Less Is More for Plangere Writing Center Interns
by Sandhya Ramashwar
The Plangere Writing Center on College Avenue is, simply put, a place where students meet with tutors to become better writers. Take a closer look, and it becomes clear that the tutees are not the only ones learning, thanks to a new Writing Center internship. This program trains advanced undergraduates to become successful writing tutors. Interns learn the technique of “minimalist tutoring” from assigned readings and by shadowing experienced tutors, then apply what they learned in tutoring others.
Many students see the internship as great preparation for the working world. Douglass College senior Britton Carducci said she got involved because, “I love English, and ideally my career would allow me to immerse myself in it.” Rutgers College senior Yana Zeltser plans to be a book editor, and said tutoring has helped her become “not just a strong writer, but a strong reader as well. If I have to give constructive criticism on someone’s work, I’ll know how to do that now because of my training.” Her reasons for tutoring are personal as well as professional: “I took Expos and it was awful for me. My main problem was that I didn’t know how to write papers that weren’t summaries or reports. Tutoring lets me help students improve their writing more quickly than I did,” Ms. Zeltser said.
The first thing both Ms. Carducci and Ms. Zeltser had to learn was to let the student’s own writing be their top priority. Plangere Writing Center Coordinator Ken Urban said the interns’ training focuses on perfecting their understanding of “minimalist tutoring,” an approach to teaching designed to create a sense of empowerment within the student. “There’s a preconception that the tutor will revise students’ papers for them,” he said. “Instead, most of the time is spent with students writing and revising for themselves, while the tutors guide them.”
Ms. Carducci said that although the term “minimalist tutoring” might imply that there is not much to it, her extensive training quickly became a valuable resource. In her first session of tutoring, she was very nervous until she called upon her training: “For the first twenty minutes, I just floundered with the student. Then I did an exercise that I thought would benefit her – I had her rewrite a passage from the reading in her own words, and we focused on the key words in her writing. We ended up making a lot of progress in that first day.”
The Writing Center takes a long-term, one-on-one approach to tutoring. Tutoring is free, but students are required to commit to at least five sessions with the same tutor. This gives tutors a chance to adapt to their students’ writing needs, but also allows them to get to know the students personally. “My first student tended to put herself and her writing down as a defense mechanism, because she thought I was there to judge her. I had to help her understand that writing is a skill that has to be learned,” Ms. Carducci said.
While minimalist tutoring may take effort to learn, its principles help tutors avoid giving students an easy way out. According to Ms. Carducci, this can sometimes be difficult. “It’s very frustrating when you’re in a situation where one little phrase would turn on the light for the student, but you can’t say it because that would be influencing their ideas, and they wouldn’t be discovering it for themselves.”
Ms. Zeltser agreed that the Writing Center’s focus on enduring improvement rather than quick results is ultimately more beneficial. “At many other universities they have drop-in tutoring, and tutors work with students to improve specific papers. But when those students have to write another paper, the problems will start all over again, and then who’ll be there to fix it for them?” she said. Ms. Zeltser credited the internship with further strengthening her own writing skills, and said she has come a long way from the struggling Expository Writing student she once was. “I’m always trying to help my students make their writing more clear and focused, and as a writer I now think about whether I’m practicing what I preach,” she said.
Looking back on her experience as an intern, Ms. Carducci noted that she enjoyed the process of connecting to students as much as she liked expanding her own academic horizons. “This might sound clichéd, but the internship was both challenging and rewarding,” she said. “There aren’t any moments when angels start singing during a tutoring session, but you can see it in their eyes when students really get what you’re saying.”
The Plangere Writing Center website, which includes an overview of the Center’s tutoring philosophy, and information for would-be tutors and tutees.