By Matthew Fledderjohann –
Whether I’m responding to a piece of writing as a composition teacher or as a writing center tutor, my comments look similar. I plug in Microsoft Word’s two-toned comment bubbles and write things like, “Hmm . . . I’m not sure how this sentence connects to the purpose of the paragraph. Could you make that connection clearer, cut this sentence, or fit it into the next paragraph?” I use different colors to highlight lower-level error patterns. I compose a summative note about my overall impressions of the piece and recommendations for revision. I email the commented-on document back to the writer.
My responses look similar and do similar pedagogical work, but they aren’t identical. When I compose that summative note as a tutor, I work within a more rigid feedback structure; I identify one strength and two areas to work on. When I’m the writer’s teacher, I’m looser with that template, but as a teacher, I find myself referencing the assignment’s prompt more knowledgeably. It makes sense that my role as a composition teacher and my responsibilities as a writing center tutor should affect my written feedback differently. After all, tutoring and teaching are two different educative processes that come along with different sets of expectations. Tutoring and teaching exist within separate (if similar) contexts. Given all this, I’m interested in exploring how these variations in context, expectations, and responsibilities influence written feedback practices. And I want to consider how reflecting on the differences apparent in our written comments across instructional roles productively inform our pedagogy as both teachers and tutors.
Good Feedback is Good Feedback
The fact that my responses as a tutor mirror my responses as a teacher is unsurprising. Both situations have me engaging as a curious reader with a writer’s text. Nancy Sommers, in her canonical article “Responding to Student Writing,” asserts that as composition teachers “we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader, to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves” (148). Whether as tutors or teachers, we show up as generous, responsive readers.
As a result, the reading and responding practices we employ as tutors and teachers share a common set of priorities. These commonalities become particularly apparent when we consider how the advice for good written feedback is the same for tutors and teachers. In her (highly recommended) book The Online Writing Conference, Beth Hewett forgoes distinctions and says that she is writing for “teachers/tutors” (3). What she has to say about responding to writing through online mediums (i.e. email, screencasts, and synchronous technology) is equally applicable to people in both instructional roles. Similarly, the great advice that Washington University in St. Louis provides its teachers on how to productively comment on student papers could just as easily be recommendations for tutors preparing to write comments on a tutee’s text.
And yet, as Dave Healy assured the writing center community back in 1993, the writing center and the classroom are different (if complementary) spaces. Despite the similarities, writing center tutors and composition teachers are subject to different responsibilities, contexts, and expectations. Which reaffirms the question, “How does our feedback change across these different spaces?”
To pursue this question, I asked several of my writing center colleagues to fill out a little questionnaire. I asked them how long they’ve taught composition, how long they’ve been responding to writing as a tutor, and what they see as similarities and differences in their written feedback across instructional roles. The six folks who responded were Maggie Hamper, Zach Marshall, and Aaron Vieth (from the writing center at UW-Madison) and Jen Finstrom, Hannah Lee, and Mark Lazio (from DePaul University’s University Center for Writing-based Learning [UCWbL]). Collectively these six tutors/teachers have accrued 23 years of composition teaching experience and 31 years of responding to writers’ papers through writing as tutors.
The similarities these educators found between the comments they write as tutors and as teachers are plentiful. Whether they are functioning in either role, they use their written comments to prioritize the writer’s growth and not just the writing’s development. They identify specific strengths within the texts. They use their comments to draw attention to genre conventions and rhetorical awareness. They ask questions as a way of fostering dialogue. Stephen North and Peter Elbow would be proud.
But all of the survey respondents also acknowledged that their feedback is not identical between their two educational roles. Context changes things. In particular, respondents report that their feedback as composition teachers is altered by their closer relationship to the writing assignment and by their ongoing interactions with the writer.
“Owning” the Prompt
When it comes to the prompt, the tutor is an outsider whereas the teacher is the ultimate insider. As Jen writes, “I know what I’m looking for with my own assignment.” The teacher has concocted the prompt and wields the responsibility of evaluation. This ownership and responsibility gives the teacher an authority over the drafted text that a tutor simply does not have.
For several of the survey respondents this altered relationship to the prompt opens up the possibility for more directive comments. Mark says that he is “more likely to say something more directive of what should be done with the paper when I’m teacher commenting.” Jen writes, “I think that I’m a bit more directive at times in student drafts (though not always).” Conversely, Zach takes a different approach on this topic of directness, reflecting that whether he’s a tutor or a teacher, “I always try to be direct with the way I phrase my advice: not ‘you might consider x’ but ‘you should do x because . . .’—I’ve found that being directive doesn’t do the work for students (as some people fear) because there are still many steps between my advice and a better draft.”
