Inquiry Groups as Tutor Education: Writing from Below

Uncategorized / Monday, January 19th, 2015
RLL with JS
Rebecca Lorimer Leonard and her handsome cat, Jon Snow.

By Rebecca Lorimer Leonard

Rebecca Lorimer Leonard is an assistant professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a former UW-Madison Writing Center tutor and Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program. You can read about her work at

In late November, CNN aired Ivory Tower, a feature-length documentary that asks if college is “worth it” given the rising costs of higher education in the U.S. The film, which premiered at Sundance, is an accounting of dated and disruptive trends in college financing, teaching, and managing. As do many books and documentaries that investigate crises in U.S. education, Ivory Tower uses several campus cases—Harvard, Spelman, Bunker Hill Community College, San Jose State, Deep Springs College, and Cooper Union—to fill out something like a higher ed. balance sheet, weighing “spiraling” costs against “entrenched” practices.

I found it hard to watch, but also not to watch. Like good bad TV, crisis documentaries can be salacious with a good storyline. In this case the indecency on display was simply college these days, with a cast of greedy administrators, drunk students, and opportunistic tech consultants. I may be overstating things a bit, as scenes from Cooper Union, Deep Springs, and San Jose State are vivid in their decency, but I was still left with a mix of resignation (welp, there’s another one) and indignation (it’s actually way better than this). As I felt when I reviewed Academically Adrift on this blog (whose co-author is featured in Ivory Tower), these narratives miss what many of us who work in writing centers see all day long: curiosity-driven students puzzling together over ideas that matter.

While much in Ivory Tower rings true—college students do party, large lecture courses are temptingly cheap, student debt is scary, students should write and read more—these crisis truisms often are strung together laterally without deep exploration of the day-to-day experience of what college could be and what it already is for the many, many students who don’t attend the nearly-obsessively studied campuses used as representative cases.

College from Below

Education crisis narratives paint a picture of college from above: generalized, high-level administrative or curricular activity described by university managers, outside researchers, or disruptors from silicon valley. I’d like to suggest that we could also see college from below: the ongoing responsive and reflective practices that students take up in and out of classrooms all the time. The idea of looking “from below” is one that historians use to understand vernacular writing in a given period (for example, Lyons’ The Writing Culture of Ordinary People) and that migration scholars use to study migrants’ everyday activity (from below) versus NGO, military, or economic migrant management (from above) (for example, this work by Alejandro Portes or Michael Smith & Luis Guarnizo). Analysis from below can reveal lived activity that is not only ordinary but also challenging to dominant or more powerful narratives.

Writers at our UMass Amherst Graduate Student Write-In.

So college from below could be the accidental or not-always named learning experiences often missed in a crisis accounting of administrative or curricular activity. Looking at the underside of college will not show that all is well in higher ed. or that problems don’t exist, but instead could offer a more intricate story about what else college students are doing these days. I want to think of college from below both as a point from which to see college activity and a kind of college activity itself. This might muddle things, but I hope you will grant me the blogging luxury of playing a little loose with this idea to see what it gets us.

I think writing centers are one site where college from below happens. To better explain what I mean by this, I’d like to offer descriptions of and then tutor responses to one activity we’ve taken up at the UMass Amherst Writing Center that show reflective, responsive, and often unpredictable college experiences.

Inquiry from Below

Our ongoing tutor education for experienced tutors, those who have completed their yearlong internship, has shifted in the last few years. What used to be several topical workshops each semester is now a connected series of inquiry group meetings. Tutors identify potential inquiry topics in their fall scheduling request, join a group that meets 3-4 times over the course of the semester, identify inquiry questions or problems, engage in reading and research during no-shows or slow shifts, and plan together the projects they create for the Center. The goals of the inquiry groups are, loosely: to develop tutor-defined questions and projects; to connect daily practice to current research and theory; and to equip tutors to shape their own writing center. Similarly to R. Mark Hall’s “Problems of Practice Inquiry” assignment for tutor education, in which Hall and his tutors examine “the rules and reasoning—the habits of mind—that govern what we do” (2), our inquiry groups are meant to offer sustained and tutor-driven re-thinking of our habits.

