Using Analogies to Describe Student Services: The Gym Analogy

Molly Wright Starkweather

Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor


Often when students hear about a tutoring service like a writing center, they get a vision of the center that is a little less than accurate. Some students think of a tutoring center as an exile for remedial students, a sort of leper colony for students having trouble forming a thesis statement. Instructors and administrators might see the writing center as a sort of clinic where serious grammatical and syntactic conditions are treated by caring staff. The writing center is, in fact, where students learn writing as a process in a dynamic space complementary to—and collaboratively with– the classroom. While grammar and other lower order concerns are part of the writing center’s purpose, higher order concerns like organization and thesis statements are also a big part of writing center tutoring services. Class visits, faculty presentations, and mission statements can do well to clarify the role of writing center services; however, often students, faculty, and administrators continue to see the writing center as a place for remedial work among remedial students. With analogies and metaphors describing the role of the writing center among an institution’s students and faculty, the mission statements and advertising become amplified, applied in a way that is more relatable to our campus population.

This blog entry is the first in a three-part series exploring the most effective analogies comparing writing centers with other campus entities, including gyms, clinics, and laboratories. Since these other campus services are more familiar as part of the traditional notion of a campus, it can be helpful to situate the writing center among these other services in order to demonstrate the established role of the writing center on campus. Using these analogies opens up a world of possibilities in terms of self-representation and advertising, from reaching students with clever memes to describing effective pedagogy to faculty to amplifying mission and goals to administrators.

Every college and university emphasizes the health of its community, whether student, faculty, or beyond. One of the ways that the typical institution encourages healthy living is by highlighting active living through regular exercise. A search of most colleges online will yield results showcasing gyms and recreation centers ranging from the modest to the professional sports association-quality. Gyms do not just give benefit to the body; they also give benefit to the mind and total quality of living while studying. A good workout requires focus and concentration, skills that pay dividends beyond the locker room. According to Amy Patterson Neubert, in a 2013 study by Purdue University, regular visits to the gym led to higher grade point averages. Kaplan University emphasizes healthy living by encouraging students to find creative ways to incorporate exercise in their daily lives of work, family, and study. Several archived time management presentations encourage students to seek out time for self-care, including exercise. In short, regular exercise at a gym is a familiar concept for college students of all kinds.

I have found it helpful to describe to students and faculty the role of the writing center as being like that of a gym on campus, only instead of exercising the body, we exercise writing skills. After all, the starting point of most conversations around the role of a writing center involves lower order concerns like grammar, which are most often perfected through regular exercises. From there, I can shift the focus of the conversation to how one visit to the gym does not strengthen our muscles as much as regular visits to the gym can; consequently, one visit to the writing center is not going to improve all of a student’s writing skills as much as routine visits to the writing center over time can. This point leads to discussing how writing involves a process, not just a product, and how diligent work over time produces the best results rather than short bursts of work in isolated work periods. Mental work, in this way, is very much like physical work.

At this point in the conversation, the audience understands that the writing center is like a gym in that regular work can sharpen lower order writing skills over time. We have established that writing is a process and that that process should include regular, not just remedial or emergency, visits to the writing center. How can the conversation open up to show how the writing center fits in with the classroom and the university as a whole? Often, I point out that sports teams are the groups who use the gym the most, just as whole classes (particularly composition classes) are the ones who use the writing center the most. Just like a sports team will meet to train for an upcoming game, a class will meet regularly in preparation for a big assignment. The coach sets the long and short-term goals for the team, the same way a teacher will set the long and short-term goals for a class. For the sports team, certain members might need to go to the gym to work out certain performance skills in order to improve based on their contribution to the team. (A running back, for instance, might need to do more sprinting on the field, so there will be more trips involved to the gym to practice on the treadmill.) In the same way, certain students in a class might need to polish certain writing skills, like transitioning from paragraph to paragraph, individually in the writing center. When an athlete goes to the gym, he or she will likely meet with a trainer to discuss individual goals so that that athlete improves his or her performance. When a student in a class goes to the writing center, he or she will meet with a tutor to discuss individual writing goals to improve his or her performance in the classroom and on high stakes writing assignments.

When it comes to the university as a whole, both the gym and the writing center are meant for everyone. There are faculty exercise groups, whole campus health initiatives like bicycling to class, and gym hours that serve faculty as well as students. Likewise, writing centers open themselves up for use by faculty members as well. Depending on the center, the services available to faculty might include special writing retreats or article “boot camps” where the writing center becomes a supportive environment for a weekend of writing. There are also centers, like the Kaplan University Writing Center, that offer the same services to faculty as to students, allowing faculty to send in questions or come in for live chat tutoring to double check a writing or citation question. Since learning is a lifelong process, and since professionals must still exercise skills in order to hone their craft, it makes perfect sense for writing centers to be open to all members of the campus community.

Making the comparison between a campus staple like the gym and an academic workout center like the writing center can show that both entities are more than meets the eye. A university’s gym or recreation center is a space where students exercise the mind and body for long and short-term benefits to performing physical feats. A university’s writing center is a space where students exercise the mind with respect to communication for long and short-term benefits to performing writing feats. The use of this analogy emphasizes the process-oriented, campus-wide, student-centered nature of the writing center.

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