Centred on writing

Photo: Linda Tammisto
Photo: Linda Tammisto

I travelled far to see near. My recent trip to the USA, funded by the Teachers’ Academy, helped me see how US universities tend to support the skill of writing in their writing centers. It also helped me have deeper access to the writing center idea of identity and growth of writers, especially those with English as their L2, in other words, their second/foreign language. Although American university writing centers and writing instruction in American universities have been researched extensively, I was tempted to see – not only read about – writing centers, because learning about good practices is easier for me if I can experience, look around, use my senses. The trip invited me to observe and capture writing centers as a space that encourages writers.

Master’s programmes and writing support

I have taught academic writing in English to international students for nearly ten years, since the first Master’s programmes started at the University of Helsinki. First there were only a few programmes and a handful of students; now we have closer to 40 programmes and an increased number of students. When I think of adjectives to describe these students, many come to mind: innovative, able, keen to adjust, hard-working, goal-oriented, but sometimes also puzzled, lost in the new academic setting and hungry for support. Words apt to describe the whole group are heterogeneous and diverse. This heterogeneous nature of our international students is a richness, but also a challenge when we in the English Unit (re)plan, (re)organise and (re)evaluate writing courses and other support.

US universities

The need for writing centers in the US arises, in part, from the diverse student population. As far as I understand, one aim for the centers is to help keep the retention rates as high as possible. DePaul University in Chicago, for example, had been able to increase its retention rate and now boasts a rate of around 70%, partially credited to their Writing Center, one of the impressive places I visited. (If you’re interested, see these statistics of US retention and graduation rates.)

What do writing centers do?

In total, I visited six writing centers: DePaul, University of Chicago, UCLA, Cal State LA, UC Berkeley and Stanford. They are different in many ways. Some are private, some state-run; some focus on graduate students, some on undergraduates; some rank high as research universities, some are less selective. Although these universities have many differences, it seems to me that those working in the writing centers shared a passion to help student writers. In more than one situation, I heard people claim that writing centers are either as much about writers than about writing, or that they are more about writers than about writing.

In their quest to help writers, writing centers offer a variety of support options, from boot camps to tutoring in the dorms. Possibly the most widely practised of these is peer tutoring. In general, peer tutors are (often, but not only undergraduate) students interested in writing and teaching. They are trained to become peer tutors, and they are mentored and supported throughout their (often relatively long) careers as peer tutors. They are committed to their work, for which they are paid student wages. In the process of tutoring students who seek for help in writing, they learn communication and other skills. Peer tutoring is a form of collaboration that benefits both the tutor and the tutee.

Different contexts

At first glance, it seems that the situation in the US is different from ours because of the context: writing centers cater to students most of whom come from English-medium educational backgrounds, and they mainly support undergraduate/graduate writers writing in English. In contrast, we at the English Unit deal with writers whose educational background is mostly NOT in English, but who write in English in their Master’s studies. Quite often, but not always, our students have no previous experience of studying through the medium of English.

This vast contextual difference, however, buries beneath it a similarity. Based on my visits, US writing centers, although they open their doors to all students, are especially actively used by students underprepared for universities, by generation 1.5 and by international students. This translates as students with a bi/multilingual or bi/multicultural backgrounds. Nationwide around 20% of all students use the services of writing centers. Among this group of users are people who feel the need to discuss their writing and themselves as writers, and people who have been advised to use the center. Those who use the writing center characteristically pay more than one visit to it.

Supporting writers is important

Travelling widens our horizons. In my travels, my attention was first drawn to differences, but I did discover shared trends.

First, the need for collaboration and support to writers is evident. This need is even more apparent in student writers who write in a language that is somehow foreign, unfamiliar, distant or otherwise detached from their previous experiences. This need is essential in the context of Master’s programmes taught through the medium of English at our university: we need to continue the good work we started at the Language Centre nearly ten years ago. Because our context is different, our writing support takes forms different from the ones I saw, but it serves the same function. It is also evident that supporting writing and writers in other communication skills would be sensible – my host universities displayed good examples of the practice of not only writing, but also other communication skills.

Second, the role of peers in learning cannot be highlighted enough. The peer tutoring systems I witnessed seem to benefit both the student tutor and the student tutee, and I was impressed and touched by this practice. We use peers in a different way in the writing courses offered to international Master’s students: students peer review one another’s texts, using a set of criteria students can influence. Although we have used this practice for a while now, it is constantly being developed to help students receive all the possible benefits from giving and receiving feedback.

The ultimate aim for me, when planning the trip, was to be able to evaluate the support the English Unit at the Language Centre offers to the students in international Master’s programmes at the University of Helsinki. My understanding is that we provide quality service with the resources available, but a lot more could be done. A desire to make peer work possibilities even more visible and to enable different kinds of collaborative writing practices is among the souvenirs I brought home.

Tuula Lehtonen

The author is a Senior Lecturer in English Unit (Language Centre) and a member of the Teachers’ Academy.