WCSU Writing Center Coordinator Dr. Kelli Custer
DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University Writing Center Coordinator Dr. Kelli Custer has heard the timeworn lament, “Students just can’t write these days,” throughout her teaching career — and together with a team of students as passionate about writing as herself, she continues to prove the pessimists wrong.
Custer, an associate professor of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process now entering her sixth year as coordinator of the Writing Center, fields a core of 10 to 12 student consultants at the center who demonstrate both the writing and personal skills to serve as peer mentors for their fellow students. During the past academic year, the Writing Center received approximately 1,200 visits from WCSU students seeking help ranging from understanding and brainstorming assignments and developing a thesis to organizing drafts, documenting sources and improving writing mechanics.
In recognition of her dedication to writing education for students across academic disciplines and at every skill level, Custer recently received the 2018-19 Board of Regents System-Wide Teaching Award for Connecticut State Universities. The prize is awarded annually by the Board of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system to one faculty member at Western, Southern, Central or Eastern Connecticut state universities who demonstrates exemplary excellence and innovation in instruction.
Custer, a New Milford resident who earned her Ph.D. in Composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, directed the Writing Center at Western Colorado University and was a lecturer in the writing program at the University of Denver prior to joining the WCSU faculty in 2012. In addition to leading the WCSU Writing Center since 2014, she also has served as a coordinator of the university’s First Year Experience program and as a member of the steering committee of the Northeast Writing Center Association.
Custer observed that the WCSU Writing Center offers the opportunity for every student to gain confidence in their communication skills and receive feedback that will help them to become better writers. “When students come to the center, we meet them where they are and try to help them to get to where they need to be,” she said.
“Teaching writing is a way of helping students to find the ‘author’ in their authority, to discover their self-advocacy, their voice, their sense of self,” she remarked. “We take such satisfaction when students who didn’t think that they could communicate through writing discover that they have the ability to write about something important to them. The challenge for the writing teacher is to help make this happen.”
Writing Center consultants meet with students in 45-minute sessions held in the bright and airy suite of computer-equipped work stations on the third floor of the Haas Library on the university’s Midtown campus. Most students schedule visits voluntarily to work on class assignments at various stages of preparation, often after learning about the center’s services from their professors. “This university and its faculty are very good at emphasizing writing in every academic discipline,” Custer said.
While sessions at times may address topics such as source citations and grammar usage, Custer explained that consultants engage students in conversation to take a wider view of their assignment tasks and the preparation of their written work. “Our role is not to fix wording and write papers for students, but through conversation to serve as a reader responding to their work,” she said. “We serve writers at all skill levels, because every writer is going to benefit from having someone review their work and respond to it.”
Custer remarked that one of the greatest sources of pride in her tenure as Writing Center coordinator has been to witness the impact on consultants from their collaborative mentoring work with fellow students. “It can be a transformative experience as they learn leadership skills, compassion and a strong sense of who they are,” she said. “I’ve seen such growth in the students who work here. Learning to teach the complexities of writing is the hardest and the best job you could have.”
Students who qualify to join the center’s team of 10 to 12 consultants have completed at least two years of undergraduate studies and must meet rigorous GPA, coursework and writing standards as well as demonstrate the personal skills to work effectively with their peers. All staff members commit to taking the Writing Center Theory and Practice course with Custer and keeping a regular schedule of tutoring meetings as well as participating in weekly meetings with the coordinator and fellow consultants. Four staff members will accompany Custer this fall to present at the annual International Writing Centers Association conference in Columbus, Ohio, where participants share best practices and innovative strategies for writing education.
“I can teach grammar, but I can’t teach kindness and friendliness,” Custer said. “I have been very fortunate to find students who are earnest, hard working and smart, students who work well with their peers and with each other. It’s an ethic that most writing centers across the country seek.”
The 10 students who served as Writing Center consultants during the 2018-19 academic year submitted a reference letter as a team to the Board of Regents describing Custer’s unique ability to educate and communicate in ways uniquely suited to each individual. “Her ability to gauge specific students’ situations and meet their individual needs is always done with an attention to detail, creativity and, above all, a serious passion for education,” they wrote. “She revels in the triumphs and discoveries, however small, in the realm of finding new approaches, ways of using language, techniques for teaching methods or concepts.”
The student consultants lauded Custer’s conviction that “true learning comes from the interaction and relationship between two people, each with unique knowledge and each dedicated to obtaining more.” They observed the Writing Center has become a place where students “who may have slipped through the cracks otherwise” can “feel comfortable asking questions and answering them.”
“The Writing Center is a sought-out space for the courage to ask for help,” they wrote. “And the center of this place, the point around which learning and bravery revolve, is Dr. Kelli Custer.”
While Custer finds that most students who seek help at the Writing Center understand the importance of effective communication skills in their college work, Custer and her staff strive to impress upon students that writing is a lifelong learning process. She described the achievement of good writing as a “continually moving target” that is never fully attained. “We’re always going to be developing to become better writers,” she observed.
“In a sense, writing is like magic: You take a handful of letters and punctuation marks, and it gives you a power that you can use intentionally for any purpose,” she said. “Our job is to help students who didn’t think they were writers to understand that they really are.”
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