University of Vermont

Writing Mentors Program Benefits Students and Faculty

Hudson and Bailly
A wider audience for his student writers: that’s one of the reasons Classics professor Jacques Bailly has worked with mentors for his classes. Senior Bronwen Hudson, a mentor for Bailly’s class on Stoicisim, works with students on drafts due in advance of the paper. “It’s helpful to get students to see that writing is an iterative process,” Bailly says. (Photo: Sally McCay)

A peer tutoring session at the Writing Center has the power to transform a paper, even a student. But a session is only as good as the tutor and tutee's understanding of the assignment at hand. It can be a challenge when questions arise about what the professor wants, and the tutor's only frame of reference is the written assignment. A program piloted by UVM’s Writing Center and Writing in the Disciplines Program (WID) connects faculty and tutors, improving the student experience.

The Writing Mentor Program takes trained peer tutors (students who have taken the tutoring course and have experience working with fellow students in the Writing Center) and matches them with professors who have worked with WID and are seeking ways to further develop and enhance the writing instruction in their courses. Faculty from across the disciplines — psychology to nursing to English to anthropology — can take advantage of the program, structured in two ways: an out-of-the-box "basic" version or one that’s expanded and tailored to the professor’s needs, with guidance from Sue Dinitz, Writing Center director.

In each case, assigned mentors meet directly with faculty about their assignments and goals. How else the mentor is used depends on the class but typically involves hosting writing workshops in advance of due dates, offering one-on-one tutoring and facilitating peer review sessions. Some mentors may even attend classes or complete readings pertinent to an assignment.

Although mentors come to the program with the background of a writing tutor, the role is slightly different. “We’re less like peers than we are in a writing tutor session,” says Indigo James, a senior who mentored this semester for Sheila Boland Chira’s Honors College class. “That can work well with communicating to the professor what students need and communicating to the students what the professor is really looking for.”

Faculty development

The obvious benefit of the program is for the students taking the classes, who now have a trained tutor at their service with intimate knowledge of the class and the professor’s expectations. But what’s become evident over the course of the program’s five-year tenure, Dinitz says, is how the mentorship can flow both ways — mentors not only help students with their writing, they also help faculty with their assignments. In fact, Dinitz and Susanmarie Harrington, director of the WID Program, presented with six mentors this semester at the Northeast Writing Center Association Conference in Rhode Island on how the program has helped with faculty development around writing instruction.

“It’s been a really helpful thing to have them brainstorm with me,” says senior lecturer Sheila Boland Chira, who has used mentors as a soundboard for assignments in two sections this semester of Honors College 86: “Reading and Writing the Racialized Self.” The mentors, she says, have helped her think through the challenges her assignments present to students and how to articulate her priorities and values in the assignment’s wording.

For example, her mentors noticed that one assignment asked students to incorporate their subjective response to a text, but this request was buried toward the end of the wording. The mentors pointed out that first-year students, well trained to rid their writing of a first-person perspective, might need such a challenging request explained and foregrounded in the assignment. It’s that view into the student perspective that can help faculty avoid the pitfall of an assignment that doesn’t deliver on its intended goal.

“Mentors and tutors are trained in how to talk about writing,” Dinitz says. “Not all faculty have this skill.” To that end, some faculty have worked with mentors to learn how to hold writing workshops in their courses — the kind of work that might be typical in an English class but is less likely to be found in a business class.

“It takes a lot of maturity and sophistication” to be a writing mentor, Dinitz says, noting the time commitment and the need to communicate well with both constituencies they serve. It’s clear the work demands those traits as well as a strong academic foundation; it develops those traits, as well.  

Senior Annika Nilsson, a writing mentor for an anthropology class, isn’t alone among this year’s mentors in saying that the role has improved her own academic work. “Explaining concepts in writing and disciplinary material,” she says, “makes us much better writers than we were when we began.”