USING METAGENRE AND ECOCOMPOSITION TO TRAIN WRITING CENTER TUTORS FOR WRITING IN THE DISCIPLINES 

Bonnie D. Devet
College of Charleston
devetb@cofc.edu

Half a decade ago, in a now famous keynote address to the 2008 International Writing Across the Curriculum Conference, Susan H. McLeod pronounced that “Writing Across the Curriculum has survived and is thriving thirty-five years after it began.” In fact, Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID) programs have become mainstays in many American institutions of education. Based on their “State of WAC/WID in 2010 Methods and Results of the US Survey of the International WAC/WID Mapping Project,” Chris Thaiss and Tara Porter report that, since 1987, such programs have “grown by roughly one-third” (534).  WAC/WID programs are, indeed, flourishing.

There to support these programs have been writing centers. While centers cannot claim, of course, to be responsible for WAC/WID’s phenomenal rise, centers are key places where students talk about writing with other students (Harris), and given that the writing centers’ tutors usually have varied majors (not all are seeking an English degree), centers have become a de facto “hub” for talking about writing in all disciplines (Golden). As Paulette Golden has described in her Praxis article, a center is “the place that teaches students how to navigate the constraints of different writing contexts” (emphasis in the original). As a long-time director of a center (twenty years and counting), I agree that centers are “hubs,” playing an important role in assisting clients with writing in all disciplines.  To fulfill this role, tutors must help students, regardless of discipline; or as Golden explains, “The Writing Center tutors should be able to demystify the diverse writing practices students will encounter.”    

It is a daunting prospect.  How can consultants be ready to assist with assignments from various disciplines? How can tutor training help student writers see the larger picture of what writing in the academy entails? How can tutors be trained to help student writers understand the vital role students themselves play in a discipline? This paper explores the current theories for training tutors to work with writing in the disciplines and, then, advocates changes to this training, changes that broaden the perspective for both tutors and their clients so that students understand what it means to know and to write at college, regardless of the discipline.

For over twenty years writing center scholars (Kiedaisch and Dinitz; Tinberg and Cupples; Shamoon and Burns; Powers and Nelson; Walker) have debated the best approach for handling WAC/WID students, with this debate focusing on whether tutors should be trained as specialists or generalists.  The specialist camp has made good points.  A tutor majoring in History helping another History student can make the session “revolve around the rhetoric of the discipline” (Walker 27) and “help clients from their fields learn discourse strategies in more productive ways than a generalist tutor” (Walker 27).  The specialists helping in their area of expertise or major can even point out factual problems, as one tutor told me she did when she assisted a client who was analyzing a medieval poem. Using specialist tutors also makes good sense when tutors are assigned to a specific course.

But the specialist approach poses problems. Staffing a center with these types of tutors ignores practical concerns.  No directors can hire tutors for every discipline at a college or university: the staff is just not there.  Then, too, training tutors as specialists assumes disciplinary writing is monolithic; “writing in History” or “writing in Philosophy,” however, is merely a convenient label, ignoring how each discipline has its own contexts and sub-specialties, especially when one considers cross-disciplinary majors, like Criminal Justice or Career Counseling (Thais 96).  To add to the confusion, within one discipline, two professors may require different ways of writing.  And some disciplines (like Gender Studies)—new and developing—are still “evolving” (Clark and Herandez) so that their techniques are ever changing. Even assuming that disciplines do exist and that directors could point out the features embodied in the fields, the sheer weight of detail would, most likely, crush tutors. Then, too, having specialist tutors feels very narrowed, like proverbial tunnel vision, so that the center might fail to provide clients a broader sense about the writing and knowing (Carter) that occurs across a university or college—that is, those features are pertinent to all disciplines.

Is the answer, then, to use generalist tutors?  An advantage of these “uninformed” tutors is that the balance of power shifts to the clients so that they focus on their disciplines more effectively (Walker 28), discovering the conventions of their majors (Greiner; Hubbuch).  For instance, generalist tutors can ask students writing a Sociology essay, “Can you use personal experience to support your case in this paper?” or for a History paper, “How recent should your sources be?” When generalists admit to clients their lack of expertise in a discipline, both students and tutors can turn to disciplinary models for assistance (Savani). Recently, my center experienced this emphasis on models. When a Hotel and Tourism professor required his two sections of seniors to bring their capstone business plans to the center, the professor provided a model that tutors and clients examined for its content, arrangement, diction, and layout.  The result was that tutors and clients both learned from each other, or as one tutor explained to me, “Working with the wide variety of students that come through the Writing Lab can be an educational experience for the tutors as well as the clients.” 

