Facing Undergraduate Peer Consultants’ Resistance

Red headed woman with a book in one hand and a pencil in the other.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

A few years ago, I became a visiting faculty member at my alma mater, a small, liberal arts college with no writing program but a need for someone to co-teach a new course for Writing Center consultants. As a recent PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, I was excited to share my knowledge with a group of students who I assumed would be eager to learn. Surprisingly (to me at least), the first iteration of the course didn’t go well. While most Writing Center literature assumes that undergraduate tutors are on “our” side and that it is outsiders who doubt our methods, my experience has given me a different perspective and made me consider how Writing Center practitioners might react when we face resistance from within. 

Instead of viewing a course on Composition theory as interesting and vital to their work, the new consultants that I taught saw the readings as boring and irrelevant. It was nearly impossible to get a discussion started – they had little interest in engaging in debates about directive vs. non-directive tutoring or approaches to Writing Across the Curriculum. At the end of the semester, our course evaluations reflected students’ frustration that much of the course was not directly relevant to their Writing Center work. Over the next three years, my co-teacher and I revamped the class: we pared down the readings, added more scaffolding and reflection, and allowed students more choice over their topics. In spite of our efforts, evaluations did not improve. Paradoxically, students complained both that the class included too many difficult, theoretical readings (as opposed to practical tips) and that the class was not academically challenging enough to justify taking it instead of another (they implied, more intellectually stimulating) course. I was resentful toward students for rejecting what I was offering and not realizing the value of the course or of my chosen field of study.

As I struggled to reconcile my desire to teach theory with my students’ resistance, I found a few indications in the literature that an idealistic view of tutor training is not the whole story. In Everyday Writing Center, Gellar et al. describe a course in which “A scribbled note passed from one tutor to another (‘This is bullshit!’), crumpled up and pitched in the garbage near the door, confirmed truths we were beginning to suspect” (23). Mara Holt describes a class in which students “created a provisional ‘union’ and asked me to leave class while they worked out some ‘demands.’… they joined together and collectively voiced concerns (mainly over where this class was going, and why couldn’t I just tell them what good writing was so they could go on ahead and do it?)” (57). Such experiences in my classroom (though none as extreme as the latter) had caused me frustration and doubt. But Gellar et al. and Holt both ultimately view such resistance as productive, writing “that tutor could be right…. What do we do with that realization?” (Gellar et al. 25) and “I knew it was possible that their turning against me was the start of their turning toward themselves, interdependently” (Holt 57). Recently, I have begun to think more about how I (and the field) might take undergraduate consultants’ concerns seriously and use their resistance productively.

Idealizing the work undergraduates do in the Writing Center, and imagining that they are as excited and invested as we are, may set us up for disappointment. At my institution, many consultants see the Writing Center as another campus job, not their lifelong career. They have little understanding of the field and are sometimes disappointed, rather than excited, to find out that our mission is not grammar correction and that our course might provide them with more questions than answers. I have tried to mitigate my own expectations for what will interest these new consultants and what I can expect them to accomplish in my class. At the same time, I want them to become involved in scholarly conversations that I believe do apply to their daily work. I want them to recognize that Writing Center work is important intellectual work rather than seeing it as less than the “real” academic work of their other courses.

In the newest version of the course, my co-teacher and I have tried to make connections between theory and practice more explicit while also allowing room for students to disagree and debate. I hope that, as a field, we can have more open conversations about the less-than-ideal realities of having undergraduates with little experience in the field as the enactors of many of our theories, theories they themselves might resist or resent.

Works Cited

Geller, Ellen, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Elizabeth Boquet. Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice. Utah State University Press, 2007. 

Holt, Mara. “The Importance of Dissent to Collaborative Learning.” The Writing Center Journal Vol. 28, No. 2 (2008), pp. 52-59.

Author Bio

Marion Wolfe is a visiting assistant professor at Kenyon College, where she also began her career in Rhetoric and Composition as an undergraduate Writing Center consultant. She currently co-teaches Kenyon's training course for new consultants. Marion completed her PhD at the Ohio State University and has served as a WPA for first-year writing and a coordinator for the university's interdisciplinary teacher training. Her research interests include women's/feminist rhetorics, religious rhetoric, first-year writing, teacher/tutor training, and Writing Center theory.