Writing Center PhilosophyWe view the CCNY Writing Center as a free and open place where collaborative learning can occur. The writing center offers one-on-one conferencing that teachers can't always offer in their courses. CCNY Writing Consultants play the really valuable role of being thoughtful and careful readers of students' work in a relaxed environment. Consultants have a freer role than teachers do because they don't set deadlines or grade papers or even judge the students' work. Instead, they have the freedom to act as helpful, experienced readers of somebody's work, adopting a more collaborative role than that of the classroom teacher.
Although we offer attentive conferencing that teachers can't give in their large classes, we should emphasize a philosophy of language and writing similar to that of the Composition Program and ESL courses. The Writing Center believes that people learn to use language in meaningful situations. Repeatedly, research in composition, literacy studies, and linguistics suggests that people learn to use language -- both spoken and written -- by expressing some kind of meaning. How do people become fluent language users? Years of research and personal experience tell us that people don't learn to use words in parts, but in wholes. Children learn words because they're trying to express something. They don't learn to speak by memorizing rules, but by expressing a whole meaning in a particular situation. In the same way, professors learn to write "like professors" by learning to express their meanings in academic situations. The same is true for politicians or lawyers or for second language speakers, and for anyone who is using language in a particular situation. People don't become fluent language users or highly successful communicators because they learned to define or to label a noun subject in a sentence. They become fluent because they learned to express their whole meanings adequately for particular audiences in certain situations.
We assume, then, that any student who comes to the writing center is already a fluent language user in some situation. Academic writing, however, may be a situation that requires new learning and practice. We believe that we can help students become more fluent as academic writers by viewing their writing in the same way we view learning to use any kind of language. This means that we tend to focus on a piece of writing as a whole, and that we emphasize learning to shape that piece of writing by helping students to clarify their purpose and meaning as writers.
Writers have different ways of discovering what the meaning of their writing is. The Writing Center believes that academic writing is a process of thinking and rethinking ideas. So the CCNY Writing Center will stress writing as a process that occurs over time. We don't think there is a universal process for everyone. Instead, we think that individuals develop their own ways of composing and revising their work.
Writing seems to involve senses other than that of the eye. For example, many professional writers report that they "hear" a voice in their head as they read, while others have discussed how they ask themselves questions while they read their writing. The Writing Center believes that academic writing involves reading and hearing one's own prose. Even if we're writing for ourselves, we may still hear an inner voice that acts as an outside audience. Confident writers not only hear their own prose, they hear it in relationship to how they think other people might respond. Academic writing in particular involves imagining some kind of reader or some kind of response to writing. Consultation sessions should help writers to imagine what kinds of response they get to their writing; consultants should play the role of a reader who is puzzled, pleased, or uncertain by turns but who is always attentive to the piece of writing that the student brings to the session. In a session, consultants play the role of a critical but always positive reader, thus encouraging the student to "hear" her own language and to "hear" other people's responses to her writing. With time and practice, inexperienced writers can improve greatly in their writing by learning to "hear" how their words sound and by learning to more fully imagine how readers might hear them as well.
In a session, students have to contribute actively to the work that is going on. Students have to take responsibility for their learning. This means that consultants must urge students to explain what their purposes are for writing, and encourage them to speak about and to reread and revise their work. Students need to plan their essays and think about how they compose, all the way from brainstorming ideas to proofreading and typing.
The conversation that should occur in a consultation session needs to involve consultants and students equally, as together, students and consultants decide what to discuss in a piece of writing. In some classrooms, teachers use the lecture as a format for their teaching, and they assign pieces of writing which they respond to in writing with comments and grades. Students tend to receive the teacher's words in the classroom. In the consultation session, the student has to give words as well as to receive them, so the consultant has to be a thoughtful listener as well as a reader. The consultant should direct sessions around the student's work and his writing situation; he should be asking questions and listening to the answers, reading the writer's work and responding to what he thinks is the student's meaning. The writer's work, the writer herself, and the consultant's responses as a reader form the basis of all sessions. Together, consultants and students can figure out how a piece of writing can fully express and communicate a clear meaning for audiences.