Consultant Makena Gitobu Wins Thomas West Gregory Award

Makena Gitobu receives Gregory Award I made these remarks last month during Commencement-weekend festivities on campus. I want to share them here so those who were not present, as well as Makena’s family, can read them. Thank you again, Makena, for your hard work for the Writing Center and your professors!

The Thomas West Gregory Award is named for a faculty member who, for many years, advised students seeking certification to teach English and is presented to the senior whom the English faculty judge to be the best English major preparing to teach.

This year’s winner of the Gregory Award is Makena Gitobu.

I met Makena when she was invited to join our Writing Consultant program in the fall of 2021. She trained with me the following semester then worked in our Center and with faculty directly, assigned to their courses. In that capacity, she did work we would normally associate with a graduate teaching assistant. For example, she wrote commentary on student drafts and held one-on-one writing conferences, a job that is both emotionally demanding and intellectually challenging.

During Makenna’s years at Richmond, she has demonstrated a consistent enthusiasm for this work. Makena wrote in a final project for me how she assisted a struggling peer named Jack. After asking Jack about his essay prompt, “I asked, in the simplest language possible, how he had planned to answer the question that the prompt was asking. This gave me a window into his thinking process, showing how he had decided to tackle the key elements of the prompt. Now that Jack had let me into his initial thinking process, I could address the paper’s macro-level issues with a strong idea of his desired direction.”

This approach embodies a semester of training in a single tutoring session.

Furthermore, I am not alone in recognizing Makena’s many talents. As my colleague Dr. Elizabeth Outka notes, “Makena radiates intelligence and POSE.  A dynamic thinker and writer, she has been an essential part of the English Department since she arrived on campus.”

Dr. Kevin Pelletier appreciates our award winner’s interpersonal skills, stating ” Makena is such a gem. Smart, a fabulous writer, so so funny, beloved by all her peers, and as charming as they come. I’m really going to miss her.”

I will too. Her intelligence, as well as empathy for others will shine in a classroom, when Makena stands on the instructor’s side of the desk.

So please join me in congratulating this year’s Gregory Award winner, Makena Gitobu.

Writing Consultant of the Year, Emily Churchill

Emily with Joe EssidThis year, as we have done annually for a long time, the faculty recognize a graduating Senior who has impressed us with the assistance provide to student writers. Emily Churchill has an additional honor: she received three simultaneous nominations from the faculty she’s assisted, a record in our program’s history.

Emily is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with majors in LALIS & Global Studies, and a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies. She was first recommended to be a writing consultant by Dr. Aurora Hermida-Ruiz when she was a student in her FYS section, “Time & the City of Seville.” That summer, she had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Herimda-Ruiz to Seville for five weeks on a summer study abroad program. 

Dr. Stephen Long in Political Science and Dr. Olivier Delers in The Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures also nominated Emily for work in their classes.

Throughout her time at Richmond, Emily studied abroad a total of six times, including two summers in Seville, a summer in Morocco, an academic year in Granada, Spain, a civic fellowship in Ecuador, and a one-week trip to Santiago, Chile with Dr. Pribble’s Latin American Politics class. 

On campus, she served as the Study Abroad Peer Advisor in addition to serving as a Writing Consultant. As she told me, “Both positions have allowed me to mentor underclassmen and form lasting connections with the Richmond community.  My long-term plan is to take a few years to travel, do research, and work in NGOs before pursuing a PhD in Hispanic Studies. I hope to write fiction in addition to producing academic research throughout my career.”

This summer she will be working in San Isidro, Costa Rica with the organization, Amigos de las Americas, which provides service-learning trips for high school students. 

I want to congratulate Emily for her hard work and thank all the Consultants and Faculty who were nominated and who will return to campus to work with student writing again in the Fall.

Working With Your Writing Consultant or Faculty Member: Best Practices

Every semester I survey the Writing Consultants. Without naming names, they note how faculty employed their helpers well or might have made better use of them. By the same token, faculty surveys reveal a few issues that Consultants should address.

