Chris Koslowski: A not-so-Sweetland

BY CHRIS KOSLOWSKI

Published January 24, 2010

I’m convinced that the most valuable academic skill that students should learn from their time in college is how to write well. In virtually every career path, the ability to express oneself through writing will be tested in one way or another. From a job application letter to a simple office e-mail, writing is ubiquitous in the workplace.

The University realizes term papers aren’t just a way for professors and GSIs to measure what a student knows. They are part of a vital process through which students learn to master the difficult task of articulating their ideas and communicating through print. Coming out of high school, many students simply aren’t prepared to write on a level the University and most employers deem appropriate.

Luckily, the University works hard to ensure students receive the writing instruction they need. Most colleges — including the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts, the University’s largest school — require students to fulfill first-year and upper-level writing requirements. These checkpoints ensure students’ writing abilities meet certain standards before they can continue earning their degrees. For those seeking help outside the classroom, the University offers the services of the Sweetland Writing Center. This tireless group of faculty and peer tutors does a superb job helping students become better writers.

Last semester, I decided to enroll in the prerequisite training course for future Sweetland peer tutors. Not only did I want to help others improve their writing, but I also hoped that learning how to speak intelligently about writing could help me enrich my own. The experience was marvelous. I gained a newfound respect for both writing instructors as well as students who struggle with academic English yet refuse to quit trying to learn more. But I also learned something about Sweetland’s status within the University’s academic culture that made me question the college’s commitment to the improvement of student writing.

Before enrolling in the Sweetland class, I had never visited the center’s faculty or peer tutors. I had always been told that Sweetland was a resource you used if you were struggling with writing. I saw it as a kind of fix-it shop, separate from LSA’s academic departments, where I could take a paper to have its problems diagnosed, edited and remedied. I didn’t know that Sweetland was designed for all students, regardless of ability, as a place to discuss writing and improve themselves. Sweetland isn’t just a grammar fix-it-shop — it’s a community of writers working together. In Sweetland’s peer-tutoring center, with writers and tutors so close in age and ability, the effects of this community dynamic are evident. Tutors become better writers through tutoring, and visitors improve by working with their tutors.

In my time around Sweetland’s faculty and peer tutors, I learned that many professors and administrators see the writing center as I once did. Sweetland, despite all its incredible work, is still on the fringe of the University’s academic culture, struggling to earn the respect it deserves. Some just can’t shake their view of Sweetland as an editing service or a substitute for remedial education. Nowhere is Sweetland’s separation more evident than the placement of the flagship peer-tutoring center in the basement of Angell Hall.

While Sweetland has two other peer tutoring centers in the Undergraduate Library and Alice Lloyd, the Angell Hall center is the most visited. It’s a cramped, windowless, loud and bare space where tutors constantly battle to shout over four or more other groups in the same room. It’s so hidden that without the sign in the main hallway, most could probably never find it. The tutors try to make their space as inviting as possible, but no amount of sprucing can change the fact that the G219 Angell interferes with the tutoring process itself. This needs to change.

Relocation of the Angell Hall peer tutoring center is long overdue. The University missed a great opportunity to free it from the basement when Haven and Mason Halls were renovated in 2002-2003. The peer tutoring center should be located in a friendly, spacious, accessible room like the Perlman Honors Commons in Mason Hall or the Science Learning Center in the Chemistry Building. Anything less is a slight of an essential component of the University’s writing instruction. If the University really wants to demonstrate their commitment to writing, they will upgrade the peer tutoring center to a more inviting facility. Surely, with a soaring construction budget, it can spare just a little change.

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.