History of Writing Center

Niagara University’s Writing Center celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015

An important part of the support services offered through the Academic Success Center at NU, the Writing Center was established in 1990 by Dr. Rita Pollard, the Learning Center’s writing coordinator and an associate professor of English at the time. Then academic vice-president Dr. John Stranges approved Dr. Pollard’s proposal to open a campus-wide writing center that would serve Niagara students and faculty. 

Administrative support and funding for a campus-wide Writing Center enabled Dr. Pollard to expand the writing support initiative she had undertaken at the university: conducting workshops for students and faculty on a range of writing-related issues; conferring individually with students about their writing-in-progress; consulting with faculty on assignment design; and visiting classrooms to support students with course-specific assignments. Funding provided for the hiring of two part-time faculty tutors who, along with Dr. Pollard, offered 12 hours of individualized writing assistance each week to NU students.

From its humble beginnings in the basement of Alumni Hall to its current primary and satellite locations in Seton Hall and the Library, respectively, the Writing Center has grown and changed over the past 25 years.  Initially under the auspices of the Learning Center directed by Ms. June Crawford, the Writing Center became part of the Office of Academic Support when a university reorganization plan merged both the Learning Center and the Niagara University Opportunity Program under the directorship of Patricia Kinner.

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The Writing Center coordinator’s position was restructured as well; it became a full-time administrative line when Heather McEntarfer was hired in 2006 to fill the position following Dr. Pollard’s retirement from the university. In 2007, hours of service expanded to include one evening a week and extended afternoon hours. Peer tutors were added to the Writing Center’s staff in spring 2008.

From 2008 through 2010, the Library supplemented the Writing Center’s operating budget as part of a three-year strategic plan to increase student use of and engagement with the Library. With the project’s success, funding from the Library became a permanent part of the Writing Center’s operating budget. Today, nearly 50 percent of the hours of tutoring offered through the Writing Center occur at the Library site.

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The Writing Center services developed, too. The new director of the Office of Academic Support, Pat Kinner, requested the then-writing coordinator Heather McEntarfer to expand the hours of the Writing Center. We still had part-time faculty and administrators tutoring, but hours were expanded to one evening a week as well as afternoons in the Office of Academic Support.

But we didn't stop there. McEntarfer developed tutor training materials to prepare new tutors and to continue training working tutors. There were two or three peer tutors to begin with, plus two part-time professional tutors and the writing coordinator (McEntarfer). As usage has grown so has the number of hours and tutors available to help students. The earliest records we have for Writing Center usage are from 1998-99 when tutors held 294 student conferences. We have increased usage to 653 consultations in 2013-14.

Use of technology has changed the Writing Center as well. In early days, students would have to call or walk in for an appointment. Faculty often referred them to the Writing Center.

Dr. Pollard developed a referral form so faculty could track their students’ participation. Today, any student can sign up for an appointment online independent of faculty, and tutors give students a verification slip for the student to give his/her professor as a record of their work. Tutors enter data on their sessions on an electronic record to facilitate writing reports instead of sheets of paper. This is still in the development stages.

Student evaluations of tutors were introduced by Dr. Pollard at this time as well. Students were asked to complete a form and return it later to the Writing Center drop box. This procedure has been updated to a more learning outcomes basis where each student is given a green sheet, which asks what they have learned during their session that will apply to their writing in the future. The response rate is much greater, and tutors get a sense of what learning has taken place. It also helps to solidify the learning for the student who has come for tutoring.

At the end of her tenure as writing coordinator, Dr. Pollard also started work on our Writing Center website and experimented with online tutoring. Our website is home to tutor bios, links to writing resources, our schedule of hours (which changes every semester) and a welcoming video to explain what we do, written and produced by student writing tutors. We still offer online tutoring to distance learners primarily via email commentary on drafts. The demand for online tutoring has not grown significantly over the past four years. Google Hangouts also support small groups if needed. We will continue to develop the website and our use of social media.

Technology has also affected tutor training. Martha Krupa, the current tutoring coordinator, has created an online platform for tutor training on Blackboard which eliminates the need for multiple copies of materials semester after semester. The site is also a common source of new materials and discussions for the tutors when we hold training meetings. The initial training materials enable the tutors to read, respond and then meet with the coordinator to engage the material through role playing, discussing or observing other tutors. Tutors in training can work at their own pace, and once they have accomplished certain lessons, they can begin to tutor independently. Krupa also incorporates ongoing training by inviting faculty and staff to discuss the writing concerns in their disciplines with tutors. 

Since its inception, the Writing Center coordinator has not only helped students but also faculty. Dr. Pollard visited many First Year Composition (FYC) classes to explain the university’s policies on academic honesty, and she also helped faculty develop and write better assignments and rubrics for classes across the curriculum. She kept faculty informed about Writing Center services at the beginning of each semester along with any tips or help sheets that might be useful to support faculty in their teaching of writing in their disciplines.  

McEntarfer worked with faculty in specific disciplines visiting classrooms to encourage writing center usage. The Writing Center still offers classroom visits, but our primary outreach is through the library and with all students via email. Our hours have expanded to Sundays as well as Monday through Thursday evenings. We can provide online tutoring for distance learners and our record keeping is going digital as well. All of these changes have resulted in more students being helped.  

The goal of the Writing Center is to help students become independent learners and to become stronger writers who can apply the strategies they learn from the tutors to whatever writing situations they encounter both in school and in life. We will continue to strive to serve more students and to develop our accessibility and resources for writers.