This post lays out advice that has worked since 1992, when the program of assigning Consultants (then called Writing Fellows) began.

For Consultants

  • Contact your faculty member early, and let me know if you do not hear back from her within a week or ten days.
  • Meet the faculty member personally to discuss deadlines, expectations, and any professorial “pet peeves” or disciplinary secrets you can use when meeting writers. Warn faculty members of your own busy weeks.
  • Visit class if you can, to meet the writers so they can pair a name with a face. It’s good to do so early in the term, and also on days when assignments get discussed. You are paid for all contact hours, workshops, and class visits.
  • Conferences should not be scheduled in 15 minute blocks. I expect them to run at least 30 minutes on the schedule. If a writer is eager to leave early, of course, wrap things up. Overly short meetings, however, serve no one well.
  • After a set of conferences, e-mail or meet your faculty member to discuss how things went. Do not use the online summary form we use at the Center and in 383; that is for Writing-Center shift work only or if you see a friend or person outside your usual assignment to a class (we like to have some record of who we saw for hourly work, for our annual assessment).
  • Let me know if, by midterm, your services have not been employed. We will find you some other duties.
  • If a faculty member dumps a lot of work on you at a terrible time, let me know as well. We’ll find you a helper.
  • When you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

For Faculty

  • Mandatory conferences, one before midterm and one after, provide Consultants the chance to help writers as they develop. In my sections, failures to submit drafts or meet the Consultant are penalized the equivalent of a letter grade.
  • If you make conferences optional, only 25% of writers will show up, on average. As one Consultant reminded me recently, those who show up are “typically the students who need the least help.”
  • Let the Consultant arrange the conference scheduling. Many of them use a Google-based sign-up sheet and lock it down after a while so writers cannot change times at the last moment.
  • Changing deadlines can cause problems when a Consultant has a busy semester. As Dr. Sydney Watts once reminded me “their first job is to be students, not Writing Consultants.” Well said.
  • Conversely, keep the Consultant well employed. This is a paid job; if you prefer to have Consultants only see one paper, let me know so they can find other work to supplement their income that semester.
  • Consultants need a week or ten days between getting drafts and your getting them back, for a typical FYS section of 16 writers.
  • As noted for the Consultants, when you have an English-Language Learner who needs continued assistance you feel unable to provide, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with Dr. Leslie Bohon-Atkinson, who does ESL work for the university, both one-on-one work and through classes.

We look forward to working with all of you in the coming semester!

Writing Consultant of the Year, 2018: George Katsiotis

Each year, I ask faculty to nominate a Writing Consultant who has gone the extra mile helping writers do their best work.  We then give an award to a graduating senior. I want to thank Dr. Erik Craft in Economics for nominating our winner; he also nominated George last year!

In this year’s nomination, Professor Craft noted of George:

He has been consistently proactive, making numerous good suggestions, pushing me toward using new technologies to edit papers. My students report the value of meeting with him. He is flexible enough to accept my timelines for turning around papers. He volunteers to come to class to be introduced to the students. Last year, he met more often with one student who particularly required assistance, in part because English was not her mother tongue.

George, a native of Greece, has a double major in Leadership Studies and Political Science. He’s minoring in Economics, which made him a perfect partner for the students in Dr. Craft’s First-Year Seminar, “Inequality and Ethics.” The course description notes that FYS students study “income inequality, but we will investigate inequality in lifespan and education as well.”

After graduation, George will be the Supervisor of a YMCA camp in Thessaloniki, Greece, with many employees and over 400 youngsters to manage!

George met Richmond students to review drafts of essays he received in advance, and as with all Consultants, he followed a somewhat nondirective pedagogy of not proofreading. Instead, he helped writers find their central arguments if those were not clear, identify systematic errors at the local and global scale; he made a representative correction of a repeated mistake in order to teach each writer to self-correct other instances.

In addition to his work for our program, George worked as a Peer Advisor and Mentor since his first year at Richmond. He also helped in the Office of Admissions with the International Admissions team.

