Writing Fellows have the right stuff

November 03, 2009

With a warm sun filtering into the Library Commons on a recent fall day, Writing Fellow Molly Barker pored over Richard Esposito’s paper for Psychology class as he somewhat anxiously awaited her assessment of it.

“I’m stepping into the gauntlet,” he quipped.

“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Barker, a junior Psychology major, playfully shot back, as she continued reading the draft. Esposito’s assignment was to write a paper intended for a public, or general, audience using recent research articles from a trade journal.

After reading the paper, Barker assured Esposito, also a junior Psychology major, that he had done well at including relevant statistics, a solid introduction and a good title.

Then she encouraged him to strengthen the paper’s “take-home message” by adding anecdotes, including fewer statistical references, and liven up the language to more effectively drive home his points.

“Add a personal twist,” she advised. “You want it to be less like you’re just reading statistics.”

As a Writing Fellow, Barker is playing a key role in the Junior Writing Experience, a required component of the College’s curriculum, known as the McDaniel Plan.

The McDaniel Plan – which applies to all students who began their studies as freshmen in the fall 2007 or later – also includes the First Year Seminar and the Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies program.

Through the Junior Writing Experience, each academic department or major program offers courses or employs strategies that help students master writing skills that are relevant to their majors. Sometimes the writing emphasis is delivered in a specific upper-level “writing in the discipline” course, and sometimes it is extended throughout the courses required for the major.

“From low-stakes writing to staged writing assignments to formal papers, the discipline-specific writing-intensive classes allow students ample opportunity to engage with course content through writing,” said Suzanne Seibert, director of college writing. “Writing about the subject they are studying translates into increased understanding of it.”

Knowing that most successful writing-across-the-curriculum and writing-in-the-disciplines programs at institutions nationwide boast specialized peer-tutoring programs, Seibert envisioned a Writing Fellows program to underpin the McDaniel Plan’s writing-in-the-disciplines initiative. Not a small undertaking, she asked her English department colleague Julia Jasken to partner with her in designing and implementing the program.

With the stipend she and Jasken received as recipients of the Ira G. Zepp Teaching Enhancement Grant, they launched the Writing Fellows program to support faculty and help students with writing in their majors.

“We didn’t want professors to feel overburdened by the increased number of writing assignments in their courses, and we wanted students in the writing-intensive courses to have the kind of conversations and mentoring Fellows are trained to provide,” Seibert explained.

“Writing Fellows are a cadre of students trained to support professors and are selected by the professors they will assist. Yes, they are good writers and good students, but also they are personable people who professors know will connect well with their peers. Our first class of Writing Fellows attests to that,” she said.

With Writing Fellows’ assistance, professors can maintain their focus on course content and at the same time give students the support they might need to strengthen their writing skills.

Writing Fellows are specialists in the disciplinary discourse of their major and are connected to a specific faculty member and course. Typically, they work with students from a single class on a small number of assignments.

“Writing Fellows don’t simply fix grammar on papers,” Seibert said. “Writing Fellows may help students with grammatical issues and sentence clarity, but their primary focus is on higher-level issues such as thesis statements, awareness of audience, use of evidence, organization, and the extent to which the student’s writing demonstrates an understanding of course content. Fellows offer strategies and suggestions that students can use in their writing and revision process.”

Among the duties that Writing Fellows assume are: meeting with students to help clarify research ideas or hammer out thesis statements, conducting workshops on writing-related aspects of class, commenting on low-stakes assignments that do not require grading, and collaborating with professors on commenting on high-stakes assignments. Writing Fellows are primarily mentors and do not grade papers.

Writing Fellows, who may work no more than 45 hours a semester, earn two credits for each semester they work with a faculty member. They receive training, which includes a summer workshop and a semester-long practicum, and attend periodic meetings with Seibert or Jasken.

Barker said being a Writing Fellow has been a “validating” experience for her.

“I find myself feeling much more comfortable commenting on papers as the semester progresses and feeling satisfied and proud when I see the impact I have with students,” she said.

It has also given her food for thought when it comes to her own career path.

“Being a Writing Fellow has caused me to think that teaching may be in the cards for me,” she said. “Even though it is a lot of work, I find myself enjoying it. This experience has bolstered my feelings of confidence about myself as a writer, teacher and peer."