Work in Progress

By Donald Challenger

Spring 2007Like any 20-year-old, the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center can get a little wild and crazy. It does some of its best work late at night — the student tutors don't close up shop and go home until 11 p.m. — but it may be a bit bleary-eyed in the morning. Before breaks and at the end of the semester, things often turn intense. It's hard to tell exactly where the fun ends and the learning begins. Conversations may start in the center's conference room or at one of the computer terminals behind the glass walls of Kirner-Johnson's second floor, but before long they're spilling out into the hall, down the stairs, across campus.

That's just fine with Sharon Williams, the Writing Center's director, who has been there since the doors opened in 1987. "It's a very public place," she says. "One of the great values of the Writing Center, in addition to helping individual writers, is that we model serious intellectual conversation between students. They're in the journey together."

And they have plenty of company. More than eight in 10 Hamilton students visit the center at least once during their stay on the Hill; a majority visit four to six times. One recent student logged a staggering 84 trips to Nesbitt-Johnston in four years, perhaps on the way to a future Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award. The center's Web pages drew more than 233,000 page views last year. As the center marks its 20th year as a major facet of both campus life and curriculum, it has emerged as one of the College's quiet but remarkable success stories — an innovative peer program that enjoys virtually full faculty support, draws many of the best students to its prestigious tutoring jobs, and plays a crucial role in shaping Hamilton's identity as a place where writing and mentoring are taken seriously in every discipline.

"Our goals are fairly typical writing center goals, but what is unique about our center is that we are a much more vigorous program than any other writing center I know," Williams says. "We're not a tiny room down in the basement of the library that's open for two hours on Thursday; we are a central part of instruction at Hamilton.

"Last year we had 2,900 conferences. I say this at meetings with people from other writing centers, and they just — honestly, I sometimes wonder if they think I'm making it up."

The writing conversation

It could have turned out differently. When a Procter & Gamble grant enabled John O'Neill, the Edmund A. LeFevre Professor of English, to hit the road in the mid-1980s to study writing centers on other campuses, the question of what might work for Hamilton was very much an open one. O'Neill, who ultimately played a defining role in creating Hamilton's Writing Center and would serve as its first director, recalls visiting the mazelike facility at Cornell, where work stations were cubicles for student privacy and isolation. The philosophy implicit in that arrangement, O'Neill says, was that writing was "a solitary activity." It felt wrong; he leaned instead toward the model at Ohio Wesleyan — a large, open area with communal tables. "I thought that looked quite attractive," he says.

At almost the same moment, Hamilton faculty members and administrators were beginning to think about a related issue: What part might personal computers play in writing and learning? And one of the first lessons of the digital era quickly turned the conventional wisdom about writing on its head and confirmed O'Neill's emerging belief: Writing was no longer a solitary business, carried out by lone students hunched over typewriters. Writing was a social act, a kind of focused conversation in which people learned and improved by bouncing ideas, responses and skills around like basketballs on a playground. And a social act needed a social space — open, accessible, near the action.

"The advice I give my clients is what I learned and shared every day in the Writing Center: A good idea is worthy of the time and effort required to communicate it effectively."
Sean Ryan ’97

"From my Hamilton professors I learned the utility and mechanics of persuasive writing. Sharon and my Writing Center colleagues exposed me to the joys of writing by enabling me to frequently discuss ‘writing’ as expression of ‘self’ or ideas."
Desmond Bailey ’94

"Being connected to the Writing Center is great. Sharon and Dori and the rest of the tutors understand a good pun and appreciate the use of well-placed semicolon, which sounds dorky, but it’s true."
Laura Hartz ’07

"Hamilton’s writing-intensive curriculum and my experience in the Writing Center have been invaluable to me in my professional career. Although I arrived at Hamilton with a general understanding of how to formulate an analytical argument, I truly learned how to write at Hamilton..."
Bethany Baker Booth ’98

"I still use many of the techniques I developed as a writing tutor at Hamilton as a foundation for how I teach writing in my classroom."
Karin Gosselink ’94

"As an attorney, being able to write persuasively and to present effective oral arguments are essential tools. I can honestly say that I apply the skills I learned as a writing tutor literally on a daily basis..."
Kajal Chattopadhyay ’93

"Each Writing Center conference offers a new set of challenges and difficulties. During one hour I might be reading a 300-level biochemistry lab -- a subject I know almost nothing about -- and the next hour I might be reading a 100-level comparative literature paper by an international student who learned English as a fourth or fifth language."
Joe Jansen ’07

"Once we began to think about the role computers would play in the Writing Center, we realized that we wanted students to be able to turn to the person next to them and say, 'How do you do this?'" O'Neill says. Similarly, it wouldn't do to have the place tucked away in a corner of campus like a slightly seedy clinic. That's what he had discovered during many of his campus visits: "A lot of times, the writing centers were hard to find because the schools were kind of embarrassed about even having one."

