Stanford's Hume Center merges tutoring for writing and speaking in new location

With an expanded mission and a new Main Quadrangle location, the Hume Center is exploring ways to integrate support for writing and speaking.

L.A. Cicero Julia Bleakney and writing tutors at Hume Center

Julia Bleakney, director of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, addresses undergraduate Resident Writing Tutors in the new facility.

Increased visibility among students and enhanced integration of written and oral skills are two of the advantages faculty and administrators hope to glean from the creation of the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking.

The new center, which moved to a renovated Main Quadrangle headquarters in Building 250 this summer, was created from the merger of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric's George and Leslie Hume Writing Center and the Oral Communication Program's Speaking Center. A grand opening celebration is planned for mid-October.

In the meantime, the merger and the renovated space are already leading to new approaches to helping students analyze, summarize and communicate information, whether in writing or orally.

"We're very seasoned collaborators, having worked together over the years," said Doree Allen, director of the Oral Communication Program. "In many ways, this merger and move is very organic. But there are differences in the way we reach students. The excitement is how we create synergy between the two programs and what we contribute to one another's pedagogy."

SUES recommendation

The merger of the two offices was recommended by members of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), who completed a two-year review of undergraduate offerings in January 2012. Members of the review committee reiterated the "primary importance of academic writing." But they also noted the "expansiveness of written and communicative forms across the disciplines" and made their recommendations with the "aim of producing graduates who can communicate with clarity and confidence across a range of modes."

The Oral Communication Program's Speaking Center, created in 1997, has most recently been located in Meyer Library, which will be demolished in the future. The Hume Writing Center, established in 2001 with a Campaign for Undergraduate Education gift from former Board of Trustees Chair Leslie Hume and her husband, George, was located in the basement of Margaret Jacks Hall. Both centers offer tutoring for graduate and undergraduate students, with the Hume Center having conducted about 7,000 tutoring sessions annually in recent years and the Oral Communication Program about 2,000.

"The tutors and the students loved the Writing Center space in Margaret Jacks," said Julia Bleakney, director of the Hume Center. "But the opportunity to have an entire building, to move closer to the dorms and to the library, and to customize the space for both programs was pretty exciting."

The simultaneous merger and move gave Bleakney and Allen an opportunity to rethink how best to design the space to accommodate tutoring for both writing and speaking. The result is 10 new consulting rooms and five workshop rooms, all featuring highly configurable arrangements of tables and chairs, as well as advanced digital media equipment.

The Hume Center also features a ground-floor combination lounge and event space, with a large-screen television and comfortable chairs – most with retractable writing platforms. The space was designed to attract student groups looking for meeting space at night, as well as individuals looking for a quiet place to read, write and study during the day. The architect of the renovation, Stanford alumnus Christopher Wasney, also designed Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

"I like the idea that the center is designed so that students, as well as coming here to work and learn, can just come and hang out, without an appointment or even a special purpose," said Nicholas Jenkins, associate professor of English and faculty director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, of which the Hume Center is a part. "I hope there will be all kinds of events and meetings here. It would be great if, whenever possible, student groups and other parts of the university wanted to come and use these beautiful rooms for small gatherings or seminar events."

With that in mind, the center hours will extend to 10 p.m. during the week and on Sundays.

Jenkins added, "This is a beautifully centered place in the midst of the university's departmental life. One of the main recommendations from SUES was for us to integrate more fully into undergraduate education. So here we are, integrating right in the middle of the Main Quad."

National model

The Hume Center could serve as a future model for other colleges and universities, only a handful of which have brought together support for writing and speaking. In fact, Bleakney has already hosted other college and university representatives eager to learn from Stanford's experience.

"It's in Stanford's nature to be a bellwether," said Jenkins. "We might be a little bit ahead of the curve here. It wouldn't surprise me if we see some of our peers adopting this approach."

The approach recognizes that academic assignments have changed as communication technology has advanced. The approach is also a nod to the skills of students who have grown up in the age of the Internet. Most are comfortable with the integration of written and spoken presentation and, in fact, may not necessarily see a difference.

"A lot of students are being asked to do assignments that are online or take the form of blogs or YouTube videos," Jenkins said. "The Hume Center is a space ready for a whole new landscape of academic assignments: written, spoken or digitally presented. That can all take place in one room."

Jenkins stressed that he, Bleakney and Allen see the Hume Center not as a venue for remedial tutoring when students are experiencing difficulty (though help will always be available for anyone who needs it) but more as one designed to increase the capacity to communicate effectively across a wide variety of media and disciplines.

"It's best to think about our Center for Writing and Speaking as less like a doctor's office and more like a gym for the communication muscles," he said.