The Process of Teaching (and Learning) Writing
At first, it felt awkward, maybe even unreasonable, like being asked to wear shoes on the wrong feet or eat yogurt with a butter knife. Why do it that way?
During the spring semester, Visiting Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Adil Mawani assigned students in his Asian Film and Religion course a weekly, in-class, 10-minute writing assignment — without use of a laptop or tablet. Out came paper, pencils, and pens from the recesses of backpacks. As students bent to Mawani’s open-ended prompt, the classroom grew so still that the motion-activated lights shut off.
In his own writing, Mawani sometimes turns off the computer to jot things on paper. “I found it organizes my thoughts, but I think it also can generate original ideas or original solutions,” he says. He’s not certain students view writing in that way, and he devised the technology-free exercise to spark an understanding. Initially, students were resistant, but after a few weeks, they reported that they’d grown more comfortable writing without a screen.
Dechen Cohen ’26 found it refreshing to set technology temporarily aside. Without the distraction of laptops or tablets, it was easier for her to focus on the task. She says timed writing was a good way to get students back into the course material for a long class (three hours) that meets only once a week.
“I would say that the structure of his writing exercises actually produces not just better points, but more writing, lengthwise. I feel like I get a lot more done in those 10 minutes than maybe I would in 30 on my laptop,” Cohen says.
The quill atop the Chapel is no idle boast. From its beginnings, Hamilton has revered its commitment to writing, and Mawani is among its professors, across disciplines, who continually seeks ways to help students develop into accomplished communicators. Professors share ideas with one another, evaluate and reevaluate their own success, and, increasingly, seek advice from Writing Center Director Jennifer Ambrose. “We often have alums come back and tell us that the thing that essentially got them their job was people knowing Hamilton’s writing program and from that extrapolating that the students are communicators,” she says.
According to Ambrose, 95% of students use the Writing Center at some point during their time at Hamilton, and tutors conduct well over 3,000 conferences a year, which she finds an amazing number given the College’s overall student enrollment of about 2,000.
“I’ve never seen another institution where the Writing Center is so well integrated into how writing is practiced, and one of the things that I find significant about Hamilton is that the majority of our conferences are voluntary,” Ambrose says. “While we support about 50 required conferences each semester, more students are choosing to come in on their own.”
Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center
95% of students use the Writing Center at some point during their time at Hamilton, and tutors conduct well over 3,000 conferences a year.
The no-tech writing assignment is just one of Mawani’s strategies. He turned to Ambrose for her expertise about how best to teach writing in classes made up of students with divergent academic interests, from Asian studies to biology. Ambrose has visited his classroom to lead sessions about writing. “When she taught the workshop the first time, it didn’t feel like she was doing a long lecture; she was basically drawing the ideas from the students,” he says. Ambrose offered great practical insights as well. For instance, Mawani and Ambrose presented students with essay structures and had them evaluate their effectiveness and decide how to make improvements.
Ambrose came to Hamilton in 2016. It was a time when many veteran faculty members were retiring, and many of the newer professors began to seek her guidance about teaching writing. Her approach is to encourage students to examine their rhetorical situation: What is the purpose of their writing? What are they trying to convey or argue? Who are they writing for? How do those things dictate the style, organization, and other elements of their writing? Students, guided by professors, need to consider all these things.
“I think it’s really important that we develop students’ abilities to use their own voices to speak clearly and to advocate for things in which they believe. And so teaching writing by saying, ‘Here’s how you do this,’ and ‘There’s only one way to do that,’ doesn’t represent the plurality of students and voices,” Ambrose explains.
“You should have gone to Hamilton. You would have learned to write.”
We often hear stories about how the writing skills alumni developed on College Hill set them apart in graduate school or in their professions. Here’s one such story that has gone down in Hamilton lore …
The setting is a large hall at Georgetown University Law Center. A second-year student, and Hamilton alumna, sits among a class of law students nervously awaiting the return of their first paper of the semester. The professor is Samuel Dash, former special counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee during the Nixon era.
Dash stands at the front of the room, randomly calling numbers assigned to each student. “Number 27?” Student 27 raises his hand, the professor hands over the paper asking, “Where did you go to college?” The student replies, and Dash moves on. This continues with each student receiving a paper and answering, “Harvard, Penn, Princeton …”
Finally, when all but one paper is distributed, Dash calls out, “Number 18?” The Hamilton alumna raises her hand. “Where did you go to college?” “Hamilton,” she replies. “Okay, the rest of you,” Dash announces, “you should have gone to Hamilton. You would have learned to write.”