But the generalist approach also has disadvantages.  In shifting the “balance of power” (Walker 28), tutors sometimes feel they have not helped clients enough, stumbling through sessions, feeling so flummoxed they fall back on only the most general of rhetorical techniques, unable to ask questions that might help with a specific genre.  At a prominent northeastern university center, a client sought help on his architectural designs.  The tutor, who knew nothing about blueprints, relied on her default knowledge of tutoring strategies, asking about audience and purpose: “Who will use the designs?” and “Why did you put this room here?”  Although the client felt he had received a great deal of help, the tutor believed she had done little, except to demonstrate what her director called “intellectual empathy” (Shaw).  When tutors sense they lack expertise to ask questions of larger import, they can also yield to the temptation to fix only surface problems (comma splices and diction). Of course, clients like having “correct” papers; nevertheless, the tutors, having failed to assist with larger rhetorical issues, would be reinforcing the comma clinic image for centers.

Other problems arise from the generalist/specialist debate. The bipolar approach of specialist or generalist forces tutors into “boxes” (Walker 28), ignoring the fact that tutors often switch hats from generalists to specialists as they work with different clients. There is another problem. Neither specialists nor generalists are trained to handle a vital concern for all college-level writing: helping students learn what it means to enter the environment of a discipline, what effects it has on writers, and how the student writer can, in turn, influence the discipline, whether it be History or Biology.  In short, students need to feel less like victims trying to find ways to survive a discipline’s demands and more like members of an ecological system where they contribute (Dorbrin and Weisser).  Missing from both the generalist and specialist approach, then, are the clients’ perceptions that they are contributing to their disciplines. 

A partial answer—and only a partial answer—is to stress what Kristin Walker and Paulette Golden advocate: directors should train tutors in genre theory to analyze the discipline’s discourse.  Specifically, Walker argues tutors should show clients that the different genres are not arbitrary but arise out of the “communicative situations” of the disciplines (30): “In order for communicators to accomplish goals within a discipline . . .they must use the socially accepted forms of communication within their field” (Walker 30) so that when students know how specific genres (Biology’s lab report or History’s research paper) are inhabited, they become part of that community (Walker 31).  Thus, when training tutors, directors should

 

become familiar with the culture that produced [discourse] conventions, communicate with experienced communicators within the field, analyze the writing produced in that field, and provide models for tutors to use, along with knowledge gained about that discipline’s culture. (Walker 35)

So, Walker—proposing that centers need to avoid the use of specialists vs. generalists—advocates that tutors learn what questions to ask about various genres. Golden also argues that tutors should learn about the “typical documents, formats, citation styles, organization, evidence, detail, style and language within the fields of humanities, social sciences, natural and health sciences, business, and beyond.”  In fact, as Bradley Hughes of the University of Wisconsin-Madison explains, generalist tutors are probably already using genre theory to work outside their majors, even if only tacitly (Hughes). From interviewing tutors, Hughes has found that generalist tutors tap into their own genre experience, such as writing a personal statement or a lab report, in order to help clients. Thus, generalist tutors are probably already more than “generalists.”

Though this genre approach of Walker or Hughes is useful for stressing the social community into which clients are moving as they write a lab report or research paper, it is still not quite enough.  It needs to be enhanced.  In addition to being aware of genre features, tutors should be able to help clients grasp a larger view of what it means to write in the academy—that is, what the disciplines share and what happens to writers when they enter and become part of a discipline, as it shapes them and they shape it. For tutors to provide clients with such a helpful perspective, this paper suggests adding to the genre concept two training approaches. First, directors should provide a theoretical perspective by introducing tutors to composition theories specifically describing WID: metagenre and ecocomposition. Next, directors should use a practical application where tutors explore the writings in their own majors. In this way, tutors are ready to help clients see what it means to know and to write at college, regardless of discipline.  Centers will then become true multi-disciplinary hubs. 

