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Pen Pals

Pen PalsFor many Writing Fellows, helping fellow students continues to make a significant difference in their own work.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.15.08] After an intensive orientation and a semester-long "Writer's Craft" course, many of the approximately 40 Writing Fellows at Tufts will never look at editing a paper in the same way. In fact, most come out with an entirely different notion of writing in general.

For head Writing Fellow Kevin Lownds (A'09), writing and editing has always been an area of interest, but it was the Writing Fellows' philosophy that really drew him in.

"'To improve the writer, not the paper,'" Lownds says, quoting the fellows' motto. "That's sort of the guiding light of the program itself. When you meet with the student, you're there to have a collaborative discussion about what sort of issues are coming up."

That philosophy dates back to the program's formation in 1999, after then-director of the Academic Resource Center (ARC) Nadia Medina traveled the country to evaluate the writing centers at various colleges and universities. Medina chose to model Tufts' program after the one at Brown University, where student writing fellows were assigned to work with a particular class and every student in that class met with the fellow at least twice.

According to current ARC Director Carmen Lowe, Tufts' program also allows students who specialize in a subject area to pursue that class as a fellow.

As a political science and sociology major, Lownds said that he's never "fellowed" a paper that wasn't in a political science or history class-but that doesn't mean he's always been an expert in the specific subject matter of the class.

"What I've told my students is that when I don't have knowledge of the subject I'm discussing, it's more helpful for them, because we can see from a layperson's perspective, how they convey their point," Lownds says.

English and philosophy major Tanya Hajjar (A'09), on the other hand, says that initially she found it daunting to fellow a political science course, but soon discovered that the skills she learned as a fellow were very transferable.

"Good writing is good writing," says Hajjar, who is also a head Writing Fellow.

For those still leery about not having a full grasp of a certain subject, that is where "The Writer's Craft" comes in. The semester-long course, mandatory for all Writing Fellows, includes an introduction to paper-writing tactics for various subjects.

While the program has a regular base of disciplines, that roster also changes based on the types of courses being offered in an academic year. This year, for instance, the Writing Fellows program latched onto the 200-member "Introduction to Community Health" course. While that reduces the total number of classes the program can accommodate from about 15 to10, Lowe says it's worth it.

"We've decided that it really helps to have Writing Fellows in Community Health, because many students in the class are freshmen and sophomores and the class does have multiple writing assignments, so it's a good class to give a lot of attention to the students," she explains.

The Writing Fellows program attracts a large number of highly qualified students, with directors accepting roughly one in four applicants. According to ARC assistant director Amalia Jiva, the job calls on more than just a fellow's editing skills.

"The interpersonal aspect of this position is at least as important, if not more important, that their interest and skill in writing," she says.

"You don't just get a paper, mark it up and hand it back, instead it's more of a conversation where you get a student to come to some sort of insight about their own paper," says Hajjar.

For most fellows, gaining insight is as important as providing it.

"Fellowing has made me more conscious about certain traps that writers fall into, like clichéd openings, awkward syntax-if you read enough papers, you see these clumsy bits of writing, internalize them, and then when I'm writing myself, I see myself falling into these traps, and fix them," says Hajjar.

And such benefits tend to follow the fellows into their lives post-college, as evidenced by the myriad emails the directors get from alumni, praising their Writing Fellows experience.

"After they graduate, the Writing Fellows always email us and tell us that something they're doing out in the real world is pertinent to having been a fellow," says Lowe. "I know one of our alums is in Dharamsala, India, helping to establish a writing center and school for Tibetan refugees-they're doing amazing things."

Profile by Charlotte Steinway (A'10).

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