At the UMass Amherst Writing Center, inquiry is a positive disposition toward difficulties encountered in day-to-day practice, fueled by the curiosity to understand how we might re-approach them. When I made this change in tutor education, I had in mind Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle’s theory of “inquiry as stance” in which inquiry is both affirmative and constructive, aiming to harness the “collective intellectual capacity of practitioners” and align it with “social and political movements that aim for radical transformation of teaching, learning, and schooling” (4). Cochrain-Smith and Lytle’s stance authorizes practitioners to pose their own questions and problems as a valuable mode of educational critique. With Cochrain-Smith and Lytle’s stance, our tutor education follows a praxis model. But even more, inquiry groups pursue affirmative and constructive transformation, locating institutional critique inside everyday tutoring practices, from below.

To make this a bit more concrete, here are three examples of inquiry groups that have taken place at UMass Amherst.

Example 1: Inquiry into Writing Center Outreach

To align our existing outreach work—class presentations, instructor collaboration, workshops—with tutor concerns about disciplinary knowledge and genres, I led an inquiry group on outreach that also explored ideas from writing across the curriculum, writing to learn, and writing in the disciplines. We read about DePaul University’s outreach activities in “Outreach: Expanding Writing Center Third Space“; we read chapters on “Writing to Learn” and “Disciplinary Discourses” from Charles Bazerman’s Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. During inquiry meetings tutors asked, among other questions:

UMass Amherst Writing Center tutors.
Tutors at our 2014 Open House.
  • What are the beliefs about writing and thinking that support outreach practices?
  • How does our outreach program help us “think well” as tutors, both individually and collaboratively?
  • How does an outreach staff become uniquely informed about writing practices on campus?
  • How does outreach work have a washback effect on the Center and on tutoring?
  • How do we understand the tension between generality and particularity in writing practices and where does the writing center fit on a spectrum of general to particular?

Tutors turned their reflections on these questions toward the Center’s practices, creating a series of projects to help outreach activities better support beliefs about writing and thinking. Tutors devised a set of outreach goals, revised language on the Center’s website, created template materials and processes for publicity activities, and made website videos to explain what happens in the Center and how the Center defines “writing”.

Example 2: Inquiry into Information and Digital Literacies

Motivated by ongoing struggles with online tutoring and by a burgeoning relationship with reference librarians, Assistant Director Travis Grandy led an inquiry group on information and digital literacies. The group read Irene Clark’s “Information Literacy and the Writing Center” from Barnett & Blumner’s Longman Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice and “Going Public” from Losh, Alexander, Cannon and Cannon’s Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing. Tutor discussion in inquiry groups was guided by questions such as:

  • What is the landscape of information and digital literacies that students in higher education navigate? What “landmarks” are particularly salient for students at our university?
  • How can writers and tutors support and develop each other’s information and digital literacies?
  • What implications do information and digital literacies have for tutoring practices? What theories and pedagogies can inform our work as tutors?

After visits with the head undergraduate librarian and discussion of the questions above, tutors reflected on the Center’s strategies for online tutoring, developed website resources for the research process and utilizing library resources, and piloted a set of tutor-generated instructional writing videos.

Example 3: Inquiry into Race in the Writing Center

Like much of the U.S. in 2014, UMass Amherst struggled to respond to several incidents of racial harassment and attacks on campus in the fall. The Center’s inquiry into Race in the Writing Center, led by Assistant Director Jenny Krichevsky, was already underway at the time. The group was formed through a desire to discuss ongoing questions around racism in the Center, and was further informed by evolving campus conversations on race. The inquiry group read Andrea Smith’s “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy”; June Jordan’s “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” and Jason Esters’ “On the Edges: Black Maleness, Degrees of Racism, and Community on the Boundaries of the Writing Center” from Greenfield and Rowan’s Writing Centers and the New Racism. Among other questions, tutors were led to ask each other:

Photo credit: Travis Grandy.
Photo and design credit: Travis Grandy
  • Why does the rhetorical silence around race in writing center scholarship persist?
  • What are some tenets we hold up as unquestionable in writing center work, in our own tutoring practice?
  • What are tutors’ and tutees’ experiences of race and racism in our Writing Center?

