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The FHSS Writing Lab

Danielle Leavitt

Summer’s gone, and midterm papers will start falling like leaves sooner than you might expect. However, as an FHSS student, you are not left raking completely on your own. The college has established a writing lab specifically for the assistance of its students (YOU). One of the university’s greatest midterm-paper allies is the general university writing lab in the Jesse Knight Building (JKB), however, while the two labs are similar, the FHSS writing lab is tailored specifically for FHSS class papers. In fact, FHSS professors even brief the writing lab advisors (who are all social science majors) on what they’re looking for in their particular papers. It’s a completely honor-code friendly way of getting the inside scoop, and students in any FHSS class are allowed to cash in on the resource. It’s a dream come true—for students and faculty. Previous FHSS Dean, Dr. David Magleby, led the vision with a determined commitment to improving student writing. As of January 2007, the FHSS Writing Lab has been a welcomed new member of the FHSS family.

“We’ve served close to 3,000 visits per year, and it’s growing every year,” said Adams. “We had four writing advisors initially, now it has grown to 13. We work only with social science classes, and we hire only social science majors. We work directly with faculty, and they can teach the writing advisors about what they’re looking for with a certain paper, so we’re not conflicting on advice.” Adams believes that having discipline specific writing labs is valuable for two reasons: first, people in different fields think and express quite differently, and having advisors trained in those specific fields is vital for the success of a paper and its writer. Second, the styles of writing used in different disciplines vary, and knowing the styles and tropes needed in specific papers is invaluable.

The lab functions with sound organization: students sign in on the computer in the lab, state what class they are there for and set an appointment to meet with an advisor. Advisors and students sit down and talk first about what the student believes are the weak points of the paper, and then students, not advisors, read the papers aloud.

“Sometimes students come in and say ‘can you just check for grammar?’ But we’re not officially trained in that—what we do is focus on global issues: the thesis, organization, transitions, opening and conclusion,” says Melissa Goebel, the writing lab student manager. “We meet in thirty minute sessions because it’s pretty standard that after thirty minutes both the writer and the tutor get pretty drained. We focus on a few pages, and if we don’t get through it all then we make another appointment.”

The relationship between advisors and students is encouraging: writing advisors have taken many of the same classes in which students are currently enrolled, and they are familiar with the professors—easily bridging the gap between the content of the students’ writing and the needs of their particular course.

Adams notes, “It’s all very welcoming and positive. One mentality that the writing advisors have is that they are peers to the students, not TAs and not professors. Our goal is not make ‘A’ papers; our goal is to help students improve their writing.”

The real question for the writing lab is does it actually improve student writing?

“I was initially not enthusiastic about the writing lab, until we used them. I do believe it improves my students’ writing,” says Professor Ross Flom, who teaches large sections of Psychology 111. “I tell them, ‘you know, if you go in before you turn in a first draft, it will just be that much better, and again with your second draft and then your final—it will be that much better.’ The students seem to really find it helpful. And the tutors can give very detailed feedback—because they’ve worked on so many of the same papers. They are a great resource, and I think [students] realize that writing takes practice and time and many sets of eyes.”

Psychology professor Michael Larson said, “I’ve noticed that students’ writing becomes more polished after taking their papers to the FHSS Writing Lab. Specifically, the lab helps them clarify sentence structure and ensure proper formatting of the paper. The student tutors are good at using the rubrics and guidelines I provide them, and the writing lab employees are conscientious so they do not impose their writing style upon the students.”

While improving the writing of individual papers is important, improving the overall writing skills of students is one of the most vital contributions that the lab could make to the college. Adams agrees, and expressed her thoughts on how to make it happen: “We ask students to tell us what their main argument is and how they are supporting it. We’re trying to help the student verbalize and articulate what they are thinking. Advisors never say: ‘actually you should say it this way,’ they are just trying to help the students clarify their thoughts. They don’t make marks; they give a pencil to the students and tell them to make their own notes. Students can start to recognize—on their own—what makes good writing.”

For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit the FHSS Writing Lab's website or contact the writing lab at fhss-writinglab@byu.edu or 801-422-4454.