Making Six Hours of Tutor Training Feel Like Sixteen

Uncategorized / Monday, September 21st, 2015

By Molly Rentscher, Arizona State University

Molly Rentscher, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows Program alum, is the coordinator of the Writing Center at Arizona State University’s West campus in Glendale, Arizona. In June of 2015, she received an MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul University.

Molly Rentscher
Molly Rentscher

On May 26, 2015, I was a graduate student at DePaul University, anxiously awaiting graduation and frantically applying for jobs. On this particular day, I was also preparing a professional development workshop for DePaul University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) staff when Natalie Smith’s Wcenter listserv post popped into my inbox:

In the past, I was fortunate to have the funds to offer both CRLA training as well as weekly writing specific tutor training—tutors, by the way, are paid to attend training. I know that luxury won’t be possible in the fall. I need some creative ideas for training writing tutors and providing on-going support when the weekly, hour-long meetings the tutors want and need simply aren’t possible.

I found Natalie’s post astonishing, and admittedly, perplexing.

My UCWbL ePortfolio professional development section
My UCWbL ePortfolio professional development section

I had difficulty relating to Natalie’s post because I received training as a Writing Fellow at UW-Madison and as a writing tutor at DePaul University that was robust, challenging, and engaging. At DePaul, for example, not only did I complete my own scholarly research project in a ten-week graduate-level course on writing center theory and pedagogy, but I was also maintaining an ePortfolio where I reflected on the (paid) leadership meetings, coffee and commenting sessions, and inservices I attended throughout the year. These experiences were crucial in teaching me how to collaborate with others to identify and define core practices, values, and beliefs that help create a strong sense of community in any program or workplace. And the training I received at UW-Madison in 2010 really did change my life. In English 316 (now called “English 403”), a semester-long seminar on tutoring writing across the curriculum, I learned how to think critically about writing and teaching, how to conduct research, and how to understand and talk about writing processes. Perhaps most importantly, I also found a supportive, intellectually stimulating community in the Writing Fellows program–something I didn’t even know I was searching for as a fine arts major at the time.

In August, all of the astonishment I first brought to Natalie Smith’s post dissipated when I accepted a position at Arizona State University. As the coordinator of ASU’s West campus Writing Center, I now find myself in the same pickle that Natalie and so many other writing center coordinators/directors describe. Arizona State University (ASU) recently went through another round of budget cuts, and our writing center budget in particular was chopped by 14 percent. This year, one of the areas we are trimming throughout our unit is tutor training; we currently develop and facilitate an annual, all-day staff meeting for tutors in August, and then each coordinator provides six paid, one-hour staff meetings per term. This means that I formally meet with my writing tutors six times throughout the semester for on-going professional development. When I heard this for the first time, I think I actually said, “come again?”

But, it’s in my nature to make lemonade from lemons, and so my question is, how to turn six hours into sixteen?

My Training Has Prepared Me for This

The irony here is that my hopefulness is only partly due to my nature. I received such rich writing tutor training that I feel confident I’ll find creative and productive solutions to this problem (and the many that will surely surface over the years). It will be hard work, but I know I’m up for the challenge.

Being responsible for the tutor training and on-going professional development of seven undergraduate tutors and one graduate tutor is such a privilege. Like so many administrators around the world, I know the transformative potential in good tutor training, whether it’s a seminar course, staff meetings throughout a term, or a combination of these approaches. In his 2006 CCCC paper, Harvey Kail affirms that “a course in peer tutor training and the experience of being a peer writing tutor serves many, many peer tutors not only as a transformational experience in itself but also as a portal through which they are able to situate themselves inside the center of academic life where they are better able to develop their talents as writers, readers, talkers, and listeners.” But given our current limitations at ASU, it’s also a puzzle, and it’s got me thinking: what does on-going professional development really mean? What do I want my staff to be able to do in the writing center and take with them when they leave the writing center? And most importantly, how much training is really necessary to accomplish these goals?

I know a few things. I want tutors to see the connection between their training and day-to-day tutoring practices. I want tutors to be able to apply writing center theory to their work. I want to promote collaboration and reflection. I want to increase awareness of and appreciation for diversity. I want to create a community where tutors motivate and support one another. And I want tutors to be able to talk about the skills, values, and abilities they are developing in the writing center.