Much of the group’s time was spent in trust-building conversation and in silent reflection, which allowed the group to articulate the silence and the struggle of talking about race in the first place. It became clear that one semester was not sufficient to fully explore participants’ questions, so the group decided to continue the inquiry for an entire year. Together they aggregated vocabulary and further questions to shape discussions in the spring.

Writing from Below

Tutor education in inquiry groups is based in discussion, with writing as the topic at hand. In inquiry groups, tutors step back to look up at college writing from below: What does this inquiry reveal about how writing works here? Though inquiries purposefully wander far from the writing center, they always come back to writing; writing is what we aim, in the end, to better understand. Rather than re-thinking writing work from above—our policies, what we do or don’t do—inquiry situates tutor education from below to pursue the fleeting or easily missed practices that can transform or make problems.

It is the tutors themselves who explain this best. When I solicited reflections on our inquiry model of tutor education, several tutors pointed especially to inquiry’s flexible, open, responsive, and tutor-driven nature. In their responses you will see how inquiry might be both an activity tutors engage in, from below, and a way to see college activity, standing in the Center looking out and up.

Tutor Driven

Eric, a senior political science major, who has participated in two different outreach inquiry groups, says that inquiry groups “begin with autonomy and ownership” on the part of tutors. He and Danielle, a senior biology major, say such tutor agency demands high levels of participation among “peers already introduced to the Writing Center, people who have a solid foundation in both theory and practice” and who demand of each other thinking about not only “what we do…but also what we could do to better serve the UMass community.” The assistant directors and I have certainly witnessed high levels of participation, often having to suggest scaling back tutor inquiry plans in consideration of time and feasibility. But this enthusiasm comes from authentic engagement in and beyond the Center.

Tutors in conversation at an all staff meeting.
Tutors in conversation at an all staff meeting.

Ricki, a senior double major in linguistics and computer science, says she found herself shaping inquiry group discussions “almost completely driven by my research interests.” Her participation in two inquiry groups, Working with Multilingual Writers and Information and Digital Literacies, have helped her connect her tutoring practices to her personal and academic interests outside the Center. Rather than tutor education that follows what Danielle calls “imparting information rather than provoking a conversation about it,” or what Eric calls a “knowledge-delivery mechanism from the expert to the trainee,” inquiry groups allow tutors to own their burgeoning expertise and do something with it.

Open and Ongoing

Tutors also characterize inquiry groups as fluid in topic and timeline. Danielle understands inquiry groups to “open up a space to critically examine what we do…providing a continuing dialogue” with goals that are “more ambiguous and less finite” than the course-based tutor education that structures the first year. Maddie, a senior English major, understands this openness as the space to “really meditate on our roles as tutors” and the “time for us to step back and think about [tutoring] as a whole rather than as individual sessions.” Aviva, a senior double major in English and Social Thought & Political Economy, agrees with Danielle that inquiry’s open nature allows conversation “to unfold more organically, without any sense of working toward an already existing answer or set of answers.” Aviva believes that an inquiry model actually enables important extensions of classroom-based tutor education since “when our core training is ostensibly complete, it can be easy to lose sight of what matrices of power we are enmeshed in and reproduce in our tutoring practice.”

Ideally, inquiry groups provide what Aviva calls “a space to sustain rigorous analysis of the implications of our pedagogies and to consider how we might reshape our practice.” In fact, Danielle notes that this model is fitting for writing center pedagogy at large: “Inquiry suits the dynamic nature of the way we use language at the UMass Writing Center; there is no final form or style that language is reaching, and the inquiry group model reflects that.”

