Brian Hotson is editor-in-chief of the WLNBlog and Director of Academic Learning Services at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS.
Each August, our centre holds a two-day Summer Writing Workshop. Its main purpose is to provide incoming, first-year students an opportunity to experience writing at a university level prior to September. It’s also a chance for students to make friends and meet professors. There is a lecture from which students use as a means to write a short paper, the instruction of the two days focussed on this paper. Usually 70-75 students—of an incoming class of 900-1200 students—register. The program is voluntary with a fee of $200, which includes materials and meals.
As an icebreaker on day one, I give each student two file cards. On one card, I asked them to write their name and something they’d like others to know about themselves. On a second card, I ask them to write a question they like to ask a professor (we have a Q&A with professors at the end of day two), and what they are most afraid of in coming to university. Many of our students are first generation students. Their expectations of themselves are very high, without any experience of how such expectations might be met.
I have kept these cards over the years. Each is a personal account of a young person on the threshold. The anonymity of the cards provides a startlingly frank openness into these students’ emotion. For me, it’s not the fear that is insightful, but the bravery of their openness and their willingness to use this openness to try something new.
University is a chance to learn from mistakes. Drafting is an ongoing second chance, a means to understanding the process of thinking, as well as thinking about thinking. I read these cards before my opening talk of the workshop. I try to insert into the talk words from the cards, and let the other staff presenting during the workshop know of the contents of the cards. This one I keep pinned to my bulletin board.
Writing makes the writer vulnerable. Tutoring is an intimate relationship with the writer and their content. Empathy from the tutor of the writer’s vulnerability allows for the space to examine content. It also opens the writer/tutor relationship to seeing the process of writing.
Fear is difficult to acknowledge in a tutoring session. Empathy doesn’t mean making the tutee happy; happiness isn’t always the best antidote for fear. Alleviating fear is possible by acknowledging in the problems of the writer, and helping the writer to see the process of writing and to solve problems in their writing. The tutee doesn’t need to leave a session happy, but less fearful of their course, assignment, or of the university.
I have found over the years—and this may just be because of the kind of student who comes to the workshop—that new students want to be pushed and challenged at the outset. While there is fear, some are excited by the newness of it all.
Even though our workshop is about writing (or thinking about writing), few questions or fears are about writing directly. A few years ago, well into the first term, a student who attended the workshop stopped me, “I thought it was going to suck, but it really helped!”
The great majority of the fears are centred around friendships, loneliness, and social anxiety. As the majority of the students in the workshop graduated from high school in June, the social complexity of that environment is still very much on their minds.
Most important to the workshop is that the students are able to make a friend by the end. In the opening icebreaker, the second card, with their name and some information to share, is passed to someone near to them they do not know. Then that person stands and introduces the person on the card.
Over the years, it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences to see students who made friends during those two days become BFFs throughout university, and, in one case, life-partners. They make the writing centre a place to come during the first weeks of school. For some, the centre becomes a place of safety as they transition in, through, and out.