Dr. Matthew Capdevielle explains new program for incarcerated individuals

Most Notre Dame students have at some point found themselves at the University Writing Center for help with a paper, thesis, or other project. While the Writing Center offers many helpful options to students for their academic work, many do not realize that its reach extends further than those here on campus. The Center also works in South Bend with various tutoring programs and opportunities for local residents as well. The Rover caught up with Writing Center director Dr. Matthew Capdevielle via email to learn more about a new collaboration project between the Writing center and the Westville Correctional Facility.

Irish Rover: What is the formal name and purpose of this program?

Dr. Capdevielle: The WEI Writing Center is a collaboration between the University of Notre Dame Writing Center and the Westville Education Initiative (WEI). WEI is itself a partnership between Notre Dame and Holy Cross College, offering a college degree program for incarcerated individuals at Westville Correctional Facility. It is part of the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, a group initiated by and modeled on the Bard Prison Initiative. The WEI Writing Center is a peer writing tutorial program at Westville. The tutors are students in the WEI program, eight incarcerated men who are pursuing college degrees in the Westville Education Initiative. 

Where did the idea for it come from and begin?

The idea for the WEI Writing Center emerged last spring from conversations between Dr. Alesha Seroczynski, Director of College Operations for WEI; Dr. Sheila McCarthy, a WEI faculty member; and, myself, Dr. Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Notre Dame Writing Center. We had originally considered bringing Notre Dame Writing Center tutors into the WEI classroom to provide writing tutorial services to students at Westville, but then we realized that we could tap the enormous intellectual and interpersonal resources of the WEI students themselves. The WEI Writing Center, in other words, needed to be a true peer tutoring program. Thus, we decided to recruit and train tutors from within WEI. 

Dr. Seroczynski and Dr. McCarthy worked to recruit the tutors, and I provided three training sessions at Westville during the spring semester. Maya Jain, a Notre Dame Writing Center tutor, provided a fourth training session, and the tutors began providing writing consultations to fellow WEI students at the end of the spring semester. Our ongoing training of the tutors continues this semester.

What do you hope to achieve through it?

Serving as a writing center tutor is a transformative experience in that it requires us to exercise so many high-level skills simultaneously—deep listening, critical analysis, and thoughtful questioning among other skills. The intellectual and interpersonal challenge of working with a wide variety of writers to solve a huge range of problems in writing is, in my view, the epitome of a liberal education. This work is collaborative, it is empathetic, it is rigorous, and it is deeply ethical. I regard it as essentially a peace-building activity in that it seeks to empower students to enter into authentic and responsible dialogue with one another and with the community of writers and thinkers in our world. 

Our aim in this program is identical to the aim that we have in the Writing Center at Notre Dame—to provide support for writers so that they can discover what it is that they mean to say and can do their very best work in writing. In both the Notre Dame Writing Center and the WEI Writing Center, we work with writers at any stage in the Writing Center to help them define and achieve their own writing goals. 

Are students able to be involved in this program, and if so, how?

The tutors in the Notre Dame Writing Center and the WEI Writing Center are partners in the shared project of providing high quality writing instruction for writers at all levels. Next month, a core group of tutors at the Notre Dame Writing Center will be traveling to Westville for a joint staff meeting with their colleagues in the WEI Writing Center. They will share insights with one another about the teaching of writing and will be collaborating to develop a writing workshop for students in the WEI program.  

Monica VanBerkum is a sophomore Anthropology major living in Cavanaugh Hall. In her free time, you can find her begging her friends to play football on the quad. She loves writing so much, so if you’d like to talk about that with her, contact Monica at mvanber1@nd.edu.