(RE)SHAPING A CURRICULUM-BASED TUTOR PREPARATION SEMINAR: A COURSE DESIGN PROPOSAL

Ben Ristow
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
bristow@hws.edu

Hannah Dickinson
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
dickinson@hws.edu

In Candace Spigelman and Laurie Grobman's collection On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom-Based Writing Tutoring (2005), the phrase “on location” is borrowed from film production and is aptly applied to writing tutors working within classrooms. As Spigelman and Grobman point out, the metaphor parallels “shooting on location” with the dynamic nature of classroom-based writing tutoring. Students, tutors, and faculty members create a different collaborative ethos than those formed in writing centers, and these differences between the philosophy of the writing center and the site of the classroom should necessarily be reflected in the training of course-embedded tutors. 

With these shifts in location, purpose, and the stakeholders for tutoring, peer tutor training through preparation courses requires different approaches to preparing students for their roles. The role of tutors has been characterized by numerous scholars in the field of composition and rhetoric studies, and student “emissaries,” “ambassadors,” and “agents of change” are becoming more entrenched in classroom contexts,1 oftentimes fulfilling roles in multiple contexts, including the writing center, non-writing classes, and first-year seminars.  The adoption of writing fellows, associates, or colleagues in different curricular contexts means that preparation courses must account for the ways that tutors will collaborate with peers, faculty, administrators, and each other. This essay provides a course design outline for those who are charged with preparing tutors to work with peers and faculty outside of the writing center. It also provides a framework for understanding an institutional context and follows with rationale for establishing or modifying a tutor preparation course to meet the needs of tutors working with faculty and peers in a course. Finally, the essay focuses on the ways that the authors have administered the Writing Colleagues Program (WCP) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges; as directors, we have tried to remain open to the ways that non-writing faculty and students provide important insights and perspectives on tutor training and classroom preparation.

Analyzing the Institutional Context
and Mission of Curriculum-Based Peer Tutors

Any department, program, or writing center that is charged with beginning a curriculum-based peer-tutoring program must be keenly aware of its institutional context and the overall mission in creating such a program. At larger institutions, such as Brown University and University of Wisconsin, Writing Fellows programs have flourished with a different scale and mission than those at smaller liberal arts institutions such as Swarthmore and Oberlin Colleges.

At HWS, there are two distinct, but related, sites in which peer support for writing occurs. The WCP is housed in the Program of Writing and Rhetoric.  The WCP is directed (on a volunteer basis) by full-time Writing and Rhetoric faculty and supported by a full-time coordinator, who is an HWS and WCP alumnus. The WCP is responsible for recruiting, training, placing, and supporting all first-time writing tutors on campus. We place Writing Colleagues (WCs) in approximately fifty percent of the Colleges’ required first-year seminars as well as introductory courses. Once WCs have completed at least two course placements, they are eligible to apply to work as tutors in the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The CTL is an independent center on campus responsible for faculty development, disability services, and academic student support services. The former WCs who are employed by the CTL are supported by a CTL staff member and work one-on-one with students in a capacity that resembles traditional writing center work. 

In this way, our curriculum-based peer-tutoring program serves the larger institution primarily by providing well-trained, embedded tutors in courses across the disciplines and secondarily by providing the CTL with carefully selected and experienced peer tutors. We recognize the advantage of having an independent Writing and Rhetoric Program that utilizes faculty expertise to train writing tutors for future work in classrooms, and in some cases, the CTL. Our unique context means that WCs are primarily selected based on their perceived ability to complete the rigorous work of the preparation course, their potential to work with peers on essay assignments, their collaborative ethos as it relates to faculty interaction, and their conviction and willingness to improve and grow as writers.

As new directors, the WCP has been a fortunate inheritance from the founding director, Cheryl Forbes. This inheritance has meant that the application process, preparation course, and classroom placement process have entered a second phase in which we are tasked with bringing new vision and insights to the program. Each semester, undergraduates who are nominated by their professors or WCs apply to the WCP. Applicants are required to submit an application letter, a transcript, references, and writing samples and participate in an interactive interview (where applicants act in the capacity of WCs and the Directors play their peers). Accepted students enroll in the Writing Colleagues Seminar, which is offered each semester, and students receive course credit for participating in the seminar. Last semester (Spring 2014), the directors co-taught the course with 13 students and the Writing Colleagues Coordinator (Alex Janney) acted as the model WC for the course. WCs are embedded in a course only after the successful completion of the preparatory seminar.