To enhance genre approaches in centers, directors should introduce tutors to a key composition theory that reveals how writings in the academy are not arbitrary and capricious:  Michael Carter’s now famous theory of metagenre.  Metagenre, which extrapolates the common ways of thinking behind disciplines, seeks out the overarching genres. In other words, as Carter’s article states, “[it] “directs our attention to broader patterns of language as social action [. . .] [where] similar kinds of typified responses [are] related to recurrent situations” (393).  Metagenre can be illustrated by two weekend athletes: one chooses to go for a brisk run of five miles while the other swims twenty laps.  Though the details of the exercises differ, there is a broader pattern or metagenre: both are building muscle mass and trying to lose weight by expending energy (Devet, “Linking” 177). In the academy, Carter reveals that four metagenres seem to underlie most writings: “problem solving” (Engineering and Food Science would be examples), “empirical inquiry” (Political Science, the natural sciences), “research from sources” (History, English, Religious Studies), and “performance” (Art and Design, Communication) (Carter 394).

In training, directors should point out these metagenres so that tutors can help clients classify the clients’ writings.  For instance, a literature paper for an English course is the metagenre of “research from sources” while Sociology and Biology writings are part of “empirical inquiry.” Tutors should also be encouraged to show clients the similarities between disciplines. Here is what one consultant discovered about writing in History and in English: 

 

Even though sources are vital to a History paper, writing in History is like that in advanced English courses; both use interpretation, and both explore how interpretations can vary from one critic/historian to another. How one historian views a quotation from a famous person could be different from how another historian interprets it, just as two English critics can vary in their readings of Hamlet. (Devet, “Writing” 9)

When directors use training to point out overarching features inherent in writing for the academy, tutors and their clients both realize that disparate disciplines share ways of knowing; tutors can avoid panicking when students are writing a paper in a major that differs from their own field. Instead, tutors trained in metagenre can show clients that academic writing is not such a mystery. 

Directors can also train tutors to see that while two disciplines may both be using “research from sources” as their metagenre, the outcome or use of that way of “doing” (Carter) is different. Research in the sciences, for instance, is often an end in itself, such as a scientific paper explaining the origins of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In English and Religious Studies, though, the research paper leads to specialized knowledge of the field. The literature research paper, according to Carter, is a way to learn to read like a literature major, while the Religious Studies paper helps students to think of the discipline not as an expression of piety but “as a scholarly enterprise” (Carter 400). By knowing about metagenres, tutors can explain to clients the connections among disciplines, even as they determine the notable differences.

After being armed with knowledge of metagenres, tutors and students are ready to look at how writings differ in the details of style, role of readers, and perhaps format—all of which may affect the argument and arrangement of the writings, what Carter calls the “doing” (394) or the execution of the documents. Consider an English paper as opposed to a Sociology or Biology paper. As one tutor explains, “English might examine a suicide [by looking at] a poem like ‘Richard Cory’, while Social Scientists examine it through statistics and Biologists use anatomy and experiments” (Devet, “Writing” 9). Tutors should point out these differences so student writers gain insight into academic writings.

Besides knowing about metagenre, tutors should also be able to help clients overcome an all-too-common feeling about writing in disciplines: as they are being socialized into a discipline, student writers often feel like victims. As Christina Murphy has warned in “The Writing Center and Social Constructionist Theory,” the social constructionist theory behind genre and metagenre can feel “restrictive” (28). Social constructionism and genre theory argue that the individual is formed or constructed by her social experience and culture (Murphy 28). As a result, writers feel controlled, with no sense of their own ways of knowing and doing (Walker 31). Here is how a University of Hawaii student perceived her role as a victim when writing a History paper:

 

I had to throw out so much stuff, and it was so overwhelming…because it was a lot of information. After class, [the instructor] told me to touch on education. But I told him I couldn’t see the logic in it and that’s why I struggled because I couldn’t see what education and family systems had to do with my paper…. I told him that I’m writing about women, not so much the family and traditional stuff….What I noticed is that when instructors tell you to add more [information] which has nothing to do with what you want to do, you resist.  So, four chapters out of the paper is me and the other two are what the professor wanted. (Hilgers et al. 272)

To dispel a client’s view of the self as a victim, tutors need to show students what it means to be part of a discipline. A second composition theory can help: ecocomposition. First introduced at the 1998 College Composition and Communication Conference by Sidney Dobrin and Christian Weisser, ecocomposition offers a new perspective on what entering a discipline entails, what effects the discipline has on its writers, and how writers can, in turn, affect their discipline. 

