WHEN CENTER CATCHES IN THE CLASSROOM (AND CLASSROOM IN THE CENTER): THE FIRST-YEAR WRITING TUTORIAL AND THE WRITING PROGRAM

Francesca Gentile
The University of Oregon 
fgentile@uoregon.edu

Introduction

In the first issue of College English from 1939, the editors reference a letter written by Davida McCaslin to the President and Dean of Millikin University and published earlier that same year in the Journal of Higher Education. From her perspective as the Head of the Department of English, McCaslin describes the “ideal teacher of English”; her list covers even his romantic life and leisurely pursuits. Eventually, she arrives at a single trait symptomatic of the rest but significant enough to name: “contagiousness.” McCaslin’s teacher “will be able to project himself in all the richness and variety of his interests and of his wisdom and of his nature; and will at the same time be able to do something more, something that does not produce imitation but sets up many kinds of activities with people around him” (319). I begin with McCaslin’s ideal not solely because of its charm, but also because it speaks to the centrifugal potential of course-embedded tutoring models for first-year writing classes when these models are designed to work with composition teacher training. Integral to the success of such models is a force akin to McCaslin’s “contagiousness,” a pedagogically resonant transanimation born of the course-specific experiences shared within and shaped by the student-tutor-instructor nexus. Importantly, though, the infectious character of these mutually informing points of contact should not aspire to instructional homogeneity or encourage a drag-and-drop approach to the teaching of writing. Rather, this infectiousness must be directed toward the cultivation of fluid and adaptive pedagogies attentive to the individual needs of first-year writers. (Think “contagious” less in terms of a zombie apocalypse and more in terms of the laughter that spreads through a room on the heels of a kairotic quip). When approached in this way, course-embedded tutorials become rich sites capable of productively informing the everyday practices of first-year writing programs from the center out.

Outside, Between, Among: Placing Course-Embedded Tutors
in Writing Programs

Within the context of WAC programs, writing fellows or tutors otherwise assigned to specific courses have been described as “invigorating agents” or “agents of change” (Soven 201; Mullin, et al.), phrases which emphasize their capacity to transform the teaching of writing in ways that extend beyond a writing center’s walls. As Brad Hughes and Emily B. Hall note, work on this subject contends with “the complexities and contradictions inherent in the role of Writing Fellow” while revealing “how the interstitial position of Writing Fellows affords new ways to view these contradictions.” Similarly, Jill Gladstein refers to the “symbiotic relationship” that emerges from writing fellows’ efforts to bridge specialist/generalist and WAC/WID discourses for the mutual benefit of students, faculty, and departments. Central to these discussions is the tutor’s ability to navigate diverse instructional realms and, in the process, open discursive channels that contribute to the teaching of writing as a flexible set of skills and practices. When tutors are embedded specifically within first-year composition courses, they are not bridging disciplinary boundaries, but they are moving among the multiple discourse communities that constitute a writing program. Tutors act as agents of change to the degree that their movements facilitate increased contact among these communities, such as when they move from writing center to writing classroom and back. Steven J. Corbett offers a parallel assessment of classroom-based tutoring in the disciplines, arguing that as “tutors move into closer instructional orbits with classroom instructors,” the increased proximity “leads to all participants—tutor, student, instructor—becoming co-inquisitive students in the rhetorical game of learning to write, communicate, and collaborate” (94). The conceptual shuttling (between tutor/teacher, center/classroom, or teacher/student, for example) that course-embedded models encourage offers writing programs, too, a chance to actively engage and, hopefully, complicate existing divisions in ways that instead emphasize shared goals and efforts. 

Gladstein’s symbiosis is one example of the ecologically minded schemas common in discussions of Writing Fellow and WAC programs, schemas which helpfully remind us of writing centers’ larger institutional environments (Devet; Dobrin and Weisser). As a conceptual lens, contagiousness similarly highlights the relational dynamics informing writing-center work, but it also emphasizes the transformative potential of the individual contact at the heart of tutorial interaction. This one-to-one instruction is, as Muriel Harris states, “very different from traditional classroom learning because it introduces into the educational setting a middle person, the tutor, who inhabits a world somewhere between student and teacher” and who can “work effectively with students in ways that teachers can not” (27-28). The value of tutoring lies in the particularities of its pedagogical situation and cannot be understood in terms of a supplemental or corrective relationship to classroom teaching, even in the context of course-embedded models which might otherwise blur traditional lines of instructional authority. Thinking through contagiousness, however, reveals that tutoring does influence classroom practice, especially when tutors move through a writing program’s multiple instructional spaces. Exposure alone is not enough, but when conditions are right, the writing tutor becomes an agent of change by being an agent of contact. As Elizabeth E. Boquet and Neal Learner argue, “our field can no longer afford, if it ever could, to have forged a separate peace between classroom and nonclassroom teaching,” and course-embedded tutorials firmly situated within both writing centers and first-year writing curricula can go a long way toward establishing a less precarious and more productive agreement. 

