Writing Center: Friend or Foe?

Nancy Klostermann

After being offered a Writing Center Scholarship the spring before coming to college, I spent the summer following high school graduation unsure just what I felt. Every time I thought about the Writing Center, I wondered whether it was a friend or a foe. When I visited the Writing Center in my senior year of high school, it was equipped with a couch and coffeepot, making it appear like a home instead of an office. As the summer unfolded, however, I began to think more seriously about the position. The idea of proofreading older students' papers, along with the concept of becoming independent, scared me more than I could have ever guessed. I mentally kicked myself mentally for accepting the scholarship position which was causing me so much anxiety. Never did I dream that this Writing Center position would allow me access into an entirely new world of knowledge.

In high school, I was a quiet, insecure student. Anything I learned about writing came from interaction between my teachers, books, and myself. It was a rare occasion when I could be found helping another student conjugate verbs or discussing the best approach for introducing the subject matter of a paper. I was insecure about my writing and, therefore, did not share my ideas concerning papers. Perhaps my attitude towards my own writing adversely affected how I felt about helping others write.

Before the Fall Term began, I attended a Writing Center Retreat/Training Session. We took several vans to Wisconsin and spent two days learning about our co-workers and our job. The returning staff gave several presentations intended to initiate those of us who had never worked in the Writing Center. Despite their excellent intentions and advice, I knew none of this training would prepare me for the experiences that lay ahead. Entering the Writing Center the next week brought with it a whole new wave of fear. A comforting security had been available when living 100 miles from the source of my anxiety, but once in direct contact with the source, I could do nothing except struggle to stay afloat.

I'll admit that as a freshman, away from home for the first time and reading older students' papers in a college ten times the size of my high school, I was intimidated. I had nightmares about being attacked by upper classmen upset with me because I could not recognize comma splices. I would awake with vivid memories of upper classmen beating me with dictionaries and thesauruses. I now realize my fears were silly, but at the time, they were all too real to ignore. My anxiety about being in college, coupled with my insecurity about working, caused me to become paranoid about my future.

My first day in the Writing Center did little to alleviate my fears. My hour began with a student wanting to learn how to use WordPerfect. I was immediately frantic because I had not yet learned the first thing about the system. Fortunately for both us, I was on duty with an experienced consultant who taught both of us how to use the word processing program. I shudder now, after having used Wordperfect for countless papers, to think of the student's first impression of both the Writing Center and me. I learned a lot from that first day, quickly discovering that the Writing Center would not only be a place for me to teach others, but also a place for me to learn.

As part of my scholarship, I was required to take a one-hour composition class, which also served as the Writing Center staff meeting. These meetings allowed me to become better acquainted with my co-workers and discuss how to manage the problems that arose at work. Among our various assignments, three particular exercises helped me learn to overcome my fears as a writing consultant: giving staff presentations, observing other consultants work, and scheduling personal conferences on our own papers.

Each consultant was required to give a presentation focusing on some issue concerning the Writing Center. The presentation given by another consultant and me dealt with the use of a tape recorder in the Writing Center. We noted many benefits of using a tape recorder, such as taping the ESL (English Second Language) conferences so those students could take the tapes with them and refer back to them when needed. We also talked about the benefits of using a tape recorder for playing background music, perhaps reducing the discomfort some students felt when entering the Writing Center. Other students did presentations on a wide variety of topics, including writing poetry, aiding students who have not followed the assignment, and helping ESL students. Several presentations were helpful in reminding us how each conference must focus not only on the paper but also on the student who wrote it.

Another helpful requirement of the course were the conference observations. We had to watch conferences conducted by two other consultants and write our reactions to them. In one of the conferences that I watched, the consultant asked the student many questions about the paper. Before I viewed this conference, I did not realize how much the student could profit from questions. By simply asking what point the writer wanted the paper to convey, the consultant caused the writer to re-evaluate the essay. Once again, the Writing Center proved to be a center of learning not only for the students, but also for me.

For the final requirement, I had to take my own papers to the Writing Center and discuss them with another consultant. While writing my Modern American Fiction essay, I had found it difficult to express my ideas and was not sure whether I had followed the assignment. The consultant began by asking me questions about the topic of my essay, James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues", and we proceeded to discuss at length my insecurities about it. She suggested that I write more about the character of Sonny and my paper would then become clearer. When I went back to my dorm room to revise, I began by re-reading the paper. I found myself referring back to the comments she had made and adding more characterization to the essay. Once again in my job, I became student rather than consultant.

Friend or foe? I consider a friend to be someone from whom I can learn and with whom I can feel comfortable. The Writing Center provides me with both of these qualities. The Writing Center is a friend.

Published in the Writing Lab Newsletter, Nov. 1993