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Expository Writing at Oberlin: 20 Years of the Power of Peers

In 1976, academia was in the midst of what Professor of Expository Writing and English Len Podis calls a "renaissance in the teaching of writing"--a renaissance that valued the process of writing as much as the product and that focused on collaborative learning. That spring, David Plank '76, now an associate professor of comparative education at Michigan State University, requested a private reading with Podis in writing pedagogy.

Student demand for the subject skyrocketed, and "Teaching and Tutoring Writing across the Disciplines" became a course in 1981. The course, which includes a peer tutoring program, was one of the first of its kind.

Taught by Podis, the course is open to students of any major with strong writing skills. Most who enroll plan careers in education, and many have gone on to teach English as a second language in other countries or other subjects at the secondary or college level.

The course offers an unusual combination of theory and practice. It approaches writing as a process of drafts created with the help of feedback from others. While they take the course, students are required to tutor--they may be assigned as a tutor for a writing-intensive course or staff the drop-in desk in Mudd Center.

The multi-disciplinary nature of the course is a major factor in its popularity and success, said Podis, noting that the course enrollment each semester consists of "an increasingly broad group of students."

Miriam Axel-Lute '97, a chemistry and environmental studies major, took the class this spring. "There is definitely a need for thinking about writing in the sciences. What we cover in teaching and tutoring can be brought into every discipline," she said.

Associate Professor of Religion Paula Richman, who uses tutors in her Gandhi colloquium, has discovered that a tutor can strengthen a course. Richman believes writing can be a way of learning, not just a way of demonstrating knowledge. "Having the opportunity to revise with a tutor helps students to understand course material better. Meeting in draft workshops enhances a feeling of joint enterprise, and the students become close through helping each other with their writing," she said.

Peer tutor Emily Fawcett '96, an English and creative writing major, agreed. Student-led draft groups "create a network among students who go to each other for help," she said. The more-relaxed atmosphere of having a student review your work is another important aspect of the program. "You can feel confident showing the tutors your work without the pressure that comes with having a teacher evaluate it," said Darius Zelkha, a first-year student.

Students participating in draft workshops or in one-on-one writing conferences are not the only ones who benefit. Tutors themselves often learn a great deal about their own writing process.

Jennifer Love '91, now a graduate student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Nevada, took Podis' course during her last semester at Oberlin. "Listening to writers discuss their day-to-day experiences with writing shaped my awareness of how much there is to learn about writing-how people do it and think about it, and how it's taught," she said.

Many professors find that tutors can provide critical support for their courses. With classes of 25 or more students, even the most dedicated professor is unable to give adequate attention to every student's writing process on every paper. The tutor is an important "in-between" person, said Associate Professor of English Pat Day. "Tutors allow people to work through drafts individually and in groups in a way that I couldn't possibly have time to support," he said. "Everybody benefits."

--Audrey Marcus '96

Audrey Marcus has been a tutor for an introductory English class as well as a staffer at the drop-in desk. She plans to pursue graduate work in Judaic studies and to teach at the college level.

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