But O'Neill concedes that he "first felt more comfortable with the notion of professional tutors rather than peer tutors." Hired guns were then in vogue, and a number of composition scholars and writing center administrators told him that they were the way to go. "I felt that the 'wrangling' of student tutors — the training, the scheduling and so forth — seemed like a huge burden," he recalls. O'Neill wasn't alone. "It was a big transition," Professor of History Esther Kanipe says. "There were some faculty who questioned whether this was something students could do. I suspect there still may be a few."

However, necessity soon became a virtue. In 1985, as O'Neill, Kanipe and the rest of a writing committee appointed by the Committee on Academic Policy and chaired by Professor of Music G. Roberts Kolb struggled to give shape to a Writing Center proposal, it became clear that the budget would not support a platoon of professional tutors. "It was never an acrimonious committee," Kanipe says. "We were all committed to improving writing instruction, and it's personally important to me as a historian. But we also had a realistic sense of the resources available at a small liberal arts college like Hamilton."

The College's Writing Center would have to defy the conventional wisdom. Students would mentor students. The center would succeed — or fail — with peer tutors.

Honoring two innovators

Spring 2007"One misconception about the Writing Center," says Joe Jansen '07, in his sixth semester as a tutor, "is that some students might think the tutors know everything there is to know about writing. At least for me, nothing could be further from the truth, and I think the same goes for most of the people at the Writing Center -- including Sharon. For me, writing, and learning about writing, is a continual process that will never end."

He's right; it does go for Sharon. "How does one learn to be a writer?" Williams asks. "It's a complicated, never-ending process. We help students strengthen specific pieces of writing. And in the process, we teach them strategies that they can continue to use." Trained as an English teacher, Williams arrived on the Hill just in time to be enlisted as assistant director of the Writing Center. The doors opened on Feb. 3, 1987, and the space was dedicated as the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center on March 6. Williams and O'Neill spent that first semester doing double duty, handling most of the tutoring themselves while training the first group of 11 tutors from the Class of 1988.

Douglas Hsiao '88, now corporate counsel for Qwest Communications in Denver, was one of them. He discerned a trend that has since become a defining mark of the Writing Center: It's not repair work; it's about getting better. "What I found surprising was that the people who frequently sought help at the Writing Center were not necessarily weak writers who needed remedial work, but were among the strongest writers looking to improve," Hsiao says. He recalls having to "tutor" a senior who had already won a college-wide essay competition. The usual warnings about passive voice and comma splices went out the window; instead, he devoted the conference to offering "fresh eyes" on her argument and how it was organized. "It was a revelation to have a place in college where you could receive that kind of independent peer review of your work," he says.

But if the fundamental principles of student tutoring and writing as a process of revision and improvement seemed novel in the academic climate of the '80s, they also evolved in part from a rich tradition in the teaching of composition at Hamilton itself -- a legacy of the two Hamilton figures for whom the Writing Center is named, George Lyman Nesbitt and Thomas McNaughton Johnston. Nesbitt was Hamilton's valedictorian in 1924 and returned to teach English in 1930, chairing the department from 1952 until 1968 and retiring as Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English in 1973. Johnston taught from 1934 until 1972, retiring as Marjorie and Robert W. McEwen Professor of English.

In a neat bit of historical continuity, John O'Neill arrived in 1972 to replace Johnston, and he found in the teaching legacy of the two senior professors a prescient approach to writing. Nesbitt had, decades earlier, arranged for students to exchange papers and get together in small groups to provide feedback to one another about their writing. And the professors had encouraged their students to turn in multiple drafts of papers, continually revising their work.

"They didn't have the jargon -- it didn't exist yet -- but they understood about writing being a process very early on," O'Neill says. "It caught on elsewhere in the 1980s, after Tom and George were dead. I don't want to claim that they and Hamilton originated it, but it was certainly used very early here -- as far back as the 1930s." In dedicating the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center in their memory, Hamilton was not only honoring two remarkable professors but also adapting their progressive vision of writing instruction to new needs and technologies.

Student tutors, front and center

Counting current student tutors through the Class of '09, there have been 265 of them, and in a world where "the best and the brightest" has become an academic cliché, it's difficult to dig up a substitute phrase that does full justice to their accomplishments and promise. Since 1999, 65 percent of graduating tutors have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and 92 percent have received College Honors -- cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude. In 2005-06, the 25 tutors won 29 major awards and honors, including a Fulbright Grant.

"This is a coveted job, a very prestigious position on campus," Williams says. "Tutors have to have strong writing skills, of course, but they also have to be able to analyze and talk about someone else's writing. And thirdly, they have to have an interpersonal style that's going to work."

Karin Gosselink '94, a two-year tutor who is now a lecturer in writing at Yale after earning a Ph.D. in English at Rutgers last summer, says those interpersonal skills are honed through the "collaborative techniques" that the Writing Center teaches and encourages, techniques that she now draws on in the workplace: "asking questions, drawing up a list of options or goals, discussing how my staff could contribute to those goals. I think it's this kind of collaboration that I learned in the Writing Center that has helped me the most professionally."

