On The Topic of Romance Novels

The erasure of representative characters from assigned stories and assignments that aren’t inclusive dishearten minoritized youth.


By: Sophie Reznick (’20)
First-Year Tutor

When I was little I loved to read. I would stay up far later than I should’ve reading in the dull lamplight on my bed. As I grew older the books I was reading grew up as well, my interests would always shine through what I was reading; from Junie B. Jones to Dear Dumb Diary, those characters developed just as I was. But there was always a disconnect with me and that main character, always something missing when I was reading that made it hard for me to relate. All of these characters had their high school crushes and practically modeled for me what they should be like, but I never liked any of that. I never liked boys at all. I thought I was weird. I thought something was wrong with me, and I wanted to keep that a secret. I would pretend to have crushes on all of these (unfortunate) boys, yet never explore why I got butterflies in my stomach every time one particular girl would sit near me during our reading circle at school.

The lack of LGBTQ+ characters in literature creates a disconnect between the reader and the story, and makes it hard for some to really develop an interest. A common motto throughout many writing centers is, “Any student, Any project, Any stage” (Reich). This motto touches on the idea of acceptance, and in a way paints the Writing Center as a safe space. But we don’t need something that touches on the idea of acceptance, and we don’t want it to merely paint a picture of the Writing Center as a safe space. It should be known fact that anyone of any race, sexuality, and belief can walk through those doors and be embraced for who they are. 

Academics are supposed to help students grow their minds in healthy and productive ways. The erasure of characters from stories that are representative of all students is already disheartening for anyone, but the fact that there are even assignments that fall more towards the discriminatory side than inclusive makes the assignments counterproductive. As an LGBTQ+ youth, I found some of my growth stunted while being given assignments that always fell towards the heteronormative side. Teachers constantly would poke fun at me when I found a joke that a male peer said funny, asking me to stay focused on my schoolwork and not “silly boys, regardless of how cute they may be.” Teachers with these mindsets assigning work to students can be detrimental. “Empathic Tutoring in the Third Space” by Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald gives a vivid example of a university student coming in for help on his paper, when presenting the assignment the struggle is more deeply ingrained with the concept of the assignment and less with the academic side. The student was asked to find women from articles that he found attractive; yet he was not attracted to anyone of the opposite sex. The overwhelming examples of a disconnect between students and academic reading materials is saddening, and is yet another example of the dire need for inclusivity in academic settings, like that of the Writing Center. 

When reading a novel in a classroom setting, the characters and settings in the books are in need of an update. Enough of these heteronormative characters, and that is implied in every meaning of the word. Not only their sexuality, but their lifestyles. Their lifestyles of white skin and privilege, a mother and a father, a home with food that they know will be there everyday, enough of these assumptions being shoved down student’s throats on a day to day basis. Enough of writing a pretty motto and calling it a day. There will only be inclusivity for all when it is everybody on board, checking their privilege, checking in with each other, and opening their minds to the world around them. And we can start that trend here, in our very own Writing Center.

What Does Writing Mean to You?

Tutoring can make every writer feel valid and valued when we honor their unique voice.


By: Alaina Heetderks (’20)
First-Year Tutor

“What does writing mean to you?” 

As I look at the back wall in the Writing Center’s B429 classroom, student responses to this question fill the wall. Each colorful dot demonstrates a unique answer—none being the same. From time to time I find myself reading through the dots, seeing how writing plays a role in others’ lives. 

“Writing is a way to get your message to the world.”

“Writing is making emotion visible.”

“Writing is art with words.”

“Writing is personal.”

While everyone has different ideas regarding what writing means to them, a common theme embodies them all: expression. This expression can be found in every writing assignment, taking on countless forms. Whether it’s the stance on an argument, a proposed solution to a challenge, or an opinion on a subject matter, a writer’s thoughts, values, and identity are displayed through their writing. 

The only way that a writer can truly express themselves is through their authentic, everyday voice. Everyone thinks differently, speaks differently, and reveals themselves differently. It’s only fitting that their writing would, too, be reflective of their individuality found within these differences. There is no “correct” way to format one’s expression—just as there is no “correct” way to create a piece of art. In no case should someone feel as though they have to alter their voice to conform to an “acceptable” mold or standard within writing. It doesn’t matter how something is said—it matters what is said. 

Kanjing He, a writing center tutor at Penn State, defends that the definition of  “good writing needs to take a lot of things into consideration, including good thinking, communication, structure, clarity, purpose, voice and correction.” The sad, yet common, view of  “good writing” is currently confined to a grammatically-perfect structure that is all too limiting of individuality. The type of writing that has been deemed as socially acceptable pressures writers to think in a certain manner, stripping them of their natural voice. What is the message being told to students, who, having poured their all into an assignment, have it returned to see all the ways in which it fell short of the rubric’s set guidelines? Is the way they presented their thoughts wrong just because it isn’t to these standards? Too often do students internalize a grade they get and begin to rethink how they can alter their voice to appease a grader. Kanjing goes on to encourage that both tutors and writers “need to focus on the value of differences, such as bringing in different identities to expand the inclusiveness of the writing center as well as of American academic settings.” I also think this mindset is crucial to have, not just within a writing center, but throughout entire educational systems.

