What We Do and Why: Engaging Students in Writerly Behaviors
In the Richard Wright Center (RWC), we are often asked to "correct" students' papers both before they submit them to instructors and after they have defended their theses or dissertations. Concern for correctness is understandable. After all, professors want to read papers without stumbling over fragments or run-on sentences or without being distracted by inconsistent formatting issues, and students want good grades and their degrees.
In the RWC, our mission is to engage students in intellectual conversations about their writing, speaking, and research projects. In one-to-one or small-group conversations, correctness can be discussed in relation to students’ ideas and their new academic audience.
While we recognize the concern for correctness, we want to challenge the idea that the RWC is a place where students' papers are edited and proofread, or fixed. In fact, this is a common perception of writing centers. However, we have learned that by focusing on errors, we do more harm than good. Dr. Elaine Maimon (1979), expert in the teaching of writing and a founder of Writing Across the Curriculum, says that if we “continue to emphasize an avoidance of error, then students will finally learn to avoid as many errors as possible by not writing at all” (p. 366). Of course, we all want students to improve as writers, and writing becomes better when students write a lot, particularly in response to issues that matter to them and when they receive feedback.
Feedback from faculty and peers allows students to gain experience with academic writing and to build confidence as writers, which are undermined when editing and proofreading are the initial focus. So when students come to the RWC, our tutors will
• greet them and ask them to sign in
• ask about their assignment and what they are working on
• ask them to summarize what they have written or what they plan to write or speak about
• respond to students in a non-evaluative manner (e.g., “I’m confused about this. What are you trying to say?” instead of “This is incorrect. You need to fix this.”)
• invite students to complete a response form—and to return to the Richard Wright Center.
As needed, tutors may also
• ask about parts of students’ writing or speech (e.g., introductions, thesis statements)
• discuss options for supporting ideas with credible evidence (e.g., expert opinions, statistics)
• share information about documentation, even in speeches and presentations
• read with the student aloud or silently, asking about any confusing sentences or shifts in topic
• listen to presentations and share strategies for effective oral communication
• discuss strategies for editing and proofreading for specific issues, such as fragments.
When we engage students in conversation, offer feedback, and discuss strategies for presenting their ideas, we let them imagine their academic audience and invite them to "behave" as writers (Maimon, 1979, p. 365), to experience writing practices that we share as academic writers, and thus we invite them into the academic community.
Now we would like to hear from you! When you write, how do you begin? When do you proofread? From whom do you seek feedback, and what kinds of feedback do you find most useful? What do you think makes a good writer? How do you address the issue of correctness with your students?
If you would be interested in discussing a writing, speaking, or research-related issue in a seminar format, please let us know! Also, what issues would you like to read about on our blog?
Thank you. -Kathi and Tatiana
Maimon, E. (1979). Talking to strangers. College Composition & Communication, 30, 364-369.