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Our interview today is with Mary Beth Simmons, Director of the Villanova University Writing Center.
Fresh@News: Now that students are starting to get their papers back, especially from their Augustine and Culture Seminar (ACS) classes, we are getting the feeling that there are a few students who are finding college writing more challenging than what they were used to in high school. You see a lot of student writing, what is your impression?
Mary Beth Simmons: In fact I teach an ACS section myself, and over the years I have seen more freshman papers than I could count, so what you are seeing is pretty much right on track for this time of year. Villanova places a heavy emphasis on writing, and it is something the students really need to learn for any discipline or later field. And the shift to college writing is a big one. In high school the teachers stressed mechanics and form. College teachers care about that too, but also want papers that reflect a really close reading of the text and a convincing argument for a thesis. “How you feel about something” often isn’t the question asked in a paper, and it can be an adjustment for the students.
Fresh@News: That sounds a bit daunting. What can the students do to improve?
Mary Beth Simmons: First of all, Villanova instructors, especially the instructors in the ACS courses, are often experienced with helping student develop their writing. If students are struggling, they should definitely meet with their instructor during office hours. For many students, however, the best suggestion is to utilize Villanova’s Writing Center.
Fresh@News: Can you explain what the Writing Center is?
Mary Beth Simmons: The Writing Center is a place for students to get help with any writing project. Students can bring an outline, rough draft, an assignment or even just their ideas to meet with a trained tutor. The tutors will work with students at whatever they need to help them improve their work. It is a great process, and parents should encourage their sons and daughters to take advantage of it.
Fresh@News: So how is the class of 2013 doing on writing? How are their skills?
Mary Beth Simmons: For the most part they are good. I see evidence of a lot of solid, traditional high-school training. Many of our students have mastered the basics and it shows in their writing. They've got the foundation in place already, and now they are ready to expand and add new skills.
Fresh@News: What are their biggest problems?
Mary Beth Simmons: I would say that the biggest problem they have is a kind of perfectionism. They are good students and they have high standards for themselves. For some students, there is so much anxiety about writing that they have a hard time getting started. They sit there staring at a computer screen until the deadline comes up and then just write something to get the paper done. Another symptom of perfectionism is that many of our students don't want to revise their papers. Once they have a draft they think, "OK, that's done, on to the next project." The papers look so polished when they come off the printer that sometimes students get the illusion that this is a finished product. What we know, however, is that a good paper should go through a number of drafts, and to write well students need to start a project early and be prepared to revise and rewrite. That's where the Writing Center can be helpful.
Fresh@News: If I went to the Writing Center, what would I see?
Mary Beth Simmons: You'd see lots of student peer tutors working with individual students on writing projects. There are also several new computers where students can work with their tutors. Many of the students come voluntarily for help, and, at any rate, the tutor isn't giving them a grade; for the most part the students are relaxed but focused on getting the job done.
Fresh@News: How do you train the peer tutors to deal with some of the issues a student may come in with?
Mary Beth Simmons: For a student who has trouble getting started, we work a lot on prewriting. We have a few different approaches, depending on the student. In some cases we work with the students on writing outlines, and that can often jump-start the student to writing a paper. Some students, however, don't respond well to outlines so we work with them on what we call clustering. The student starts with an idea, then we help them brainstorm other ideas that might be related, exploring connections with where that idea might go. Another very successful technique is "free writing." We'll ask a student to sit down with a piece of paper or at a terminal and write for ten minutes without editing, just to get their thoughts out on paper. Sometimes students don't do this on their own because they think it is a waste of time, but it is a really good way to get started. Often they are surprised by how much of the paper is already in place.
Fresh@News: Suppose a student brings in a draft of the paper. What are some of the ways the tutors are trained to help?
Mary Beth Simmons: The first thing is that both the tutor and the student read the paper together, so both are actively visiting the paper and they both have the same frame of reference. Then we take the student through four steps, looking at the assignment, the thesis, the organization and development, and finally at the mechanics.
Fresh@News: Let’s talk about each one. You mentioned looking at the assignment. What comes up there?
