By Kathleen Kryger, Shelby Morris, and Nick Reich. Photos by Nik Layman and Shannon Robinson.
Tucked into Sterne Library is one of UAB’s best kept—and most powerful—secrets: the University Writing Center.
Staffed by Department of English faculty, including director Dr. Jaclyn Wells, and a slew of professional writing majors, the Writing Center last year offered more than 5,000 tutoring sessions to more than 1,700 students from across the entire campus, including those from the graduate and professional schools. From understanding an assignment for a freshman paper to tweaking a dissertation, the team at the Writing Center offers a vast array of support to all UAB students, ensuring their academic success along the way.
We asked three staff members: Kathleen Kryger, Shelby Morris and Nick Reich to talk about their work and what it’s like to provide so much support to so many students. What follows is their conversation.
Nick: I guess the best way to start a conversation about the University Writing Center would be to talk about what we do as tutors. What kinds of roles do you think we play?
Kathleen: I see my role as constantly changing—some days I feel like a coach helping students discover their individual writing processes or gather their ideas, while other days I feel like a translator enabling students to better understand their assignments. Either way, I try to make the student’s concerns my top priority—my responsibility is to help the students become better writers and self-editors, not necessarily to perfect one piece of writing. Students are often most anxious about their grammar, which is definitely an area where we can support growth, but that’s not all we do. So many students come in for brainstorming and outlining sessions! But being mindful of, and attentive to, students’ expressed goals is what I believe to be the most important part of my role.
Nick: Yeah, while there are definitely times I have to play the grammarian, obsessing over sentence structure and living up to all those notorious English major stereotypes, I prefer to act as more of a facilitator with students. Sometimes students really just need help steering all their knowledge, language skills, and ideas in the right direction. Sometimes, this includes understanding the expectations of specific kinds of writing assignments. I once met with a non-traditionally aged, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) student who wrote beautifully in English. He was working on a literacy narrative for a composition course, constructing this vivid poetic landscape with colorful, fascinating language. Unfortunately, the essay was not really working within the boundaries of the assignment. It became my job, then, to help him figure out how to address the prompt more directly – something he said was not a common approach in his native language – without losing his unique writing voice. That is the type of role I value most. We met several times more and he produced a really great essay.
Shelby: I totally agree that while we can certainly help students with the details like helping them to proofread or fix citations, we also spend a lot of time on the bigger picture stuff, like helping students make sure they are fulfilling the requirements of their assignments. I would add too that some of the most important and common feedback students need is being told that they are a good writer. A lot of people come in with no idea of how to start or what their assignment is asking of them. Many of my sessions consist of brainstorming paper ideas or directions to take papers in. I know I’ve done my job when a student leaves the center knowing what the assignment is asking of them and with a clear idea in their mind of what they want to write about. Also, we’re not here just to help them with a particular class, but to empower students with the ability to communicate through words. Writing reaches across all disciplines so it’s imperative that they hone these skills to be successful in their area or field.
Kathleen: Writing is definitely a transferable skill. Nick, you just mentioned a non-traditional student. Can you talk about the kinds of diverse students we typically assist at the University Writing Center?
Nick: It may sound like we’re throwing a wide net, but we are here to help any UAB student at any level in any field. Yes, we work with a great number of freshmen. We help them transition from high-school writing to college-level writing. But I have also had shifts of just a couple of hours when I have met with a junior or senior chemistry major working on lab reports, a graduate-level nursing student writing out practice clinicals, and a PhD candidate editing a dissertation in mechanical engineering. Many people don’t realize there is actually a strong emphasis on writing in the sciences, and what we know at the UWC is that writing can be challenging for everyone—not just students who are only beginning their academic careers. Whether you’re a doctoral student or first-year undergrad just getting started, turning profound ideas into coherent, approachable writing is easier said than done. We may not always understand the advanced discipline-specific concepts some students are working on, but we can always help sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph. How about you, Kathleen, have you worked with a lot of upper-level students?
Kathleen: I have! It’s always a pleasure. The graduate students who see us at the UWC are especially goal-oriented. I have worked with graduate students on papers for their coursework, but I have also helped with several scholarship, admissions, and conference applications. If these students want to work through multiple drafts of a high-stakes document like a personal statement, it can sometimes take three or four sessions. Graduate students often have a lot at stake—their personal goals are inextricably tied to their writing goals. When writers are deeply invested in their writing, paying attention to their expressed concerns is vital, but so is keeping an eye on other potential issues. Many of the graduate students I’ve worked with are also second-language writers. I love working with second-language writers because they have such rich global experiences and because they remind me that during every session, I can learn as much from students as they learn from me.