In what follows, I describe efforts to cultivate contagiousness in a first-year writing tutorial developed by the University of Oregon’s Center for Teaching Writing. Affiliated with the Composition Program and housed within the Department of English, the Center is regularly involved in efforts to encourage the teaching of writing across campus, efforts which have included WID workshops for faculty and individualized consultation for writing-intensive curriculum development. Now in its fifth year, the first-year writing tutorial has directed some of the Center’s attention back toward its home community, a focal shift which has given us the opportunity to consider how the relationship between Center and classroom can most effectively address the specific needs of first-year writers. Because our tutorial is staffed by graduate tutors who are training to be writing instructors, it requires that we attend to the relationship between tutoring and teaching and to the influence that this relationship has on the writing program overall. Tutorials without these specific conditions, though, can similarly cultivate contagiousness by integrating themselves more fully into first-year writing programs, and even peer-based tutoring models could have comparable effect if efforts were taken to connect the tutors’ training and experiences to the program’s other instructional discourses.

Decentering to Recenter: Course-Embedded Tutoring
and Classroom Teaching

The claim that tutoring experience benefits tutors as much as students is now supported by a range of empirical data (see Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail), and that these benefits might be gauged in relation to specific professionalization programs is not a new concept, particularly not within the realm of teacher training (Clark; VanDyke; King, et al.). In most situations, though, the connections between tutoring and professional development remain passive. We train our tutors, we oversee their work with students (to varying degrees), and we hope that something sticks when they move into the classroom or workplace. Tutorials embedded within first-year writing courses, however, activate these connections. When tutors have opportunities to move among the multiple pedagogical spaces structuring a first-year writing student’s experience and are encouraged to do so in reflective ways that draw on the perceptiveness that their position affords them, writing-center work is more likely to become contagious, spreading as tutors move through the writing program as students, as teachers, and as colleagues.

Past work on the relationship between tutoring and teaching emphasizes how specific skill sets and experiences translate from writing center to classroom. Janet Alsup, Tammy Conrad-Salvo, and Scott J. Peters, for example, contend that tutoring strengthens pre-service training “by providing additional, authentic field experiences that reflect constructivist, student-centered philosophies” (328). Given that these philosophies are difficult to enact without practice, teachers with no prior experience might be left susceptible to less desirable alternatives. Jane Cogie explains that the unpredictable nature of student-centered pedagogies can drive first-time teachers to adopt more traditional classroom models (76), and Irene Clark notes that when new teachers are uncomfortable or unsure, there is a “tendency for old pedagogical patterns to re-emerge” (347). Both assessments speak to the danger of a theoretical knowledge of educational methods that does not easily translate to classroom practice, but in order for tutoring experience to productively intervene in this tragic and too-common trajectory, tutors must be aware of the instructional crossings they navigate in their work with individual students. Ensuring that tutors have an active knowledge of program and classroom pedagogies is one way of animating this awareness. If a tutor carries her work in the center with her into the classroom, the transition from tutor to teacher is more likely to preserve the practices most beneficial for individual students, and when these practices are already informed by course and program pedagogy, the transition is all the more seamless.

Still, Cogie, and Clark describe situations in which crises of authority subvert student-centered philosophies and goals, and Harris’s understanding of the tutor’s unique middle position might suggest that tutoring does not equip would-be teachers to confront these crises any more skillfully. Within the context of course-embedded tutoring, however, models making use of specialist tutors do require that tutors attend to the authority associated with their knowledge and position. Specialist tutors cannot ignore the larger institutional structures informing their work with individual students, but specialist knowledge need not be antithetical to one-on-one tutorial interaction. According to Sue Dinitz and Susanmarie Harrington, in fact, disciplinary expertise can increase a tutor’s directiveness in ways that facilitate rather than hinder effective collaboration (92). The potential for greater degrees of authority to be deployed in the service of student-centered instruction suggests that course-specific tutoring models might help tutors find strategies for negotiating authority in ways that respond to individual needs in the classroom, too. As one former tutor and current instructor explains, “tutoring helped me to see what our program’s pedagogy looked like in practice, but it especially made visible possibilities for a differentiated approach to the classroom, one that would ensure communal instruction attended to the range of students in front of me.” Ultimately, it is by cultivating conditions capable of sustaining such mutually informing associations that course-embedded tutorials like the one developed by the Center for Teaching Writing begin to make writing-center work contagious.   

