At Writing Center, tutors and students help each other toward clarity, inspiration

She got the assignment a week ago, an essay asking her to outline the strategies she’d use to teach in a multicultural classroom. At first, the words came. Paragraphs even. But then, just as quickly, nothing. A blank screen.

“I had a little bit and I just didn’t really know where to go from there,” says Amy Bowman, a second-year elementary education major at the University of Maine.

Writing had become more difficult for Bowman over the past few years, ever since she graduated from high school in Central Florida and began doing college-level work.

“I just always have problems getting the words down on paper and making it sound the way I want it to, so other readers can really understand the point I’m trying to get across,” Bowman says.

After struggling with the assignment for a few more days, Bowman went to see her adviser, who suggested getting some extra help. So on a Thursday afternoon, Bowman headed to the University of Maine Writing Center on the fourth floor of Neville Hall, where she met writing tutor Peter Lowe, a graduate student in English literature at UMaine.

“She brought a few drafts in,” says Lowe. “It looks like she was working off multiple false starts of an essay, which is very common. It’s how I compose as well. Very rarely do I sit down to write something and the first draft is the final.”

The tutoring session began as most do at the Writing Center, with Bowman and Lowe taking a close look at the question at the center of her assignment. In peer-to-peer writing tutoring, deconstructing the question is an essential step toward finding the right structure for an essay or paper. With a structure in place, they then look at the texts Bowman will need to draw from as she writes, her source material. As the tutoring draws to a close, Bowman feels more confident about her assignment than she did when the session began.

“I actually never really thought about going to any kind of additional help or additional tutors,” says Bowman. “When my adviser suggested it, I said I’ll take this step and try something new. I got some new ideas, different ways to approach going about my writing.”

UMaine students have been getting this kind of help with essays and other writing assignments since 1979, when Professor of English Harvey Kail founded the Writing Center. Kail mentored thousands of students along the way, including Paige Mitchell, a UMaine alum, current Ph.D. candidate and former tutor at the center, who took over as director in 2014.

Mitchell’s move into the top job, when Kail retired, left her with big shoes to fill. During his tenure, Kail launched The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, an ongoing study of techniques and practices that continues to inform those working in the field. He also attended national conferences regularly, evangelizing about the work going on in his small writing shop in Neville Hall and cementing a reputation as a leader in the field of peer-to-peer tutoring.

“Harvey’s blunt, so I trusted his honesty fully,” says Mitchell of her time working as a tutor under Kail. “I’ve worked with him since my undergrad career. When my work wasn’t effective, he told me. When I hadn’t yet proved my efficiency as a tutor, he didn’t let me think I had. When I did well, he let me know that, too. I admire him for his candid support, his seriousness and his ability to enjoy the moment.”

Between 500–600 students a year seek tutoring at the Writing Center. Nearly half are undergraduates, in their first year at the university. The center also helps a small number graduate students each semester. Tutoring sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes and typically take place in the late morning or in the early afternoon or evening.

Under Mitchell’s leadership, the center is finding new ways to use technology to expand its original, peer-to-peer tutoring mission. Until recently, much of the center’s focus was still on working with text, as it appears on the written page.

“Now we have laptops and iPads, where we’ll work more with Google Docs, so we can collaboratively move and shift things right there,” says Mitchell. “We have a smart Apple TV, so we’ll put big presentations up there. We can put websites up there and work on them collaboratively with a student like that. We went from really limited technology, and limited ways of using it, to definitely a more multi-modal integration of technology.”

It’s commonplace now for students to show up at the center for help with a web-based project that contains text, photos, audio and video.

“The current research says if a student has a multimodal component to a document and a writing (component), typically they’ll select just one to get assistance with and they’ll go to the multimodal,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell has also sought to expand and update the list of regular workshops offered by tutors. A recent partnership with the University of Maine Career Center led to sessions on resume writing and creating and maintaining LinkedIn accounts. Mitchell worked with the LGBTQ Services to put on Safe Zone workshops to help students become more sensitive to LGBTQ issues in their written work. And a partnership with the Golden Key Honors Society led to a workshop where high school students explored the art of writing college acceptance letters.

The Writing Center has always offered workshops. But Mitchell’s experience as the center’s English as a Second Language tutor, prior to taking over as director, convinced her that writing workshops ought to play an even bigger role in the center’s future.

“There were so many students, I just devised workshops for them,” says Mitchell. “I found it effective to be able to reach a broader range of students, rather than one-on-one.”

Still, one-on-one tutoring remains at the center of the Writing Center’s overall mission.

“One of the things I like most about the job,” says Mitchell, “is the tutors. I’m really fortunate to work with bright and ambitious students.”

The center’s tutors come from many different academic disciplines, including English literature, engineering, philosophy, psychology, secondary education and environmental science. To become tutors, they all take a seminar course, taught by Mitchell, that teaches them how to work, one-on-one, with struggling writers.

“They experience working with diverse individuals from diverse disciplines, cultures, and ages,” says Mitchell. “This experience, and the tutor training they undergo, heightens their reflective critical awareness of their own writing styles, and expands their point of view, in that there is more than one right way to write.”

Lowe, who is focusing on fiction and screenwriting in his graduate work at UMaine, says he runs into the same kinds of problems his students are often facing, when they show up at the Writing Center for extra help.

“I’ll work with a student in the morning and then come home at night and be struggling (in my own writing) with what to say or where to go next,” says Lowe. “And I will draw on the experience we had that morning.”

Ultimately, says Mitchell, tutoring is a collaborative process.

“The students who visit the Writing Center are just as important and influential in the collaborative tutoring process as the tutors,” Mitchell says. “The Writing Center is grateful for what we learn and gain from working with the students we serve.”

Contact: Jay Field, 207.581.3721; 207.338.8068