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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

 

Distinct Voices: A conversation with the Writing Fellows

By Ingrid Keenan
Program Coordinator, Center for Teaching and Learning

Our current Writing Fellows are a veteran bunch: since the fall of 2012 they have logged over 650 hours at CTL helping students with their writing assignments—and that’s after at least two semesters as Writing Colleagues.  This year we will be sad to say goodbye to five graduating seniors (Laura Alexander, Kristyna Bronner, Bonnie Bushnell, Meghan Gaucher, and Maggie Manko), while Annabelle Everett and Nellie Smith (both WS ’15) will share their expertise with a new group of Writing Fellows next year.

Before they leave us, I wanted to sit down and hear what the Writing Fellows had to say about the program, and what they have learned as students, as mentors, and as writers. One snowy night in February we gathered in the CTL lounge to talk and after a few minutes spent debating the best female TV character (a tie between Olivia Pope and Leslie Knope) and sharing the most embarrassing moments of their HWS career (which I had to promise not to reveal) we moved on to their experience as Writing Fellows. Bonnie Bushnell got the ball rolling.

Bonnie

What have you learned about yourself as a writer and as a mentor while working as a Writing Fellow?

Nellie

That sometimes the hardest thing is to be patient – even more than helping with writing.

Annabelle

I‘ve learned to repeat myself in a different way, to translate myself if that makes sense. Sometimes the student is confused, and I’ll have to find a new way to express what I’m trying to say.  

Laura

I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as an obvious fact, or an obvious piece of knowledge, that what’s obvious to me, what makes perfectly clear sense with me, does not resonate with someone else, and vice versa. That was a hard thing to learn, that you have to explain things in depth that make sense to you.

Maggie

I’ve learned that I have a very distinct writing style and writing voice, and so I’ve learned not to mix that in when I’m working with students and not try to change how they would write, because I would write what they wrote very differently.

Bonnie

Yeah, if I don’t think a certain word fits, I’ll hint at suggestions, and I’ll have a very clear one in mind, but sometimes they’ll come up with one that I wouldn’t have even thought of.

Meghan

I feel like I’ve learned that I have trouble separating myself once I get invested in students, especially students who come all the time. I was working on an essay with this girl; it was her transfer essay, and at first I had trouble working with her because it’s hard to understand why people want to transfer. But then I started working with her, and the second time she came in I really, really wanted her to do well, so I’d take extra time out of my hours to work with her. I’ve learned that I like talking to people about their writing because it makes me happy, and I also get invested in their writing, which is nice.

What was the toughest situation you’ve faced as a writing fellow?

Laura

I think the biggest thing I’ve faced, more with first-year students, is the question of “what would you say? How would you say it?” And I know when you ask me that question, you’re going to copy my words verbatim, so unless you’re going to put “(Alexander)”, I really don’t think I’m going to answer that question for you! I think that has been really difficult, but important.

Annabelle

I would say the same thing. Half of the time, I feel like students want me to just tell them what to write and I don’t want to do that, and I’ll give them suggestions like maybe “focus on your argument more here,” or something to do when they leave, and [they say] well, how do I do that? But I’m not going to point out exactly what to do, because it’s still their writing; what I’m saying isn’t necessarily what you have to do—it’s a suggestion—but also it’s not my job to actually tell you how you’re going to say something in your own written piece.

Nellie

Yeah, it’s tough to hold yourself back. I want every meeting to be a success, and I want to be able to leave, obviously with them feeling confident, but also feeling confident myself, which maybe is a little selfish, but it also just sort of feels like I’ve completed something. And so it’s really tough when a student leaves still a little frustrated, or still with lingering questions, that sometimes it’s impossible to answer, because we haven’t read the books, or they just came here with expectations we’re just unable to fill.

Meghan

I feel sometimes too, that the good writers—sometimes I just look at their paper, and I’m supposed to go over it for grammar or style or structure, and I look at their writing and I think it’s good, and I have to push myself to try to find flaws in their writing.

Bonnie

But maybe [you can] just offer reassurance, because you don’t need to look for flaws if there aren’t any, maybe some people just come in to double-check. And you probably do help with little things; maybe it doesn’t have to be anything major.

