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Parlor Talk

By Jeffrey Lott

02a_jeff_lott_april2011.jpgThis year marks the 25th anniversary of Swarthmore’s Writing Associates (WA) Program, a remarkable peer education system that helps students become better writers. In campus parlance, a WA is a trained student writing coach who works across a wide variety of disciplines with individuals and with entire classes. WAs provide feedback that helps fellow students examine the structural, organizational, and stylistic skills needed for good college writing; they also help peers analyze their writing and thought processes and improve the clarity of their arguments. By lifting up writing as an essential skill for success in college and the world beyond, the WA Program, directed by Associate Professor of English Literature Jill Gladstein, has become a vital ingredient of a Swarthmore education.

Yet according to Kenneth Sharpe, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science and co-author—with Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action—of the new book Practical Wisdom, something else happens in the WA process—and it happens to the WAs themselves.

Speaking at the writing associates anniversary celebration in March, Sharpe said: “In most of the work we all do and in our lives as friends and colleagues and citizens, we are constantly called on to teach others. I think one of the unsung blessings of the WA program is that it has caused you to learn to be better citizen-teachers [and] it has done this by ‘causing you to learn’ the practical wisdom that good teaching demands.”

Sharpe paused and returned to the phrase caused you to learn. “Now there’s an awkward phrase any good WA would bring to my attention,” he said. “Why not just say, ‘The WA program has taught you to be good teachers’?”

The answer is that the one-on-one nature of the WA process intentionally creates a learning environment that causes the WA to learn through trial and error. “You have to get it wrong to get it right,” Sharpe said. “And that is very painful.” Along the way, the WA is constantly asked to reflect on the process, to recognize errors, and  “to learn to love what is best.”

The process of teaching writing—and, I think, editing a magazine—requires constant application of the elements of practical wisdom: guiding someone while respecting their freedom and autonomy; challenging and questioning but respecting another person’s choices; being generous, not just with your time but in your spirit of giving to another; balancing generosity with fairness and making choices about how to distribute your time; being empathetic and understanding of the other person’s feelings; and listening carefully and knowing when to interrupt—and when not to.

Most of the Swarthmore alumni I know are good writers—and for the past 25 years that’s been no accident. No matter which side of the WA equation a student is on—learning to write more clearly or practicing the practical wisdom needed to teach that skill—the benefits of learning to love what is best are enormous.

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