About 25 students now serve as tutors in an average semester. The range in 2005-06 was typical: 13 seniors, seven juniors and five sophomores from 17 departments and concentrations. Nominated by professors and selected and trained by Williams, the group was drawn not only from the obvious disciplines -- creative writing, English, government, history -- but also from biology, chemistry, mathematics, Asian studies and Hispanic studies, among others. That multidisciplinary approach reflects the center's role in Hamilton's commitment to writing-intensive instruction across the curriculum, a facet of the modern College's mission that was codified by many of the same faculty members who conceived the Writing Center more than two decades ago.

"I think that writing across the curriculum is crucial," says one of them, Nancy Rabinowitz, the Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Comparative Literature. "It gives students the correct impression that writing is important as a tool for conveying their ideas, regardless of the setting."

"We started with the philosophy that every student benefits from attention to writing," says Professor of Biology Ernest Williams, who also served on the original writing committee and the concurrent Committee on Academic Policy. Ernest Williams had arrived at Hamilton shortly before the committee began its work, already sold on the importance of writing in the sciences. He had attended a 1981 workshop led by Elaine Maimon, then a pioneer in the writing-across-the-curriculum movement and now chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage. "She said something in that workshop that really struck me," he recalls. "She said she was tired of being the first person ever to read a student's paper. It really rang a bell." He realized that not only were his students missing out on their classmates' insights; they often weren't even reading their own papers after writing them.

"So I started incorporating peer review of papers in my own classes, getting people to revise, to emphasize clarity of expression and organization," he says. "The value of what one does in science is greatly diminished if the results cannot be clearly communicated. Clear communication is as important in science as it is in every other discipline."

John Doench '00 agrees. After graduation, the three-year tutor earned a Ph.D. in biology at MIT and now does postdoctoral research on cancer at Harvard as the recipient of a recent grant from the Jane Coffin Childs Foundation. "My writing skills have been tremendously instrumental in whatever success I've had as a scientist," he says. "While doing interesting and fruitful experiments is obviously necessary, being able to write about what you've done and get it published, and likewise to write about what you're going to do and get it funded, is a crucial ability for a successful career in science."

'A profound influence'

Professor of Music G. Roberts Kolb, who chaired the committee under which the Writing Center took shape 22 years ago, is convinced that there is a dimension to peer tutoring that cannot be captured elsewhere. "There's something intangible but essential to having another student talk to him or her about a paper, and not just a professor," he says. "It's a different kind of learning. It causes the student to come at writing from a different perspective."

But while writing tutorials pay dramatic dividends for students, the rewards are not always immediately clear to reluctant professors. On campuses where writing centers languish unused, John O'Neill has noticed, writing classes tend to be old-school composition courses that are locked into English programs; faculty in other departments have little incentive to require students to write or revise. One key to the success of the Writing Center, O'Neill and others believe, is its integration into Hamilton's writing-intensive curriculum. There's nothing magical about it; professors simply have been made stakeholders in the process.

"A colleague teaching a writing-intensive course needs students to take a paper through two or more drafts," O'Neill says. "And either she's going to have to read every draft of that paper, or she can send the students to the Writing Center for a first-draft conference with a peer tutor. After the conference, the students submit the revised paper to her. For faculty who use the Writing Center that way, it lessens the burden considerably. And our experience suggests it improves the outcome."

Kolb, who now relies on the center to help his students through the writing assignments for his From Words to Song proseminar, has long been an advocate. "I don't take any great pleasure in being the first person to see a draft of a paper," he says. "And requiring a writing conference also ensures that the paper will have been through at least two drafts before I see it. So it's a great timesaver for me."

Sharon Williams says that while that kind of faculty support is critical, the center's most important constituents are students themselves -- both tutors and their clients. "We've been able to sustain a high level of student enthusiasm and involvement over 20 years, even though any individual student will be here only four years," she says. "And it's far more important that the students think the process works than that faculty members think it works. If students come in here and have bad experiences, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."

To many former tutors, working at the Writing Center has in some ways been its own reward, a means of honing their own writing and interpersonal skills in ways that shape them long after graduation. Sean Ryan '97 calls his experience as a tutor "a profound influence on my life and career." Ryan is principal at MarketBridge, a sales and marketing consulting firm in Bethesda, Md. In helping major companies develop strategies and messages, "my current role mirrors my experiences at the center; in fact, sometimes I feel as if I've become a professional writing tutor."

And in a field where the challenges can be daunting -- "Most business writing is appallingly bad," Ryan says -- he finds himself drawing on the whole of his College experience. "During my years in the working world," he says, "I have come to regard Hamilton itself as a 'writing center.'"

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
Back to Top