REVIEW: A SYNTHESIS OF QUALITATIVE STUDIES OF WRITING CENTER TUTORING

Roger Austin
Georgia State University
raustin6@gsu.edu

A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring is refreshingly direct about a regrettable fact concerning writing center tutoring and tutor training: established best practices are difficult to quantify.

Before reaching the end of the first page, Rebecca Day Babcock, Kellye Manning, and Travis Rogers outline the impetus of their research, relating Babcock’s difficulty in synthesizing information on the ideologies of writing centers when preparing for her doctoral comprehensive exams. That difficulty prompts the authors to admit that “there was no one common writing center theory, but rather a set of practices and a pattern of taking theories from other disciplines and applying them to writing centers” (1). Babcock, Manning, and Rogers then call upon Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns’ infamous 1995 essay, “A Critique of Pure Tutoring,” referencing its indictment that writing center research does little to critically examine its preferred tutoring practices, reducing appraisal efforts to little more than hunches. On generally accepted techniques and strategies, Shamoon and Burns write that “these codes and appeals seem less the product of research or examined practice and more like articles of faith that serve to validate a tutoring approach which ‘feels right’” (135). Nearly two decades later, writing center research has arguably diminished old preferences for hands-off, minimalist tutoring. The message of A Synthesis is immediately clear: a unified theory of tutoring practice must prefer researched, verifiable practice and eschew unsubstantiated belief.

Before delving into the results and conclusions of their work, Babcock, Manning, and Rogers review the origins of writing center practice and take stock of where centers currently stand: “Student-centeredness and collaboration have been buzzwords in writing center studies for some time now. It is writing center dogma or formalism that tutors should adopt a student-centered or collaborative approach to tutorials and very little research or, indeed, questioning of such a stance has occurred” (3). Asserting that this lack of reflection and interrogation manifests itself in vague standards for tutor practice, the authors profess a need for “theory grounded in data rather than in abstractions in order to present a complete model of what actually happens in tutoring sessions” (5). Babcock, Manning, and Rogers deliver just that. A Synthesis is a svelte aggregate of numerous qualitative studies of tutoring in practice ranging over multiple writing centers and more than twenty years.

The authors are forthcoming with details of their research design, divulging their criteria for study inclusion or exclusion, the training process for the team of researchers reviewing the studies, and the organization of their findings. What follows is a concise, well-researched resource that collects more than two decades of qualitative data from tutoring observation from a diverse selection of writing centers, distills that data into clear conclusions and takeaways, and leaves the reader with actionable facts of tutoring in practice. Babcock, Manning, and Rogers steer tutors and directors away from the false security of mantras and platitudes. 

A Synthesis is tutee-focused. This perspective avoids the trend in writing center discussions that often revert to assumptions. It is tempting for us to speak dogmatically of what makes for an effective tutorial instead of substantiating our expectations. A Synthesis is focused on the outcomes of tutorial choices and on tutee reaction to tutor action. Babcock, Manning, and Rogers emphasize conclusions, in part, by focusing seven of the book’s nine chapters on variables that inescapably impact tutorials, including personal characteristics (of tutees and tutors), communication, external influences, and emotions among others. The authors deconstruct each of these chapter themes further into component issues that impact the work that takes place at the writing center table. 

In the chapter on roles, for example, some of the issues covered include tutor directivity (or a lack thereof), authority and power, gendered approaches to tutoring, navigating the difference between teacher and peer, and tutor sincerity. The following synopsis illustrates the effective, concise summary that Babcock, Manning, and Rogers wield: 

 

Sincerity and insincerity are related to honesty and dishonesty in our framework. Stachera wrote of a conference that she had in which she was not honest about what she felt about the tutee’s paper. In the name of non-directivity, she kept her negative evaluations to herself and told him that the paper was “interesting.” She noted that non-directivity does not foster true rapport because one party is holding back, and in Stachera’s case, she felt this was dishonest. (67)

This clear and articulate synthesis moves forward quickly, refining what starts with Stachera by introducing two more researchers drawing complementary conclusions on tutor sincerity. Each subtopic is similarly brief and contributes to providing a structured, succinct primer of relevant qualitative research. 

The real value in the organization of A Synthesis resides in the bulleted summaries that finish each chapter. The authors revisit each subtopic, further refining their discoveries into simple, direct statements that help readers digest clear takeaways. Babcock, Manning, and Rogers return to Stachera’s research on tutor sincerity here and refine it with a single bullet point: “Non-directivity can lead tutors to be dishonest and not foster true rapport through their actions because they hold back their opinions and are being dishonest” (71). While the original discussions are not overly lengthy, these succinct reminders of their conclusions can only help readers to better understand the effects of the tutor’s sincerity on the tutoring session.

The discussion/bullet-point relationship also may help some readers reverse-engineer valuable insight into the authors’ arguments. Reading the bullet points first may encourage readers to work backwards to the longer, more detailed discussion. This format accommodates multiple reading and retention styles. And while it may seem odd to praise a book index, readers will find that of A Synthesis to be especially useful as a quick reference for further reading precisely because of the discuss/distill format of the chapters. 

A Synthesis is not without its limitations. At a trim 137 pages, the study is short, so there will inevitably be topics on which some readers might want more detail. Some of the discussions contained within A Synthesis lack supporting research. This limitation is likely due to the lack of research available for Babcock, Manning, and Rogers to draw from. Remember the nature of the problem they are trying to address in the first place: when so little qualitative research takes place in writing center theory building, there will be gaps. 

Remember also that this brevity can be a strength. This is not the ultimate encyclopedia of all things tutoring practice, but it is concise. This economy of space also supports an objective the authors point toward in their text’s conclusion: “The implications of our study, we hope, will serve as points of departure for other scholars who wish to use similar grounded-theory approaches to describe writing center tutoring” (116). With so wide a selection of potential topics that readers will certainly find useful, A Synthesis will serve as a great starting line from which to begin new research projects.

Rebecca Day Babcock, Kellye Manning, and Travis Rogers bring their mission full circle in the final pages of A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring, concluding that “something about writing center lore is no longer helping our students and, given the wide variance in theory vs. practice, may never have been effective aides to writing center clients. Since helping our students is precisely why the lore developed, it is time for our methods to evolve” (123). Readers can look to A Synthesis as a catalyst for exactly this change. Research like this calls for the codification of successful writing center tutoring and for a challenging of the assumptions about what practices may no longer have a place in the field. 
 

Works Cited

Day Babcock, Rebecca, Kellye Manning and Travis Rogers. A Synthesis of Qualitative Studies of Writing Center Tutoring, 1983-2006. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Shamoon, Linda K. and Deborah H. Burns. "A Critique of Pure Tutoring." Writing Center Journal 15.2 (1995): 134-152. Print.