Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Jumping off the Cliff and Learning to Fly on the Way Down: Shared Expertise, Shared Input, and Shared Responsibility as the Building Blocks of a Volunteer Writing Mentor Program

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Jumping off the Cliff and Learning to Fly on the Way Down: Shared Expertise, Shared Input, and Shared Responsibility as the Building Blocks of a Volunteer Writing Mentor Program

Article excerpt

This reflection-on-practice reports on a small-scale Writing Mentor program started in 2013 at Ghent University in Belgium. Though not a fully-fledged writing center, the Writing Mentor program is based on writing center theory and pedagogy. Students volunteer to support other students with their writing, using the minimalist method (Brooks). When we started, writing centers were all but unknown in our context (De Wachter et al.; Leuriden et al.).

Three years into our program, Thijs, one of the mentors, as part of his master's thesis, undertook an empirical evaluation of the program. His data revealed programmatic success: students were generally satisfied with mentor support, which helped them gain confidence or motivation. A comparison of pre- and post-mentoring texts indicated that sessions with mentors also facilitated students' ability to handle HOC (higher-order concern) issues such as focus and cohesion (Gillioen). We were happy but a bit surprised by these findings. When we started, none of us knew what we were doing; we had proceeded with a "jump off the cliff and learn to fly on the way down" modus operandi. When faced with evidence of success, none of us could pinpoint how we managed to keep our small mentor program from splatting at the bottom of the cliff. To explore this question, seven of the charter members undertook a focus group study.

This article is the story the focus group has to tell. Before we go into detail, we should mention that we are writing to two audiences: first, to those who are part of established writing centers--and to whom the idea of a writing center, and how it is run, is obvious: we would like to thank you for your wisdom and guidance. Publications like WLN, where those with experience generously share information, have been instrumental in our learning to fly. We would also like to serve as a reminder that there are still far-flung places where writing centers/writing mentor programs are not yet established as mainstream practice--and put in a plea for your continued wisdom, guidance, and patience for those of us just starting out. Our second audience is those who feel that a writing center or mentor program is a good idea, but have no idea where to start: we offer a message of encouragement. Just start. Jump off the cliff. You won't splat.

We first offer an overview of how we collected and analyzed data, then discuss themes that emerged from analysis. The section headings that follow are direct quotes from focus group discussions, with the name of person quoted appearing in parentheses. These headings capture the essence of each theme, while the sections summarize the thematic data. The casual tone used in the summaries is intended to reflect the collegial atmosphere of our group meetings.

1 FOCUS GROUP SET-UP

1.1 "Well... I wonder how we pulled it off" (Sarah).

When Thijs presented the positive data from his master's project to the Writing Mentor group, we were pleased, but a little puzzled. When we started the program, none of us had much knowledge about what we should do or how to proceed. Sarah, the writing teacher involved, had only theoretical knowledge of writing center pedagogy, and none of the students had ever even heard of writing centers or writing mentors. We had no budget and no allocated rooms. We first met in empty classrooms and later squatted in rooms that had been vacated due to impending renovation. Along with no money and no space, everyone was working on a volunteer basis, so there never seemed to be enough time to do any proper planning. The only real ingredients we had were the knowledge that students needed help with their writing and the desire to help them. We were aware that we were probably doing many things wrong.

To explore what might have gone right, and how, we set up a focus group. Of sixty students who had initially been asked to help start the writing mentor program, thirty had persevered through the first year, twenty had returned to continue for a second year, and fifteen for a third year. …

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