Flexible and Responsive

Finally, because inquiry groups are tutor-driven and flexible, groups can respond to current or pressing discussions occurring beyond the Center. Several tutors characterize inquiry as revealing connections among tutoring, student lives, and the wider campus community. Eric believes inquiry readings are vital in connecting “the work of the writing center…to the sometimes conceptual notion of institutional role.” Maddie says an inquiry model “builds upon itself,” pushing tutors to “think critically about their institution’s mission, role, and direction” and “about how our space in the writing center interacts with…the library, the university, or Amherst.” The inquiry examples above show how tutor inquiry questions frequently turn outward, grappling with how daily tutoring practice might respond to college practices at large.

Photo and design credit: Travis Grandy
Photo and design credit: Travis Grandy

Aviva agrees, noting that inquiry groups allow tutors to examine the Center’s institutional location, helping them “think about what it would look like to reshape the institutions we (and our tutees) answer to.” Because, as she says, inquiry groups treat “all aspects of our lives (in addition to theory from other disciplines) as potentially valid and relevant material,” tutors can approach topics that might normally be deemed not relevant or appropriate to writing center work. Her thoughtful reflection on this point deserves quoting in full:

“Because we choose which groups to participate in (though by no means enter with identical philosophies about these topics), the inquiry groups often feel like a more appropriate environment for contentious discussions than other training models do. Although it can be difficult to talk about our varying culpability in and vulnerability to unjust systems, I believe the inquiry groups foster good-faith engagement with these complex and painful ideas. …Inquiry groups are in themselves productive modes of destabilizing some of the hegemonic underpinnings of the Writing Center, and the academy more broadly, and building more just foundations and points of entry through which we as individuals approach our practice.”

Above and Below

Inquiry groups are not a panacea for tutor education, or for crisis narratives. The model has its drawbacks: Maddie notes the administrative resources it takes to support tutors pursuing their own projects; Ricki says the open-ended format can allow projects to grow beyond scope and timeline; Aviva observes that inquiry can be limited by group members who may “lack positional knowledge that is crucial to analysis of writing center dynamics.” So I hope I haven’t presented inquiry groups as some sort of solution; I think it is more interesting to see them simply as one student learning activity among others. These are college students (the above are all undergraduates from a wide range of majors), thinking about and doing college in ways neither they nor I could have predicted when I met them. Their inquiry activities cannot be explained away as part of dated education practices, though I imagine Ivory Tower might align them with highly fundable “flipped classrooms” or “team-based learning”, and inquiry activities don’t need disruptive learning models created by industry entrepreneurs, since this kind of inquiry is disruptive all on its own.

While tutors are sometimes exceptions to the college student rule, their inquiry activity shows that contemporary college in the U.S. still can be mighty good for many students. Looking at college, and college writing, from below offers another “point of entry,” as Aviva says, into understanding how college students spend their time, what makes it “worth it” for them. I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to say there is something essential or central to this activity in college, but it is easily missed if one is looking from above rather than below.


Huge thanks to my dedicated and brave assistant directors for their work on inquiry groups this year and their contributions to this post, as well as to the always-amazing UMass Amherst Writing Center tutors for their insights.

11 Replies to “Inquiry Groups as Tutor Education: Writing from Below”

  1. I love this perspective–Writing from below and inquiry from below as ways to highlight the benefits of what you put so aptly, “curiosity-driven students puzzling together over ideas that matter.” I like the focus on “what else colleges are doing,” essentially challenging the crisis rhetoric. The inquiry groups and the way you describe them sound so productive. The question, for me, is how to address the problems that are “from above” and also “from below” (student debt is one!). How can these perspectives speak to each other, or speak the same language?

  2. Thanks so much, Rebecca, for sharing the great work you’re helping orchestrate in your writing center. Very inspiring.

  3. I appreciate how you characterize the inquiry process as “disruptive” because it offers a useful foil to “team-based” pedagogies. Rather than placing students in social roles patterned after a corporate work-environment (what with “project leaders,” “workflows,” and “deliverables”), students start with their own questions and problems, and choose outcomes based on their values.

