All-nighters help writers in a crunch


In the wee hours before dawn, only a perfectionist or someone in deep, deep trouble would trudge across Penn's campus to seek an opinion on a term paper. Myra Lotto (C'99) said that, for most of her four years at Penn, she has believed there were enough people of this sort to justify an all-night writing advising service.

Her hunch is grounded in three years of membership on the Writing Advising Program's steering committee - she's the coordinator this year - and an active life in Van Pelt College House. Lotto has a difficult time calling the house by its new name, Gregory. "It will always be Van Pelt to me," she said.

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Photo by Candace diCarlo

The College House system's constant intellectual ferment and regular bouts of self-imposed sleep deprivation led Lotto to propose round-the-clock advising. Last fall, Lotto and advisors at the Writing Center tested her theory.

A steady trickle of supplicants dropped into the Writers House in the afternoon and evening on December's Reading Day. By 4 a.m. there were still 15 weary, caffeinated undergraduates waiting in line to see one of the two all-night advisors. "We got these incredibly motivated people at 3 a.m. with huge bags under their eyes and lots of coffee in hand," Lotto said.

But before these weary wordsmiths rolled in for all-night wisdom, Lotto and her fellow advisors had to convince the Writing Program's staff that late-night deliberations not only would fly, but deserved to. "The obvious concerns included safety for advisors and students, as well as the pedagogical questions - Were we promoting poor study habits?" Lotto said.

"We were able to wear these concerns down, realizing that not only is Penn already a 24-hour campus, but students will be up all night no matter what we do. Why not use the time to help them?"

Writing Across the University Director Deborah Rossen-Krill was one of the advisors who approved the project. "[It] was clearly an idea that grew out of an understanding of when and how students write," she said. "It would not only emphasize the importance of revision in writing, but do so through a high-energy, student-initiated event that brings us one step closer to creating a 'culture of writing' at Penn."

The success of the event was apparent by daylight. "We had this great, booming volume. It's crazy to imagine 14 or 15 people waiting to be seen at 4 in the morning," Lotto said. A few were sent back home to wait while those who couldn't return were granted phone consultations. By the time the "24 Hours of Advising" concluded the following noon, 86 people had come through the center's doors - one-sixth of its business for the entire semester.

The writing advising program had also been experimenting with another way to increase its presence. Two years ago it began a pilot program of e-mail-based consultations. Electronic Writing Advising, a pilot no longer, allows students to e-mail a paper any time of the day or night and receive a response within a day. The EWA Web site, which Lotto designed and runs, now handles a fourth of Writing Advising's total traffic.

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Originally published on April 15, 1999