The West campus Writing Center team!
The West campus Writing Center team!

Developing New Projects and Initiatives

Arizona State University (ASU) has five physical campuses throughout the Phoenix area. Each ASU physical campus and online has a Writing Center and a Student Success Center. These centers all belong to one unit, University Academic Success Programs (UASP), which is administratively housed within the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. UASP offers a range of free academic resources to support students, including subject area tutoring, writing tutoring, Supplemental Instruction, math labs, and academic mentors. The West campus Writing Center saw about 2400 30-minute tutoring appointments during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Jonathan, one of seven undergraduate peer writing tutors, collaborating with a student writer in the Writing Center.
Jonathan, one of seven undergraduate peer writing tutors, collaborating with a student writer in the Writing Center.

In a recent conversation with one of our associate directors, I learned that for a while she fought for a credit-bearing tutor training course, but has come to believe that it wouldn’t be the best model for our unit given our budget restrictions and that our student employees occupy such diverse tutoring positions (subject area tutors, Supplemental Instructors, academic mentors, and of course, writing tutors). Nonetheless, I think it’s important to develop a research-driven writing center at the West campus.

The good news is that I have quite a bit of autonomy to use the six hours in ways that I believe will best serve the writing tutors at the West campus. The topics of these six staff meetings have already been set for the Fall 2015 semester and include collaborating with international students, working with students with disabilities, and citation styles, among others. I also have the freedom to develop projects and initiatives outside these six hours (as long as they don’t require tutors to work extra hours). As I settle into my new position, I’m trying to brainstorm creative ways to provide professional development during our normal business hours, such as downtime projects for tutors to work on when they’re not meeting with student writers.

Frankie, one of three desk assistants, welcoming others to our center.
Frankie, one of three desk assistants, welcoming others to our center.

Unfortunately, tutors’ “shifts” never overlap in the West campus Writing Center, which makes tutor-to-tutor collaboration difficult. But on average, each tutor has one or two hours of downtime per week, and if possible, I would like to maximize this time. A few ideas I’m considering:

1. Have tutors set goals for themselves at the beginning of each term and allow them to work towards these goals during their downtime.

2. Compile a collection of texts about writing center theory and pedagogy (a good mix of short and long to account for time). Have tutors read a text and write a brief reflection.

3. Create an informal, electronic form that (a) asks tutors to briefly reflect on their tutoring successes and challenges, and (b) allows tutors to ask me questions about the writing center and their tutoring experiences. Have tutors complete this form at the end of each week.

4. Have tutors explore, write, and revise a Tutoring Philosophy.

5. Each student writer completes a paper evaluation after he/she meets with a tutor in the Writing Center. Give these evaluations to tutors throughout the term, and have tutors write formal reflections.

6. Have tutors create and maintain ePortfolios to represent their writing center work. I think this would help build community in our center; even though tutors’ shifts don’t overlap, tutors could read each other’s reflections and get to know one another this way.

For Readers of the Blog:

I think it’s important to brainstorm ideas with colleagues near and far when our budgets are cut, and I hope to continue the conversation that Natalie Smith started in May. I’m excited to hear from you in the comments section! How have you reimagined your tutor training to essentially “do more with less”? Administrators, what creative or innovate professional development opportunities exist in your program? Peer writing tutors, what do you most enjoy about the training you receive?


The view from the Writing Center, one of the best on campus!
The view from the Writing Center, one of the best on campus!
The ASU Writing Center Mission Statement, posted outside our door.
The ASU Writing Center Mission Statement, posted outside our door.
Our sunny Writing Center space.
Our sunny Writing Center space.

7 Replies to “Making Six Hours of Tutor Training Feel Like Sixteen”

  1. What a great post, Molly. It’s so important to talk about the differences between how writing centres are run and funded at different institutions.

    Personally, I’ve been amazed at how the emphasis on collaboration at UW–Madison was an essential part of my graduate school experience there—even though I didn’t realize it at the time! So I’d vote for professional development approaches that build a collaborative community among your tutors.

    I hope you’ll post again after this term so we can hear how things went!

  2. Wow, Molly, your center does have a beautiful space!

    There are many moments when I’ve felt the contrast between the mentoring and training I was able to experience at UW-Madison and what’s possible at other schools, because of a variety of economic and cultural realities.