Mary Beth Simmons: Often enough the student will read the assignment and write a draft of the paper, without rechecking to see if the paper really addresses the assigned topic. By the time the student has written the paper, the student may have lost sight of what the professor was actually asking for. Going over it with a tutor is a really helpful exercise and often leads students to see for themselves that revisions are necessary.
Fresh@News: We've heard a lot about "the thesis-driven essay," and you mentioned that looking at the thesis was the second step. Tell us more about that.
Mary Beth Simmons: Rather than asking what the thesis is, we have the tutor pick out what he or she thinks the thesis is from reading the paper. If the thesis is strong, the reader should have no trouble picking it out. We also check to see if the thesis is thought-provoking, and we try to steer students away from a more generic thesis. At the high school level, a good thesis can sometimes be a summary. That’s not a good thesis in college, and sometimes accepting that can be a big jump for first year students.
Fresh@News: What about organization and development? How does that play out?
Mary Beth Simmons: The tutors try to check whether the logic of the paper supports the topic. We check to see if the paper goes from easier requirements to more difficult ones, and we look at the transitions and the use of evidence. One of the things we try to help students understand is that learning to be a good writer is a life-long process. We have even had professors came into the Writing Center for help. One professor had sent an article to a journal and gotten some suggested changes from the editors; he wanted a writing center tutor to help him revise his article. I really appreciated his visit because it helps make our point that good writers are always working on developing their writing, and that, even for someone with a Ph.D., writing is process that can benefit from collaboration with others.
Fresh@News: What about mechanics and proofreading?
Mary Beth Simmons: We do go over the spelling and punctuation, but we try to put it in context. For some of our students, being a good writer means being able to spell and punctuate. They think, "If you can help me fix my commas I will have a good paper." We'll help them with mechanics, but we'll also help them understand that there is much more to it than submitting a paper with no grammatical errors.
Fresh@News: How are the students doing with their citations?
Mary Beth Simmons: Many students struggle with citations. Overall, students need to pay more attention to details. They should ask their professor specific questions about what is expected. Depending on the teacher, students will be required to cite their sources using a number of different styles. If for example, a professor wants the citations in MLA style and the students used APA style in high school, the student can feel overwhelmed. All freshman students are required to purchase Andrea Lunsford's Easy Writer for their Augustine and Culture Seminar. This reference book outlines the various styles of citation including APA, MLA, Chicago style and CBE. This reference book is tremendously helpful and very easy to use. If students have questions, we're more than happy to assist them.
Fresh@News: Do many students take advantage of the Writing Center?
Mary Beth Simmons: Absolutely!!! We see about 4,500 visits per academic year. We' do get busy as papers and midterms become due so students should call ahead to make an appointment before the schedule fills up.
Fresh@News: Wow! So you must have a large number of student tutors?
Mary Beth Simmons: We have 40 undergraduate tutors, 15 graduate student tutors, and 4 professional tutors. They've been well trained and are really helpful!
Fresh@News: What can parents do to help?
Mary Beth Simmons: Parents can encourage students to come to the writing center. The best thing is for a student to call us at 610-519-4604 to make an appointment, but we'll also try to help students who just drop in. Parents can help with student perfectionism, by reinforcing the message that learning to write is a lifelong process. I would also encourage parents to read some of their students' written work, if the students are comfortable sharing it. If the student says he or she did a good job on a paper, the parent might ask the student to send it as an e-mail attachment. Many of the papers we see are very thought-provoking and would make for great conversations. Parents can find more about the Center by visiting our website at: http://www.writingcenter.villanova.edu/.
Fresh@News: What about becoming a writing center tutor? Is that something members of the Class of 2013 should think about?
Mary Beth Simmons: Absolutely. Nothing helps a student improve writing more than helping others to write. Students who are interested take a training course during their sophomore year and then become writing center tutors. They are paid for their work, so it is a great way to combine learning and earning. It isn't too early to start thinking about it, so a student who is interested should contact me for more information, either by calling at 610-519-5358, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by stopping by the Center to make an appointment. Our hours are: Sunday: 3:30 - 7:30 p.m., Monday - Thursday 11:30 a.m. -7:30 p.m. and Friday 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
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