As a writing center tutor in a university, I work primarily with student writers enrolled in introductory courses, often “basic” writers. I learned from both readings and actual tutoring experiences that these students, native speakers of English and ESL students alike, struggle with writing as they transition into university-level academic discourse. Therefore, writing assignments often are, in addition to assessments of students’ knowledge of course materials, also composition exercises that help students practice writing in a new way. As a result, contrary to what I had believed before taking this class, the process of writing – not the product – is more important to many students in their growth as writers, as they learn to voice their opinions in a way appropriate to an academic audience. Therefore, my goal as a writing center tutor is to help students with a writer-oriented approach that combines both directive and collaborative methods.
To help basic writers mature, I believe a directive mode of tutoring is necessary. In my one-semester experience in the writing center, I often work with students who do not know the function of a thesis statement, the importance of logical organization of arguments, or the necessity of analysis of cited evidence – all of which are integral to the success of a paper. Many times, a straightforward tutorial that explains the function of a thesis is more effective and beneficial for students, especially those entirely unfamiliar with academic conventions of writing in the English-speaking world. From my tutoring experiences, I find that many students need us tutors to be “native informants” that introduce them to the norms of academic writing, because they either have already forgotten them or have never learned it.
In addition to addressing the accepted writing conventions, I also see the need to teach students to consider audience, another concept they never learned in high school, and sometimes, in college writing classes. Many students I tutored had the “A-Ha!” moment when I explained that their word choices in an email to a classmate would completely differ from those in a letter to their grandfather, simply because the audiences are very different. The students did not understand how to make their writing more “understandable,” “stronger,” or “flow more,” until the concept of audience comes into the picture. They would not have had this moment of epiphany, had not a tutor introduce to them the importance of catering their writing to the intended audience, rather than simply putting their thoughts down on paper. This “reader-based” approach to writing and the academic writing conventions mentioned in the previous paragraphs are examples where directive tutoring in the writing center is effective.
While there is a place for authoritative tutoring in the writing center, a writer-oriented tutoring is not complete without collaborative efforts between the tutor and the student. I tutor in collaboration with my students mostly by asking heuristic or facilitative questions that invite the students to think critically about their arguments, in both pre-writing and revision stages. When students come into the writing center with a paper assignment and ask me to brainstorm with them how to come up with an argument, they usually already have some ideas hidden in their minds, which are to be discovered and refined by critical questioning. Similarly, heuristics help students to discover weak areas in their arguments when they come to me in the revision stage. By asking them questions, I give students opportunities to rethink and reorganize their own arguments – opportunities they would not have otherwise if I directly point out the fallacies or weaknesses.
Collaboration also occurs in the form of egalitarian discussions, which do not necessarily involve questions or answers. As I exchange ideas with a student, we both try to assess the strengths of the paper and to look for ways to improve it. Although I do not have this kind of discussions often (most of my students have problems just to convey their thoughts in the written form), I find them more difficult than other tasks, especially when the students’ arguments conflict with my convictions. The “postcolonial” and “censorship” readings we discussed in this class have been particularly helpful in this respect, as they point out clearly the dangers of any attempt to sway our students to accept our beliefs. Jacoby’s and Sherwood’s suggestions are particularly useful. Instead of judging the students’ perspectives, Jacoby advises, tutors should inform students of possible opposition to their beliefs to encourage them to consider their arguments more critically and strengthen them. Sherwood, on the other hand, reminds tutors that we can explain to students that the purpose of academic writing is “learning and testing ideas, not simply venting opinions one already holds” (Sherwood 136).
Lastly, collaboration is important to achieve a writer-oriented tutoring approach because it allows the students and me, the tutor, to agree upon a plan for a tutoring session. As a writer more experienced than many of my students, I often see problems in their writing of which they are not concerned or even aware. However, to address these problems that the students do not deem important or existent instead of the ones they see more pressing would only cause students to question if I sincerely want to meet their needs. Therefore, I believe tutors should not conduct a tutoring session solely according to what they see as fit. Tutors and students must “negotiate,” in Cooper’s word, what to work on together in order that the students feel their needs are addressed.
Tutoring at the writing center is a complex experience because of the various concerns students and I bring into tutoring sessions, as clients and tutors, respectively. Through my tutoring experiences, I have come to believe that a hybrid of directive and collaborative methods best serves a wide variety of students whose cultural backgrounds and academic training differ radically. Such combination of both authoritative instruction and egalitarian discussion offers both the new knowledge and the collaborative critique of the papers that basic writers need. Even though in the writing center we meet students whose writing skills are on various levels, the task of using a coherent and holistic tutoring method to help students to mature into advanced writers in the academic community is not insurmountable.