Re-branding the Writing Center

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The Writing Center is John Cabot University’s resource for writers. Intended ‘”for all writers, of all levels,” the Center offers one-hour sessions for students who are interested in improving their written work. The Writing Center is run by English Professor Tara Keenan.

Thanks to a collaboration with Professor Sabrina Schmidt’s Graphic Design and Advanced Graphic Design classes, the Writing Center is receiving a graphic makeover. Prof. Schmidt and her students have already designed for various organizations both within and without the JCU community: the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs, The Institute for Entrepreneurship, UPMC University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and TEDxRoma, to name a few.

We talked to Professors Keenan and Schmidt about the Writing Center, their collaboration, and the writing process in general.

Writing Center Coordinator Professor Tara Keenan

Professor Tara Keenan, Coordinator of the Writing Center

What does the writing center do?
KEENAN: In short, we are here to talk to writers about writing. We have trained student tutors and professor tutors who will work with students on any type of writing, from grammar to essays to creative writing to graduate school applications. At a professor’s request, we also go into classes and teach about more specific topics like writing a literature review of an annotated bibliography.

What are the challenges of running the center?
KEENAN: Some challenges include recruiting qualified and reliable tutors and providing the university community with resources on writing. But the biggest challenge is to get students in the door and to get their professors to understand the potential and the limitations of collaborating with the Writing Center. We are not an editing service or a paper mill, but rather a place where student writers are guided to strengthen their work.

How did the collaboration with the Writing Center come about? What was the scope of the project?
SCHMIDT: The collaboration with the Writing Center was enabled by Learn-Do-Share, an initiative founded by Prof. Silvia Pulino that brings real companies and real problems into the classroom, allowing students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations. The focus of investigation for this semester is to extend the brand of the Writing Center, to establish a coherent design language for it, in order to reinforce its mission and raise awareness for its services.

In what way will your re-branding of the Writing Center help it reach a wider audience?
SCHMIDT: It takes time to build a brand, so this will be the first step in trying to create a coordinated brand experience. Unfortunately, we do not have unlimited time, so together with the client we agreed that the students would start with the design of an institutional poster campaign, both online and offline, as well as a promotional campaign. The aim is to convey the true image of the Writing Center, to illustrate the relevance of its services, to help clarify any misconceptions associated with it, and to ultimately prove that the Writing Center does make a difference in the lives of its audience.

Professor Sabrina Schmidt

Professor Sabrina Schmidt

What are the challenges and rewards of directing a group of students in projects like these? What are the benefits for the students?
SCHMIDT: The (admittedly, self-imposed) challenge for me is to find at least three real clients for each semester, for both the Introductory Graphic Design courses, as well as the Special Topics or Advanced Graphic Design courses. Each project must be planned right down to the smallest detail, and it has to fit into the agenda, i.e. by the time we do the project, the students must have acquired the necessary knowledge and expertise, so they can face a real design project with confidence. The scope of work for each project needs to be defined with care, to ensure that it is doable within a semester.

The rewards, on the other hand, are immense. Being able to work with great students is a reward in itself. It is a true joy to see how they thrive and develop skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. After each semester, I receive many thank you notes from students who express their appreciation for what they have learned. Some remain in contact years after graduation.

The hands-on experience with a real client is definitely one of the greatest benefits for my students. Occasionally, depending on the client, a student might land an internship to deepen the knowledge acquired during the course. Everything they develop in class, even the projects that are not intended for real clients, are a great contribution to their professional portfolios, that render them highly competitive in today’s market place, and – according to students’ testimonials – employers are impressed by the skills and professional approach they learned in class.

Let’s talk about writing. Some say that “writing is like painting: it cannot be taught.” What’s your take on that?
KEENAN: Utter drivel. If painting can’t be taught, what is the point of art school then? Georgia O’Keeffe went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Anything can be taught. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo, he has a coach, no? Talent is great but undirected, uncultivated, talent goes nowhere. It’s the hard work that makes the difference. We teach students to tap into their talent, whatever it may be, and cultivate it through organized approaches to written communication. There are few people, if any, in our communities incapable of learning. We work, we learn, we teach and we constantly strive to get better. Otherwise, what are we doing here?

What is your advice to someone trying to better their writing (other than coming to the Writing Center, obviously)?
KEENAN: Realize that writing is a collaborative process. Even James Joyce had an editor. Reach out to colleagues and friends and find out what they have done to improve their writing. Don’t approach someone who is a natural, but rather, approach a friend that has struggled with writing or who works particularly hard at it. Those are the type of people who can best guide you. Finally, be a reader. This is key. You need to go to that place with all the paper books, yes, the library. The reality is, while digital certainly gives us access to everything we’ve ever wanted to see, the physical book, the physical library, that is your key to becoming a better writer. The best writers are good readers. There is simply no substitute or shortcut. If you are not a reader, you need to get busy. Now is your time.

Anything you’d like to add?
SCHMIDT: I would like to express my thanks to both Prof. Silvia Pulino, who enabled this and many other collaborations, and to Prof. Tara Keenan, who is a wonderful client to work with. Furthermore, I would like to thank my students, who approach each design challenge with great commitment and passion; working with them is indeed a gratifying experience.

KEENAN: The Writing Center is for all writers of all levels. Come and see for yourself.