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Getting It Write

Yeshiva University Writing Centers Celebrate 30th Anniversary

Three decades ago, in the pre-smartphone/pre-internet days of 1986, Dr. Richard Nochimson, current professor of English, was hired to launch writing centers at both Stern College for Women and Yeshiva College where students could go to improve their writing and thinking skills and faculty could get advice about how to improve the teaching of writing within their courses.

Dr. Richard Nochimson tutors a student. Dr. Richard Nochimson tutors a student.

The push for the programs came from both faculty and students. “My impression was that many felt the writing skills of the students were not what they could be and that having more support would help,” he said.

Having gotten the program off the ground, Nochimson single-handedly managed both centers until 1993. At that point, because the programs had grown, each writing center got its own director. Currently, Dr. Lauren Fitzgerald, who chairs the Yeshiva College English Department, directs the Wilf Campus Writing Center, and Dr. Joy Ladin, David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English, directs the Beren Campus Writing Center.

Writing Center flier--front cover 1_300_croppedThe directors share similar management and philosophical approaches. Fitzgerald, who had previously directed a writing center at Barnard College, sees the purpose of the Center not as remediating students but as helping them formulate their ideas as clearly as possible. “Our tutors work with writers—we prefer that students think of themselves as ‘writers’—in all their states: blocked, second language, topic-choosing, scaffolding choices, you name it. This is one-on-one collaborative work.”

Ladin takes a similar approach at the Beren Center. “We want students who come here to think of themselves as writers,” she noted, “as thinkers who develop their ideas through writing. We have always emphasized helping students develop their ideas versus proofreading, editing, telling students what they had done wrong in one way or another.”

Tutors are at the heart of both operations, since they are the ones who carry out the Centers’ mission. Tutoring is a paid position, but getting a slot is not an easy process. “We have a rigorous application process,” Fitzgerald observed, and once tutors are hired, Fitzgerald takes them through continual training throughout their tenure.

“We go through a pretty rigorous process of reviewing applications and interviewing,” Ladin added, “including a mock tutoring session with one of the staff members as a resistant student, with the goal of finding tutors who love teaching and love writing so much that they don’t give up.”

Both have worked hard to create, in Ladin’s words, “a community of people who love teaching. I think the world of our writing tutors.” A sentiment shared by Fitzgerald: “Our tutors provide a great service to every student at YU.”

Alumni who had worked as tutors at the Centers speak with fondness and excitement about their experiences there.

The elder of the tutorial clan is Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Yona Reiss ’YC87, ’91R, ’02R, the first tutor hired by Nochimson. “Dr. Nochimson asked me to give a workshop for pre-law students on legal writing,” he recalled, “based mostly on the fact that I had been admitted to Yale Law School. Even though I had not yet set foot in the law school, I somehow had to try to speak with authority about the type of writing that would lead to success in law school and law firm practice. I winged the whole thing and had a lot of fun in the process.”

sipaiklein_300 Sipai Klein in his tutor days (photo courtesy of Sipai Klein)

Sipai Klein ’02YC went on to direct a writing center of his own at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia. “YU’s writing center taught me that I enjoyed helping people engage in the writing process and made it clear to me that I wanted writing to be an essential part of my future profession,” he said.

A consistent theme throughout their comments is how working as a tutor helped them in their later personal and professional lives.

Ashrei Bayewitz ’02YUHS, ’09YC, ’12E, in his in second year of an adult hematology-oncology fellowship at Maimonides Medical Center, discovered that “so much of what made it special to work as a writing center tutor is now what I like best in my interactions with patients. The autonomy, the sense of responsibility and the confidentiality in the one-to-one interaction are remarkably similar between the two roles.”

Ruben Fogel ’04YC, a Miami-based lawyer, made this same observation. “As a lawyer, I have entered an occupation that requires wordsmithing and I don’t think I would have been as well prepared for law school and my career but for my time in the writing center.”

sarapool_writingcenter_cropped Sara Pool as a writing center tutor (photo courtesy of Sara Pool)

Sara Pool ’16S graduated with a fine arts degree and loved being a tutor, which she began during her second semester on campus. Being a tutor spurred her own writing, both in a journal she kept for three years and on her current blog about women and art history. “I especially loved that ‘aha’ moment in a student when all the dots get connected—moments I now find in my own writing.”

Esty Rollhaus ’10S is a third-year resident in psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center and adjunct instructor of psychopharmacology. “In many ways, writing center tutoring is like therapy,” she observed. “Learning how to ask the right questions, seizing on something important that needs to be further elaborated, and constructing a helpful environment were all things I learned to do as a tutor and now practice as a psychiatrist and educator. And in my own writing, I build cases for clinical decisions through patient notes that need to have exact expression and persuasive argumentation.”

An interesting aside is that the Center seems to have figured in several marriages as well. Reiss married Mindy (Spear) ’91S, ’95A, who had been a tutor; Rollhaus is the wife of Jonathan Schwab, associate director of university housing and residence life on the Wilf Campus and a former tutor himself; and Matt ’03YC and Shifra ’04S Schneider met while they were tutors and married in 2006.

Even in a world of digital wonders, people still have to master the written language, so it seems that the Centers’ future is intact as places of intellectual pursuit and personal achievement. What will also sustain them, as it has sustained so many of the people who have passed through its doors, is what Marlon Danilewitz ’11YC described as “our creative and laughter-filled professional development sessions, the long-standing friendships that were nurtured amongst the staff and the endless supply of energy and love for writing that was in the room.”