Monday Mentors: Meet Caitlin Downs, Director of the Writing Center

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Monday, November 13th, 2023

So often, says Caitlin Downs, “the scariest part of an assignment is actually starting the thing.”

That’s where the College’s Writing Center staff can come in handy — along with the research stage, the middle stage, and the end stage of the assignment, too. And that’s where Downs’ role as the Director of the Writing Center really shines. 

A member of the Liberal Arts Department, where she teaches communication, literature, and creative writing, Downs specializes in poetry, rhetoric, post-colonial literature, and interdisciplinary intersections within arts and humanities. The Writing Center exists to provide academic support in writing, such as tutoring services, and the staff works in partnership with the Learning Commons and Center for Teaching and Learning. 

How does all this work to bridge learning gaps and provide individualized attention when students need a boost?  Downs explains how it all fits together:

Can you share examples of the kinds of questions the Writing Center tutors can help answer? 

Caitlin Downs: Students don’t often realize how helpful it is to sit with a tutor/mentor and go over the assignment sheet together. That’s a service we offer in the Writing Center, because those early planning stages of writing begin once you fully grasp the assignment.

The Writing Center staff can also help with more than just Liberal Arts classes. Any assignment from any class at any level may benefit from some writing and planning assistance. We are also great researchers, so even if writing isn’t the end goal, we can help you find resources. 

How does this position intersect with your own creative practice? 

CD: Every year I go to conferences for both writing practice and Writing Center services. You would be amazed at how often the topics at those conferences overlap and intersect. As a writer, I am constantly employing new approaches to my work in order to figure out what works best for me. Writing requires practice and motivation, and new ideas or fresh approaches that work for me are something I will pass on to my students as well. We all need help with writing — it’s a challenging act, and that’s why I am happy to pass on any tips or tricks I have learned. 

How has the Writing Center evolved since you began? 

CD: The Writing Center began as a response to the need for student support services during the COVID pandemic. After serving as the Director of the Writing Center for two years, the focus has shifted from being reactive to proactive. There is a real opportunity now to offer more assistance in the classroom and initiate some writing across curriculum initiatives. We still offer some of the same great services, like drop-in Study Tables during the lunch hour where you can work with a peer tutor. But overall, the Writing Center is growing a larger role in academic support services and classroom opportunities. 

Do you encourage all students — confident in their writing or not — to make use of the Writing Center? 

CD: Good writers benefit from a good editor, too, so it makes sense for confident students to have their work reviewed just as much as it does for students in need of academic support to seek assistance. All students are welcome to use the services of the Writing Center (I mean it when I say all students). 

Besides direct help with students’ writing projects, what does the Writing Center offer to students? 

CD: Sometimes we offer vibe checks and maker’s lunches to give students a place to destress. You are usually a better student if you have some low-stakes opportunities to focus your creative energies, so we invite people to join in for a free lunch and fun event.

For you, what is the rewarding part of being in this role?

CD: I really appreciate it when I finish a session with a student and they say something to the effect of, “that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.” The work is so much easier to complete with someone helping you. Being accountable to someone else, especially when that someone is there to support you through the process, makes the doing much more doable. I truly enjoy helping students learn to strengthen their academic skills, that’s why I work in education in the first place, so when it seems better than what was anticipated, that feels like a small victory for everyone.