Faculty from across the Colleges elect to embed WCs in their courses; historically, faculty members were selected to work with the WCP on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, we discovered a few flaws with this approach. First, not all faculty members are well-prepared to work with WCPs, so we designed an online questionnaire for faculty requesting to work with a WC. This questionnaire helps us to determine the challenges and strengths a given faculty member might bring to working with an embedded tutor and helps us match the faculty member with an appropriate WC.

We also decided that we would prioritize courses that enrolled a high number of first-year students, particularly the first-year seminar. First-year seminars are taught by full-time faculty from across the disciplines; the theme of each seminar is different, but all seminars must be writing instructive. We chose to focus our efforts on the first-year seminar and other first year courses for several reasons. First, the first-year seminar is the only course required of all HWS students and it is the only institutionalized place in which WAC occurs. Faculty members who teach the first-year seminar are generally committed to incorporating WAC best practices into their classes, which means the WC generally has an active, vital, and integrative role in the course. Another advantage of focusing our efforts on the first-year seminar is that we dramatically increase the number of HWS students who experience the benefits of peer-to-peer writing support. At this point, we can be confident that half of all HWS first-years met with another student at least six times over the course of a semester to discuss their writing; we hope this contributes to a culture of collaboration and revision among first-year students, while making it more likely that they will choose to work with a WC or CTL tutor in the future.

A third advantage of focusing our work on first-year students is that it simplifies the training of our first-time WCs. As the program grows, we hope to introduce more opportunities for WCs to work in upper-level courses in the disciplines, but currently most of our WCs work primarily with first-year students. This means that WCs are working with faculty from across the disciplines, in courses that tend to emphasize generalist approaches to writing, and with students who have limited experience with college writing in any discipline. This also means that neither generalist nor specialist approaches to tutor training are strictly applicable. The courses in which the WCs are generally placed do not require the students enrolled in the course to have any specialized disciplinary knowledge; indeed, first-year seminars and introductory level courses presume that students have no disciplinary knowledge. The WCs at HWS must be able to decode faculty expectations and assignments that are sometimes informed by unacknowledged disciplinary assumptions; at the same time, they are often participating in courses that purport to introduce students to general writing, reading, and thinking skills. Thus, the course aims to introduce future WCs to a number of peer-tutoring approaches, most of which tend to align with approaches characterized as generalist, such as an emphasis on writers retaining control over their own writing, writing process, and facilitative questions, while at the same time providing WCs with significant exposure to WAC/WID theories that might help them decode and make explicit faculty members’ disciplinary experiences with and assumptions about writing.

Theoretical Rationale: An Overview
of Course Readings and Essay Assignments²

The preparatory seminar for WCs has six course objectives:

  • To encourage writerly growth through challenging, imaginative reading and writing assignments.
  • To invite students to analyze their own identities and authority as WCs.
  • To challenge students to rethink how the education process operates, through course readings that focus on issues of race, gender, class, language, and culture.
  • To provide practical experience working with peers in a one-on-one context, including in the preparation course with the coordinator, peers, and a first-year writing student.
  • To give students experience analyzing essay assignments and other writing genres.
  • To build a collaborative ethos among peers, WCs, and faculty members.

Below, we outline how each specific objective is met, though these objectives are met in overlapping and complementary ways throughout the course.

Encouraging writerly growth through challenging, imaginative reading and writing assignments
While students accepted into the WCP are already strong readers and writers, one of our primary goals is to further strengthen WCs’ skills. This is perhaps one of the most significant differences between the training of embedded course tutors and traditional writing center tutors. We have found that embedded tutors’ reading, writing, and thinking skills come under special scrutiny in the course of their work; faculty members and students have significant exposure to WCs’ writing skills throughout the course of the semester through regular conversations about writing pedagogy, the use of WCs’ own writing as models for students, and frequent email correspondence. Thus, strong writing skills are an important component in enhancing the ethos of both the WCs and the WCP.

In addition to building on WCs’ already strong writing and reading skills, challenging assignments are also designed to force future WCs to meaningfully engage with the writing process. Many of the WCs enrolled in the seminar have never struggled with writing and have, therefore, not needed to prewrite, revise, or engage with critique to a significant degree. In order for WCs to understand the benefits of these writing practices—so they might pass them along to faculty and students—they have to experience their benefits for themselves. Thus, the course has been designed to truly challenge WCs as readers, writers, and thinkers.