But there’s more …
As the story was passed down over the past 25+ years, the name of the student somehow didn’t pass with it. But thanks to some recent sleuthing courtesy of the College’s Information Services staff, we tracked down the Hamilton/Georgetown Law writer extraordinaire. It is none other than Sarah Kanwit Morehead ’95, now the career law clerk to a federal judge in the Western District of Washington, where she conducts legal research and analysis, draft orders, and assists the judge in courtroom proceedings.
“The job requires extensive writing every day,” she says. “I am grateful to Hamilton for its strong writing curriculum that definitely helped me hone my communications skills. Strong, clear writing is important in so many professions.”
To keep her writing advice in context for students, Associate Professor of History Celeste Day Moore tells them that she’s just one step in their writing journey. For students in her 100-level, writing-intensive courses, the journey includes a one-on-one discussion about their first paper. That meeting takes place before she gives the paper a final grade, and she tells the student the grade she would assign to the draft.
“One of the first questions I ask them in those meetings is, ‘Tell me about what people have said to you about your writing, what you’ve been told, and how you feel about it. What do you like about how you write?’” Day Moore says. She finds that it’s helpful to get that on the table before they figure out the next steps, and she makes sure students understand their next steps before they leave her office.
Having taken five courses with Day Moore, Cam Blair ’21 met with her more times than he can remember, and they talked about writing in a way he hadn’t experienced before. Day Moore was “idea-focused,” he says, encouraging him to examine precisely what ideas he was trying to get across. He learned that before investing time in firming up his topic sentences and paragraphs, he needed a solid concept.
“That’s when I really started planning so much before I started writing. Because before these types of meetings, I had a tendency to write and develop my ideas in the course of writing,” he says.
A history major, Blair finished up his writing-intensive requirements by the end of his first year. That’s also when he took a job as a Writing Center peer tutor, a position he kept throughout his time at Hamilton. Day Moore was with him for the duration, too, including for his senior thesis.
At Hamilton the words “senior thesis” have weight, even for first-year students who’ve heard what lies ahead. The thesis, an academic capstone that can both intimidate and inspire, typically is the longest paper a student has undertaken. The project requires extensive research and data gathering, the creation of a literature review, and, of course, the final argument.
“When I turned in the first draft,” recalls Blair, “I thought it was really good. And then, when I turned in the final draft, I thought my first draft was awful. And that process was so rewarding when it was done. But, of course, when you’re doing it, it’s so awful.”
Day Moore shares the thrill when a student’s thesis labor pays off — the research, revisions, and testing of multiple arguments it takes to address a complex historical problem. Success, she says, is an answer that’s clear but not overly simplified.
“That’s the challenge. They try different strategies, and they’re kind of working around it. And there is some sort of magic that frequently happens, probably in the eleventh hour, late at night. All of that work and revision crystallizes,” she says. “It really is amazing. I love that moment, in a thesis, or in another paper. It’s really joyful to be reading something and be able to say to someone in the comments, or in person, ‘You did it. You nailed it. You found what you were trying to say.’”
The scope of the project compounds the student anxiety about their thesis, says Professor of Sociology Stephen Ellingson. For several years, he’s asked Ambrose to do workshops with his thesis students to re-enforce his work with them. “So much of writing is actually thinking. And I think one of the great things that Jennifer does is help them realize that. You’ve got to be able to get your ideas clear in your mind in order to get them clear on the piece of paper,” Ellingson says.
Ambrose is excellent at helping students think through the strategies they need for long writing, Ellingson says, and students tune in. After her initial classroom workshop and after students pick a thesis topic, Ambrose returns to discuss the literature review. Further along in the process, students may meet with her to go over their drafts.
Pavitra Sundar, associate professor of literature and director of cinema and media studies, helps students develop thesis muscles in her 300-level literature “methods” courses. In the courses, she says, students learn to craft a long argument. Working with Ambrose, Sundar designed “scaffolded” assignments, which are linked assignments that break writing into smaller bites.
“That has been really helpful. They turn in a prospectus. They meet with me about it, they get to revise that prospectus. Then they do an annotated bibliography,” she says. Sundar talks to students about doing research that goes beyond Wikipedia or Google Scholar. Sometimes, she has students present on their arguments, which helps them crystallize what they want to say.
Most importantly, Sundar wants students to understand that writing is a process, rather than a skill to master.
