The Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center is, among other things, a vibrant, ongoing conversation about how to write and what defines good writing. But there's no such mystery about the Writing Center itself. "Fine, smart, committed students" make the program run, Director Sharon Williams says. "They give real, substantive, extensive feedback. It isn't just 15 minutes, 'Here's your draft, I circled all the errors.'" Instead, a conference is a dialogue in which "one student is knowledgeable about the course material, the other is knowledgeable about writing, and they're engaged in an exchange."
Tutors at the Writing Center typically work about seven paid hours a week, comprising six hours of actual conferences and an additional hour or so to read papers in advance. About half the students who sign up for tutoring sessions e-mail their papers ahead of time, so tutors can see their drafts in advance — the much-preferred way of working.
Tutors often begin by setting some realistic expectations. "When students come in for the first time, what I usually tell them is, 'We're not an editing service,'" says Leeann Brigham '09. "'We're here to have a conversation about your draft, your ideas and ways we can push the paper to a higher level.'" Tutors also quickly come to recognize recurrent problems. "Most of the papers that students bring in generally lack a cohesive structure and attention to nuance," notes Laura Hartz '07. And they organize each one-hour conference accordingly. "If it's a solid paper as far as structure and organization go, then I have more time to deal with the grammar," Brigham says. "I usually try to deal with the bigger issues first."
Many times, tutors past and present say, the crux of the matter is focusing the topic and making clear connections. The best way to help is not to direct, but to ask questions – "questions that push them to make links between ideas, or explain why those ideas are important in the larger scope of the paper," Brigham says.
All those dynamics are in play when Charles Dworkin '09 sits down with tutor Natalie Tarallo '07 to discuss Dworkin's paper on Plato's Republic, written for an Introduction to Political Theory course. After taking detailed notes on the paper, Tarallo praises the introduction, then asks Dworkin to summarize his argument. Over several exchanges, they zero in on human nature and the question of justice. Was that the real focus of the paper? "Would it make sense to say that Plato's political theory is an outgrowth of his view of human nature?" she asks. "Or is it the other way around?"
As the hour moves ahead, Dworkin begins to articulate and fine-tune his ideas – in essence, taking charge of his own tutorial.
"There is a political hierarchy," he decides, "but that hierarchy is also deep within you." They ultimately agree that the basic structure of the paper is sound, but that its clarity can be improved with some simple keywords and transitions. They also agree on a stronger conclusion. And at the end of the session, Tarallo has saved a few minutes to review a couple of points of grammar.
The session "definitely helped me improve the paper," Dworkin says later, adding that the question-and-answer format helped him develop his own ideas more fully rather than dictating the "right" response to the assignment.
Writing Center Assistant Dori Critelli notes that not all the pressure is on the tutor during conferences. "It can be intimidating to sit down with someone who is looking at your paper," she says. "You think, 'Are they going to be judging me?' The tutors do their very best not to be judgmental." But that sense of restraint, too, requires preparation. Once new tutors are selected for the year by Williams from the pool of faculty nominations, they undergo three days of training in August, concentrating on writing strategies, paper organization and grammar. Practice conferences match experienced tutors up with new ones. "The peer relationship is an important part of the training," Williams says.
Bethany Baker Booth '98, who tutored for three years and is now coordinator of the writing lab at Kent School, an independent boarding school in Kent, Conn., believes that relationship is crucial to the success of the Writing Center. "Sharon helped to instill a real bond among the tutors," Booth says. "We all came from such diverse backgrounds, with different academic interests and social groups, but over time we grew to respect and care for each other. I became friends with people whom I probably would have never met if it were not for the Writing Center." She adds that in her own career, "I apply the skills that I learned at the Writing Center every day."
Desmond Bailey '94, another three-year veteran, observes that Hamilton's writing-intensive curriculum and close student-teacher relationships also provide important training for tutors. "Each class in which I enrolled taught me the importance of communication," he says. Bailey notes that Richard Werner, the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy, provided a model for his own tutoring. "Rick taught me to translate clarity of writing into persuasively written arguments," Bailey recalls. "He would frequently say, 'Dez, tell me what you think about this' — a question I repeated to students I tutored at the center." Now an Oak Park, Ill.-based consultant for nonprofit organizations who specializes in grant writing, program development and board development, Bailey says, "My Hamilton experience has proven critical in preparing me for this career path."
And Kajal Chattopadhyay '93, a two-year tutor, points out another aspect of preparation for many tutors: visiting the Writing Center first as a tutee. "During my freshman and sophomore years, I had a few professors who required us to have papers brought to the center," says Chattopadhyay, now an assistant attorney general for Massachusetts. "I really liked talking to the tutors about my essays, and they turned me on to the idea of becoming a tutor myself."
If there is common ground among tutors past and present, though, it is twofold: The leadership and support of Williams has been as important to them as their commitment has been to her; and, in the end, tutoring is very much like learning.
"Sharon Williams was a phenomenal Writing Center director," Booth recalls. "Her training sessions were thorough and informative. She was passionate about her job, and we all appreciated her professionalism mixed with a good dose of support and care."
To that Doug Hsiao '88, now corporate counsel for Qwest Communications, adds: "I am not sure who benefited more from tutoring at the Writing Center, me or the student seeking tutoring. Having to explain the process of writing was, for me, far more difficult than the act of writing. But it undeniably helped me; you never learn something so well as when you have to teach it."