Lessons We Learn: 10 Years of Cologne Centre for Writing Competency

Editor’s note: What do writing centers look like in other parts of the world? In this blog post we get a glimpse into how things are done in Germany at the University of Cologne’s Centre for Writing Competency. Today’s post comes from Esther Breuer, the Director of the Kompetenzzentrum Schreiben at the Universität zu Köln in Germany. She founded the center in 2007.

The Centre for Writing Competency of the University of Cologne was founded in 2007 and is going to celebrate its tenth anniversary this October. Our university is one of the largest state universities in Germany with nearly 50,000 students in six faculties or schools. In the beginning, it was funded by the students’ fees of those at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. After students’ fees were abolished, the Centre remained under this faculty and is supported by a fund set up by our federal state for balancing the budget. We now form a team of eight: one director, one specialist on teaching academic writing, the head of our classes on tutoring, an L1 English tutor, and four students for the coaching. As a result, most of its offers are exclusively for students of the Humanities, or for those students who major or minor in at least one subject at our faculty.

The main objective of the Centre is to coach and support students in the process of writing term papers, Bachelor, Master theses, as well as PhD dissertations. We work with the concept of peer-tutoring. At the beginning, our clients often had difficulties with this concept as they expected to come into an office where a lecturer was going to correct their papers. They expected this lecturer to be an ‘older’ person (from the students’ perspective) who knew how everything was to be done. They did not assume that they had to cooperate (or do the main work) in enhancing their papers, finding the weaknesses as well as workable solutions for coping with these. This passive attitude towards feedback might be the effect of a widely-accepted attitude in Germany that writing is a gift and that one cannot learn how to write well. In former times – and sometimes this is still the case today – professors made students believe that they were not apt for studying if they did not know how to write academic papers. This belief is still implanted in some of the students’ heads, and for them it is hard to understand that writing is a learnable competency that simply needs knowledge of concepts and methods, as well as training.

At the beginning we therefore had to ‘fight’ against prejudice on the students’ as well as on the professors’ side. However, by and by this attitude has changed, and we have become widely accepted, and are valued as being of great benefit for the students. Some students still think that we are an office for correcting their papers but the majority uses our offer of coaching them on a regular basis (once a week) from the beginning of the writing process (finding a topic, preparing the discussion with the lecturer, setting up a time table, writing excerpts, etc.) to the end (enhancing the formatting, the type, revising). Unfortunately, the perception still exists that only people experiencing serious problems in writing should come to us. Thus, many students come not before writing their first term paper but after having failed with their first term paper. That is, in many cases, our peer tutors need to be excellent in motivating and fostering the self-esteem of our visitors.

This demonstrates one of the central topics in academic writing and students’ problems with the process. Although the University of Cologne has some classes on academic writing, they are not obligatory, and they usually only teach academic writing on a very general level, without information for specific subjects. Student novices come to university with the feeling that they are well prepared for writing term papers because of their German lessons at Gymnasium or high school. However, they were not taught how to write academically – from what is plagiarism or how to read and make use of references, to how to structure a good term paper in a logical way. Since many lecturers teach classes of about 100 students, they neither have the time to support each student nor do they have the time to write elaborate comments on the papers that might help students to learn from their mistakes. As a result, students often do not know what they need to concentrate on after having received bad marks, often believing that it is their orthography which needs enhancement (which often is the case, too, but most often they failed because of missing the topic, having insufficient structure, and too little or no use of secondary literature).

In order to enhance this situation, we decided to set up a “class visit” programme in which our colleagues go into classes on specific topics in the subjects and take over up to three lessons in which we teach exactly those academic competencies that are relevant for the classes. At the beginning, we did this by using examples which I thought might be understandable for everybody, independent of subject or topic. This would – I suggested – make preparation for the classes easier, since we would not have to change the content for each class on term papers. The examples chosen were for a topic called “The Gender Issue in Goethe’s Faust” – a topic that is quite easy to grasp, an author that every German knows and a play that is also well-known. However, when testing the lessons in a class on semantics in English Studies, the students noted that the workshop was generally very interesting; however, only students of German literature and not those of English linguistics could make use of it. After this, we changed the approach, using examples that make sense to the students in their specific classes, and indeed the results of the term papers became much better. Another factor is that many more students than before decide to complete the course and hand in their papers (often in the middle range of marks), that is one can see that they understood how the principle of term papers works, removing the fear.

This method of going to classes also has the positive effect that more people get to know us. We have realised that we need personal contact for students to become aware of our programme. Although many students come to our “Long Night of Writing,” which takes place at the end of the semesters, they often misunderstand the advert posters and the information email as being set up by the German department. Only after they have attended the night (and have learned that writing can indeed be fun and that one is not alone in this process) do they understand that being coached in writing is a permanent offer for students’ of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

It is a pity that, until now, most of our offers are exclusively for this group of students. The number of students dropping out of their respective programmes is high in all faculties, and their problems in writing term papers or exams is certainly one of the main reasons for having to leave university without a degree because they either do not write them at all, or they fail. In Germany, we also see that many students with an L2 background drop out of university without a degree, emphasising that this group of students needs better support if we wish to internationalise our universities and learn from other cultures. Because this is a central wish of University of Cologne, we were given the funding to teach students of all faculties to become writing peer tutors. This programme was set up three years ago and is very successful. It is especially good for students of other faculties because we ask our students to support students of the other faculties in which there is no writing centre in their practice phase. What is still ”suboptimal,” however, is that offering all students support is not a permanent part of the programme, and that the peer tutors in this field change rather frequently. We hope that the positive effect of the teaching programme will have an effect on university heads’ perception of the strengths and possibilities of peer tutoring for all students and that we can broaden our target group. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

All in all, one can say that the situation of the Centre for Writing Competency is very specific (in Germany as well as in other contexts), since we support only some of our students. It is also strange that we can support students of Biology in their writing processes when they also study German, History, English or any other subject of philology if they are in the teacher training programme (which requires two subjects that might be located in two faculties, for example), but that we cannot do the same for students who choose Biology and Chemistry. Usually, writing centres coach all students at a university, and it is a pity that we are not able to do this at the moment. However, we are in the process of discussing our work with other institutions of the university and hope that this will change soon. The rather loose structure of the centre and its programme can also be seen as a chance, in that it gives us different options for acting and performing in a less structured way, which opposes the German stereotype of “punctuality, cleanness and neatness” (or in other words: boredom). Needless to say, my wish remains to stabilize the programme a little more – perhaps showcasing that deep inside I am a little bit more prototypically German than I would like to be…

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