Finding the Write Way
When it comes to sharpening composition skills, Jill Johnson Pennington '92 can help students find the Write Way.
Since helping set up Alma’s first Writing Center as an English major in the early 1990s, Pennington has made a career teaching others to write. She is a writing professor and writing center coordinator at Lansing Community College, and she also uses her knowledge to advise and connect writing centers at colleges around the state.
Pennington’s calling grew from the humble beginnings of Alma’s Writing Center. Researching writing assistance programs as part of an independent study with English Professor Carol Bender in 1990, the English major developed a research proposal for a composition-based peer-tutoring program at Alma. Initially designated to assist entry-level English students, the Writing Center had no permanent location and was held in a variety of classrooms and study rooms on campus.
“I’ve been pleased to see that it’s taken off since then,” says Pennington after recently visiting Alma’s Writing Center, which is now located in the lower level of the library.
She admits that upon graduation from Alma, she “never planned to get involved with writing centers as a career.” After enrolling at Michigan State University’s graduate school, she quickly became involved with plans to develop a new Writing Center at MSU.
“There was no space for the MSU Writing Center yet, and the budget was still being cobbled together, but I saw it as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor,” says Pennington.
Impressed by her work with writing assistance programs at Alma College and MSU, LCC hired Pennington in 1997 to set up a writing center on its campus. However, upon arrival Pennington found that there was no plan for the facility — no allotted physical space, no budget, no goals or guidelines.
“Actually, all of that felt pretty familiar,” says Pennington, referring to her previous experiences. Together with a steering committee, she spent an entire year laying plans for a writing assistance program, which opened in 1998.
While Alma’s Writing Center has grown considerably since Pennington’s undergraduate years, the College’s English faculty have agreed that it should be enhanced. At a planning session in June, Pennington joined English Professors William Palmer and Carol Bender as well as visiting instructors Carrie Cubberley and Ardella Crawford to discuss ways to improve Alma’s Writing Center. Topics ranged from developing a new training course for peer tutors to relocating the facility.
“Alma’s Writing Center is such a good thing, and it deserves support and visibility,” says Pennington. The planning committee also hopes to connect the Writing Center to Alma’s English Education program, having students work as writing tutors.
Having taught college writing full time for 10 years, Pennington says, “I like classroom dynamics, but I love working with students one-on-one — you can make so much progress even in a short session.”
Her passion for writing led her to found the Michigan Writing Centers Association, which addresses the concerns of professional and tutorial staff in writing centers and writing support programs in Michigan. Pennington is now chair of the organization, with duties that include connecting and consulting writing centers across the state, helping to plan the organization’s annual conference, and maintaining the MWCA Web site.
She is also active in the International Writing Centers Association, having served as its secretary for the last three years. She has led two summer institutes for the organization.
Writing centers are a vital resource for many students, who often neglect to carefully consider assignments before they begin writing. As Pennington describes, peer tutors are able to “intervene in the writing process,” helping fellow students develop composition skills and “an awareness of how complex writing is” — knowledge critical for writers of all skill levels.
— Kelly O’Connor '05