Going back to what students wrote on their dots, it’s easy to see that writing holds varying significance to each individual. Heavy constraints placed on students (from teachers, rubrics, standards, etc.) may result in a loss of their appreciation for any form of writing. If we can’t write in a way that we want, for a reason that we want, writing is no longer a form of self-expression. I was losing my own enthusiasm for writing before I became a writing center tutor, as I had felt for a long time that I was limited in what I could or couldn’t write for an assignment. In my time as a tutor, I’ve seen just how important it is to embrace the uniqueness within each voice, and the rewarding feeling a student gets when they feel heard and validated. In every session I have, one of my main goals is to preserve the student’s voice—and I wish to find others doing the same.

Why You Should Write: Telling Your Own Story


By: Alison MacGillivray
Second-Year Tutor + Writing Center Co-President

In my humanities class, we learned about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. We watched her TedTalk on the dangers of a single story. She grew up in eastern Nigeria, but upon coming to the United States to continue her education, she was disappointed when there was only one narrative being told about Africa: Africans were impoverished, ill, and sad. It was a drastic comparison to the US, where people were perceived as innovative, intelligent, and healthy. Adichie shared her frustration about the misconceptions, but in a sense, she understood. She explained that if she grew up in America rather than Nigeria, she would also believe the popular stories. The stories focused on stunning safari landscapes, but mostly on starving children, victims of AIDS, and villages waiting for white saviors. She cites this misconception as a result of Western Literature and then the beginning of Africa’s European narrative. She began to tell her own story of growing up in Nigeria, and when her American professors told her that her stories weren’t “authentic” enough to Africa, she rolled her eyes. She knew her own story and wasn’t going to let a white folks tell her to change it.

She brings up the idea of single stories. These are stories that eliminate your accomplishments, your good days, your bad days, and reduce you to a singular moment. A person’s identity is washed away when we promote the idea of a single story. The question is often raised among my peers: “Why should I tell my story? No one wants to hear it.” My answer has always been the same. “You matter. I want to read your story.” That is a cliche response, though, and the recipients know that. Adichie has given me a new perspective and a new answer to give.

As a teenager in high school, it is easy to be represented by a single story. Teenagers are lazy. We’re messy. We don’t sleep well, we don’t try hard, and we aren’t as good as the generations before us because we don’t walk uphill both ways to school through 10 feet of snow… in the sleet when it’s 10 below. Celsius. We know that teenagers are not defined by these ideas. By sharing your story, you are helping to break this idea.

These stories become increasingly dangerous for students when they are restricted to smaller scaled ones. There are stories of how black students, AP students, and disengaged students are within an academic setting. School performance, race, age, gender do not impact one’s personal story. By producing and promoting your own story, you are successfully breaking this cycle. Students have so many stories just waiting to be told, and my role as a tutor has enlightened me on this. Our school’s curriculum limits assignments that allow these stories. I’ve seen the most creative work in Moth stories, but these aren’t assigned to upperclassmen. When it is time for juniors and seniors to write college essays, an initial excitement arises until the students realize that their audience is looking for specific qualities and specific answers. Once again, creativity is stripped away. An assignment cannot possibly promote creativity when it has a restrictive rubric.

Still, I encourage everyone to write. While there isn’t much time to write in a teenager’s busy life, it’s not impossible. When a thought comes to mind, open the Notes app and type it out. Scribble it on the back of math homework. Or, go further and use a journal. It doesn’t have to be expensive or new. Every night, write down a quick summary of your day or what you find most thought-provoking at that moment. I know each and every student in my school has a story to share. Everyone must find value in their own writing and in their own stories.

Optimizing Writing Time: The Power of Planning

Spending more time planning than writing might be counterintuitive, but it can help reduce anxiety around writing.


By: Izzy Nichols (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

What is the first thing you do when faced with a blank page and a serious writing assignment? Often times, we jump right in and try to fill the page as fast as we can. There is nothing more anxiety producing than a blank page, staring back at you, with a deadline that seems to be approaching rapidly. So you just start typing. Anything. 

According to Courtland Bovee and John Thill in their book Business Communications Essentials (2015), writing should be tackled in a three step process: planning, writing, and completing. In the planning phase, you should focus on analyzing the situation, gathering relevant information, and getting organized overall (this is when you would develop a detailed outline). In the writing phase, the message is composed, and you carefully adapt the information to appeal to the audience. In the final stage, what the authors call the “complete” stage, this is where you revise, proofread, and produce the message.

