A Case for Disciplinary Tutoring in the Writing Center

Uncategorized / Monday, May 4th, 2015

By Laura Plummer

Laura Plummer directs Indiana University’s Campus Writing Program, a WAC program that administers the writing center. She is a part of the Big Ten Writing Center/Program Directors’ group that includes UW-Madison, and which meets annually to hobnob about running writing centers at big research institutions.

The Vagaries of General Advice

Laura Plummer
Laura Plummer

“OK, Let me stop you for just a minute. The advice you just gave the writer will result in her receiving an F on that paper.”

I received that comment while interviewing for a writing center tutoring position when I was a graduate student in English literary studies.

As part of the interview, I was given an assignment and an essay draft from an undergraduate business law course, alongside the probably familiar direction to read both documents in preparation for a role-playing discussion of the paper. The essay was an analysis of a case concerning the death of an employee who died on the job.

What I had said to elicit this remark was to recommend that the writer vary his word choice, that the phrase “caused the death of” was a bit awkward. Might he not find another word or phrase? “Killed” came to mind.

arts and sciences
Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences coat of arms

And that was the word on which this embarrassing moment hung: to cause the death of someone, in legal terms, is different from killing her. The latter implies volition, or even worse, intent. My diagnosis (repetitive word choice) and recommendation (change up said words)—are based on tenets of good writing tutoring. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) dedicates a section to this issue in its “Word Choice” resource.

In my very specific tutorial moment, however, following such advice would have led the student into problematic prose. That is, my ignorance might have misled, well intentioned though I might have been.

Mindful Practice

From that moment on, as a writing tutor then and as a writing center administrator now, I have remembered that lesson: to keep in mind the demands made of writers that are particular (even peculiar?) to individual courses, genres, and disciplinary discourses.

Our writing center at Indiana University Bloomington, Writing Tutorial Services (WTS, or “wits” for short), sees roughly 7,000 hour-long tutorials per year. We are administratively housed in the office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education and its Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. We are not administratively or financially tied to the English department.

Indiana University School of Business coat of arms
Indiana University School of Business coat of arms

While 30 percent of our clients come from various flavors of the course that fulfills the university’s first-year composition requirement, the remainder are drawn from throughout the curriculum. Other required “gateway” courses make up the second third of our clients: public speaking (from arts and sciences), business communication (from our business school); public policy (from our school of environmental and public affairs) and development of dramatic art (also in arts and sciences).

Because we serve such a disciplinarily diverse group of writers, our staff is hired from throughout the university; as of today, we have 42 tutors representing these schools: computing and informatics (which includes library sciences), arts and sciences, music, public affairs, business, and journalism (soon to become the media school). Undergraduates comprise about half our staff; graduate students the other, most of whom are in Ph.D. programs.

Disciplinary tutoring is not a new idea any more—Sue Dinitz in her work with Jean Keidasch and with Susanmarie Harrington has argued that a lack of disciplinary knowledge places certain limitations upon tutors; the latter found in a modest study of political science and history students that the tutors’ disciplinary knowledge helped tutors address more complex and broader issues in student writing.

While we cannot reasonably promise our tutors to be experts about everything, we can quite easily educate ourselves and our tutors to be at least familiar with the generic requirements and disciplinary conventions of those courses and assignments we work with most at the WC.

Does the responsibility for a document ultimately lie with the writer? Yes, of course, but we have to acknowledge that tutors do have some authority at the tutoring table. In the context of my business law fiasco, I was not a helpful partner; my diagnosis was clearly ill-advised.

However, a few, simple points of knowledge about the business law assignment, for example, might have made a world of difference in our practice. Some are from the assignment:

  • Passive voice is acceptable in these papers.
  • Referring to cases by textbook case number is not permitted; use formal case titles, like “Brown v. Board of Education.”

Some are gleaned either from conversation with the instructor:

  • Repetition of words is to be expected because terminology is so precise.
  • Grammar errors are marked down heavily.
  • Help students to connect the two cases in terms of “duty of care” per the textbook.

Having discipline- and course-specific tutors is a means of capturing these simple points from one interaction with the faculty member and making them available to all tutors. We cannot know everything, but we can know more.

