Last year our Writing Center took on the task of placing several tutors for one hour per week in each “remedial” writing classroom. The program was terminated last quarter, for various reasons, but as a tutor in these classes I became interested in the dynamics of tutoring in a group.
Group tutoring is fundamentally different, I think, than a doctoral (or master’s) writing group. With such a “workshopping” model, each member is considered equal, and there tend to be fairly specific do’s and don’t’s designed to protect this equality. However, the tutor in a writing classroom (remedial or otherwise) is automatically imbued with a sense of authority, whether or not it is desired. The tutor is positioned (culturally, phenomenologically) as a sort of “sub-” or “pseudo-” instructor – that is, as “between” the instructor, who has the ability to evaluate (i.e. “grade”), and the students. The tutor is considered a writing “expert,” with the knowledge to advise and, in fact, influence the student (and his/her writing).
This is, of course, not much different than many of the situations we find ourselves in when tutoring one-on-one. Much of our time thinking about the writing center is spent considering the ways to “de-politicize” (even “de-colonize”) the tutor/tutee relationship – to eliminate the power dynamics inherent in “teaching” (at least the Western conception of it). In a group tutoring environment like the one our tutors found themselves in, this proved to be nearly impossible (at least for me): the roles and expectations had already been established and the students seemed unwilling to take control, or even participate. Indeed, the primary complaint among the tutors, at least anecdotally, was that the students “don’t do anything. They don’t seem to care.”
I believe there are real benefits to utilizing these predetermined power dynamics and adopting at specific times a moderately directive philosophy. It can be advantageous, first of all, for the tutor to use his/her authority to get the students involved. The tutor can do this by outlining an agenda, exercising control of the group discussion (by selecting a topic or merely guiding the conversation through direct questioning), or by assigning specific writing tasks to complete within the tutoring time. Tutors can also rely on “talking,” instead of merely asking. Talking, I think, can take two forms, both important. Tutors can provide tools students can use and general information about writing (generally how do writers research or deal with theses, transitions, or organization); tutors can also serve as a model for good peer input. The tutor does not merely model good discussion, but also “how to do school,” immensely important in the remedial writing classroom.
It is important to not concede to the extreme. The group tutor must also use the group – that is, discussion should not be one-one-one. The tutor can counter this by posing questions to the group as a whole, or, when one student has a problem, turn to the group for solutions. In general, tutors should ask open-ended questions. I found it best when I asked questions that I didn’t necessarily have an answer for; this allowed me to become one of the group, instead of a teacher searching for “the” correct answer.
Interestingly enough, I found that this combination modeling good peer participation and non-directive but “powerful” (recognizing and using, when appropriate or useful, your inherent authority) tutoring can actually inspire students to take control of the group. After a few sessions with a pre-arranged agenda, the students and I together began to prepare for the next session at the end of the hour. Although they still at times turned to me, more and more often they answered each others’ questions. As they become more involved, and more familiarized to the college environment and its expectations, the students took control of their writing, and of their participation in the writing group. Unexpectedly, I had moved to the periphery of the group.