    I feel fortunate that my department is able to offer a tutor training course each term from which we hire (after an application process) tutors and front desk staff. However, this system isn’t perfect. It means that students who are interested in working in my Center have to take a course and then potentially not get hired. I wrestle with this constantly, but there isn’t a perfect solution. I also would love to start a Writing Fellows program, but other initiatives have to lead, such as creating a WAC presence at my institution through the Center. I feel like this would be a great conference workshop or panel talk.

    I look forward to more conversations with you as you advocate for your center’s growth. I can’t wait to visit you and your center in Arizona!

  3. This is a great post, Molly!

    I also feel fortunate for the training that we received at DePaul, and even though my Center does provide weekly training for all new tutors, I still struggle with how to fit everything in in hour-long sessions. I also struggle with how to make the training relevant to returning tutors who have already gone through the training. I want everyone to get something out of it – but how?

    I look forward to learning more about what you are doing at your center!

  4. Great blog post, Molly! Thank you for sharing your process of getting started in your new position at the ASU West Campus. I think you faced a similar challenge at DePaul when you oversaw the first-year students interning at the UCWbL and you managed to maximize your time with them in very impressive ways!

    One thought I had about increasing cross-tutor communication would be to implement something like Slack–the messaging and office communication app that we started playing with this past summer. I think having a little online community where they can do some rapport building could work out nicely. Plus, I at least find it a refreshing break from email for making announcements and answering questions. I also loved when we did Secret Turkey here and could see that helping to build connections with tutors who don’t always get lots of collaboration time.

    I’ve always been impressed by your creativity and am excited to see what you do next!

  5. What a great blog post, Molly!

    It’s exciting to read about your new position at ASU, the new initiatives you have planned for the Writing Center, and how you are looking to maximize your time with tutors. As a former peer tutor at DePaul’s UCWbL, I always enjoyed professional development in-services. They were a great way to collaborate with fellow tutors, and they also provided me with relevant and practical training that I could use when working with other writers.

    I look forward to hearing more about what you’re doing at ASU in the future!

  6. Hi Molly! Your Writing Center space is so beautiful, and I hope you’re loving it! We really miss you at the UCWbL.

    I loved that you brought up writing a tutoring philosophy during downtime. As a tutor, writing my own philosophy last year really helped me to understand how I fit into the writing center world and how I could apply writing center theory to my tutoring sessions.

    One other thing that made me feel closer to my fellow tutors and more at home in my first writing center at McDaniel was art projects. Our director was always encouraging us to make signs and installments, and I really liked how personalized the office was. We also did some art projects in other parts of campus to try to increase the visibility of our writing center. That might be a way to help your tutors bond even if their shifts don’t overlap!

    Here’s an entry from McDaniel’s blog about one of our projects:

    I can’t wait to read more about what you’re doing, Molly!

  7. Hi, everyone! I know I thanked many of you individually, but I was thinking about it this morning, and I just wanted to say thank you again for your encouraging, insightful, and useful comments on this blog post! I’ve grown a lot in my position, and I’ve tried many of your ideas and suggestions. When developing any training program, it’s important to ask yourself, “What are the most important skills or information the tutors need?” But at the time that I wrote this, I underestimated the value of using carefully crafted need analyses and program evaluations, both formal and informal, to provide information about my tutors’ needs and the local campus. Over the past few years, I’ve strived to develop the collaborative community that Stephanie wrote about, creating opportunities for tutors to collaborate asynchronously through Slack, e-portfolios, and art projects, and synchronously through staff meetings (6 per semester), semester celebrations, and special events such as National Day on Writing. I’ve also tried to find a good balance between theory and practice in my teaching, matching individual, self-paced activities with tutors’ downtime in the writing center and group activities with staff meetings. Like Erin, I’m still struggling with how to make training relevant to tutors who have already gone through the training. For example, if I want my tutors to learn more about collaborating with multilingual writers this fall, that topic will be brand new for some tutors, but other tutors have participated in several staff meetings on that topic. My best approach thus far has been to give tutors options, encouraging them to individualize the training while still meeting standards.

    Thanks again for your support, and I hope you’re all having a wonderful summer!

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