One Writer at a Time

With peer-to-peer tutoring, the Farnham Writers’ Center prepares students for a lifetime of effective communication

The Farnham Writers' Center has become a gathering spot for students eager to improve their writing skills. Henry Olson '27 (second from left), a music and computer science double major, chats with Michael Chang ’24, a philosophy major, while Aaron Mills ’24, a government and history double major, talks with Mira Patla ’24, a philosophy and music double major.
By Claire SykesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
April 18, 2024

Go to Miller Library’s Room 206 and you’ll be greeted warmly and offered coffee or tea. It is an inviting and relaxing space, with its wooden worktables, cozy lounge chairs, and well-used whiteboards.

Here at the Farnham Writers’ Center, the Writing Department’s peer-to-peer tutoring hub, students seeking a second set of eyes on their writing team up with a tutor and get down to work on that essay, research paper, lab report, or short story.

From their first ideas and outline to revisions and the final result, the focus is on the writer, not the writing, said director Ghada Gherwash, who is currently on sabbatical. “Our primary mission is to foster a collaborative learning environment that emulates the writing process of creating drafts and receiving feedback. We want to empower students to gain agency with their own writing,” Gherwash said.

‘Communication skills in general and quality writing in particular are very important moving into the second half of the 21st century. We want Colby students to be successful wherever they go.’

Russell Johnson, Senior Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs

The center has embraced this philosophy since its start in 1984. Back then, it was in the basement of Lorimer Chapel and simply known as the Writing Center, part of the English Department, with only its founding director, Jean Sanborn, now professor of English, emerita, and a student assistant director. An endowed gift in 1998 from Margaret Davis Sprague Farnham ’28 gave the center its name and more staff, including work-study tutors. By 2012, the Colby Writing Program, which has since become the Colby Writing Department, took over and tutors doubled to roughly 50. The following year, the center moved to its current location in Miller.

Student tutors meet in the Farnham Writers' Center
The Farnham Writers’ Center at Miller Library is a hub of student activity. Mira Patla (from left) confers with Aaron Mills about their writing, while Alex Badger ’24 and Joshua Varghese ’25 engage in a discussion.

Now, tutors also visit the Albert S. Hall School, a public school in Waterville, to promote and praise elementary students’ writing, and they’re available to teens at the Waterville Public Library several hours a day six days a week. On campus, the center also partners with DavisConnects for sessions on writing cover letters and personal statements. The center is busy at the end of any semester and is especially so approaching the end of the spring semester.

“Writing well is foundational to and cuts across all disciplines. It’s key to students’ success after college, in all fields,” said Paula Harrington, visiting assistant professor and interim director during Gherwash’s sabbatical. “And anyone who writes needs readers to give them feedback in the most positive way.”

Russell Johnson, senior associate provost for faculty affairs, said students feel the impact of the writers’ center long after they have departed Mayflower Hill. “We’re preparing students so they won’t be intimidated by writing in their lives after Colby, whether it’s grad school or a job,” Johnson said. “Communication skills in general and quality writing in particular are very important moving into the second half of the 21st century. We want Colby students to be successful wherever they go.”

The center’s tutors come with a variety of majors and interests, and students are free to choose and change the tutors they work with, whenever they like. There’s also the center’s WP112: Writers’ Workshop, an optional, one-credit course where students meet with the same tutor an hour per week for 10 weeks. Each semester, about 15 of the tutors also serve as writing fellows. Founded by Harrington in 2009, the Writing Fellows program embeds tutors in specific courses at the request of professors across disciplines.

Paula Harrington is the interim director of the Farnham Writers’ Center. In 2009, she founded the Writing Fellows program, which embeds tutors in specific courses at the request of professors across disciplines.

Writing fellows talk with faculty about their writing-assignment goals, attend class, and give individualized support to students. Martha Arterberry, the Clara C. Piper Professor of Psychology, said, “I’ll run draft assignments past my writing fellow for feedback on how I can make things clearer or resolve ambiguities. Students appreciate that the fellow knows what the course is about and is there in class when I introduce the assignment. Also, for some students, it’s a little scary to admit they’re struggling or don’t understand something, so they can talk with the writing fellow.”

Students who can commit to tutoring for at least one academic year needn’t prove their writing chops, but they must show an interest in writing as a practice in itself and as an academic essential and be able to listen and collaborate well, Harrington said. But first, they must complete the four-credit, semester-long training course, Tutoring Writing in Theory and Practice, taught each spring by the director, who introduces writing-center theory and practice as an intellectual discipline.

In the training, aspiring tutors learn the theoretical and practical elements of tutoring. They study the history of writing centers, analyze videos of actual tutoring sessions, and practice tutoring. Students also learn how to use the Socratic method with the students they’ll tutor, which fosters critical thinking by asking questions and carefully listening.

Farnham Writers’ Center Director Ghada Gherwash said that one of the center’s goals is to empower students to gain agency with their own writing. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Every fall the center welcomes a new cohort of tutors. Michael Chang ’24 was among those who joined in fall 2023 after completing the tutor training for the second time. The first time was in 2019, before he had to return home to his native South Korea for two years of military conscription and a year of recovery. Gherwash had suggested he tutor “because while teaching and helping others, I’d learn more about writing,” said Chang, who is majoring in philosophy and minoring in East Asian studies, with career plans in corporate law.

He tutors up to three students per week, including those whose first language isn’t English. “After tutoring for a year, I realized you can really get to know yourself by writing. I’m learning how to express myself more directly and present my ideas more clearly,” he said.

This spring, Chang is also the writing fellow for the training course.

During their sessions together, the student receiving the tutoring reads their writing aloud to the tutor and they discuss the paper’s thesis, hypothesis, paragraph order, voice, argument and counterargument, and anything that is missing, unclear, or repetitive.

“We don’t tell them what the ‘problems’ are in their writing,” Chang said. “We encourage them to notice where they might feel something’s wrong or off about it and wait for them to come up with their own solutions. And then we offer advice on how to apply those.”

Harrington stressed, “There’s no copyediting. We’re not a fix-it shop to correct students’ papers.”

Some students may turn to artificial intelligence for that and more. Gherwash said, “We’re all for AI. It’s amazing what it can do. Students can plug in a draft with the right prompts and have AI give feedback.”

Christine Kinzfolg ’26, who is double majoring in physics and Spanish, pops into the Farnham Writers’ Center two to three times a week and usually meets with the same tutor. “What’s most rewarding for me is that they let you talk,” she said. “I’ll be rattling off what I’m thinking, then there’s silence, and the tutors don’t try to fill it, they don’t try to put words in your mouth. I’m able to string all my ideas together. I feel more confident as a writer, able to think critically and convey my thoughts in a concise and understandable way.”

Students’ successes bring Chang the greatest satisfaction, and the center’s weekly staff meetings boost his own confidence and skills when tutors share their experiences and brainstorm through each other’s challenges. Often, guest faculty visit to talk about aspects of writing and more.

Students Mira Patla and Aaron Mills at the Farnham Writers’ Center.
Students Mira Patla and Aaron Mills at the Farnham Writers’ Center.

The center’s main initiative—linguistic justice—responds to the growing number of multilingual students, Gherwash said. “We don’t want anyone to feel linguistically alienated. Everyone has a right to their first language and their own varieties of English, and they shouldn’t shift those just to be accepted,” she said “So, let’s address what impacts and changes language and focus our discussions about linguistic diversity on constructive methods to empower students as writers.”

This stance may not always follow Colby students once they graduate, but those who benefit will hold the Farnham Writers’ Center dear as a major pillar of their education.