Three major writing assignments anchor the course: a theoretically informed personal essay, a close reading essay, and a genre and discourse analysis. These assignments expose students to three distinct writing genres and therefore often require students to think and write in ways that they have not before. For example, the first essay assignment asks students to explore an aspect of their own educational experience to extend or complicate a Freirian concept, while also using Freire to articulate aspects of their own experiences that were previously invisible or uninterrogated. Students are given very little direction about how to organize, incorporate evidence, or stylistically approach this essay; instead, they are required to make writing choices that best support the argument of their essay. This freedom is discomfiting to students, but it forces them to experiment with form through the processes of revision, workshop, Writing Colleagues sessions, and engaging with instructor feedback. That the essay is simultaneously theoretical, analytical, and experiential also presents each student with unique challenges: some students are comfortable with description, while others are more comfortable with theory, and still others with analysis. This means that students can build from their own comfort zone, but must also engage with approaches to writing with which they feel less comfortable.

Inviting students to analyze their own identity and authority as Writing Colleagues
The starting point for the course is critical reading and critical pedagogy. Students begin by reading Bartholomae and Petrosky's introduction to Ways of Reading. The conversation on reading frames the larger goal of engaging students in complex and challenging texts that seek to destabilize their notions about the educational process and their identities as tutors. Students have worked in various capacities as tutors and editors in high school and they have often become comfortable with identities that fix them as authorities over other students' writing. Our initial efforts in the course focus on destabilizing their identities as directive tutors who are called to a “fix-it” model of student support. We focus on essays by Muriel Harris, Lad Tobin, and Donald Murray, as well as Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in order to encourage WCs to interrogate their assumptions about both faculty and tutor authority. In the course of their placements, WCs have to navigate a shifting terrain in which they are at once students, intermediaries, and colleagues to faculty members. Thus WCs benefit from discussion of the personas and places that peer tutors may find themselves in, in meetings with faculty, one-on-one sessions with fellow students, and in the classroom.

Challenging students to rethink how the education process operates through course readings
that focus on issues of race, gender, class, language, and culture

In the second unit of the course, students investigate the ways that language emerges through (and because of) cultural and systemic forces. Students are exposed to scholars such as Lisa Delpit, Vershawn Ashanti Young, Paul Matsuda, and Michelle Cox. The class conversation about these texts brings students to an awareness of the ways that language privilege often goes unseen in education and writing instruction. Readings in this unit help students to challenge their own thinking about how Standard English operates to exclude or marginalize some in higher education. By engaging in a critical discussion of language and culture, students are forced to investigate and question their own language ideologies. The writing assignment for this unit asks students to conduct a close analysis of passage from Gloria Anzaluda’s, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” This assignment requires students to consider the relationship between Anzaldua’s use of language and her arguments about language. Over the course of writing this essay, even the staunchest defenders of Standard English come to recognize the prevalence and power of language variation.

We find that the WCs benefit from a sustained exploration of language ideologies. It is important that WCs are able to work effectively with students who speak and write in a variety of Englishes and that they actively resist the reproduction of linguistic assumptions and prejudices. It is also important that WCs are able to have difficult conversations with faculty members about their language ideologies. Well-meaning first-year seminar professors often have outmoded ways of thinking about language, grammar, and style. Some take off points for every usage error, others are unsure of how to support ELLS, while others employ ineffective and alienating methods for addressing sentence-level concerns. The preparatory seminar provides WCs with the theoretical tools to consider the implications of these pedagogical practices and the practical experience to talk about them. Because of conversations with their WCs, many faculty members who work closely with first year students have changed pedagogies and policies that reinforce linguistic hierarchies.

Providing practical experience working with peers in a one-on-one context,
including in the preparation course with the coordinator, peers, and a first-year writing student

Students in the course have the chance to work with our professional WC Coordinator who acts as a Writing Colleague for the preparation course. The coordinator meets with each student at least twice for each paper. Students benefit from their meetings with the coordinator because they help to improve their writing and expose them to the benefits of the WCP. The coordinator also models tutoring practices that include facilitative questions, multiple approaches to providing feedback, and the use of graphic organizers. The nature of their work with the coordinator ideally assists students in cultivating a persona as a facilitator and collaborator with their peers. In-class activities often ask students to reflect on their own experiences working with the coordinator in order to help them make connections between readings about tutoring practices and the experience of working with a WC.

The prospective WCs are also given opportunities to act as WCs themselves. They begin this work by acting as WCs for one another; four weeks into the semester each WC is paired with a student from an introductory writing course. This practicum experience serves to initiate tutor training outside of the preparation course and their work with the coordinator. Because the WCs are paired with students from the directors’ own courses, we are able to carefully select and monitor the pairings as they progress through the rest of the semester.