First, a little background on ecocomposition. As its name implies, this theory of composition is inspired by Marilyn Cooper’s oft-cited article “The Ecology of Writing.” Cooper describes how student writers experience a system of writing which has “textual forms” (conventions like term papers), “cultural norms” (how being in a social group affects one’s writing, such as using student talks versus academic speech), “interpersonal interactions” (how student relate to their fellow students linguistically and socially), “purposes” (what they want to achieve as students), and “ideas” (how the academy arrives at new concepts) (369-70). These forces operate simultaneously, constituting an ecosystem. Often, because college writers are unaware of this system, their situations feel like that of the man in the well-known anecdote who tries to understand an escalator even while he is riding it (Fleckstein et al. 396).

Acknowledging Cooper’s web-like structure, ecocomposition adds even more to the writing process: ecocomposition sees writers entering a “place” or “environment” where they experience “interrelationships.” Borrowing from ecology, ecocomposition argues that what happens to student writers is much like what occurs in nature’s ecosystems. A leaf lying on a forest floor contributes to the growth of the surrounding trees by decaying and nourishing the trees just as the trees themselves provide a shaded forest floor to encourage the moss. All are interconnected; all contribute to each other. A student writing a History paper evaluating the accuracy of Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator is influenced by all the other term papers of that History course, by all the other writers in that course, and by all the term papers ever written for any History class. The student is experiencing these interconnections as the “relationships between discourses and environments, discourses and writers, and other discourses” (Dobin and Weisser, Natural 23).  Unfortunately, students do not always realize they are entering an ecosystem when they are writing in a discipline. Ecocomposition, though, shows that the act of writing is relational (interactive), with the writer of the Gladiator paper having entered this environment of interconnections. 

To encourage clients to see that they are, indeed, entering a “place” or environment, tutors should ask questions to locate clients contextually (How are most History papers written? How are these papers different from movie reviews, such as for Gladiator?); historically (What are the students’ past experiences with writing in the field and with writing in general?); ideologically (What beliefs, especially facts, do historians hold? Under what beliefs or assumptions does a Hollywood movie operate?). Tutors’ questions may also focus on other texts (What other History papers have students written already for the professor? How does writing for History differ from writing in their English classes?) and on other writers (How have other students written this assignment before? What are other students in the class doing?) (Dobrin, “Writing” 18). Such questions help students find ways to move into a discourse community by having their writing “fit with systems” (Dobrin and Weisser, Natural 73).  

The interplay concept associated with ecocomposition offers tutors a way to answer Murphy’s concern that students feel they have lost their individuality as they adjust to a discipline’s requirements.  Ecocomposition argues that writers are active forces, shaping a discipline’s environment. Writers shape the discipline as the discipline shapes them. As the student crafts the Gladiator paper to fit the demands of the discipline, he is contributing to the writing of History. As Anis Bawarshi explains, “[T]he self and the social [are seen] as recursively at work on one another, engaged in an ecologically symbiotic relationship” (“Ecology” 70; emphasis added). When Boeing engineers write a memo, their writing is molded by all memos written at the company, and, in turn, their memos affect all future memos. It is an ecosystem where organisms work together, exchanging energy in order to live and function inside a system. Tutors should point out this concept to students who all too often feel they are manipulated by a discipline. 

So, when the University of Hawaii student complaints that her History professor is seeking power or control, tutors can tell the client that the professor is just helping the writer acquire the thought structures of the discipline (Hilgers et al. 272), showing her the roles of family and of education as they affect women in history. The tutor, in ecocomposition terms, is helping this student see that she is becoming an inhabitant of an ecosystem, flourishing in an ecology of writing; she contributes to the system as the system molds her.  When tutors give clients this important perspective, student writers feel less intimidated, more welcomed into the world of college writing, regardless of the discipline. 