What is surprising about this model is the recommended amount of time suggested to spend on each phase. The authors suggest that as a rule, writers should use roughly half of their time for planning, one-quarter of their time writing, and the remaining quarter for editing and completing the work. Using only a quarter of your time for writing seems counter-intuitive. We all just want to fill up the blank page as soon as possible. But as the authors argue, by devoting more time to planning, the writing process itself is faster, more efficient, and less stressful. 

As stated before, part of effective planning is creating a detailed outline. Therefore I would like to spend a little bit of time talking about how to create a “map” for your essay. According to The George Mason University Writing Center, outlines help to organize our ideas, visualize the structure of a paper, and develop the main points. Having an outline also makes it easier to see how each paragraph will connect back to the thesis and the main points of your argument. The first step is to write a clear thesis or purpose statement as a guide. Then, organize your outline in a way that best fits the requirements for the paper. Carefully read the assignment description, and make sure the structure of your outline addresses every requirement.  

The next step is to create a list with all the main points you want to make, and add any evidence and research that will help support those points. Just to try to organize your main ideas into a bulleted or numbered list. Under each point, indent and include the points you will discuss in each paragraph. You do not need to write full sentences in an outline, but make sure to include enough information to help you remember what you were going to say when you come back to the outline when writing your paper. The last stage is to carefully revise, edit, and make any changes to your outline that will help the paper flow better. It is important to not rush this stage. Remember, at least fifty percent of your time on task should be spent on planning. So don’t be intimidated by a blank page. Take a deep breath, commit to do the appropriate amount of planning, and know that it will help make the writing process more efficient and less stressful.

Through the Looking Glass: Gaining a Fresh Perspective on Education Through Writing Center Work

The competition for grades and scores is contributing to student anxiety and an increase in opportunity gaps.

UnschoolingBy: Savanna Cowley (’20)
Second-Year Tutor

Out of the several formative tutoring experiences I’ve had over the past year and a half, one particular classroom visit sticks out to me as representative of something much greater than Writing Center work. After a rather loud conference with the teacher, they pointed me in the direction of one student who was struggling to start the assignment due at the end of the hour. I gingerly walked over and started a conversation with the student, who was obviously embarrassed to be called out in front of their peers, and together we decided to scrap the topic of their paper that didn’t particularly interest them. A few days of rigorous work and great connection went by before we turned in the essay. Needless to say, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had done my job very well. 

A year ago, I would have never tutored any one of my peers like that. Being your typical AP student, I was used to muscling through papers and projects that didn’t engage my interests, my only focus on what my teacher wanted to see from me and the steps it took to get to an A. My mindset would influence the kind of work I did with the kids I tutored, who were oftentimes lowerclassmen who had more creative leeway than AP courses did. I would work to get the assignment done and perfect-score worthy, not to connect with the student and build their confidence as writers. 

Nancy Effinger Wilson and Keri Fitzgerald describe the writing center as a “third space”, an objective place within a school that is supposed to be completely separated from the school faculty and students, both in function and practice. Over a year of sitting in this glass room and observing the values that American schooling enforces onto kids and you start to view this objectivity as a blessing and a curse. 

On the one hand, and from the help of experimental grading from some of my current teachers, I’ve been able to look past measuring my understanding of arbitrary material with letter grades and instead focus on building skills in self-reflection, communication, and critical thinking. I’m being absolved of viewing education as a competition amongst my peers and only seeing my academic achievements on a 1600-point scale.  On the other hand, I am exposed to the immense hurt and abandonment in the building I learn in, seeing the kids who are so often left behind in pursuit of measuring God-knows-what in a way that no one understands. Not everyone is served by this current educational system. In fact, not a single person is and ever will be. 

Competition breeds discrimination. Putting kids up side-by-side and measuring their worth in skills and contexts that are not valuable to everyone is toxic. Thinking about the end result and the percentage of mastery given to a certain assignment has never served a single student during a tutoring session, so how could anyone expect it to serve elsewhere? If grades do motivate, they only motivate anxiety to develop in every kid who could instead be ensured that they are valued and capable of learning. There is no real purpose in our traditional grading system except to serve the students who can afford the “benefits” of receiving high scores and push and hold any student who can’t below the surface. 

For any sort of progression in our battle to end inequity, we must start with the education system. I do not want to be apologized to for a student having a disability, just learning to speak English, or who have been sent by their teacher because they continuously fail assignments they never connected to or understood in the first place. I am done hearing apologies from my peers about what they think are nuisances but are really just the results of a structure that was never built to help them learn; we are the ones who perpetuate it to be so. We must reframe and rebuild our educational complex, and the clarity a writing center offers is the best place to start.