Shelby: I definitely think it’s best when a student can continue to work with the same tutor over the course of an assignment or project. It’s like having a conversation that can be picked up right where it left off. Do you two have a lot of regulars?
Kathleen: I do! And I agree—when we have “regulars,” it’s often easier to provide indications of their progress, which encourages the students so much. The fact is that students who visit the UWC multiple times a semester or even throughout their time at UAB often see that reflecting positively in their growth as writers. We also develop bonds with them that allow us to help them more effectively and efficiently. I see a lot of the same students, and they usually come for reassurance about specific assignment requirements. My goal is for them to leave our sessions feeling confident in their ability to, at the very least, complete their current writing task. I feel like it is important for students to visit often because regular one-on-one sessions are really productive learning environments; as tutors, we can personalize our sessions to focus on each student’s unique literacy needs. Don’t you guys think that’s the case?
Nick: I think so. I feel it’s especially important for students who still learning the language. UAB has a strong ESL population. Our campus is one of the most diverse in this area of the world. The writing center has become a rock for many of these students. They know we will always be there to help with writing problems big and small. I feel the best thing to do when meeting with a student whose first language isn’t English is to keep an open mind – their native language may work quite differently – and encourage return visits. American academic English is not a lingua franca. It’s difficult enough for native English speakers to navigate scholarly genres and especially so for someone who is still learning the language. This is why we go through training and hire specialists – so we can be there to help UAB’s considerably diverse population. Shelby, you’re part of our online tutoring team. I guess the whole point of that system is to cater to UAB students on a national scale – if that’s not too much to say?
Shelby: No, I don’t think that’s too much to say. UAB has many distance programs and online courses, and enrolled students are located all over the country. Online tutoring and E-tutoring allow us to help students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to make an appointment in our physical center in Sterne Library. With online tutoring, I can chat with students in real time, which can be helpful for understanding what they are trying to say; this type of session mimics the conversational nature of our in-person sessions. In E-tutoring, students simply upload a paper for me to comment on, which is another great option that allows me to leave clear and detailed feedback. Plus, because students can download the feedback I write at their convenience, E-tutoring is really convenient for our distance students who work fulltime in addition to going to school. In both kinds of distance tutoring sessions, I can link the student to other online resources, like the research and citation guides from UAB Libraries. I find that’s a really great way of not only helping them with their writing, but also reminding them of all the great resources UAB has to offer. I really love tutoring online because I get to see a range of students from every department, just like during our face-to-face sessions in Sterne; we get English, engineering, and a huge portion of nursing students. And just like with face-to-face sessions, we can help students from the brainstorming stage to the final edits during distance appointments.
Kathleen: Online and E-tutoring offer great opportunities for distance students to have someone else look at (and discuss) their work. I wonder how many students know about our online options—we do lots of classroom visits here on campus, but we can’t exactly do that for online courses. Shelby, how do you think we could spread the word?
Shelby: Since we can help with writing from any course, professors from all over campus can recommend our services to their students. Everyone needs feedback on their writing, and nearly every paper will improve with the kind of helpful feedback we provide. I can’t tell you how many students come in surprised that we’ll assist with an engineering essay or a personal statement. While we post signs around campus about us, and we did just get added to the UAB app, it’s during our class visits that we can address concerns students or teachers have regarding our services. The best way to get the word out that we’re here to help with any type of writing assignment is through faculty members. When faculty tell students about us and our services, I think it really helps encourage students to come in for help with their writing.
Kathleen: UAB faculty are instrumental in helping students reach out to us. Nick, since you started teaching in the fall, quite a few of your students have visited the writing center. You must be mentioning the UWC in your classroom all the time. Have you noticed a big difference in the writing of students who use our services?
Nick: Yes, I certainly do talk us up, endlessly. And the difference I see in the writing is extremely validating. Repetitive errors decrease and the students’ writing styles become cleaner and more precise. They address writing assignments more clearly and elaborate on their ideas with more detail and confidence. I’ve never had a student tell me visiting the writing center was not worth it. In fact, a majority of the students who go tell me their visits helped them conquer the anxiety they feel toward writing. Proficiency leads to confidence. We’re here to help students become proficient and confident writers, and we love what we do.