Implementing Our Discipline-Specific Ethos

While I am arguing for more discipline-specific skills among tutors, I do not mean to argue that “generalists” are ineffective. Any help we provide to a writer is valuable, if it helps her see her writing as a process, as something she can change and improve with thoughtful reconsiderations.

Indiana University School of Journalism coat of arms
Indiana University School of Journalism coat of arms

Nor do I want to claim that tutors must be deeply rooted in a discipline to have some discipline-specific credentials, either. However, some basic knowledge of writing in various disciplines can at least help us sometimes avoid real gaffes and to make inroads toward higher-order, meaningful “re-envisioning” with writers.

At WTS, then, we’ve established two kinds of tutoring beyond the generalist model: course and discipline-specific tutoring. Here’s how the two work at Writing Tutorial services:

Course-specific tutors are assigned by request to any given course. We write to all instructors of record each semester advertising our faculty services. About twenty-five to thirty instructors each semester take us up on the offer.

The job of the course-specific tutor is to

  • gather information about a class: syllabus, its major assignments, other related documents (a grading rubric, for example, or a sample essay);
  • start a file at WTS for all tutors to consult;
  • update their colleagues about the course.

We encourage students to request an appointment with their course specific tutor first; in the event that student and c-s tutor schedules do not align, the student is assigned to a student in the related disciplinary Working Group.

Working Groups organize our tutors by discipline, and discipline-specific tutoring drives our hiring and the way we organize the staff. We have three “mega-disciplines”—social sciences and education, hard sciences, and humanities—as well as a “first-year composition” group. Our graduate student tutors, hired from throughout the university, are each placed in one of these groups depending upon their major course of study.

Groups meet regularly during the semester to discuss a wide range of tutor concerns. For example, they may discuss the finer points of APA citation in the social science group, or a tutor from history may present to others how to work with primary as opposed to secondary texts.

A course-specific tutor might share with her group the “IRAC” organization for law assignments, or may give the tutors an overview of an upcoming assignment: “Plummer’s literature course has major essay 3 coming up; this is a revision, and she wants to make sure they really work on connecting textual evidence to the thesis.”

The Biggest Picture

Our course-specific tutoring is most important as a WAC outreach effort. In a recent meeting of “Big Ten” writing center directors, Brad Hughes (Wisconsin) expressed his dissatisfaction with “waiting for faculty to come to us,” and his commitment to trying new programs—like his program’s Writing Fellows—to reach out to faculty in new ways. Offering to partner with faculty to support their students with course-specific tutoring brings a variety of faculty into contact with the writing center and our WAC efforts—many of whom would not seek us out on their own.

Our taking an interest in their courses connects them to other instructors who are also brave enough to use writing to teach, and builds a rare community among faculty. They become the faculty who participate in our course development grant program, who bring their graders to training workshops, and get involved in our annual essay prize competition; they meet us and one another. They become our allies and friends throughout campus.

The Vagaries of Discipline-Specific Tutoring

Our disciplinary reach exceeds our grasp, of course. This semester we received the following reflection from a WTS peer-tutor-in-training. The tutor-in-training (let’s call her the “writer”), a sophomore majoring in journalism, had come to the writing center for a tutorial as one of the first steps required in our training pro-seminar. The session concerned a draft of an article written for a journalism course. After her tutorial session, she wrote:

Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs coat of arms
Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs coat of arms

In terms of going through the transitions and helping me rework them, [my tutor] was extremely helpful. She gave me a lot of good ideas and I was able to fix all the areas where I felt like I was having issues. She helped me think of restricting things so they make more sense chronologically rather than trying to connect them using a transition.
Beyond that, though, there wasn’t much else that she was able to help me on, as she’d never had experience with journalistic writing, so she didn’t know what else to comment on. . . . I didn’t really get a sense of how strong the article was a whole, and I would have liked some more feedback so that I knew what else to improve.”

The prompt for the reflection did not ask anything about disciplinary knowledge or tutor preparedness.

While the writer clearly found the tutorial session helpful and was able to imagine and make meaningful revisions to her piece of writing, she also succinctly identifies a gap between her experience with her tutor and what she might have hoped for from a more specialized one. Even a novice tutor recognizes the usefulness of tutors being more discipline-specific in their approach.