Giving students experience analyzing essay assignments and other writing genres
Our approach to genre follows Spigelman and Grobman's analysis of Charles Bazerman's definition of genre as a matter of environment and location. In our third unit, we use Elizabeth Wardle and Amy Devitt's scholarship to expand students' definitions of genre and to examine how disciplines and individual professors may define genre in course placements. In this unit, students complete a third essay that functions as a hybrid discourse and genre analysis. As part of the essay assignment, students contact a current WC and the faculty member with whom that WC is working. Our students ask the professor for a writing assignment and three sample student essays. From their analysis of the selected essay assignment, students construct questions to ask the faculty member and WC in one-on-one interviews. These interviews allow students to investigate the ways that faculty and WCs understand and articulate the goals of the essay assignment, providing important context for their analysis of student essays. As students work to make sense of the data they collected, they must consider how the assignment, faculty and WC interaction, and the student writing itself work to promote particular ideologies about writing, genre, and collaboration. 

This project gives students experience working with faculty, a key component of the WC experience. It also gives them theoretical frameworks and practical experience that they can bring to their placements in order to identify and make more explicit the variety of assumptions that faculty might bring to writing assignments, instruction, and feedback.

Building a collaborative ethos among peers, Writing Colleagues, and faculty members
While students are working on their third essay assignment and discussing their practicum experience, they read emerging scholarship on curriculum-based peer tutors, as well as WAC/WID scholarship and genre theory. The readings include work by Susan McLeod, Margot Soven, Jill Gladstein, Michael Pemberton, Elizabeth Wardle, and Amy Devitt. The combination of readings provides a way to return to the critical lens that begins the course, this time with an explicit focus on the advantages and challenges of acting as embedded tutors in courses taught by faculty with a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

The course culminates with a final portfolio where students include their three major essays and a synthesis essay. Along with assessing these pieces for the portfolio, we try to create opportunities for students, in the spring semester especially, to meet with the faculty member they will be working with in the first-year seminar in the fall. The Dean and Assistant Director organize a First-Year Seminar Workshop Day in which the directors provide the faculty with resources and guidelines for collaborating with WCs. In addition, the first-year seminar faculty member and their WC have the chance to meet and begin a discussion about the course content and writing assignments. On the First-Year Seminar Workshop Day, we are able to achieve a central objective of the tutor preparation course: to get WCs and faculty members to begin communicating and collaborating. For those students who are doing placements, this experience in talking with their faculty has been vital. The list of objectives above is certainly not exhaustive and it is ever changing in response to institutional and departmental need.   

Critical Reflection on the Writing Colleagues Seminar

The strengths and drawbacks of the course design outlined above are closely related to the WCPs current emphasis on supporting first-year writers. Because all WCs spend their first placement working with first-year writers in general education courses, the preparation seminar takes on a specificity that helps WCs to feel especially well-prepared for a very particular kind of tutoring experience. The renewed emphasis we are placing on faculty interaction within the preparation seminar—in the form of the discourse and genre analysis essay and interviews with WCs and faculty—has served to bridge the preparation course with the course placements. The course’s emphasis on writerly growth and collaboration is especially well-suited for beginning WCs who are generally in their sophomore year; these students have had limited exposure to the writing process or disciplinary writing practices and are generally open to, and in need of, significant attention to their own writing. Furthermore issues of authority, power, and positioning are essential considerations given that the WCs are so close in age to the students with whom they will work. Community and collaboration is easy to foster among students in the seminar because they are all preparing to do very similar kinds of work, and despite their different disciplinary interests, most WCs are still enrolled primarily in general education courses at the time of the seminar.

While the course draws its success partly from the specific focus on supporting first-year writers, it is perhaps less successful at preparing WCs for tutoring experiences beyond their first placement. An increasing number of faculty members have requested WCs for upper-division courses, and we have also received inquiries about utilizing WCs in community-based literacy projects, in courses taught at a nearby correctional facility, and for targeted student populations like ELL students, student-athletes, and developmental writers. We would very much like to provide WCs with an opportunity to grow beyond their placements in lower-division courses but acknowledge that the seminar may not prepare students as effectively to work in these diverse contexts.