A Local Outbreak: The Center for Teaching Writing’s
First-Year Tutorial

Currently, the Center for Teaching Writing’s course-embedded tutorial is open to students enrolled in College Composition I. Priority is given to students whose entrance exams suggest that they might benefit from additional writing support, but the tutorial is available to others when capacity allows. Students who complete the tutorial with College Composition I may re-enroll along with College Composition II. In either case, students register for a one-credit course, and to earn the credit, students meet with a tutor at least seven times in the ten-week term, keep a log of their sessions, and turn in a final assessment reflecting on their work in the tutorial. At this initial level, the tutoring model supplements the classroom-based instruction first-year writing students receive and offers these students a resource designed to reinforce program-specific learning outcomes. Already, the tutorial is a space in which center and classroom, tutor and teacher interact, and the students’ assessments of the program reveal the influence of these interactions on their learning.

When asked to identify the most helpful aspects of the tutorial, most students point to some combination of the tutor/student relationship and the course-specific nature of the program. Students appreciate the “personal relationships” and “intimate connections” they form with tutors in the process of reviewing and revising their work. They find that the tutors “make it feel like you're not talking to a teacher, but to a friend” and that the Center provides “a safe, helpful environment where students don’t feel judged.” At the same time, students note that the tutorial takes learning the material covered in the writing courses to a “new level” and that it helps them adapt to “the expectations of college writing” and navigate the writing classroom. A number of students point to aspects of the writing course’s pedagogy that the specialist tutors are able to help with and wish that the same tutoring model was offered for other courses. These assessments of the tutorial’s strengths suggest that the instructional benefits associated with tutors’ disciplinary expertise in WAC/WID models also apply to writing-program specific expertise. As noted above, Dinitz and Harrington found that disciplinary knowledge “enabled tutors to ask good questions that helped students to identify and address key issues,” increased tutors’ confidence, and empowered them to “push back against student misunderstandings about the assignment or material or attempts to gloss over faculty expectations,” all of which made sessions more successful than those in which disciplinary knowledge did not factor (93). Just like students working in the disciplines, first-year writers respond positively to tutors’ specialist knowledge, and this knowledge strengthens the tutorial’s work. Ultimately, reviewing three years worth of student responses confirms that the intersection of the one-on-one tutoring dynamic and the course-specific instruction is what makes the tutorial a success from students’ perspectives.

Given that participation in the tutorial triggers these associations for its undergraduate writers, tutors are expected to make productive use of the Center’s connection to the classroom and have this connection as a ready point of entry for every session. Within our program, the tutor’s work with individual students is also informed by the tutor’s anticipation of entering the classroom as an instructor the following year. This two-fold investment in the relationship between tutoring experience and course-specific instruction asks tutors to think about how their individual interactions with students can inform their classroom teaching, and our tutors’ training reinforces this dual perspective. Before the academic year begins, tutors are initiated into the larger tutoring community with readings on writing center theory and presentations by past tutors. Other components of the training familiarize tutors with the Composition Program’s pedagogy and with the texts and materials used in classrooms. Recent efforts have more fully integrated tutor training into the Composition Program’s fall activities, and tutors now attend the Program’s fall teaching conference, which includes panels on teacher-oriented topics of interest ranging from grading strategies to ELL instruction. In addition to exposing tutors to the conversations taking place in the Composition Program at an administrative level, having them attend the conference introduces them to the range of pedagogical perspectives deployed in the day-to-day teaching of writing, and their presence at the conference contributes yet another perspective, one attentive to the needs of the individual students they will shortly encounter. Before their first day in the Center, tutors are embedded within tutor and teacher discourses, and they are encouraged to consider how the combined force of these discourses will inform their work with individual students.

