Thursday, April 20, 2017

"'There is Still Fear and Insecurity that Hide in the Blank Sheet Paper': Reflections on How Tutoring and Writing Have Influenced My Architectural Design Process" by HWC Alum Emma Gallagher

HWC Alum Emma Gallagher ('16) tutored in the HWC from 2013-2016. Emma wrote this essay for a class at Virginia Tech, where she now studies Architecture.


My three years as a tutor in the Herndon Writing Center have helped me more than I could imagine being an architecture major at Virginia Tech. In high school, I decided to take Advanced Compostion for many reasons: I wanted to help people; I’m (comparatively) good at writing; it would look good on a resume; I liked my classmates and my teachers. One reason that I wasn’t thinking of as I checked the box for Advanced Composition each year was that the skills I learned in this class would be applicable to my studies and life as an architect. I learned way more from just that one class than I ever thought that I would.

The writing process is one of the biggest focal points of the course. We spent the whole year not only reading about and experiencing the writing process, but teaching it to other students. In Advanced Composition we used this process only in writing. However, I have been using that process every day in my studies of architecture.

Each year on one of the first days of class we read “Madman, Carpenter, Architect, Judge” by Betty S. Flowers. The article talks about being able to just write before writing well. She emphasizes the process of the writing and recognized that that process is integral to the final product. The acceptance of bad ideas, sentences or paragraphs can help the writing overall. It’s okay to cut entire pages out if they aren’t beneficial to the purpose of the piece. Moving on and learning from mistakes are essential in creating quality work. If mistakes in the writing can be accepted and transformed, then they can even be helpful to the final product.

Learning about not only acceptance of mistakes but the process of getting over failures and moving on from them in a positive direction has helped me in the design process every day. Without process, it can be hard to start any project. At times, I feel that a bad drawing can mean so much more than a bad sentence, especially when I worry that my future learning for my college degree and eventual profession is going to be built on the learning that stems from that specific project. There is still fear and insecurity that hides in the blank sheet paper. Many of my first ideas seem to be lacking direction or don’t answer questions that I wished they would. It’s hard to accept that the project that I just spent all day creating didn’t achieve the goals I had set for it. Even in the face of discouragement, I’ve found that being too hard on myself slows the design process and hinders the development and advancement of my ideas. I can move on because of the lessons about process I learned and taught while I was a writing tutor. Being in the Herndon Writing Center helped me understand that failure is common and acceptable, but one misstep doesn’t amount to an overall lack of success. My time as a tutor also showed me how important process really is. The first step to a successful final product is often failure.

Going back to a project after a break often leads me to be able to look at it analytically. I can find where it went wrong and what it accomplished. I use those assessments to cut out the things that didn’t work (carpenter), build up the ideas that were beneficial to my idea (architect) and make sure that all the technicalities of the project (does it fit the size/material requirement, is the construction clean and stable, etc.) are met (judge).

One thing that I haven’t figured out is when the cycle of Madman, Carpenter, Architect, Judge can be stopped. Once everything is clean at the end of a paper or a project, I find that it’s always possible to go back and add to it or change it completely. It’s hard for me to tell when it’s time to put down the pencil and submit the final product. Often, I submit the final product when the deadline comes and I don’t stop developing it a second sooner. Finishing a project is not something that only I struggle with as an architecture and writing student, but that people from all fields struggle with daily.

Another thing that being in the Herndon Writing Center has helped me with is—not surprisingly—the ability to do all types of writing. My sophomore year at Herndon High School we had to write a research paper in Advanced Composition called “writing in the discipline.” Its function was to show that writing is important in every field.  I understood that after I wrote the paper my sophomore year, but I was forcibly reminded of it at the end of my first semester at Virginia Tech. My professor told our class that we would need to describe the depth of our ideas and the months of process involved in just two to three sentences per project for our final portfolio. He wanted us to connect our projects to broad concepts we learned and ideas we pursued while exploring through the project. Without my times as a tutor in the writing center I would have thought that this was impossible, but my experiences gave me the confidence to express myself through writing. I was reminded that sometimes the objects or drawing that I create don’t express every idea I wanted them too. Writing is an important communicator in every situation and profession.


Being in the Herndon Writing Center was a wonderful experience. In high school, it provided me with a good community. It was an interesting class and it was less demanding than my core classes, so I found I could enjoy it more. It helped me develop my communication skills, leadership skills, patience and so many more skills that are necessary in college and in the workplace in addition to my writing and ability to recognize the importance of process. Now that I’m in college, I have been using what I learned in Advanced Composition every day. Being in that class helps me with architecture, and I can see through my relationships with other students I can see that what I have learned is applicable in every field. 


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