Writing Centers: Not Just Looking Down, by Dr. Kristin Murray

Student enters busily.
Fix my mistakes, the student demands.
Tutor answers robotically: YES
Student hangs out.

Although exaggerated, scenarios like this one get to the core of the misunderstandings about the tutorial instruction happening in Writing Centers of today.  Writing Center were professionalized in the 1970s, but before that Centers in the United States were linked to the politics of the day. The immigrants of the 1930s, the officers and veterans of WWII in the 1940s and 1950s using the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the eventual open-admissions policies of the 1970s all contributed to Centers as places for remedial work.  This necessary work led to the idea that Centers were fix-it shops, and fix-it shops they were. Many Centers existed to help students become ready for college writing by helping them with very basic writing skills. The concept was that if students see the tutor fix the writing, they will be better able to fix their own writing in the future. While there is some truth to this, students have to be invested in what is happening during a session.  Mostly Writing Centers found tutors looking down at pieces of writing alongside mute students who were unsure of their role in the process.   

Writing Centers, however, were not conceived as fix-it centers.  The seed of the Writing Center probably began with Plato’s discussion method and later what was called literate societies in the 18th century, which emphasized students’ character and encouraged debate and discussion.  Collaboration has always been the theory behind Centers and making a better writer, not a better piece of writing, has always been the goal, even during the fix-it years.  

In addition to the bold students wanting a quick fix, there have always been nervous students, afraid to show their writing to anyone, let alone an expert in a place called a Writing Center. Today, tutors use the transfer theory to explain what they do in a session, and it is same as what they have always tried to do.  Tutors take some of the focus off of a particular assignment to focus on the student as a writer, in general. In the case of grammar, tutors look down at the first part of a piece of writing to point out any grammatical errors. Then tutors have a conversation about the patterns of grammatical errors they are seeing in a student’s work.  The idea is that the grammar instruction in a Writing Center will transfer far beyond just the particular assignment. Students will leave with the knowledge that will improve the grammar on their next piece.   

Thus, Writing Centers of today are places of conversation.  Tutors look at students and listen to their concerns. Tutors offers suggestions and asks questions.  The conversation continues in a student-centered way. Tutors often do not look down at students’ papers during a session, but at students, offering them a better understanding of an assignment and/or how to make and/or develop their point.  Specifically, tutors use their facial expressions to show understanding or confusion. Tutors also rephrase what they read. Students respond to tutors facial expressions; they answer questions, and they ask questions. They even make suggestions about their own writing. This method works for creative writing as well; if a tutor doesn’t laugh or sigh in the right places, writers are cued to revise.  

A piece of writing that has had no practice reader is a scary gamble.  Writing Centers offer up on a silver platter a reader that can talk back.  Readers in the Writing Center, however, are the best kind, as they are knowledgeable, tolerant, and nonjudgmental.  In the grade-centered world of the university, the Writing Center is a valuable, safe avenue for writers to make sure that their message translates correctly in the readers’ mind.  Our words, written or oral, let us be understood, and as humans, this is vital to our success and happiness.   

Dr. Murray came to the vibrant city of Dubai in August 2016 as an Assistant Professor English. Before joining AUD, she spent ten years at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois where she developed and taught the first online composition course. Dr. Murray was also an Assistant Professor English at the University of the Virgin Islands where she opened the University’s first Writing Center and organized a Humanities Festival for Caribbean Literature. 
In 2018, Dr. Murray was appointed Coordinator of the Writing Center. She teaches courses in Composition and Literature. Her areas of interest are writing center theory, Native American Literature, the essay, and reading theory. She is also a member of the Reading Across Campus Committee.
Dr. Murray’s dissertation title is: Reinventing the Self: Native American Women’s Autobiographies. Dr. Murray has presented at numerous conferences, including CCCC’s, the 2018 Symposium on “Student Writing: Innovations & Transformations” in Al Ain, and the University of Malta’s “The Essay: Present Histories, Present Future.”     
In her free time she enjoys traveling and spending time with her two children and husband.

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