“I think of writing as a way — one way, perhaps not the only way, but one way — to sharpen their thinking,” she says. “I do a lot of discussion work in my classes, and I invite students to be really free-flowing in how they participate in class. So there, I want students to just try out ideas. But when it comes to their writing, at least with the papers they turn in, I want them to have used those initial ideas as a starting point, but then really refine their arguments. It’s not just about making an argument; it’s about figuring out what your argument is and making a better argument through writing.”?
While the Writing Center has always supported students and faculty at the 100- and 200-level courses, Ambrose sees room for growth in working with senior thesis writers and other writing at the upper-class levels. She works with some math and science professors, and wants to do more of that.
“One of the things that’s great about Hamilton is we do truly have a writing-across-the-curriculum program. And we do have a number of hard-science classes that are writing intensive. We have math classes that are WIs, and I’ve worked with those faculty before to actually require writing conferences for things like proof writing, and linear algebra, which is fun,” she says. “I came to Hamilton from an engineering college and in a technical and scientific writing center at an engineering college. One of my administrative goals for the center is to continue our outreach especially to hard sciences faculty, because that’s my own area of expertise and also my love in terms of writing.”
Her longer-term vision is to work with professors on their own projects, which she says would trickle down to how they teach their students. “I’ve done that on an ad hoc basis over the years, and I’ve also been involved in some faculty writing groups and helping to support some faculty writing groups, and I think there’s a lot of potential growth there,” Ambrose says.
Writing Center Tutoring: It’s About Building Rapport and Trusting the Process
by Kelvin Nuñez ’24
After my final conference on a frosty February evening, I slid my classic W.B. Mason notepad back into the cabinet and grooved my way to the back table. As I sat down, fellow Writing Center tutor Max Gersch ’23 turned to me with a raised eyebrow and a smile.
“You always seem to have so much fun during your sessions. What do you guys talk about?” he asked.
Initially, my thoughts stalled as in, “Well, the usual … it’s writing.” But then I realized it was more than that. The icebreakers, jokes, and rapport with my peers are built on something genuine and go beyond just helping them improve their writing. Max’s observation made me reflect on how my time as a writing tutor changed me and my perceptions of the effort we put into communicating with each other.
I came into my junior year at Hamilton a bit nervous and feeling alone. My social networks were limited, so I set a goal of meeting more people. I see myself as goofy and caring, but I often default to shyness and hesitation when presented with new interactions on campus.
The Writing Center allows me to connect with other students and get to know them while also leaving an impact. The opportunity to make a difference at this one-on-one, highly personal level reminds me that my efforts to share writing knowledge contribute to a larger purpose beyond myself. Yet, at the same time, I have taken steps to improve my own technical writing and interpersonal skills. The Writing Center has made me a much stronger communicator and listener.
The first in-person conference I participated in was as a shadow tutor in training. As I sat in one of Sophie Rubenfeld’s ’23 first meetings of the fall semester, I could not help but be impressed by how she navigated, communicated, and taught throughout the session. The first-year student was receptive to her enthusiasm and appreciated her guidance. I appreciated watching how she empowered the student to drive the conference.
Sophie stoked the sparks of his intellect and encouraged him to trust his intuition. This conference broke down the tutoring process for me in a nutshell — a student-driven process where the exchange of ideas is honest and balanced. Ideas turned into body paragraphs, body paragraphs into topic sentences (the Answer-Cite-Explain paragraph structuring method Sophie introduced blew my mind!), and all that work helped the student refine his thesis for the direction the paper would become.
As tutors, we are privileged to help writers on the sentence-level with general advice on how to structure, analyze, and incorporate key ideas in their writing process. Ultimately we work to develop students’ confidence in their ability to communicate effectively. When students come in bashing their own writing, it does not communicate weakness to me but a desire to improve. Writers need to trust themselves to be in a mindset that embraces mistakes. The first attempt, the first draft, rarely resembles the best version of their thoughts. From the beginning of the conference, I strive to set a positive and helpful space. I smile and often find myself sharpening my wit and jokes, or so I hope.
Some of my favorite ice breakers come from the topics of the papers that pile in. Since we have required conferences for specific courses, I have absorbed so much knowledge about Plato’s Republic and Russian history that I cannot help but smile when I meet another person tackling those topics.
My experience as a writing tutor has dramatically shifted my perspective on the writing process. I no longer think of writing as an isolating activity but as one requiring an engaged, positive mindset of communication. As a tutor, I sharpen and learn new skills as a writer and connector as I try to improve everyone’s experience with the writing process.
The Writing Center has taught me to truly love the effort we put into communicating with one another, and I hope we can all be a little kinder to ourselves and feel free to laugh throughout the writing process.