches about our own writing struggles (including writing this piece, which took, um, a lot longer than we expected). This gives the coaches permission to be honest with their peers about their own difficulties. We encourage our coaches to create common ground with writers and ease their anxiety by talking about their personal struggles with writing. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Oh, I took that class last term — it’s brutal, isn’t it?” or “Yeah, I found that assignment to be ridiculously difficult, but here’s what worked for me.” It’s OK to struggle with writing. It’s a process. It’s a craft. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. And these are messages that young writers need to hear — often. Courtney Munther and Lori Shontz teach public relations and journalism, respectively, at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Together, they co-direct Writing Central and share a mutual love of Harry Potter. Let us know about your j-school’s peer writing program or your interest in starting one. Contact us on Twitter @lshontz and @cmunther or by email: sojcwriter@uoregon.edu.
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