Founded in 1866, the American University of Beirut (AUB) is a teaching-centered research university chartered in New York with its campus in Beirut, Lebanon. Famously known for its logo “that they may have life and have it more abundantly”, the university brings together more than 8,000 students from different social, financial, and educational backgrounds who are granted equal opportunity of higher education. With the exception of its Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages, English is the official language of instruction at AUB. Students are thus expected to demonstrate a level of English proficiency consistent with the demands of academic programs carried on almost exclusively in the English language, and that is where the Writing Center comes into play.
Established in 2004 under the directorship of Dr. Amy Zenger, our Writing Center at AUB performs its mission of supporting the teaching and learning of writing. In that, it organizes workshops, independently and in collaboration with other units of the university, on various writing-related topics. In addition to organizing workshops, the center offers students on both undergraduate and graduate levels support in one-on one or group meetings with trained tutors. In our Writing Center, tutors do not grade, edit, or fix students’ papers. Instead, the focus lies on developing skills that students can implement in their writing projects.
While AUB operates in the English language as aforementioned, the sessions run in both Arabic and English languages. This goes back to the fact that a large body of students is bilingual by nature, with Arabic being their mother tongue and Lebanon’s official language. This unique phenomenon manifests itself in the tutoring sessions where some students feel more comfortable talking about their writing in Arabic while others can easily communicate with tutors in English. However, shifting between the two languages in the tutoring session is not problematic nor does it impact the flow of the session. On the contrary, it represents and enacts bilingualism, spread all over our Lebanese space and context, on a micro-scale level. Whether the sessions run solely in English or are flavored with some Arabic, the vision of our Beirut Writing Center remains unchanged: we aim at making better writers who can eventually make better writings when they discover their own sense of truth and reveal their unique voices in writing.
This goal is approached differently depending on the tutor’s method and the tutee’s persona; and though the approach remains conditional, the sessions are conversation-based ones that are suitable for any stage of the writing process. Trusting that writing is a process and not a mere product, tutors try to navigate students’ attention beyond submitting their work and worrying about the grade. While these worries are understandable, our Writing Center strives to help writers move beyond that by providing help in writing areas when needed and giving confidence where the work is well done. For writers to explore themselves and their writings fearlessly, we provide a positive and non-judgmental environment as the sessions remain confidential and the writers feel safe.
To ensure that tutors, as well as writers, feel safe and equipped to have insightful conversations with each other, our Writing Center makes sure that our tutors receive only the best of training. Essentially, undergraduate tutors are obligated to take a semester-long Tutoring Writing Course (ENGL236), taught by associate professor Todd Hunter Campbell, before they can take part of our Writing Center. During that semester, students learn how to tutor, what tutoring writing is and how they can further develop and aid our Writing Center. Based on that, our Writing Center starts out by training its tutors for three weeks before they are ready to meet with the writers. During that period, tutors are exposed to theoretical readings and articles about writing, tutoring and the process, as well as how writing centers function elsewhere.
Once every week then, new tutors meet with each other to discuss their thoughts and ideas about those readings, further engaging in potential scenarios that they may find themselves in while tutoring, and how they can go about them. Throughout the semester, these meetings merge into larger ones including other tutors who meet weekly to discuss concerns, areas of improvements and possible projects promoting the Writing Center. This results in tutors learning how to ask the right questions that might lead the writers to explore deeper into their writing, how to embrace the silence that might be generally perceived as awkward but is rather prompting in this case, and how to ensure that the tutoring space, be it at the Writing Center physically or on WC Online, is a safe space where writers can freely express themselves and their concerns about their writing
In response to the onset of Covid-19, our Writing Center had to shut its doors and shift the sessions from physical to online ones using its own platform. While the move was definitely hard to manage at first, especially when taking into account electricity and connection troubles in Lebanon, tutors continued to give their best potential in helping writers. Now, the Writing Center offers online consultations where appointments can be made through its website. On WC Online, tutors and tutees can have a call or video conference while also having access to the piece of writing they are discussing together. That being said, the flexibility of the tutors’ time-slots ranging from 8 am till 7 pm offers more room for students to join and discuss their writings. And while the Writing Center remains hopeful to reopen its physical space for on-campus sessions again, the online move still proved efficiency in the tutoring sessions.
This is not to say, however, that it was not difficult for both tutors and tutees. At the start of every session and upon each internet lag, there is a conversation about how the pandemic (as well as the multiple crises Lebanon has been going through) has taken a toll on us. Students find themselves unmotivated, uninspired and too drained to write, looking for aid from our Writing Centers tutors. And while conversations like that should be strayed away from in the aims of efficiency (especially with the short 30-min time slots), having them remains crucial for establishing trusting bonds between tutors and tutees. It is, thus, the tutors’ ability to listen to their tutees and provide a safe space for them at the Writing Center, within limits of course, that keeps tutees coming back for more help.
About the authors
Dana Shahbary is a graduate student majoring in English Literature at AUB and is currently working as a research assistant. As a former tutor at AUB’s Writing Center, she appreciates the power of written words in the search for one’s own authentic voice and potential truth. Her interests lie in comparative literature and global modernist studies.
Sarah Abou Zeid is a graduate student pursuing her master’s in English Literature at the American University of Beirut (AUB). She is a former tutor at AUB’s Writing Center, having been trained for it and passed her knowledge to writers in need. Her interests lie in poetry, non-fiction, and history.