Under Construction: The New Writing Center

Walking into a university Writing Center is often a difficult, if not embarrassing task for a college student seeking tutoring in writing. Just last semester, a female St. John’s student walked into the now “old” Writing Center, formerly located in St. John Hall, and struggled to admit her literary shortcomings. “I need help with a paper,” she said. “God, it’s so hard saying that. I feel like I’m saying ‘I’m an alcoholic.'”
According to Thomas Philipose, Assistant Director in the Division of Academic Support Services, this is just one of many instances that illustrate the kind of anxiety that goes into asking for help with an essay. “I told our student workers that if they ever needed proof of how vulnerable our clients may be and how vital a role they play at this University,” Philipose said, “this is it.”
In September, that vital role will be rewarded in the form of two new, expansive, state of the art writing centers. Housing more than three times the counselors that last year’s Writing Center employed, the Queens campus Writing Center will move to the first floor of the St. Augustine Hall library.
In addition to the Queens Writing Center, the University will add a Writing Center at the Staten Island Campus.
The exponential upgrade is part of a newly implicated, three-dimensional Institute for Writing Studies which also includes a First-Year Writing Program and a Writing Across the Curriculum program. The institute is a byproduct of St. John’s recent Capital Campaign (see page 6).
So what exactly is a writing center? According to senior student counselor Bridgid Driscoll, “The Writing Center is a lot of different things to different people. For some, it’s a place to meet and share artistic ideas. For others, it’s a place to receive counseling for their papers. It can be a lot of things, depending on who you are.” One thing that most counselors agree on is that the Writing Center is a haven for a creative culture.
“The primary purpose of both Writing Centers is to foster a ‘writing culture’ within the University,” said Dr. Derek Owens, Associate Professor of English and Director of the new Institute for Writing Studies.
According to Owens, the new Institute has resulted in the hiring of 15 new full-time writing faculty to teach ENG1000C (English composition) in the department’s new First-Year Writing Program.
“We anticipate hiring an additional five faculty in the coming year,” Owens said. “These new faculty will be redesigning the core writing course that all St. John’s students are expected to take. They are all experts in a variety of areas, including composition and rhetoric, English as a Second Language, Writing Center pedagogy, the rhetoric of science, creative writing, and poetics.”
According to Owens, the Writing Across the Curriculum program and the new Queens campus Writing Center will benefit from two newly-hired directors in the coming year. The WAC program will “focus on developing new approaches to writing within other disciplines, “Owens said. “The director of the WAC program will work with me in designing new approaches to writing assessment throughout the University.”
Located in an office often described as a “clubhouse,” last year’s Writing Center was rich in talented faculty and staff but short on outside appeal. Sans a pseudo-psychedelic mural on the wall and a collage opposite the mural, the Writing Center was a place to discuss aesthetics, but certainly not a place to observe them.
With ample space to house an expansive literary culture, many of the student counselors at the new Queens campus Writing Center expect their place of work to be more than just a tutoring lounge. “I think the new Writing Center will definitely bolster the literary culture at St. John’s,” said senior student counselor Kerri Fortune. “I think people are going to see that the new Writing Center is not just for writing sessions. There’s a lot more space in the new one to accommodate study groups or group meetings. I predict it’s going to become the new cool place on campus for creative people to hang out and share their ideas.”
Despite the advantages provided by the new Writing Center, including flat-screen televisions, meeting rooms and additional counseling space, Fortune admits that creating a culture at a new space will definitely be a tough transition for those students and counselors that grew attached to the intimate setting of last year’s “clubhouse.”
“I am a little sad to leave the old one because it had sort of a clubhouse-type vibe with collages and the huge painting on the wall,” Fortune said. ” It fostered creativity. Hopefully, we can create that sort of atmosphere in the new one.”
But even though the Writing Center will change venues, the staff maintains the same message as they have in year’s past: that a Writing Center is not a place where students come to get lectured by tutors that are “smarter” than them.
“I think a lot of the time when people come in they’re a little nervous about asking for help because they don’t know what type of environment to expect,” Fortune said. “We work to make sure everyone feels comfortable and we let them know that we’re not there to judge them or their abilities, but that we’re their to help them expand their abilities.”
An expanded Writing Center that hopes to expand the abilities of its student workers and clients alike – a reflection of an ever-growing English department. With recently published literary publications like Sequoya (the arts and literature magazine) and the Humanities Review, St. John’s’ English department has demonstrated the type of hard-working character often considered antonymous to English students.