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The Writing Fellows

Making it crystal clear...our words define us

By by Stephanie Shestakow ’98

The goal of Barnard’s writing fellows program is simple: It’s meant to help every student write better, no matter what her major. An invaluable resource for the college community since 1991, the program is staffed by undergraduates who receive a semester’s worth of training from Pam Cobrin, director of writing and speaking programs at Barnard. Once trained, these students help their peers strengthen their writing skills, serving as “educated readers” and emphasizing the process of writing. The program also incorporates the Erica Mann Jong ’63 Writing Center, which was established in 1996. Jong ’63, the world-famous writer for whom the Center is named, continues to support the program, and agrees that the sooner students learn to develop their writing, the better. “In college we are open to new ideas. It’s the ideal time to craft these skills,” she says.

Women who write well across many topics will fare well beyond the classroom in today’s age of the Internet, where nonfiction writing has become increasingly important. As Jong observes, “On the Internet, we are our words. Whether we are scientists, lawyers, political theorists, or artists we are defined by the way we use language. More than ever we need language to be vivid; it may be all people know of us.”

In a very selective process, Cobrin seeks students to become fellows who are flexible in their thinking and excellent communicators, and who possess knowledge of writing structures and rules. Since the program is dedicated to writing across the curriculum, fellows represent a full range of majors. They are then committed to working a minimum of three semesters; in any given term there will be 45 fellows. Coordinating all this activity of the writing and speaking programs as well as day-to-day operations is Cecelia Lie ’11.

Students who wish to enlist the help of a writing fellow can seek appointments on an individual, as-needed basis. They may also come in contact with them through a course connected with the Center. Barnard faculty can request fellows to be attached to their courses to help students in the class with several written assignments over the semester. The professor meets with the fellow to go over the nature of the assignments, each of which has two due dates. The fellow reads the first draft before she meets with the student writer to review comments and suggestions. The second draft is the final version submitted to the instructor for grading. Although the Center does not track the grades of students who seek help, the constant wait list for appointments and the high demand from the faculty are two measures of the program’s success.

Feedback from faculty over the years has been positive. Gail Archer, professor of professional practice and director of the music program, whose “Introduction to Music” course has been associated with the program from the beginning, finds that her students are more concise, better organized, and use language more elegantly after working with fellows. Sharon Harrison of the economics department requests fellows for her “First Year Seminar,” which includes drafting an op-ed piece and an analytical paper. “It’s good to have someone for the students to talk with about these assignments. The fellows help with developing ideas at the early stages,” she says. 

For the student seeking individual consultation, a fellow can relieve some of the stress of writing a paper. Lucy Hunter ’12, an art-history major and current fellow, says that people arriving at the Center in tears often feel better after listening to constructive feedback. She adds, “In an hour, a miserable student can become invigorated about her topic and excited for the work ahead. Peer-to-peer discourse drains the intensity.” A kind, helpful, and enthusiastic fellow can make all the difference; Gladyn Innocent ’14, an English and Africana studies major, wanted to be a writing fellow for this reason. Innocent collaborated with a writing fellow during a Barnard pre-college program and says that the ways in which writing was discussed, and the methods with which the fellow guided her through her own thoughts were “amazing.”

What are the most common writing issues faced by Barnard students? “I don’t think of writing mechanics in terms of problems,” remarks Hunter. She notices the most pronounced trend is a resistance to arguing; students are reluctant to criticize existing scholarship. Working with a fellow, the focus is on intellectual communication. This encourages students to feel more authorized to tackle a special topic and to have authority over their content. The fellow is not there to correct grammar (“You can have a paper with perfect grammar but no idea,” says Cobrin), but to include grammar, structure, and ideas as part of the same package. A student gets to hear what her writing sounds like to a non-judgmental reader often outside the subject area. 

While fellows push students to go into other forums of written expression with confidence, fellows are strengthening their own papers. Innocent says her writing benefits from revising and assisting with others’ work. Her communication skills, including public speaking, have improved as well. “Creating a conversation with people whom I do not know has become easier,” she says. 

The Writing Center and writing fellows program represent much more than coaching writers. Jong sees the work of the Center and its fellows as the epitome of mentorship. “Mentoring is the new feminism,” she says. “It’s vitally important that we learn how to mentor each other. The creation of culture is not a solitary skill. Women need to practice collaboration.” As a mentor, Innocent fully invests herself in the work, becoming as anxious as the student awaiting reception of a paper. Hunter avers it is about inclusion and creative democracy, noting that power hierarchies reward the fluent and disenfranchise the untaught. It is also about agency—who is active and who is passive. Crafting a convincing argument in a paper is about the active voice, making a claim, and supporting it. Perhaps this explains the writing fellow program’s informal motto: “Join the Revolution.”

Latest IssueWinter 2023