Students looking for peer feedback on their essays need look no further than the Writing Center (WC), a helpful place to visit before sealing the deal on a paper. The Center is a collaborative effort between writing center directors, tutors and writing program administrators.
While the WC has been around for years, some students are not aware of its available services.
Head of the Writing Center Matthew Schultz said, “The Writing Center is a space for writers to practice what they’ve learned in their classes, to speak through their own strategies for interpreting an assignment, generating ideas, outlining, drafting, and revising––and also for learning writing strategies employed by WC consultants.”
Peer Consultant Claire Miller ’24 enjoys helping fellow students at the WC. As a peer consultant, Miller helps fellow students produce strong writing through encouragement, revisions and the application of personal techniques. Students can schedule appointments online to discuss the planning process, a draft of an essay or to review their nearly finished paper. “From what I’ve seen on my end it seems like a lot of people come away from their sessions feeling more confident about their work, which makes me happy,” she said. Miller has found peer feedback to be helpful with her own writing: “It’s easy for me to look at something for so long that I can’t objectively see its strengths and weaknesses anymore.” Luckily, according to Miller, receiving feedback can help writers overcome this obstacle.
When students schedule their appointments for the Writing Center, they schedule an appointment with a specific peer tutor. When making their choice, students can see information about the interests and experiences of each tutor. Jasmine Zhang ’24, a frequent WC visitor, expressed that she wishes more relevant information about the tutors were present on the Writing Center’s webpage. She has found that the vague information on a tutor’s profile can make selecting a tutor with expertise in the area of one’s paper challenging. “The profiles themselves don’t say much—the tutors’ majors, first year writing seminar and their favorite quotes are the only [pieces of information] included,” she shared. She believes that it would be more helpful to include their writing skills or other courses they have taken.
In response, Schultz described that this is done intentionally, and that the tutors are prepared to offer general feedback, not discipline-specific feedback. He described his reasoning for this in terms of the decades-old generalist versus discipline-specialist debate over which type of tutor is best: “Scholars remain fairly divided … Even at larger universities, though, most Writing Centers are still staffed by English graduate students…[who] approach a piece from a rhetorical perspective from which any informational, persuasive, or analytic text would benefit.”
To students frustrated with this approach, Schultz suggests using the Center’s generalist aid in the context of feedback: “The great thing about Vassar’s Writing Center is that it is only one piece of a broader support system for student writers. Peer-to-peer feedback is not designed to be the one-stop, fix-all that a discipline-specialist model suggests it should be … This is actually really good news for writers because it doesn’t pretend that a single reader can help the writer produce a perfect text.” He encouraged students to also approach classmates and especially professors, noting that one of the WC’s central objectives is to help students ask their instructors the right questions.
Yuge Zhang ’21, a recent graduate, wished for the WC to incorporate inclusive language and racial-justice training as a part of the intake process for tutors during his years at Vassar. According to Yuge, a tutor assumed that he was an international student who wasn’t previously educated in America, and told him that his use of punctuation didn’t follow American standards. This was despite Yuge’s familiarity with American English, especially stemming from his experience with a course involving research on English writing. “The way the tutor responded made me feel like he knows I’m a foreigner and he treats me that way but that assumption isn’t necessarily right all the time,” Yuge recalled.
In response, Schultz wrote, “I’m really sorry about this. The last thing we want to do is make folks uncomfortable seeking feedback. There is a way to contextualize such feedback that we will work on in the future.”
Schultz added, “The Writing Center, as an academic office of the College, seeks to support the curriculum. And I think most courses assume that written work will follow American style guidelines (whether those established by MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.). There are certainly different (not better, not worse) grammatical systems available to writers.”
He continued, “Writing consultants will ask which style guidelines an assignment proposes and if the writer doesn’t know, we’ll suggest reaching out to the professor who assigned the work.”
However, some students have found the assistance from the WC to be very useful. Eriola Hajro ’24, who was a remote student last year, said, “It was very helpful. We shared screens on Zoom and the tutor walked me through my essay,” she recalled. She shared that the tutor gave her many valuable grammatical and organizational suggestions, and she felt comfortable talking to the tutor since they were both students. “Many people first go to the Writing Center because it is required by their professors, but the more you go there the more you’ll come to appreciate it,” she stated.
Miller also emphasized that one of her favorite parts about being a staff member is helping build confidence in the students that she tutors. “It makes me happy when someone comes in unsure of where to start and by the end of the session they have more confidence pinpointing steps they can take to more clearly express what they want to. Seeing those ‘aha!’ moments, when things click, makes me excited,” she shared.
Perhaps the crucial thing to take away from the WC is that differences in writing processes and standards are not necessarily hindrances, but opportunities for students to find their own voice and flourish their writing. “Ultimately, everyone has a writing process,” Schultz said. “The way we write is unique. We all come to ideas and issues with different ways of making meaning out of them; we come from a certain culture and have all had experiences that shape the way we think and process the world. At the Writing Center, consultants have the opportunity to help writers explore their individual writing processes, giving each writer a deeper understanding of how they communicate.