The Writing Center’s Power of Peer Connection
It’s nearing the end of the semester. Classes are hitting their peak, and Martin’s Way is bustling with busy students. In the middle of all the activity is the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center — a haven where students can pause to focus on improving their essays, reading responses, reports, and more.
Located near the entrance to Kirner-Johnson Building, the Writing Center is hard to miss. In addition to a computer lab often full of students working on their next draft, the center offers peer tutoring appointments most days from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Whether students are just starting to brainstorm an assignment or need help polishing a final draft, the resources and conferences put them on the path to improve their writing at every level and in every discipline, from creative writing to biology.
Writing Center Director Jennifer Ambrose is committed to continuing Hamilton’s long legacy of teaching students strong oral and written communication skills. “I was lucky to inherit a Writing Center that already had a strong community of tutors and a strong presence on campus,” said Ambrose, who came to Hamilton in 2016. “I’ve never been at an institution where so many students use the Writing Center or where so many faculty encourage that use.”
Perhaps more than any other space [on campus], this is where students ... can find others who will take them and their work seriously and dedicate an hour of their time to help them become better writers.
Ambrose’s goal is to build on the center’s range of services and strengthen its connection with both students and faculty. “I’ve expanded our tutor training so that it covers not only tutoring techniques and pedagogy, but an interrogation of how those techniques may include or alienate students along racial, socio-economic, cultural, and gender lines. Considering such issues makes us better at working with all students and helps us avoid replicating hierarchies that may impact how we can support various student populations,” she said.
Ambrose aims for a culture that is focused on the individual, but still immersed in collaboration. She asserts that the students and professors who utilize the resources of the Writing Center are just as important as the tutors who offer them.
“The most rewarding part of my role is definitely the opportunities it affords to work directly with students and faculty,” she said. “There’s a really positive environment here that encourages discussion and collaboration among all the people whose work intersects with writing pedagogy. That collaboration then helps me generate new ideas for how we can continue to strengthen how we teach.”
Ambrose’s new strategies are paying off. Use of the Writing Center has increased over the past four years. In 2018-19, the center held 2,825 conferences and served 1,471 unique users. On average, 90 percent of students in every graduating class use the Writing Center during their time at Hamilton.
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Associate Professor of Religious Studies Seth Schermerhorn makes it a habit to require Writing Center conferences in his classes. “Humans are social animals and writing is a social act,” he said. “Writing should not take place in solitude and isolation. Perhaps more than any other space [on campus], this is where students and faculty can find others who will take them and their work seriously and dedicate an hour of their time to help them become better writers.”
At the heart of the Writing Center’s program is a team of 27 student tutors who each spend six hours a week in one-on-one conferences with their peers. In order to be considered for the job, tutors must first be nominated by their professors and then undergo extensive training. While the tutors praise Ambrose for her mentorship, they don’t take their own work lightly.
“I think tutors embody Hamilton’s mission of being a collaborative place to learn,” said Bryce Fan ’20, one of the veteran peer tutors on staff. “I’ve gotten to work with students who have improved considerably, and it’s really rewarding to think I might have played a role in that development.”
We’re not there to rewrite a paper or to lecture the writer, but rather to empower them to take ownership of their ideas and communicate them effectively. It’s a big responsibility and a privilege to get to support someone through that — in the process, you learn something about yourself and your own writing.
Tutor Amanda Kim ’21 agrees. “Each conference is only an hour long, but within that hour, you really get to know the people you talk to,” she said. “Writing is a vulnerable thing. We’re not there to rewrite a paper or to lecture the writer, but rather to empower them to take ownership of their ideas and communicate them effectively. It’s a big responsibility and a privilege to get to support someone through that — in the process, you learn something about yourself and your own writing.”
Part of what sets the Hamilton’s Writing Center apart from those at other colleges and universities is this powerful peer-to-peer connection and the gains made one conference at a time. But Ambrose hopes this undercurrent of improving writing and communication will extend beyond the College experience. “We want all graduates to be able to write clearly in any context — career, personal, or academic — and to be able to use that ability to advocate for themselves, others, and the ideas and issues they support,” she said.