The faces behind Transylvania’s acclaimed Writing Center

The following feature article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Third + Broadway magazine, scheduled for delivery in June.

“It was at this point that the transition was first made to the conception that rhetoric was a teachable skill, that it could … be passed from one skilled performer on to others, who might thereby achieve successes in their practical life that would otherwise have eluded them.”

— Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric

The face of writing

Most of us can remember learning grammar — parsing sentences and practicing subject-verb agreements.

Many of us remember spelling tests and saying aloud with our schoolmates, “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c … .’”

But do you remember learning to write? Do you remember who taught you to take those jumbled ideas in your head and transfer them to paper in a pathway of paragraphs and pages? It seems most of us probably don’t.

Could it be because we’ve always known how? From the moment we began making up stories as toddlers, or telling our parents what we did that day, we’ve been telling stories, organizing our thoughts in a way that communicates what it is we want to say.

We’ve always been writers. It’s building our toolkit — the research, the knowledge of literature, the tricks and turns of phrases — that gives us the confidence to call ourselves that. Writing is a skill that we all have, but it’s a skill that can be developed with intentional training and learning from others.

That’s what Aristotle was referring to when he called rhetoric — his word for communication — a teachable skill that adds tangible value to our lives. And perhaps that’s what alumni mean when they say, over and over, that they learned to write at Transylvania.

“That’s one of the foundations to a traditional liberal arts education,” says Scott Whiddon, professor of writing, rhetoric, and communication. “It’s the DNA of what we do.”

Whiddon talks about writing like a parent talks about their children. It involves discipline and love and frustration and breakthrough and fear, but it’s always evolving — and never boring.

Scott Whiddon
Scott Whiddon is director of Transylvania’s Writing Center.

He’s the director of Transylvania’s Writing Center, a campus hub of creativity and mentorship located in the library’s Academic Center for Excellence. His team of staffers spend time every week — approximately 800 hours a year — working with their fellow students, in one-on-one and group sessions helping them build their own toolkits. They also hold workshops in classes around campus, helping faculty carry out their own writing assignments.

It’s not about fixing papers or correcting typos. It’s about intentional conversation on the goals of an assignment, on supporting a thesis, on breaking rules and not being afraid to let your personality shine in your piece.

“This space is sort of a cross between a recording studio and a personal trainer,” he says.

Wait — hear him out. In addition to his teaching, Whiddon has been a working musician since he was 16 years old.

“In a recording studio, you have to actively listen, collaborate, figure out the end product and allow yourself the benefit of surprise. You have to have a really good sense of genre and know the shape of things.

“But you go to a personal trainer with a specific set of goals in mind, and you go regularly and keep building on that bar set, and through that process you end up with an exceptional product.”

That strategy has grown the Writing Center into the force that it is today — 20 staffers, fully trained, working with students from all years, all majors and all skill levels.

Potential staffers are recommended to Whiddon, who puts them through a semester-long training practicum where they learn to be effective teachers and collaborators. From reading scholarly research on good writing center practice, to shadowing current staffers, to role-playing scenarios, the students soak up the Writing Center’s values of collaboration, creativity and community.

Once they become full staffers, they get requests submitted by students looking for writing assistance — they call them “patrons” — and meet one on one to help with anything from brainstorming to citing sources to clarity to length. They often find that what the patrons are really seeking is confidence in their work.

“One of the most common questions patrons have is ‘Does it make sense?’” says junior staffer Isaac Settle. “Nine times out of 10, it does — that’s not the issue. What they usually want is affirmation.”

The staffers consistently talk about the importance of making the patron feel comfortable in the sessions, that it’s the best way to bring out confident and creative writing. It’s hard when students are working on so many papers, trying to perfectly fulfill the assignment’s requirements, to coax them into truthfully expressing themselves, but that emphasis is one of the things that makes Transy’s Writing Center so unique.

Transy Writing Center
Writing Center staffer Chetali Jhamnani ’19 (left) says it’s important to establish rapport with students.

“I always start by welcoming them to the Writing Center, by introducing myself,” says senior staffer Chetali Jhamnani. “It’s really important to get a rapport with students, especially if you haven’t worked with them before. A lot of people are scared to talk about their writing, and you have to help them get comfortable.”

Senior staffer Jewell Boyd echoes the importance of being at ease in writing. “If they’re not comfortable, they’re either not willing to make changes in their writing, or they’ll just take every single thing you say and do it immediately,” she says. “And that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for collaborative effort.”

This method and its success has earned the Writing Center national recognition. In addition to being asked to present at various conferences around the country, Transy’s Writing Center has been honored with the 2018 Martinson Award by the Small Liberal Arts College Writing Program Administrators, as well as three Christine Cozzens Research and Initiative Awards from the Southeastern Writing Center Association.