Writing center administrators can address some of these concerns—with modest effort and at little cost—and more closely tie the writing center not just to the teaching mission of the institution but to the aims and aspirations of specific courses, curriculum, and instructors as well. We can connect our practice to theirs, and we become better colleagues to our faculty as a result. And maybe not “cause the death of” any student’s grades in the process.

For readers of this blog:

  1. How does your writing center approach issues of disciplinary knowledge—with either generalist or discipline-specific tutors?
  2. What training materials do you find most useful for helping tutors understand difference in disciplinary convention, genre, etc.?


Image Credits

All images are courtesy of the Trustees of Indiana University and the Indiana University Archives.

Works Cited

Dinitz, Sue and Susanmarie Harrington. “The Role of Disciplinary Expertise in Shaping Writing Tutorials.” The Writing Center Journal 33.2 (Fall-Winter 2013): 73-98.

Keidaisch, Jean and Sue Dinitz, “’Look Back and Say ‘So What’: The Limitations of the Generalist Tutor.” The Writing Center Journal 14.1(Fall 1993): 63-74.

“Avoiding Repetition.” Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/engagement/2/2/66/ Accessed 14 April 2015.

4 Replies to “A Case for Disciplinary Tutoring in the Writing Center”

  1. I LOVE course-specific tutors at IU. They’ve allowed me to really commit to more deeply interdisciplinary assignments that tutors without intimate knowledge of my assignment goals would likely find confusing. It has been great having doctoral English students with undergrad backgrounds in other disciplines tutor my students. The scientific questions my students are asking of literature are so much better focused than they’d be without the C-S tutor. The discussions my students have had with WTS tutors about passive versus active voice have been transformed for the better too. My assignments require science-field-style writing (and verb voice) in lab reports and literary studies-style prose in other assignments. The C-S tutors made these possible. AND my students have had high praise for the tutors. I’m just so in love with this model.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Laura. I know that the tutors also appreciate your assignments–they’re clear but challenging, flexible by fair (and you provide enough context in the assignment sheet itself so that tutors are up to speed quickly–would that all assignments were demystified that way!)

  3. Thank you, Laura, for this thoughtful challenge to the easy assumptions I tend to fall into when I work with undergraduate writers. In particular, I forget that as a tutor and instructor I am meeting these students as they are beginning to see themselves as professionals. I have been guilty more than once of treating students as though they were majoring in Undeclared rather than a real field with defined boundaries.

    Something I have wondered about course-specific tutors is the extent to which students instrumentalize them. To some extent this is visible in the careful and reflective feedback you quote above: “I didn’t really get a sense of how strong the article was a whole, and I would have liked some more feedback so that I knew what else to improve.” In the best possible version of this interaction, should the student have heard from her tutor a quick evaluation of the strength of the draft?

    Have you found that students see tutors mainly as responsible for ensuring that they don’t fail a key paper? Or is the course-specific tutoring the thin end of the wedge that gets students thinking about a wider audience?

    When tutors admit in a conference that they don’t understand an idea or issue, is the student more likely to blame the tutor’s ignorance or to recognize that the idea was not explained sufficiently well?

  4. Hi Laura,

    Thank you for your interesting and insightful blog post, which has helped me to consider more deeply my interest in disciplinary tutoring. I recently finished my last semester of my work as a Writing Fellow at UW–Madison working with an agricultural economics class. While I have had no experience reading or writing papers in the field of economics, I’ve received positive feedback from my students, whose papers I was asked to Fellow due to my emphasis on student voice and my skills in deepening analysis in student papers. I enjoyed learning about the structure of course-specific tutors, and had not yet heard of keeping a file for each course that tutors may consult to better understand disciplinary standards and the professor’s preferences.

    Your discussion about the proseminar course used to train writing center tutors also recalled something I worked on in the writing workshop I taught this spring: extending the skills I’ve developed in my own discipline to those of my students, and helping others define and harness their disciplinary skill sets to become more confident and self-aware writers.

    I appreciate the honest tone of your post; your reflections have helped me think more broadly about how we as tutors might use our disciplinary skill sets to navigate disciplinary boundaries, and in turn, take an interdisciplinary approach to the tutoring of writing.

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