Words have consequences. Whether spoken or written, the words we choose to use matter profoundly across the spectrum of our relationships with others. They matter from the very personal communication we share with those closest to us, to achieving success in school and the workplace, to engaging in social and political debate — hopefully debate that is civil and informed given the verbal tenor of our times.
From “When in the course of human events” in the document that launched our nation’s gamble on independence in 1776 to “IMHO” in a 21st-century digital exchange of views, written words really do matter. And we are writing a lot these days, actually much more than just a decade or so ago by some measures. We’re filling cyber-space with tsunamis of words, as well as using computer technology to express ourselves on innumerable sheets of paper, giving the lie to the prediction of a paperless future in school and on the job.
At NJIT, when it comes to words shared digitally or on paper, the Writing Center offers students at every level the opportunity to explore the process of creating effective written communication. One-on-one assistance is available from mentors not only expert in the basics of writing, but who also bring very diverse professional and cultural backgrounds to their participation at the Center. Staff members include instructors who teach writing at NJIT and other area universities, journalists, fiction writers and a former technical editor, as well as student peer tutors majoring in a wide range of disciplines at NJIT.
The director of the Writing Center is Catherine Siemann, who came to NJIT after completing her Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia and realizing how much she liked working at the Center for Writing at Cooper Union. “I fell in love with the work at Cooper Union, encouraging engineers, artists and architects with their writing,” Siemann says. “NJIT presented a similar opportunity that was very attractive.”
Siemann emphasizes that the Center at NJIT, formally established some six years ago, is much more than a place where students can get help with putting sufficient polish on assignments for a required writing course to get a passing grade. All students are welcome to visit the Center in Room G17 of the Central King Building for any writing assistance — for example, to craft effective personal statements for graduate school, medical or law school, or to prepare resumes and job applications.
The Center is just as welcoming, Siemann adds, for NJIT staff and faculty who might have projects such as articles or grant proposals underway. And while the primary focus of the Center is on writing, all are welcome to take advantage of the assistance also offered for creating oral and visual presentations.
Aisha Khan (left), NJIT student peer mentor, with Catherine Siemann, director of the Writing Center. A graduate student working towards a master’s in biomedical engineering, Khan’s background includes assisting students with writing as an undergraduate at Stockton University and teaching English as a second language. She says, “Many who come to the Center for our help feel that writing effectively is a very difficult challenge, sometimes one that’s almost overwhelming. I really enjoy helping them build the confidence in their ability to write that’s basic to writing well for any purpose.”
Finding One’s Way
In Siemann’s estimation, “Anyone can write well. It’s a matter of finding your own way into what you need to write, what you want to write. We can help students create their own structure for effective writing. But many of the students who come to the Center feel that they are not good writers, perhaps because as math and science students they’ve been discouraged about their writing in the past.”
Siemann relates the discouragement she mentions to the concept of self-efficacy, the strength of an individual’s belief in their ability to complete tasks and goals. Self-efficacy strongly influences the power we can actually muster to contend with challenges successfully, and the choices we’re likely to make in the face of having to meet those challenges — such as turning in a term paper on deadline.
“The more confident you are as a writer, the more effective your writing will be, whether the task is a term paper, a personal statement for graduate school, or a document in the workplace. We want you to acquire the skill set, the tools, to be that confident writer. Rather than just pointing out grammatical errors, we want to be a primary resource for building personal competence and confidence.”
In addition to ensuring the availability of the personalized help essential for achieving such competence and confidence, Siemann is taking a broader look at self-efficacy and writing. Along with John Wolf, a university lecturer and colleague in the Science, Technology and Society program. Siemann is using a 2016 NJIT Faculty SEED Grant for the study, “Exploring the Effects of a Writing Center Outreach Program on STEM Students’ Beliefs about Writing.”
Writing Center staff member Eurih Lee recently completed her master’s in English and is an adjunct English instructor at Rutgers-Newark. She helps with “everything that involves words,” including class assignments, dissertations, personal statements for graduate and professional school, and resumes. Given NJIT’s STEM orientation, she says, “I think the individuals I work with appreciate that as often as possible I try to relate the process of writing logically and effectively to the structural thinking necessary in scientific and technical areas — in coding, for example.”
Getting the Word Out
“One of our goals is to foster the empowerment that comes from understanding that writing is a process, one that can be mastered if you don’t wait until the night before a paper is due to begin putting the necessary words together,” Siemann says. “That’s why we’re doing our best to encourage students to schedule Writing Center sessions at the beginning of the process, and not when there’s very little time left.”
Siemann and her Writing Center colleagues also have the goal of promoting the importance of effective written communication in all fields of study. “We want to help students write effectively within the context of their interests, to write well in meeting whatever special communication needs that their NJIT major may present.”
In bringing word of the assistance available to students through the Writing Center, Siemann works closely with Assistant Professor Megan O’Neill, faculty writing coordinator in the Department of Humanities. “We’re working together to make writing a more integral part of the student experience at NJIT,” she says of their cooperative efforts. “It’s about creating a culture that values good writing as an essential tool for success in every discipline.”
To learn more about all that the Writing Center offers to the NJIT community and to schedule a mentoring session, visit http://www5.njit.edu/writingcenter.