Writing Fellows, listening fellows

by Kate Gester, Writing Fellow ’16

First published in the Columbia Spectator:  http://columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2015/05/04/writing-fellow-listening-fellows

As a Barnard Writing Fellow, I spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about writing. I read papers on The Hymn to Demeter and term papers on architecture. One student even had to write a paper on English butter. However, my job isn’t all about writing and reading: it’s also about listening.

I read papers, but I also listen as students explain their thoughts beyond and around the page. I listen to frustrations: about professors, the American university system, writer’s block, deadlines. I make comments, suggestions, I nod and say “mmhmm.” I listen to my peers, listen to them talk about writing, all in a non-judgmental, peer-to-peer environment.

There aren’t a lot of spaces to talk about writing on campus. University Writing and First-Year English and Seminar focus heavily on college-level writing, but what other classes are specifically about writing? Writing seems to be a skill we are expected to have at Columbia; we are expected to be able to communicate our ideas in English in a structured, clear manner. We’re meant to express our ideas, our thoughts, our arguments, and cite other arguments and adhere to our professors’ criteria. This is a difficult task. It’s especially difficult when your first language is not English, or your secondary schooling did not focus on teaching writing. I listen to all the frustration that comes along with these obstacles.

While these factors alter how the student and I communicate, the basic structure always holds: I am always listening deeply. I pay close attention and take notes on what I hear. I spend time only listening, giving careful attention to the student’s perspective and needs. In the conference, our desire and sometimes struggle to understand each other becomes a fruitful space to sharpen arguments and consider new perspectives.

Writing Fellows provide a unique space on campus, one where students have the opportunity to talk about writing to someone both within and outside of the institution. Sometimes, it’s confusing what we represent: we are students, not TAs or professors, and we don’t grade anyone’s work. We become intermediaries for our peers: we are educators who can critique work, but we are also peers who will listen and empathize as a friend would. In this way, it is a safe space: one where students’ ideas and frustrations can be vented and considered.

However, it is also a “dangerous” space, one where we can question the institutional guidelines of writing. It is a radical space, one where ideas are challenged, one where (I hope) students are not afraid to write outside the lines.

My listening focuses on the student. While students have a lot of valid concern for what their professors will think, I encourage them to follow their own judgement. I let them ask if a conclusion is really necessary. I listen when their passion veers from their assigned topic and try to find ways to incorporate it into the final product. I help outline and re-outline and see all the different arrangements of an argument, all while putting utmost care in making sure the student’s ideas are understood clearly. I spend more time listening than I do talking. While I do ask questions, I mainly listen and take notes on what the student answers. My attitude is not “how can I make this paper better?” but rather, “how can I make sure this student’s voice is heard both on and off the page?”

A session with a Writing Fellow is a rare and beneficial opportunity to spend 30-40 minutes talking only about your paper with someone. I go to the Writing Center myself for that very reason. It’s like a two-person class on a text written by one of the members. It’s not often we have an open space of discussion of student writing like that.

When papers are often written in silence and read in silence, it’s important to shatter that silence every once in a while. The student benefits from having their work critically examined, and I benefit from engaging with the students’ perspective. It’s a beautiful exchange—a balance of writing, talking, and listening.