Peer Writing and Speaking Associates Empower Students

December 21, 2018

Amanda Nagy

two associates at the writing center
Fourth-year Bikalpa Baniya, a peer writing associate (left) works with a student during finals week.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

The Oberlin Writing and Speaking Center is a training ground for peer mentors who work to help students from all backgrounds and disciplines find their voice.

When Oberlin’s Writing Center launched in 1977, it consisted of a professor, a student, and a desk in the King Building. Over time, the program has grown by leaps and bounds, employing more than 50 peer writing associates, hiring a fellow position to oversee day-to-day operations, introducing satellite writing centers in different parts of the campus, and more recently by establishing a speaking center focused on oral communications.

Oberlin was an early adopter of the peer writing center model. The Writing Center paved the way for other peer learning programs on campus.

Peer writing associates guide students early in the writing process by helping to clarify prompts and assignments, brainstorm ideas and topics, and develop research strategies. Associates also help students in the drafting and revising stages of their assignments by providing advice on paragraph organization, idea and argument coherence, and other difficulties that may arrive throughout the writing process.

“Our writing center helps students negotiate the various contexts they find themselves in, and to have agency to make informed choices about what they’re doing,” says Laurie McMillin, professor of rhetoric and composition and director of the Writing Center. “We don’t want to just correct people and say you should do this and this.

“Instead, we want to explain the expectations in different genres or settings,’’ she says. “If you’re doing something that departs from expectations, is it because you don’t know what the convention is, or are you trying to resist certain conventions? We want people to be informed negotiators.”

Students can drop in or schedule an appointment for a one-on-one consultation, which generally lasts 30 to 45 minutes. Both the writing and speaking centers are staffed by experienced associates who have been trained through an upper-level rhetoric course to tutor and work with all Oberlin students on their writing and oral presentations.  

“In the rhetoric training course that associates take, they’re trained to be flexible in their ability to work with different genres, styles, and disciplinary forms,” says Frances Purcell ’18, writing associate fellow in the Writing Associates Program. “We like to think of our associates as ‘informed outsiders.’ They’re able to ask probing questions and get students to think about the style of the genre that they’re writing in.”

The Writing Center’s program emphasizes student-centered sessions based on the concept of “structure and play.”

“The structure is inviting the student into the space and setting up an agenda, but within that we are playing with the student’s writing to enhance the piece or their overall writing style as they see fit,” Purcell says. “Since we’re working with first- through fourth-years, we see a whole range of problem areas that students are working on.”

Work with upper-level students typically involves focusing on style and the overall strength of their writing.

“I personally have worked with a lot of fourth-years who are working to hone their craft and smooth out the process,. Whether that’s developing more effective outlining or more cohesiveness in a long thesis,” Purcell says.

A whiteboard has a handwritten message: Welcome to the speaking center! Hours: Su, T, Th 7-9 pm. On staff tonight: Carrie.
Credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Located in the Academic Commons of Mudd Learning Center, demand for the Writing Center’s services is high, averaging about 1,300 visits per year. Combining Writing Center meetings with the work done by 20 to 25 course writing associates is “a lot of contact,” McMillin says. She notes that Oberlin provides substantial training time for associates compared with other schools.

“In our program, you work while you train,” McMillin explains. “Our associates will tell you it’s one of the most powerful learning experiences. They’re not just theorizing what they would do if they tried things; they actually get feedback and reflect, and they keep theorizing. It’s this wonderful loop of theorizing, practicing, and reflecting.”

Presenting to Different Audiences

The Speaking Center was piloted in 2015 and funded by a $400,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation. The funds supported the hiring of Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Cortney Smith to teach courses in public speaking.  

“Our goal in the Speaking Center is to help students become effective communicators, especially as it relates to public speaking and presentations, across different modes and disciplines,” says Smith.

“No matter a student's field of study, it is invaluable that they are able to convey their ideas effectively to audiences. Students work with peers on everything from how to manage anxiety to construction of a presentation. With this communicative skill set, students are able to convey their thoughts in productive ways.”

Speaking associates work with students on class presentations, interview skills, senior symposium presentations, and any kind of speaking assignment. A select group of associates work with faculty to facilitate workshops in courses where a faculty member has assigned an oral presentation. Not all faculty who assign presentations know how to teach it. McMillin says the work with speaking center has been transformative.

“One of the things we heard time and again is that Oberlin students are super smart, but they have a hard time presenting themselves to different audiences. This project is aimed at helping them do that better,” says McMillin.

“It’s the same thing we talk about in the writing center—how do you adjust for different audiences and purposes? Being able to present yourself to someone else is not about pretending you’re something different than you are; it’s about adjusting your presentation, being thoughtful and caring about the people that you’re communicating with, and working to convey something about yourself to them or with them. Thinking about audiences in this way is a big part of what we do in both centers.”

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