We have also found that students in the seminar are noticeably less engaged with the readings and discussions that make up the third unit of the course, which focuses on genre theory and WAC/WID. We suspect that this is a result of the students’ inexperience with disciplinary writing practices and their own experiences in first-year seminars that tend to emphasize more generalist approaches to writing instruction. It is likely that if the WC seminar enrolled students who were further along in their college careers or if WCs anticipated placements in upper-division courses, discussions of genre, WAC, and WID would seem more accessible and relevant to our students.

Given these challenges, we plan to introduce a second, upper-division course that complements the work of the current WCs Seminar. In this second course, our students could develop a focus on disciplinary knowledge. This specialist training would provide the classroom setting for WCs to apply the disciplinary knowledge that they develop in their majors to their placements. Furthermore, an upper-division course may provide a more appropriate context for engaging with scholarly conversations in composition and help students to develop their writing skills as they move into graduate school or careers. 

Conclusion: Future Perspectives on the Programmatic Mission

As a tutor preparation course, the WCs Seminar has sought to prepare students through critical awareness, practical tutoring experience, and new writerly challenges. Our programmatic focus on the institutional context means we have the ability to lead WAC initiatives and adapt to future curricular changes. The unique position of our WCP means that tutors are prepared differently for their writing center work, and they gain experience working with faculty and students before they support their peers in the writing center. In the preparation seminar, we hope that our course objectives balance practical training with a critical examination of how becoming a WC positions students between their peers and their faculty collaborator. The adaptability of our program, we believe, should be paralleled by the WCs who work in spaces that require them to adapt and draw on their training in a variety of ways.

Notes

1 See Rewriting Across the Disciplines: Writing Fellows as Agents of Change in WAC. Special issue of Across the Disciplines 5 (28 Mar. 2008).

2 A complete list of course readings is provided on the Works Cited page. The preparation course syllabus (WRRH 305: Writing Colleagues Seminar), essay assignments, and supporting materials available upon request via email.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. 53-64. Print.  

Bartholomae, David, and Anthony Petrosky. “Introduction.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. New York: Bedford, 2010. Print.  

Delpit, Lisa. “No Kinda Sense.” The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. New York: New Press, 2002. Print.

Devitt, Amy. “Teaching Critical Genre Awareness.” Genre in a Changing World. Eds. Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini, and Débora Figueiredo. West Lafayette: Parlor P, 2008. 337-351. Print.

Friere, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000. Print.

Gladstein, Jill. “Conducting Research in the Gray Space: How Writing Associates Negotiate Between WAC and WID in an Introductory Biology Course.” Rewriting Across the Curriculum: Writing Fellows as Agents of Change in WAC. Special issue of Across the Disciplines 5 (28 Mar. 2004). Web.  21 Nov. 2014.

Hall, Emily, and Bradley Hughes. “Preparing Faculty, Professionalizing Fellows: Keys to Success with Undergraduate Writing Fellows in WAC.” The WAC Journal 22 (2011): 21-40. Print.

Haring-Smith, Tori. “Changing Students' Attitudes: Writing Fellows Programs.” Writing Across the Curriculum: A Guide to Developing Programs. Eds. Susan McLeod and Margot Soven. SAGE Pub. 1992. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Harris, Muriel. “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors.” College English 57 (1995): 27-42. Print.

Hughes, Brad, and Emily B. Hall. Rewriting Across the Curriculum: Writing Fellows as Agents of Change in WAC. Special issue of Across the Disciplines 5 (28 Mar. 2004). Web.  21 Nov. 2014.

Matsuda, Paul, and Michelle Cox. “Reading an ESL Writer's Text.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Eds. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth.. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2009. Print.

Murray, Donald M. “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference.” College English 41(1979): 13-18. Print.

Pemberton, Michael A., and Joyce Kinkead, eds. The Center Will Hold: Critical Perspectives on Writing Center Scholarship. Logan: Utah State P, 2003.

Severino, Carol, and Mary Traschel. “Theories of Specialized Discourses and Writing Fellows Programs.” Rewriting Across the Curriculum: Writing Fellows as Agents of Change. Special issue of Across the Disciplines 5 (28 Mar. 2004). Web.  21 Nov. 2014.

Spigelman, Candace, and Laurie Grobman, eds. On Location: Theory and Practice in Classroom Based Writing Tutoring. Logan: Utah State P, 2005. Print.

Tobin, Lad. “Reading Students, Reading Ourselves: Revising the Teacher’s Role in the Writing Class.” College English 53 (1991): 333-48. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “’Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?.” College Composition and Communication (2009): 765-789. Print.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Should Writers Use They Own English?.” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 12.1 (2010): 110-117. Print.