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.


6 Rules for Great Storytelling from a Moth Storyteller

by Alex Horn, Speaking Fellow ’16

Check out the below article outlining best storytelling practices from Margot Leitman, a champion storyteller at The Moth.

“Lesson 2: Have a Few Go-To Stories at the Ready
You should have a polished story or two in your repertoire. You never know when it’ll come in handy, says Leitman, pointing to a moment in Steve Jobs’s original iPhone keynote when the slide deck failed, and he sprung gracefully into a story he had at the ready. “I think it was a story he told socially a million times,” says Leitman. “Probably it worked socially, so he decided to tell it in front of the crowd. To me, it’s the most memorable part of that speech. Rather than talking about the components of the iPhone, he’s taking a moment that makes him human.””


Practice Breeds Competence, Competence Breeds Confidence

by Alejandra Figueroa, Speaking Fellow ’16


I wasn’t always as comfortable as I am now with the prospect of public speaking. During my 8thgrade valedictorian speech, I read off my paper the entire time. College student me would have scolded 8th grade me for that ( I would have told myself to use an outline with bullet points).

The point is, no one grows up feeling confident speaking in large crowds. It takes time to develop those skills and that confidence. That’s why I wanted to share this article I recently came across on Forbes.com, which mentions some popular names in the media and the difficulties they had with public speaking.

We may all think of Julia Roberts as a fantastic actress, but little did we know that she had stuttering issues as a child, and received speech therapy. Now she’s speaking at the Guild Awards! Same goes for Warren Buffet, who was so uncomfortable with public speaking when he was younger that he purposefully avoided college classes where he might be required to make presentations. With diligent practice, he overcame this fear. Same goes for Winston Churchill, who was a lisp and would freeze up early in his political career. Again, what got him through it was diligent practice.

What do these individuals have in common? They practiced! That’s the key to mastering public speaking. As the article concludes, practice breeds competence, and competence breeds confidence.

Certain individuals tend to underestimate how much practice can help us in overall improvement of daily interactions. For instance, I practice in trying to reduce the amount of fillers I use in my everyday speech. There are always aspects that we can improve upon.

Writing Fellows Meet Erica Mann Jong ’63

Barnard’s home page posted three reflections today written by Writing Fellows Claire Daniels ’15, Gabrielle Davenport ’15, and Katy Lasell ’15 about meeting Erica Mann Jong ’63 of our Erica Mann Jong Writing Center this semester. Check them out: http://www.barnard.edu/news/meeting-iconic-writer-erica-mann-jong-63-students-reflect

An excerpt from Katy Lasell:

“In blue velvet cat shoes, and armed with her trademark wit and candor, Jong shared with us stories from her own undergraduate experience at Barnard (“if a man was in the room, there always had to be one foot on the floor” – what, I wondered, could that possibly stop from happening?); advice on how to engage with those who proclaim themselves not to be feminists (“okay, so you want less pay than men? That’s fine.”); and tips on how to be photographed for 10 minutes without losing your mind. (“Breathe. Deeply.”) We also were lucky enough to hear an excerpt from her new novel, Fear of Dying, in which a woman confronts her fading sexuality and her mortality. I assumed these would be exclusively grim topics, but Jong had us laughing on the first page.”

Considering Baltimore: Write-In/Speak-In Reflection Space

Last Wednesday (4/29), the Writing and Speaking Programs sponsored a “Write-in/Speak-in Reflection Space” on Lehman Lawn in response to recent events in Baltimore—and in partnership with the Collective Advocacy Project. At this event, students (hopefully including you!) had the opportunity to speak and/or write about what’s happening in Baltimore from student perspectives. Thank you to everyone who let their voices be heard.

Below are just a few of all the submissions on display on the second floor of Barnard Hall in the Writing and Speaking Center. Please stop by the Center to continue reading each others’ responses and sharing your own. The submissions box will be here until the end of the Spring semester.

We believe this Reflection Space is an opportunity to highlight the political value of student voices and the acts of writing and speaking as mediums for dialogue and political change. We hope you will contribute and be heard!


The Barnard College Writing and Speaking Programs
The Collective Advocacy Project

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Calling All Barnard Students

Co-Authored by Danielle Owen ’17 and Zoe Ehrenberg ’17

Who are the peer tutors who staff the Barnard College Writing Center? To many students, the Writing Fellows are an elite group of white English majors; they wear wide-rimmed Warby Parkers, snobbishly correct their friends if they dare to confuse “there’s” and “theirs”, and provoke uselessly pedantic debates regarding the Oxford comma.

This misperception of the Writing Center is caused by an unawareness of what Writing Fellows really do, and subsequently, why English majors are certainly not the only ones qualified for the job. Following their acceptance into the program, Writing Fellows take a three-credit training course called “The Writer’s Process”. In this class, we do not spend hours memorizing over-scrupulous grammar rules, nor do we simply dissect essays in search of smooth transitions and captivating topic sentences. Grammar rules are a topic of discussion, but we also consider how they may enable elitism and privilege by discrediting the validity of someone’s thoughts. We think about the relationship between identity and all forms of communication. We begin to understand why it is that writers struggle to say what it is they want to say, and what kinds of questions we should ask in order to help them say it. We learn that we can help students with their First-Year English papers, even if we’ve never personally done a close reading of Paradise Lost—knowing nothing about the subject matter of a student’s paper is an advantage. It allows us to ensure that the writer is clearly articulating her ideas to the reader. There is nothing about what we learn or do that necessitates being an English major.

The Writing Center pedagogy is centered around inclusive, collaborative learning. Accordingly, the Fellows themselves should represent the inclusivity central to our mission. All Barnard students write, regardless of major. The process of selecting new WFITs (Writing Fellows in Training) is currently underway. Any Barnard first-year or sophomore who is passionate about writing—about communicating and creating knowledge—has the potential to be a Fellow, regardless of her stance on the Oxford comma.

Who are the Writing Fellows? We are students who often struggle with writing, just as you do. We are empathic and non-directive and we want to enrich your work—not by pointing out grammatical errors (unless you want us to), but by investing in your ideas and thoughts. Our main priority is helping you figure out what it is you want to say, and how to communicate it clearly. The Writing Center is a resource for the Barnard community, and it is essential that Writing Fellows are reflective of the diversity that exists within our student body.