Confessions & Concerns of a New WA – A Letter of Encouragement

Talia Greenberg ’15 assuages the fears of brand-new Writing Associates.


Dear new Writing Associates,

Congratulations on your new job in the Writing Associates Program! This is a really exciting job- you get to help people grow as writers and students, and meanwhile, you get to learn about disciplines you may never have read about otherwise. You will probably grow as a writer yourself in addition to improving as a tutor as you continue to work as a WA. But beginning any new experience can also elicit anxiety, and acknowledging that your work affects others can make your job feel like a lot of pressure. In the hopes of alleviating some of your fears, I will share below the concerns that I had upon beginning as a Writing Associate and what I’ve learned over the past 11 weeks in becoming a more confident and effective WA.

I’ve never taken an English class.

You are a smart person and a critical thinker- that’s why you’re at Oberlin. You can reason through a logical presentation of ideas and analyze its pitfalls. You can speak English and understand its structures either as a native speaker who intuits the grammar or as someone who consciously put effort into learning the language and can recognize common confusions. And you know how to communicate your ideas- you’ve certainly been asking to do so in various forms throughout your college experience, and you’ve been communicating your thoughts for your whole life. While I imagine that English classes do help you think about language, really just speaking English is enough. Your brain is incredibly capable of understanding language whether you’ve spent time studying literature or not.

PS: Remember that this course is called Teaching and Tutoring Writing Across the Disciplines– English is only ONE subject that we work with and actually only represents a small fraction of the papers I’ve seen in the Writing Center.

I don’t know how to format citations and footnotes in a history paper.

You can’t have all the answers. To be honest, neither do your professors- we have access to incredibly knowledgeable faculty, but like us, they likely have little experience outside of their domain of expertise. Within their domains though, they can be an incredible resource. So if a student has a question that you can’t answer due to your lack of experience in the field, refer them back to the professor- they certainly should have the relevant knowledge! It seems so obvious that it almost feels like cheating, but encouraging students to actively seek clarification from their professors is one of the most valuable academic skills we can impart to them.

PS: there are some books in the Writing Center that explain citation methods, and you can also direct students to the Research Help Desk- another great resource in Mudd.

I’ve never been to the writing center.

Before I started working there, I had never been to the Writing Center. Fortunately, the readings in RHET 401 gave me a picture of what goes on in the Writing Center even though I hadn’t experienced it firsthand. Besides, you may have had similar experiences in teaming up with a classmate to give each other advice, chatting with a friend about your idea for a paper before you begin to write it, or doing a writing workshop in class. So don’t fret too much- you will still be able to figure it out. Having said that, do try it out now that you have a better sense of how it could help you (another confession- hypocritically, I have yet to take this advice, but I do plan to!). The students who come to the Writing Center make themselves vulnerable when they walk through that door- maybe you should try doing the same to recognize how they feel.

PS: We are always trying to improve on the Writing Center, the fact that you never utilized this resource can actually be valuable information. Think about why you never chose to go: was it because you were nervous about others reading your writing? Because you thought your paper was in good enough shape already and didn’t need help? Because your papers were too scientific for this kind of service? Because you felt stigmatized walking in that door and sitting in a room you deemed a service for remedial writers while everyone else on first-floor Mudd could see you? Because you didn’t start it until the last minute? Make an effort to make the Writing Center more accessible to students with any of these sentiments- the Writing Center should be for everyone, and recognizing the problems and incorrect assumptions about it can help us to improve it.

What if I give them the wrong advice?

One thing that I didn’t learn until later in the course is: ask, don’t tell. I still struggle to break the habit of acting as the repository of knowledge, telling them my judgments of their moves without considering their motivations as though imparting my superior understanding to the uninformed student. But when you ask them why they did something or whether they think x would work, it not only empowers them, but it also gives lessens the burden on you of being the authority figure with all the answers. This is, after all, the student’s paper, not yours, so they should have agency in the decisions and ownership of both the successes and the mistakes.

PS: You can also encourage students to bring back their papers once they’ve gotten feedback to talk through it together and think about how they could improve next time. (PPS: students won’t actually do this.)

Sure, I’ve gotten good grades on my writing, but that’s just because those assignments are really easy- in my discipline, writing is just a formula- no creativity.

You know more than you think. Learning how to write within a specific discourse is actually very difficult. While it may come naturally to you after 3 or 4 years, the conventions of one discipline are often quite unique and unintuitive to those who haven’t written in that style before. You are somewhat of an expert (well, as college students go) in writing in your major field. Think about what style your discipline calls for and how it differs from other writing you’ve done in various classes.

PS: As a psychology major, I definitely felt this way at the beginning of the course, but it turns out that English majors are just as impressed and intimidated by my writing as I am by theirs!

Best of luck,

~Talia

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