Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 6, 1995

Hopkins Opens Its First Writing Center
Making the 'Write' Decisions

Steve Libowitz

     Daniyal Zuberi has perhaps the most important writing
assignment staring him in the face on a drizzly, foggy Wednesday
night. But the usually sure-handed political science major isn't
struggling with a term paper on political theory or American
constitutional law. Those he can do pretty well. What he's
wrestling with tonight is a draft of his personal statement for
his law school admissions package. Suddenly, he finds himself not
writing for a grade but writing for his life. And the prospect
has him a little jammed up. 

     But rather than spend torturous hours trying to break
through writer's block, he heads over to Levering Hall. His
destination is not E-Level, where he could perhaps lose his
problem with a few cold ones amid the pulsating sounds of a
medical school rock band performing at open-mike night. Instead
he follows the directions drawn on a droopy, colorful sign,
pointing upstairs to something never before seen at Hopkins. 

     A writing center. 

     There, in the bright, computer-lined Little Theatre he will
spend about an hour with a trained writing consultant who will
help him help himself produce the essay he wants to write. 

     Writing centers are nothing new to American universities.
They date back to the 1950s when they were mostly places where
undergraduates got help with grammar and usage, running
mechanical drills until they mastered the rules. But Hopkins
never followed the national trend. The spark that ignited the
movement toward the eventual establishment of the center was a
1992 initiative by the schools of Arts and Sciences and
Engineering to require that their undergraduates take a certain
number of writing-intensive courses prior to graduation in an
effort to improve the quality of their writing.

     This year, more than 150 such courses are offered, but not
without some problems. For one, as Neil Hertz, co-chair of the
Committee on Undergraduate Writing, notes, the course offerings
are distributed among a wide range of departments. Many of those
faculty members and teaching assistants have little if any
training in correcting students' prose. 

     To partially cope with the problem, Hertz brought to campus
last year a Georgetown University professor who runs that
school's writing program to conduct a workshop for those teaching
writing-intensive courses. The turnout was good, he says, but the
project only partially resolved the problem.

     Last fall, Jason Yeung, then a senior in international
relations, and political science graduate student Lauren Sobel
began actively promoting the idea for a writing center. This past
March, Hertz and the committee urged the Provost's Office to fund
"a place where students can drop in when they're having
difficulties with a paper and receive help from a staff of tutors
made up of carefully selected graduate students and advanced
undergraduates." The committee thought the timing was right to
tap into the pool of young talent and energy Yeung and Sobel had

     In May, the provost funded both the faculty workshops and
the idea for the Writing Center. The committee then turned the
idea over to Steve Newman, a graduate student in the Department
of English who had put together a proposal for the center with
the help of Carol Burke, associate dean for academic affairs--and
a former writing center director at the Naval Academy--English
Department chairman Jerome Christensen and Linda Ziff, director
of the department's practical composition program. Dean of
Student Affairs Larry Benedict helped negotiate the Little
Theatre space for Sunday through Thursday nighttime use. And the
center hung out its shingle Oct. 15 to help students with any and
all sorts of writing.

     On the third Wednesday the center is open, all three
consultants on duty are engrossed in a consultation. Mathematics
major Stephen Hwang is helping junior Yong-Soo Kim with a film
analysis. Asjylyn Loder, a senior in the Writing Seminars, works
with Steve Ho Kwok, a freshman working on a piece of short
fiction. Newman is helping Daniyal Zuberi, the pre-law student
who also is one of the center's 11 consultants.        

     "I'm used to making an argument and supporting it with
relevant points," Zuberi says. "This kind of writing is about me.
It's very personal, and it's too important not to get help.
Besides, being counseled gives me a chance to see what I'm doing
well and how I can improve as a consultant."

     The consultants will always continue learning and improving,
Newman says. Recommended by faculty, the students--considered
exceptional writers as well as communicators--took a six-week,
one-credit, pass/fail course Newman offered at the beginning of
this semester to learn how to be a writing consultant. The
three-hour-a-week course required about 100 pages of readings
weekly, including the basics of grammar, style and argumentation,
background information on writing centers and lots of student
writing samples, which formed the basis for role playing,
consultant and student. 

     "We tried to get a sense of the kinds of issues that come up
in this relationship," Loder says. "The hardest thing for me is
going to be how to handle the student's paper whose position
really offends me. But we're not subject consultants. We're not
here to change a student's mind. We're just trying to help [the
student] become a better writer."

     "We won't hijack a student's paper," Newman adds.

     Newman spent much of the formal training time inculcating
the staff about the Writing Center's philosophy on how best to
accomplish that basic goal.

     The center's emphasis is not on line-by-line grammatical
corrections or editing but rather on improving a student's whole
approach to writing. 

     "We're not a fix-it shop," Newman says. "We should not be
viewed as a remedial center," which is why he insists on the term
consultant rather than tutor. "If you are at the end of your
tether, definitely come by, but we also are here for the B+
student who wants to get to the next level of proficiency."

     Students coming to the center typically work on one or two
items per session, such as organization, style, tense agreement
and so on. The student can decide what to work on or the
consultant will identify a problem area. Quite often, the session
will follow the guideline of teacher comments.

     "Our job is not to displace the teacher," Newman says. "And
we're not here to judge the appropriateness of faculty comments.
They are a valuable starting point in helping a student
understand where he or she might have a problem."

     Students are asked if the center can send a note to the
faculty member informing him or her that the student has sought
and received help with a writing assignment. Although past
experience suggests some students might worry that their teachers
will think less of them because they need help, Newman says, "I
have not spoken yet to a professor who is not pleased with [the

     Consultations last about 45 minutes, after which Newman--who
is always at the center when it is open--will quietly tap the
consultant's shoulder or motion to his watch, so the session can
wind down. Although imposing a time limit may conjure an image of
a visit to a psychiatrist rather than to a writing consultant,
Newman points to research that argues working much beyond that
overwhelms a student writer with ideas.

     "After their session, we want the student to think about the
couple of areas that were focused on and work on improving them,"
Newman says. They can return as many as three times with the same
paper, or they can bring a different one."

     Much of what is heard during a session is encouraging and
prompts the thought process. "That's a judgment call" ... "What
are you trying to say here? ... What do you mean by that?" ...
"Where do you want to go with this?"

     Loder says she is really enjoying the process, even at 10:30
at night, after a long day of classes and studying for midterms.
"I like writing, and I think the center is a valuable resource
because it can make writing less difficult for others who don't
like it as much."

     The student writers seem to like it too. Although open less
than a month, student evaluations--returned after each
consultation--are giving Newman a sense that he and his staff are
heading in the right direction. 

     "[The consultant] gave me suggestions but did not impose and
force me to say something I did not want ... I wish this was here
my freshman year," read one evaluation. "I have grown more aware
of what to look for in a literary piece when reading it," read

     The center makes no claims that it can improve a student's
grade. But that's not how Newman and the administration intend to
evaluate the center's performance. Student satisfaction is, and
will likely remain, the primary criterion for the center's

     "Our primary goal is to help raise students' awareness about
their writing and to help them think more and be more critical
about it," Newman says. "If we can do that, we'll have

     The Writing Center is located in the Little Theatre on the
second floor of Levering Hall on the Homewood campus. Students
can stop by, or make an appointment, for consultations from 7 to
10 p.m. Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays and 9 p.m. to midnight
Wednesdays and Thursdays. For more information, or to schedule an
appointment, call (410) 516-4258.

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