Maggie: I think it’s helpful when they first come in to ask “What exactly do you want me to look for?” Sometimes they’ll say “Does this actually make sense to you?” and you can see if it works.

Nellie

I never try to be super evaluative, but even if I think it’s a polished piece I try to think of two questions I can ask them after the piece, and make sure that they can clarify them, and then it’s clear that I understood it if I’m asking the right questions. But if I’m asking [the wrong questions], then maybe they have something to clarify.

What’s been the most surprising thing about being a writing fellow?

Laura

I think it’s how much people care about their writing.

Maggie

Yes!

Laura

I definitely spent three years here thinking that caring about my school work made me really weird and nerdy—which is cool, I embrace it!—but to see that other people genuinely care as much as we do about not just being successful on a particular paper, but about improving their ability to write. Because they see it as valuable, and I think that’s kind of cool.

Nellie

I think the longevity that we cultivate, too, is awesome, but sometimes surprising. The people that we all see all the time, it makes you feel good, it makes you proud that they keep coming.

Maggie

I’m really surprised by the fact that the little things you do to help them really help them. Even sitting there and helping them make an outline, or thinking about where to put different ideas, little things that we maybe do instinctively, really helps other people.

What’s the toughest writing challenge you’ve faced yourself, as a writer?

Annabelle

I’m doing that right now, actually! I’m in creative writing, and I’m a terrible creative writer. I’m really good at writing articles and essays and the kind of writing we do in Writing and Rhetoric, but I cannot do creative writing, and I have something due tomorrow – our first assignment – and I have no idea what I’m doing, and it’s really a struggle.

Laura

I think the biggest struggle for me has been realizing that writing is more than just writing. Especially since I took Grammar & Style last semester, realizing that we say “writing is a process” but writing is an ordeal! [LAUGHTER] There’s so much to it and we take for granted that we all have some sort of innate ability to do it, because we have this job, but there’s a lot to it. That has been overwhelming for me recently, to think about that.

Nellie:

If you could come back to HWS in ten years and be hired for any position at the school, assuming you were qualified in any field, what would you want to do and why?

Bonnie

I think I’d want to come back as a dance professor, because I could still make dances.

Maggie

I’d want to work in Career Services, because I think that’s a really cool job. And you can actually have the potential to help people in their lives.

Annabelle

I’d like [Writing Colleague Program Coordinator] Alex Janney’s job!

Meghan

But only because of the legendary teachers that have worked in that position, because I’ve loved them all. AKA Heidi [Beach] and Alex.

Laura

For the office alone!

Meghan:

Yeah, it’s amazing.

Laura

I feel like it’s not surprising I would say this, but I’d like to be the Title IX Coordinator!

Maggie

If you could give yourself one piece of advice as a first-year coming to HWS, what would it be?

Meghan

Even though science is scary, take a class!

Bonnie

No!

Meghan

Take a breadth of classes. Because I’ve always wanted to be a Marine Biologist, and if I could do it over, I would do that, and I’m so upset about it. So I’m telling my small self: take Biology! You can do it, don’t be scared of it!

Annabelle

I would say something similar: take more classes that I’m interested in. I’ve never taken a Women’s Studies class; I only took Intro to Psych, and I wanted to take more Psych classes.

Meghan

Don’t go right into [your major].

Annabelle

Yeah, which I did, I went right in, I declared my major my first year.

Laura

I would say be less afraid of life in general.

Annabelle

I agree!

Laura

The academics will fall into place, don’t stress about that. Have fun.

Meghan

Have more fun.

Laura

Have more fun, because this is going to go by really fast – that sounds so clichéd. But I would just say be less scared.

Meghan

Don’t forget to take it day by day. If you have an hour of spare time, give yourself an hour of spare time. There was one year where I feel like I didn’t breath, in sophomore year. It was awful.

Nellie

Go swim in the lake more. I swim in Seneca Lake all the time, now, but I don’t think I swam at all my First Year, and I really enjoy it now.

 

For more information on the Writing Fellow program, please visit http://www.hws.edu/academics/ctl/hws_writes.aspx or contact Ingrid Keenan (keenan@hws.edu).