While it may seem as if ecocomposition is just a modern or “greener” way to express the ancient concept of kairos, ecocomposition is not synonymous with this classical term.  Kairos (loosely translated as “rhetorical situation”) refers to the occasion or “opening” presented to rhetors for persuasion; it stresses how rhetors must grab the rhetorical opportunity, determining the “window” of the situation and the most advantageous arguments associated with the opportunity (Crowley and Hawhee 37).  The kairos of a commencement address to graduating college students differs from a defense attorney’s last-minute appeal for a criminal on death row (Clark, Praxis 13).  Instead of portraying rhetors as trying to decipher arguments (Crowley and Hawhee 37), ecocomposition stresses that rhetors are immersed in the environment, interacting with it even as it interacts with them, creating a cooperative mutualism that is supportive and, yes, even web-like (Devet, “Redefining”). Rhetors become part of the thoughts and ideas of a discourse community (like that of the commencement speech or the attorney’s appeal). As Sidney Dobrin and Christian Weisser argue, “Our current knowledge. . . responds to and reacts upon previous acts of knowledge-making. . . . Language, communication, knowledge, and writing are all ecological pursuits” (Natural 146). 

While metagenre and ecocomposition theories are valuable to help tutors, theory demands application. Tutors need to practice passing from “knowing about” (“declarative” or theoretical knowledge) to being able to do or apply theories (“procedural” or practical knowledge) (Haskell). To prepare tutors to work with disciplinary writings, directors should ask them to examine details about writing for one particular discipline (Walker 35). When directors have their tutors experience this cognitive development, tutors feel better prepared to assist a WID program.  

This movement from abstract framework to daily practice helped one of my consultants to understand the web of writing in her own discipline of Political Science. To develop expertise in her field, she explored its environment (aka its ecosystem); she interviewed her professors so she could learn what concepts inform Political Science papers and what methods are used to document sources. After having experienced the “place” or environment of Political Science, she next wrote two handouts for the center: “How to Write in Political Science,” where she described major genres, such as abstracts, court briefs, literature reviews, and research papers, and “Political Science Guide to Referencing,” which explained how to use the discipline’s citation system. In other words, her handouts generated an environment that students could enter in order to contribute to Political Science writing. But she had gained far more: she had also learned what questions to ask about her major, such as what sections make up a court brief (name and citation; key facts; the issue; the decision and vote; reasoning and majority opinion as well as separate opinions). She had explored the genre of her field, and as she said,  “I became an active reader” who had acquired the specialist language of her discipline. As a result, she returned to the center better able to tell clients how they are also entering a discipline as she had done. 

Of course, writing center training courses are already filled with process and post-process approaches to composition so that overly busy directors who already face Himalayan-high piles of obligations probably wonder how they can possibly pack more theory into their tutor training.  However, including the theories of metagenre and ecocomposition is valid and necessary. Tutors learn best when they possess a conceptual framework as offered by these theories. In fact, according to studies in the transfer of learning, learners who possess a big picture—as fostered by studying theory—begin to recognize patterns (Bransford et al. 44) so that as they conduct their day-to-day work, they are ready to handle any situation because they enjoy this theoretical overview or “conceptual knowledge” (Haskell 31). With tutors dealing with writings from many disciplines, directors should embrace the teaching of composition theories.

With centers as hubs for writing in the disciplines, it is time to put to rest the dichotomous debate between having either specialist or generalist tutors. Instead, directors should prepare tutors for the varied writings students bring through the centers’ doors by enhancing the genre concept of training, especially since clients need to gain a wider perspective on what it means to write in the academy.  This enhancement can be achieved by providing a theoretical perspective. Knowing about metagenre and ecocomposition lets tutors point out to clients the similarities among genres as disparate as History and Biology and to show clients how they are moving into the web of a field, adjusting and adapting to its requirements as well as adding to it. Then, with tutors practicing in one discipline—preferably their own major—tutors can see theory at work, making their centers into places for WID to flourish.

 

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