  4. This is a really great way of shifting our perspective on the perils and opportunities that contemporary higher education presents to students, educators, and administrators alike. Like Kate, I wonder about those problems that emerge “from below” and how this inquiry-based model might be used to address those issues, essentially empowering students to take a more active role in critically encountering the forces that constrain their pursuit of a liberal education. What an awesome way to tap into your staff’s greatest strengths–their natural curiosity and intellectual flexibility, the very qualities that make them such great tutors! Thank you, Rebecca!

  5. Thanks, Rebecca, for this writing. Picking up on Travis’s note on “disruption” here– one of the trickiest things to navigate for me during this semester was the way in which our inquiry group grappled with and eventually threw out the possibility of having a tidy, contained inquiry “product.” We started with big, messy questions around race and racism in the Writing Center, and we ended with them. The project that lies before us this semester is trying pick up the big, unwieldy probing, and try to write and talk through the silence.

  6. Thanks, Rebecca. I really appreciate your writing about the subversive activity that happens in places that too many see as being about the (from above) notion of “student support.” What the inquiry groups do is important because it starts with curiosity about issues that are pressing to the peer tutors. I wonder, though, how we can communicate that all (or at least most) of the work that happens in writing centers is curiosity-driven. Writing centers (my own included) often highlight the ways that “successful” students benefit from writing centers, but I worry that we’re missing out on both being highly funded AND transforming the tenor of public discourse about higher ed. How can writing centers be the sites of more diverse stories “from below”?

  7. Thank you, Rebecca, for you insightful post! I love your point that “looking from below” “[reveals] lived activity that is not only ordinary but also challenging to dominant or more powerful narratives.” I connect it to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” Looking at the university from below moves us past a single story of apathetic students and failing educational/institutional practices to a narrative that includes the diverse individuals that come together within the university to have conversations that matter.

  8. I love your definition of these “from below” learning activities as “the accidental or not-always named learning experiences often missed in a crisis accounting of administrative or curricular activity.” I feel like I now need that in a plaque somewhere in my office. As the Outreach Coordinator at the UW-Madison Writing Center, I’m also fascinated by the outreach-focused inquiry group. Would you mind sharing more information about the projects that the tutors designed?

    One of the greatest challenges in these kind of learning practices is in defining their tangible worth to those outside of the Writing Center space, and I’d like to think that posts like this one teach us all how to make our collaborative, student-led learning more visible.

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Rebecca. I echo the comments above: it’s so important to include these narratives in, and to counter, crisis accounts of higher education, to avoid falling prey to reactionary responses. I also like what Travis and Jenny have said about the disruptive nature of this inquiry and its potential to resist being harnessed for the formation of collaborative-corporate dispositions; the goal, in part, is critical inquiry and not a tidy conclusion or product. Your point that “college from below” can serve “both as a point from which to see college activity and a kind of college activity itself” links so nicely with Aviva’s reflection about inquiry groups offering a space for difficult, critical inquiry and also being “productive modes of destabilizing some of the hegemonic underpinnings of the Writing Center, and the academy more broadly, and building more just foundations and points of entry through which we as individuals approach our practice.” That balance of individual and collective is a crucial part of writing center work, as is offering a way of seeing and a way of doing—a praxis—from below.

  10. I love thinking about ongoing education or professional development as “inquiry groups.” Besides all the arguments for looking at things “from below,” “inquiry groups” just sounds way more fun and exciting than “ongoing education” or “professional development.” I think one hurdle in writing program administration is selling the value of ongoing education, and it seems clear to me that when people are asked to investigate things they are actually curious about, they will feel much more fulfilled and invigorated.

    I’m thinking about an ongoing education group that I’m participating in with Nancy Linh Karls in which she asked us to think about what we do to help dissertators on campus. As a group, we identified three possible outcomes/things we can produce to help dissertators and we literally sat in a room together for an hour and a half and produced those documents! I wasn’t thinking of it as an “inquiry group” at the time, but now I see that part of the reason it felt so good is because we were simply asked to identify a problem and devise some solutions.

    But, if students experience the value of college in spaces like inquiry groups, or if we can see the value “from below,” how can we use that to make arguments about the value of college education? How can we use a “from below” perspective to speak back to crisis narratives?

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