This guest post is by Bill Macauley, a professor of English and the director of the University Writing Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a contributor to the new Praxis Special Double Issue on Course-Embedded Writing Support Programs in Writing Centers.
I am just finishing the semester with ENG 408B: Tutoring Student Writers. In that class, I try to not only provide students with sound theoretical footing and practical experience but also engagement with real discussions within the field. Early on, when we were working to get a handle on the broad-stroke roles and practices of writing center consultants, I asked them to read Trimbur’s “Peer Tutoring: A Contradiction in Terms?” paired with Brooks’ “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work” because, together, these pieces provoke questions about writing consultant authority, which I played against nondirectivity and Socratic dialogue. These have been consistently provocative and engaging conversations with these concepts and sources because there is no simple or single right answer.
Later in the semester, I try to give the students an opportunity to think not only about themselves in their new roles as writing consultants but about somewhat larger questions of writing center/consultant/fellow roles. Mary Soliday’s Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments across the Disciplines fostered an interesting discussion of roles and responsibilities, as well as genre as cultural. The class had been, to that point, oscillating between Lunsford’s “warehouse” (where writers seek insight from the ‘stores’ of the center) and her “garret” (where writer insights are provoked from within the writer) when genre and disciplinary boundaries seemed to call for discussion of how a writing consultant might move from one discipline to another. So, I invited the class to read Mullin, et al. and Zawacki, et al., where they could see discussions of how writing centers/consultants/fellows move between contexts. As I had hoped, this transition provoked an exciting discussion of whether writing consultants are/should be generalists or specialists.
In class, "James" put up his hand after a bit and said, “We aren’t sure how to answer that question. Isn’t it always some combination of the two?” James went on to explain that his discussion group thought that every student and writing consultant had specific skills and knowledge, but that every one of them also had that expertise in the context of other experiences and those experiences within the context of the academy writ large. He said that his group thought the articles, in trying to be specific, may have constructed disciplinary expertise versus Rhetoric and Composition expertise as too separated and too narrowly defined. I was impressed by these neophytes to writing centers who dug deeply into where these ideas compared, contrasted, overlapped, and opposed each other. I am grateful that I was part of that discussion because it helped me to recognize the limitations in my own thinking about expertise for writing consultants/fellows. They helped me to think of writing consultant/fellow expertise more in terms of ‘and’ than ‘or.’ Writing expertise remains simultaneously particle, wave, and field, even when it is described or deployed as only one of these.
Writing expertise is particulate when one prioritizes specific knowledge, training, or practices. This is certainly the case when a writing consultant is asked to work only on run-on sentences and comma splices. Something particular (a particle) has been identified as the need or focus in these cases when, in order to select that ‘particle,’ there has to be some awareness of a larger context (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a choice, would it?). It is the combination of that ‘particle’ with the consultant’s experiences as a learner/writer (i.e., wave) and larger academic contexts (i.e., field) that makes a particular concept or practice available as a tutoring tool.
Expertise can be understood as particle, to be sure, but it is also a wave because the consultant or fellow will understand that task or skill within the context of her own work. The ability to discuss and work from experience is a particularly powerful tool in peer tutoring. Expertise becomes a wave that contextualizes one’s experience toward another application.
However, expertise can also be understood as field because it cannot develop only through individual experiences or be meaningful only within the experiences of the one who is describing it. There has to be some vehicle that makes the particle or wave recognizable to the consultant and the writer, some commonality that allows both participants to see it, contribute, and draw from what they are sharing. Expertise, in this case, could mean a number of things from the writing consultant creating such a context to his drawing the writer toward a range of options that seem potentially relevant.
Thus, as my students pointed out to me, the question may not be so much about writing consultant generalism versus expertise as it is about understanding how the discussion of expertise is framed and what assumptions we may be making about knowledge and learning because of that framing.