Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center Celebrates 25 Years

With a party going on behind her, Kayla Winters '13 works with a cupcake at hand, during a birthday celebration for the Writing Center.
With a party going on behind her, Kayla Winters '13 works with a cupcake at hand, during a birthday celebration for the Writing Center.

The year 2012 is certainly one for celebration. It marks not only the 200th anniversary of Hamilton College’s founding, but also the 25th anniversary of an institution that has become virtually synonymous with the College itself: the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center. Its presence on campus today embodies a value that College luminaries like former President Melancthon Woolsey Stryker (who once penned a three-page treatise on the value of concise writing using only one syllable words) held dear—the ability to write well and clearly.


Although Hamilton has always valued the written word, it was only in 1987 that this value became a central part of the curriculum. A committee of faculty members headed by Professor of Music G. Roberts Kolb was tasked with re-emphasizing the importance of writing in Hamilton’s curriculum. Up to that point, Hamilton, like many other institutions, had only required an English composition course to help new students refine their writing. After completing the course, thinking went, students would consistently write at a college level.


“Turns out there was a difference between theory and practice,” committee member and Edmund A. LeFevre Professor of English emeritus John H. O’Neill remembers. “After finishing the course, students would only write that way in English class.”


The committee created a new curriculum that would emphasize “writing across the disciplines”: every academic department would offer courses that stressed the importance of writing well, from Math to Music. A guiding principle of the new curriculum was that students would have ample opportunity to revise their papers. Professors could either have students edit their papers themselves or take them to the still-theoretical Writing Center.


“The Writing Center was founded on the idea that if students needed help, they could go get it,” O’Neill said.


In order to make that idea a reality, O’Neill visited dozens of college writing centers to find a model for Hamilton’s own Writing Center. He finally found an appropriate template at Ohio Wesleyan University, where peer tutors helped other students improve their writing. There was one aspect of many of the writing centers O’Neill visited, however, that he did not like:


“A lot of writing centers were in bad places. It was almost like [colleges] were embarrassed to have a writing center,” he said. “I felt the opposite. I wanted Hamilton to be proud of its Writing Center.”


No one is perhaps more proud of the Writing Center than Sharon Williams, the director of the Writing Center since the mid-’90s. Williams, who taught English at local colleges and high schools for 13 years before joining the Writing Center as assistant director in 1987, has since become one of its fiercest advocates.


“We make a substantial contribution to the student body,” Williams said. “[The Writing Center] is central to student’s writing practice.”


Williams is an absolutely vital component to the Writing Center. In addition to overseeing the daily operation of the center, she is also responsible for selecting and training the staff of 26 peer tutors. Although she remains largely behind the scenes, her accomplishments are far from secret.


“The Writing Center’s success is a tribute to Sharon,” O’Neill said.


William’s biggest fans, however, are the student tutors themselves. The feelings of Mckinley Brumback ’14 are typical: “Sharon is in our corner,” she said. “She fights for us—getting maximum pay, being flexible with hours. It’s a fantastic job.”


Jordyn Taylor ’12 echoes Brumback’s sentiments. “Sharon is like my mom!” she said. “She’s so supportive.”


Students must be nominated by professors in order to be considered for the job, which requires six hours of tutoring a week. The students arrive on campus before the start of each semester in order to be trained as tutors.


Training includes a rigorous run through English syntax, sentence structure, and phrasing. “We go to grammar camp,” Brumback said with a smile. After training, many of the new tutors encounter something completely unexpected: a strong sense of community among tutors. “I’ve met some of my best friends here,” Taylor said. “You slowly start living [in the Writing Center]. It’s like my home.”


Tutors assist students with papers in all academic disciplines, a quality which Williams believes allows tutors to remain objective evaluators who focus on the syntax and structure of an argument rather than the factual content of an essay. Brumback cites another appealing benefit of the generalist approach:


“I get to learn bits and pieces of subjects that I wouldn’t otherwise know,” she said. Specialization, Brumback insisted, would get “boring.”


The tutors themselves are a “great cross-section of Hamilton,” according to Williams. “Everyone who works here wants to be a helper.” And help they have.


In the past six years alone, Writing Center tutors have given an average of 2,700 conferences a year. In total, the Writing Center has given approximately 49,800 conferences in its two and a half decades on campus—a truly remarkable feat. Many students, such as Fiona Hoffman-Harland ’13, make a point to visit the Writing Center for almost every paper.


“For the first year of visits my tutors usually helped me reorganize and alter my topic to help my paper better answer the professor’s prompt,” she said. “Now, however, I primarily use the Writing Center to help me fine-tune my work.”


Hannah Fine ’15 has used the Writing Center “five or six times, easily. The tutors at the Writing Center do an extraordinary job. Without telling you exactly what to do or what to change, they give you a subtle push in the right direction.”


For first-year student Tori Fukumitsu, the writing-intensive curriculum and the Writing Center itself were important factors in his college decision.


“I was particularly drawn to Hamilton because of its focus on writing,” he said. “When I found out about the writing intensive aspect of the curriculum, I thought that it was a great way to provide a guiding structure.”


Faculty members find the center just as useful as their students do. Professor of History Kevin Grant requires all students in his 100-level history course to take their papers to the Writing Center. “I think the Writing Center plays a critical role in teaching students that good writing develops through drafts,” he said.


To commemorate its 25th anniversary, a birthday party has been planned for Tuesday, March 6, from noon to 2 p.m. in the Writing Center.  The party will serve as the official commemoration of the Writing Center’s founding a quarter century ago. Its longevity is a testament both to the strength of the Writing Center’s mission and to the vision of O’Neill and Williams.


When asked about the future of the Writing Center that he helped created, O’Neill laughs. “I can’t see the future that well,” he said. He believes, however, that the Writing Center will remain a salient part of Hamilton’s educational philosophy for a very simple reason:


“Writing,” he said, “is a life-long process.”

Read the Alumni Review article, Work in Progress, on the occasion of the Writing Center's 20th anniversary.


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