This blog was originally posted on August 6th, 2014.
Guest blogger Megan Lambert is a Rhetoric & Composition M.A. candidate at UCF. This is her second year teaching first-year composition courses with UCF’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric as a Graduate Teaching Associate, and she also works as a graduate assistant and tutor in UCF’s University Writing Center. She is currently working on her thesis project, which explores how tutors use writing resources to address composition concerns and facilitate learning opportunities in writing consultations.
For teachers of writing, the writing center serves as a valuable academic resource for their students, offering assistance with assignments at any stage of the writing process. This assistance usually takes the form of one-on-one tutoring sessions—often between a peer tutor and a student—where the student’s concerns are the major focus of the tutoring session. However, this does not mean that the goal of the writing center is to “fix” students’ papers. Writing center work is based on Stephen North’s now-famous axiom that the purpose of tutor sessions “is to produce better writers, not better writing.” As such, the goal of writing centers is similar to that of first-year composition programs that implement a writing-about-writing curriculum: both aim to equip students with an understanding of writing concepts and practices so that they can better address rhetorical situations they encounter in the future.
I’ve been fortunate to see the frequent realization of this goal as a tutor and graduate assistant for a university writing center that implements a writing-about-writing approach in tutoring sessions. At the UCF University Writing Center, tutors are graduate and undergraduate students who are familiar with the threshold concepts and readings that inform the writing-about-writing curriculum used in the first-year composition courses. With this, tutors are able to assist writers beyond their usual requests of attention to “grammar and flow.” One way that tutors use a writing-about-writing approach in a tutoring session is to take time to explain the concept of rhetorical situation and its components, then help writers to understand and assess the rhetorical situation of their writing assignment. This is easiest when the writers are students in the first-year composition courses who come to the writing center with assignments from the writing-about-writing curriculum. These writers can see how the rhetorical situation is directly related to their assignment because it is actually part of their assignment, and the tutors can help them better understand these writing concepts that they’re learning.
However, tutors can often encounter challenging consultations when this approach does not meet the expectations of writers who came to get their papers edited, or students who have discipline-specific questions, thinking that the tutors are experts in the writing styles and genres of all fields. As a result, tutors must learn how to navigate the issue of negotiating the focus of the session within the time constraints. Our tutoring sessions are 45 minutes long, which is enough time for tutors to explain a relevant writing concept and help the writer begin to apply their new understanding to their writing, but it’s not enough time to also check the entire paper for errors. I have experienced several tutoring sessions where the writers have gotten frustrated with my agenda, thinking that it does not align with theirs; they believe that I am wasting their time instead of giving them the writing assistance they came for. As a result, I’ve learned that it’s crucial for tutors to be transparent with the reasoning behind their writing-about-writing approach.
For example, when writers ask for help with “grammar and flow,” it is because these are components that make up their understanding of “good writing.” To address this concern using a writing-about-writing approach without frustrating the writer, tutors can begin by explaining that understanding the rhetorical situation is a beneficial way of figuring out what makes the writing good beyond word choice and transitions. In addition, when writers expect tutors to be experts in their discipline’s writing, tutors can explain how the concept of genre is useful in this situation: with the writers’ knowledge of the discipline, the tutor and writer can work together to understand the genre’s purpose and conventions, and then learn how to write effectively within that genre. If writers recognize the session is being spent in a way that will help them with their writing now, and also in the future, the tutoring session has the potential to be far more productive. In my experience, it’s the writers who recognize how we are helping them who benefit the most from the writing center.
In spite of the more challenging tutor sessions, and even in response to them, the writing-about-writing approach is useful for the writing center for the same reasons that it is useful for first-year composition: it allows writing tutors to combine their knowledge of writing concepts and practices with the writers’ disciplinary knowledge in a collaboration effort to develop problem solving strategies to address the writers’ specific concerns. Especially with recurring appointments, this approach can translate into learning opportunities for writers and eventual transfer for responding to future rhetorical situations.