For no other reason than because it felt like something to do, I’m posting what I presented Saturday, November 5 at 8am during the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing. For those of you unfamiliar with the format, I modeled it loosely after the format seen here, although I did not autotime the slides and used some very minimalist wording for takeaways – that’s why it’s so graphic heavy and so text-light. The text is the (approximate) script I used to accompany the slide you’ll see with it.
I welcome any comments or discussion anyone might like to share.
Hi. I’m Roger Austin. I’m a tutor at the Marian E. Wright Writing Center at the University of Michigan-Flint. We’re a small to medium sized writing center, with between 15-20 student tutors on staff in a given semester. I’m talking today about negotiating how we approach our use of directiveness as tutors.
Like my fellow tutors, I underwent a great deal of training – our writing center requires its tutors to take a full-semester class with an observation component – and in that class, we are of course introduced to a whole range of tutoring styles and theories. The intention was to give us the range of options and tools. Our instructor and center director was really specific about only one thing he wanted in the center: “I don’t like minimalism.” So what happened in my first semester tutoring?
Of course, I went minimalist. I heard myself saying “what do you think” to everything students asked me and I cringed, but I kept doing it. For the first couple of months, I’d sit back and let the students do the work, and the results were usually good, but I felt like I was ignoring opportunities to help them better. Finally, I realized I had started tutoring as a minimalist because I felt intimidated by the power I’d been given over my fellow students. I didn’t want to screw this up. So then what happened for the rest of the semester?
I did the exact opposite. Suddenly I knew the answer, I was in a position to share it, and share it I did. I answered questions with certitude. I suggested the best words. I stopped saying “I think you could” and started saying “I think you should.” I quickly realized this was no better and vowed to move somewhere toward the middle. I had to establish a few things, first.
Writing center tutors are not really peers. Placed in this position of reviewing, critiquing, and suggesting methods of development for other students is scary. We do these things as a peer, but from a formal, institutional role in which the writing center casts us. It’s no wonder there’s a pressure to back off and maintain the sense of peership minimalism offers. The consequences are lower.
On the other hand, it’s easy to swing the other way once the tutor realizes that first and foremost, they are there to help. From there it’s a short trip to seeing writers as possessing “flawed” documents that can be “fixed.” Tutors are put there with an authority. Exercising it is startlingly easy, and what the writer leaves with is undoubtedly a “better” paper, but it is no longer really their paper.
Just because a tutor has authority, that does not mean the tutor should be authoritarian. A tutor has the opportunity to introduce the writer to a two-way conversation about writing: suggestions are made, arguments are examined, and content is weighed, but all decisions to revise remain ultimately with the text’s owner. Two writers discussing a spectrum of writing options while maintaining the authority of both contributors is pure collaboration. How does the tutor define the boundaries of that spectrum, and of that collaboration?
“Directive” is not (always) a bad word. When a writer turns to you not because they want you to do the work, but because they don’t know or aren’t sure how to do the work, give them a direction because they may feel directionless. You don’t have to be a turn-by-turn GPS with “A Paper” as the destination. You can be a compass and give the writer a heading.
But purely directive removes the writer. If a writer hasn’t turned to you for direction, or needs only a little nudge, there’s a fine line for the tutor between making a suggestion and taking over. Being too directive can preempt the writer’s invention process, mute their voice, and rob them of their stake in the outcome. Instead of showing the writer what they can do to write better, you’ve only shown them how you write better.
“Minimalist” is not (always) a bad word. When your writer has the idea, has the drive, and has the skills, but needs a sounding board or a warm body to listen to their plans, sit back and see how far they can go. Ask questions about their work, not their questions. Make them think about how their audience will read them, don’t just tell them. Giving the writer a chance to take control can lead them to a better learning experience.
But purely minimalist stalls the writer. Refusing to ever read the writer’s paper to them is denying them the chance to hear their words more objectively. Mirroring the body language of a disinterested writer borders on being petty. If you meet the writer’s every question with a question of your own, you are obstructing their search for answers, while plainly displaying that you know but are not sharing. Doing this abuses your position of authority, is evasive, and almost elitist.
It may be easy to make assumptions about where a writer will be on their spectrum of writing skill, and what help they will need accordingly, but be willing to move along the spectrum to meet your writer where they need you.
When you start out minimal, you offer the writer a chance to step up and assert their authority over their work. If they don’t seem to want that authority, or don’t think they can handle it, help them find it. Even though they didn’t want that authority at first, they may want to take it back from you as the session unfolds. Offer the reins back frequently.
The best sessions can be when you sit back, and with only a few questions or comments, inspire your student to see their own text in a whole new way. Not only can it be enjoyable for you to watch that session unfold so well, but you’re demonstrating that writers own their writing, and can add, subtract, invent, reinvent, or discard their words any time they want.
If the writer resists their authority, insisting they take it helps no one. Ask questions about the assignment. Establish what they know about their topic. Make suggestions. Tell them if something isn’t clear. Tell them there are alternatives, and don’t be afraid to show them a few. If their paper lacks a clear thesis, tell them so. If a supporting argument is underdeveloped, tell them that. This doesn’t mean you have to tell them exactly how to fix it.
The best sessions can also be when you help a writer who was frustrated by their work step back, break the assignment down into its component parts, and help them form a plan to attack each one. Not only can it be enjoyable for you to watch that session unfold so well, but you’ve also defanged the assignment before it became unmanageable, and have show them that a hard assignment is not an impossible assignment.
We tell our writers that writing is a recursive process that moves back and forth along invention, drafting, and revision constantly. The journey along the spectrum of directivity is not a straight line, but a path that twists back on itself. Starting minimalist and going directive doesn’t mean the tutor has to stay directive. If the session needs to start directive, it doesn’t mean the tutor can’t put the power back in the writer’s hands by offering more minimalist input later.
The writer may have abandoned control, but it is the tutor’s duty to keep giving it back. The writer may keep pushing the reins away, and if they do, don’t force the issue. The writer may also want to take the reins back after seeing one barrier fall away, and be eager to push the rest aside themselves.
Writers exist at many places on the spectrums of writing skill and engagement. By moving fluidly along the spectrum of directivity, tutors can more nimbly intercept the writers wherever they are on their personal writing spectrums, and more assuredly guide them to where they want to go.