Transy’s Writing Center was the brainchild of WRC professor Martha Gehringer, who, in the late 1980s, observed a need for students to get extra help with their writing. Nationwide, there was a movement to instill the value of writing into all programs and across all curricula, and at the same time pedagogical research was placing a greater emphasis on collaborative learning and writing, showing that students learn particularly well and get quality attention from each other.

Gehringer was able to get a work-study student — Lisa Jones ’89, who sat outside her office in a partition — and the two of them worked with students on their writing. They were the first Writing Center. Listening to Gehringer talk about her vision from 30 years ago, the value system is strikingly familiar to how the Writing Center functions today.

“It’s not about rules, it’s not about forms. It’s about learning to think like a writer — you have to experience it,” she says. “It’s a way that you don’t necessarily learn from teachers. You learn from watching others.”

As the Writing Center grew, Gehringer’s office was moved to the basement of what was then Haupt Humanities so that they could have more space for more staffers and patrons. Students started coming in, not just for help on their academic assignments, but on their personal essays and poems. One student asked Gehringer for help on how to get a poem published.

“I said, ‘You don’t have to know how to publish it — go write it on my door,’” Gehringer says. “So she wrote her poem on my door and signed it and dated it. I said, ‘It’s published.’ Next thing I knew, people were flocking to write poems
on my door.”

Gehringer’s door filled up with poems. Shy students would write on the edges or even on the inside so you couldn’t read them when it was closed. During a time when writing was really beginning to flourish at Transy, the door stood as a symbol of its great potential, of playfulness and permanence and power that remain deeply instilled in the culture of writing that exists here today.

“That’s what I inherited from Martha Gehringer, and the seed of what we do here,” Whiddon says.

The door sits in the Writing Center as a reminder.

Very often you’ll hear a Transy student say that they write a lot. Depending on the student’s state of mind, that statement could be exciting or exhausting, freeing or terrifying. But it’s universally true — Transy students write. They may study English, business, anthropology, German, philosophy, physics, but they will write.

It can be daunting when you don’t know what to expect. Transy has set up courses for first-year students — First-Year Seminar and First-Year Research Seminar — that help give them an idea of the kind of writing that will be expected of them as students here. Most students taking those courses will end up in the Writing Center at some point or another — staffers often say that those are their favorite patrons to work with — and that relationship is a great way to set the tone for the university’s culture of writing.

“I consider myself someone who loved writing before coming to college,” Jhamnani says. “I don’t think I was as confident coming in, though. But I’ve definitely gotten better at it. FYS and FYRS prepare you to be a college academic writer. And I’ve taken a lot of writing classes and the Writing Center practicum, and all of that combined has really helped me develop as a writer.”

An international student who grew up in Liberia, Jhamnani is a biology major who was just accepted into graduate school for medical sciences at the University of Kentucky. She plans to go to medical school or possibly to continue studying in the sciences. And she’s a writer.

Settle is a double major in history and political science who is preparing to go to law school. And he’s a writer.

Boyd is a WRC major whose dream is to work in publishing. Of course she’s a writer.

Look at the Writing Center’s appointment log in any given semester, and you’ll find every major represented. There may be no better testament to the way writing has become intertwined throughout disciplines.

“Writing is embedded at Transy,” Settle says. “You’re going to get better, even if you don’t really care to get better. That’s a beneficial tool that Transy has. Think about all the applications and resumes you’ll be doing. Think about writing emails — do you know how many emails I get that don’t make any sense?

“The writing I do now, I assume, will be different from the writing I do in graduate school. But I’ve been exposed to a lot of different types of writing. After working in the Writing Center, I wouldn’t be as scared to tackle a paper in another discipline. It’s professional development for my own writing.”

Seeing his staffers excel in their lives and careers is just as rewarding to Whiddon as seeing Writing Center patrons blossom in their own academics. He gets emails and cards from them, marveling at how they’ve become professors, surgeons, lawyers, parents. He sees how being a part of the writing culture at Transylvania has instilled in them warmth and curiosity and active listening. He and some of the current staffers recently unveiled a new research project where they will be surveying Writing Center alumni and getting a sense of how working in the Writing Center influenced their lives.

“I have the best colleagues imaginable — they just happen to be undergraduates,” he says. “The maturity they have — they’re the face of writing at this college.”

“The students who are staffers can get into any school in the world because they can write,” Gehringer adds. “They can take any question and see how to get it to the page in ways that you couldn’t teach them in the classroom. They’re patient. They’ll give you time. They’re learning by teaching.”

Those values aren’t much different from what makes any liberally educated student successful. Look at the quality of writing at a liberal arts institution, and you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of the quality of the education. The two always inform each other. At Transy, the results speak for themselves.