We want to thank all our graduating Consultants for their hard work and we wish them the best in the big world beyond our campus gates.

Spinning the Plates in a Writing Center

Like Spinning Plates

Image credit: used under rights permitted by Jameson Gagnepain at Flickr

This post began as a reply to Jared Odd, the Writing Center Director at Lindsey Wilson College. Professor Odd wrote to the national e-list for Writing Across the Curriculum, asking for advice about managing a Fellows-based program at small colleges. At times, such as our current semester, I feel like one of the performers who keeps about 30 fragile plates spinning on the ends of skinny poles.

Richmond’s program for what we now call “Writing Consultants” now enters its 21st year.  How we have managed has become a little more daunting recently, with only 3,200 undergraduates and the need to staff 50+ sections with Writing Consultants while keeping a Writing Center open. My post covers a few bedrock principles and recent challenges.

  • The Training Class Must Be Strong: We don’t shortchange Consultant training at Richmond. All of them must complete a semester-long course, Eng. 383, that is by invitation of our faculty.  I could rush through 100 new Consultants in a couple of weeks of basic training, but I fear they’d be unethical editors, fixing writers’ problems but not making them better writers. Faculty would consider the help intellectually lacking, and I’m not about to dumb-down our commitment to fundamental ideas of peer work, long established in the field and tested well in our program. I find that recruiting my 36 new Consultants each year, 18 trained each semester, can staff the program. This has worked well at the similar-sized program at Swarthmore, long a model for WAC at Richmond. Except…
  • The Busy Student Body Must Notice Us: It is hip to be stressed out and over-committed on this campus. Strike one for staying on student radar, as a program or potential employer. Study abroad, a wonderful opportunity that I want every student to experience, has gradually become nigh universal for our first-semester juniors.  Strike Two. Then there are internships, independent study, summer research, the hum of non-academic but seemingly essential social obligations…Strike Three. For these reasons, over time, more and more students delayed taking Eng. 383 until their third or even fourth years. Having sown this wind for a few years, in May 2013 I reaped the whirlwind, finding about 20 of our trained Consultants walking across the stage in their caps and gowns. Then, this term, another 15 went abroad. Thus we are scrambling to staff 50+ sections and keep the Writing Center open with 37 Consultants. Usually, I employ 50.
  • The Director Must Appeal to Potential Consultants Early and in the Right Way: My doubling-down on recruitment began early this semester. I notified faculty teaching first-year seminars that a crisis was at hand; I would depend upon them to bring me more first-and-second-year recruits. So far, a few are drifting in, but I will appeal as well to the students directly. Paying Consultants well helps, but students want more than a job today. Students at Richmond want a path to a post-collegiate career or graduate school. Working as a Consultant here means a better chance of landing a graduate assistantship or job with a communications focus. I count EBSCO, Penguin, and The National Archives among the employers of recently graduated Consultants.
  • Faculty in all Fields Must Become Partners: I have never felt that putting a writing program in a “silo” works well. First of all, writing has historically been under-staffed and under-underfunded. Susan Miller’s “sad woman in the basement” was more than a brilliant metaphor in her book Textual Carnivals. It was the fact on the ground (and beneath the ground) for a long time. Now that the Humanities themselves are in national crisis, writing programs cannot necessarily count on English departments with diminishing institutional clout for support. Program directors will need to sit down with Mathematicians and Economists and Sociologists, too, to determine local needs, priorities, and resources. These faculty will also serve as recruiters for those new student employees to keep WAC efforts vital.

I remain convinced, after more than two decades doing this work (with some very pleasant side trips into educational technology, the design of simulations, and more) that writing programs will thrive because our colleagues and administrators share our concern, if not necessarily our values, about writing instruction. The Director’s job, as the public face of writing on campus, is to be certain that the “center remains in the Center,” or wherever else writing instruction is housed currently. My greatest fear is that other units of a college or university, hungry for influence and budget, could gobble up WAC and Writing Centers.

We should not let that happen, since with merger may come a pedagogy we have worked so hard to avoid in our teaching and tutoring.