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Students helping students write history more clearly

  • Here to help
    Here to help  The History Writing Center features three Ph.D. students (from left) Libby Cook, Laura Ansley and August Butler.  Spencer Wells M.A. '13
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Laura Ansley, August Butler and Libby Cook, Ph. D. candidates all, know a thing or two about writing. As they work on their book-length doctoral dissertations, they string paragraphs together into the dark hours of the night and then arise to continue pounding out sentence after sentence.

To earn their academic keep, so to speak, they also mentor student authors at William & Mary’s History Writing Resources Center (HWRC).

Housed on the third floor of James Blair Hall, the HWRC is staffed by advanced Ph.D. students who offer assistance with historical analysis and writing. Its services are open to any William & Mary student, regardless of year or major, who is working on a writing assignment for a history course. Many of its visitors are students enrolled in their first college-level history course, but even the most seasoned history writers – students working on honors theses, for example – use the HWRC. 

Even graduate students occasionally stop by. Ansley herself made use of the center in her first weeks at William & Mary. “I had never written a book review as an undergraduate,” she remembered. Ansley said a kind mentor at the HWRC helped her with her first foray into graduate-level writing, a favor that she and the other consultants now repay when students seek an appointment.

Most of the HWRC’s visitors are undergraduates, though, and the consultants said they enjoy working with them on a variety of projects. Last semseter, Butler helped students working on papers on “everything from King Philip's War to Korean nationalism to the various approaches to African archaeology.”

Students are introduced to these, and other, subjects by their professors and through their course readings. The consultants’ role is to guide them through the process of analyzing evidence, crafting and substantiating an argument and producing an analytical and clearly written essay. Although they assist students with specific assignments, the consultants’ larger goal is to help them become better writers.

In their anonymous evaluations of their HWRC experiences, undergraduate students offer high praise.

“My consultant was extremely helpful and I think that anyone, regardless of their writing ability, would benefit from this kind of interactive feedback,” one student noted.

The interactive nature of the center (the consultants emphasize that they are not running an editing service) allows students to develop “new methods of self-editing,” another student wrote.

The consultants, according to another visitor, “give great advice and help you to talk through and fine tune your paper, but are not overbearing and help you to work independently.”

The results can be striking. Cook’s eyes light up when she mentions the strides her students have made over the course of a semester, a year, or their college career. She noted that students exit their consultations with newfound skills. In addition to becoming more discerning editors of their own work, they “learn how to take constructive criticism” and gain the confidence to “stand up for themselves” intellectually when necessary.

“Students bring a lot of untapped creativity to their consultations,” she continued, but often lack confidence. “Watching them explore on their own, and watching them gain the confidence to say ‘my ideas are pretty good’ is very gratifying.” As they learn to question and reevaluate the standard historical narratives they grew up with, she said, they become critical thinkers in their own right.

“It’s all part of a process,” Cook maintained.

And it is a process that the graduate-student writing consultants say they find deeply rewarding.

Butler, who previously worked as a teaching assistant for Global History and as a residential advisor for the pre-collegiate summer program run by the National Institute for American History and Democracy (NIAHD), especially enjoys the opportunity to continue working with students throughout their college careers.

“It is really fulfilling to see them develop both as writers and as young adults,” Butler noted. Ansley and Cook similarly enjoy working with students during semesters when they are not teaching classes. Cook added that the consultations also reap more direct rewards for the consultants themselves; the process of teaching writing encourages her to pay more attention to her own writing. 

The HWRC’s success, however, presents challenges.

“The sessions are extraordinarily productive,” remarked one undergraduate writer in an anonymous evaluation, “but hard to come by because they fill up so early.”

History Professor Carol Sheriff, tasked with overseeing the HWRC, estimated the center has offered more than 8,000 consultations to students since its founding. She hopes to eventually meet the vast demand for the center’s services by hiring additional consultants, lengthening the center’s hours, and offering videoconferencing with students who are studying off-campus, such as those enrolled in the D.C. Semester Program. In the short term, though, she encourages students to book their appointments early and to make use of the HWRC’s handouts.

“When we founded the HWRC in 1999,” Sheriff said, “we were, to our knowledge, the only center in the nation that offered individualized, discipline-specific writing assistance, and our success has helped spawn better writers not only in our own department but in history departments nationwide.”

After completing their doctorates, HWRC’s former consultants bring their expertise to other institutions. In some cases, they have even helped found centers modeled on William & Mary’s History Writing Resources Center.