Following these initial training efforts, our tutors are embedded within yet another of a writing program’s discursive realms: the classroom. The teacher training requires an apprenticeship during which graduate students observe a veteran teacher to strengthen their sense of overall course design and to see the program’s pedagogy in action. Tutors working in the Center now complete their apprenticeship in the fall so that it coincides with the first term of the tutorial. The graduate tutors work with students enrolled in composition classes other than the one they are observing, but aligning the apprenticeship with a tutor’s first term in the Center means that he or she shares in the students’ classroom experience. The tutors see a version of the classroom-based instruction students receive and can apply this knowledge to their work with individual students. Pairing these two experiences encourages tutors to move between Center and classroom in ways that connect them to the experiences of both student and teacher. While they might assist in classroom activities, they are largely observers reacting to the teachers’ presentation of material, a classroom experience that aligns with the students’. Apprentices do, however, lead two class meetings over the term and are in contact with mentor teachers while planning these meetings, so they also encounter the classroom from the perspective of teacher. Aligning the apprenticeship with the tutors’ first term in the Center capitalizes on these mutually informing experiences for the benefit of both students and tutors, and tutors who have completed the training with this timeline report that the apprenticeship helped them to understand the larger educational contexts structuring their work with individual students while encouraging them to think about how their tutoring experience might influence choices made in the classroom. 

While I am considering the influence that tutors might have on a writing program as they move beyond the writing center as agents of contact, it is, as Harris argues, tutoring’s specific pedagogical situation that makes these movements meaningful. The tutor’s work with students is the point at which all the discursive communities constituting a writing program collide and where tutors first become responsible for their productive synthesis. Within the context of our program, there is one further point of contact responsible for the spread of tutor-oriented philosophies and practices and which makes the tutors’ contributions most visible. Given that not all prospective teachers work as tutors and that tutors have not worked with students prior to the Composition Program’s conference, it might seem that the influence of the tutoring experience on the Program at large is limited or that the flow of information favors Program and classroom-specific instructional discourses over tutoring discourses. By the time tutors enroll in the teacher training sequence’s pedagogy course, however, they have worked with students for a term and have completed their apprenticeships, meaning that they have performed some version of the discursive synthesis outlined above. All prospective composition instructors take the pedagogy course together, so tutors attend alongside graduate students who have not tutored. The fact that tutors come to course discussions having been exposed to student writing and having worked one-on-one with the students whom the other prospective teachers might only be encountering as faceless abstractions shrouded in theory-talk significantly influences the course itself. Tutors help bridge the theory/practice binary that can emerge in discussions of composition pedagogy and theory because they offer their work with students in the Center as raw material for all prospective instructors to consider alongside course readings and assignments.

As Miriolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue have observed, the “student as a conceptual center” has largely disappeared from much composition scholarship, and student writing is itself rarely the subject of scholarly scrutiny. The student is, however, the conceptual center of tutorial work, and the tutorial itself consistently puts the student’s writing into “productive dialogue with the reading, writing, and thinking practices of other authors and theorists” (27). Tutors, therefore, bring an important perspective to pedagogy courses, perspectives that are not necessarily represented in the relevant literature. By using their work in the Center to put course-specific discourses into conversation with tutoring discourses and then carrying this conversation with them as they interact with instructors and administrators and move, finally, into the classroom, tutors working in first-year writing tutorials help to keep writing programs accountable to individual students.

At the beginning of this essay, I claimed that course-embedded writing tutorials have the capacity to inform the practices of first-year writing programs “from the center out.” While this phrase certainly refers to writing centers themselves, it also emphasizes the student as conceptual center for the work writing centers do; when all goes according to plan, the student is at the center of the Center. In this sense, course-embedded tutorials linked to first-year writing courses offer models focused not primarily on disciplinary expertise or cross-curriculum skill sets like those associated with WID or WAC programs. Rather, they are models that emphasize what writers learn from meeting and talking with other writers and that work to channel the natural contagiousness of such exchanges. This one-to-one interaction is what can transform a teacher training course, a classroom full of students, and, ultimately, a writing program. Irene Clark and Dave Healy contend that writing centers contribute to their own marginality and silencing “by being so careful not to infringe on other’s turf—the writer’s, the teacher’s, the department’s, the institution’s” (254). The writing center, though, is one of the few places where the interests represented by these entities meet, and they do so in tutors’ work with individual students. When we encourage tutors to engage classroom, program, and institutional discourses through the naturally contagious lens of their tutoring experience and vice-versa, the writing center centers itself in the process of re-centering students.

Works Cited

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