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I am a second-year Writing Fellow at Nova Southeastern University. Our Writing Fellows are embedded tutors who provide course-based writing assistance to first-year composition students both in and out-of-class. At times, describing what we do within the class can be difficult for students—especially first-year students—to understand. As a Writing Fellow for a Basic Writing class, I recently encountered this problem.
Mid-September, I sat down for my weekly meeting with the professor of the Basic Writing class I work with. She asked how my out-of-class sessions with students were going, to which I replied “Pretty good!” I had just finished my first week of group meetings, which mostly involved discussing ideas with students since they were in the prewriting stages of an assignment. I was getting to know my students, and they were getting to know me as their Writing Fellow. Yeah, you know, things are going well, I thought—that is, until the professor made the comment, “The students told me that they see you as kind of a moderator, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”
A moderator? Like Jim Lehrer during a presidential debate?
I assured her that this was probably because the students were brainstorming during sessions. As a group, we had discussed things like whether their ideas fit the assignment, which would help many move on to start writing their first drafts. So, I guess you could call that a moderator? “Once they start bringing written drafts to sessions, I’m sure this will change,” I said.
As Writing Fellows, describing our role within the class can be confusing for some students. We are not general “tutors” and we are not “teaching assistants.” We are “writing assistants” for a specific class. At the beginning of the semester, I told the class that my job was to help them with different stages of the writing process. “I’m an extra set of eyes,” I said.
However, many students have never had this kind of help before. Naturally, I got mixed reactions when I told them that they were required to meet with me four times during the semester.
Overall, I have found that most students are grateful to have someone to talk with about class assignments. But there are a few, maybe 2 or 3 students out of a class of 15, who do not take my role seriously or ask “innocent” questions to see what they can get away with.
For instance, some dared to ask: Can I get your number so that you can help me with papers for other classes?
Others said things like: Well, my goal for our sessions is to get an “A” in this class.
And once meetings began, there were those students that didn’t show up at all.
Even though these are always only a select few, don’t they seem to take up so much of our thought time?
Luckily, the dynamic of my sessions did change when the students brought rough drafts to work with. Their writing became the focus, and many students had questions that led to the tutoring/assisting – not moderating – of higher order concerns like context, purpose, and organization.
Overall, this “moderator” experience has made me re-evaluate how important it is to be clear when describing the work we do. Shanti Bruce’s “Breaking Ice and Setting Goals” states, “While tutees often behave like guests and need to be introduced to the writing center and the conferencing process on their first visit, on subsequent visits they may continue to take their cues from tutors” (33). For this reason, tutors of any kind (general or course-specific) need to understand their roles and job responsibilities. Aside from training, it might even be a good idea to rehearse or discuss your roles with other tutors.
Bruce also recommends starting a session by taking the time to “ask the writer a few questions about her work and her expectations for the session” (37). We could even expand on Bruce’s suggestion to include asking the student what they believe you, as the tutor, are there to do. This might be a good way to open the conversation and provide clarification where it is necessary!
So, I’d like to put my own question out there: how many of you take the time to explain your roles to students during sessions?