Monday, November 03, 2008

Are WCs asking too much of peer tutors?

At his plenary wrap-up of the Joint NCPTW/IWCA Conference, writing center and peer tutoring legend Harvey Kail asked a simple question in response to the various ideas that came his way during the conference: "Are we asking too much of peer tutors?" Harvey was referring to specifically, I think, Nancy Grim's keynote challenge that writing centers take on new social realities and extend their project to important issues in social justice such as anti-racism work (among others.) (By the way, I only had the opportunity to record the tail end of Nancy's speach, and I will no doubt be podcasting it soon.)

After he finished his talk, Harvey had us write on 3 questions--all relating to the challenges that the conference threw at us as writing center folk. The table I went to sit at were very interested in Harvey's statement about peer tutors. One person thought it was a false dichotomy, as if there was one pure thing that we are asking of peer tutors and that was some how distinct, for example, from a tutor thinking of the effects of race, class, and gender in a tutorial and how that effects the writer. I tend to agree with that assessment, in that it seems that Harvey was defining tutoring only from the Brooklyn School perspective (something he readily admited to, by the way). To say that including other things other than response to the writing is "asking too much" begs the question of what peer tutoring is in the first place. Writing tutoring is about responding to student writers, to be sure, but that does not exclude other important work the tutor can be doing. Responding to the students writing alone seems to be just producing a better text, not a better writer and thinker.

It was an honest question on Harvey's part, I think. He also stated throughout that the conference had given him a great deal to consider and he was redefining his notions of writing center work.


  1. It depends. We as consultants to do a great of work in many different modes. For example, Grimm's call for more work into social issues. What portion of the consultant's work is being extended? Is it a call to point out more social issues in a writers paper? Is it a call for the consultant to join a activist group?

    I would agree that there is a false dichotomy aspect, but we need to be more specific about what we are asking before we can say what it too much.
    Consultants have numerous 'masks': writing peer, honest commentator, peer writer, and often student. In addition they are people with distinct identities.
    If we ask consultants to do something outside of the center, it is too much. But if we ask them to be more aware of religious over-tones in writers' papers, that seems fair.

  2. Thanks - now I regret having skipped out on the closing plenary. ;)

    First, I'm not familiar with the Brooklyn School as such. Is that a specific group, or something more loose?

    Second, that's a really good question. I certainly agree that tutoring asks (demands?) a lot from tutors, especially when they are still undergrads. Talking about writing, about any aspect of writng, is going to be complicated. That's true whether we're dealing with dangling modifiers or the construction of racial identity. If my director came in today and told me I had to memorize EVERY grammar rule in English, I'd say he was asking too much. Likewise, if he came in and insisted every tutor had to reach a certain point on the racial sensitivity scale, I would think he was asking too much.

    Maybe I'm looking for a fluid model of tutoring (and tutor training), that allows for tutors to have individual strong and weak points, while also encouraging all tutors to grow and expand, whether that's grammatically or socially.

    As a side question, what would it mean if we don't ask tutors to deal with so much?

  3. Good point (err...question), Andrew. If Writing Center tutors were not expected to deal with much then I think overall we would find Writing Centers to be less successful. Writing and tutoring involve a lot. No one is forced to be a WC tutor, so if it is too much to handle they can always quit.