For several of the survey respondents this altered relationship to the prompt opens up the possibility for more directive comments. Mark says that he is “more likely to say something more directive of what should be done with the paper when I’m teacher commenting.” Jen offers the same sentiment, writing, “I think that I’m a bit more directive at times in student drafts (though not always).” However, this trend isn’t true for all the respondents. Zach takes a different approach on the issue directness in general. He reflects that whether he’s a tutor or a teacher, “I always try to be direct with the way I phrase my advice: not ‘you might consider x’ but ‘you should do x because . . .’—I’ve found that being directive doesn’t do the work for students (as some people fear) because there are still many steps between my advice and a better draft.”
Zach’s embrace of direct comments across pedagogical roles resonates with what Beth Hewett has to say on the issue. She has a whole section in The Online Writing Conference about using direct over indirect language in our written comments (116-129). However, Mark’s and Jen’s sentiment still ring true to my own experience. As a teacher, I’m more willing to gravitate towards directive feedback. As a tutor, I balk at imperatives and default to questions and suggestions.
Perhaps our willingness to be directive in our feedback is a function of our increased knowledge of the writing’s content and context. Of course, this increased knowledge connects back to our relationship to the prompt. Aaron reflects:
When I am responding to writing as a teacher, almost all of the time I do know what the student is saying when their prose is unclear, but I will still address vague or unclear phrases. Usually this feedback is phrased like: I understand that you are trying to say x (which is a great point), but this is not clear the way it is worded. Here is how someone could read this to mean y. I suggest fixing z or choosing a different word for z or whatever.
When I address clarity as a tutor, I usually do not know what the writer intends to say. My feedback in this case will point out the unclear language and might offer a few possible readings if I can clearly imagine them. Frequently, though, I am unable to imagine possibilities in these cases and have to rely more on pointing out exactly what language is unclear. In these cases, I think my feedback is more limited because it is hard to offer suggestions when I can’t tell what the student wants their essay (or whatever) to do.
As teachers, we know what the evaluative reader thinks the writing should be doing since we are that reader. This clarity encourages some of us to more directly assert what is and isn’t working in this text. But the assignment isn’t the only thing we tend to know better when we’re the teacher; we also know the writer. And this relationship can influence our feedback as well.
Knowing the Writer
According to Mark, when the writer is his student, he’s more blunt; “not rude or short,” he clarifies, “but just me and to the point. The student already knows me and we have a bit of a relationship started by the first round of commenting . . . As a tutor I am more aware of the peer role, and I don’t have any idea how this person will react, so I’d say I’m more cautious with phrasing.” Mark mentions that knowing the writer also means knowing the writer’s previous work. Whereas in one-off appointments at the writing center there is no shared history from which to draw, in classroom commenting, there is.
Interestingly, while the relational connection between teacher and student might be more enduring than that between a tutor and a tutee, this does not necessarily translate into more writer-centered comments. Maggie recognizes that when she comments as a writing center tutor, she pays more attention to the writer’s concerns. Conversely, “I don’t often ask my students—what are you concerned about with this draft? (Though I probably should!)” Perhaps this connects back to a teacher’s knowledge of the assignment. When we’re the ones who generate the prompt and (as Hannah identifies) hold the evaluative authority of grading, it’s perhaps easier to place a premium on our recommendations over any concerns the writer might have. Perhaps our knowledge of the writer does not supplant our knowledge of the prompt.
In my own practice, knowing the writer means I feel the freedom to be a little more informal. I don’t have to spend an opening paragraph situating myself in relationship to the writer and the text. The writer knows who I am and (I hope) trusts my capacity to provide productive feedback. Additionally, knowing the writer means I know that our interactions will extend beyond this particular draft. I will see the writer in class that next week, so I can ask, “Does that make sense?” as a tag at the end of a comment and genuinely mean it. There is an expectation for an answer–whether a direct answer through a follow-up email or after class conversation or an indirect answer through a subsequent revision–that doesn’t exist in the writing center context. Knowing the writer means being additionally accountable to that individual’s writing development as instrumentalized through that piece of writing.
Of course, while we’ve been considering the differences, we shouldn’t lose sight of the many similarities. As Zach reflects, “my writing center tutoring has so deeply informed what I do in writing classes because I’ve had so much more success with methods I learned as a tutor.” The best practices for providing written feedback suggest that we can and should be bringing our tutorial sensibilities into our composition courses. Although, how can the skill transfer be productively turned the other way? Should who we are as teacher commenters inform our practice as tutors? Beth Hewett would perhaps suggest that we bring that directiveness some of us feel more comfortable with as teachers into our writing center repertoires. As you reflect with me on these issues, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on any of these issues or in response to these questions:
- How are your written commenting practices different when you’re a tutor and when you’re the writer’s teacher?
- How might our “best practices” for composing feedback shift in response to the changing contexts of composition teacher and writing tutor?
Writing in response to writing is such an integral way that composition is taught. Whether these commenting processes take place within the writing center or in the classroom, I believe we should continue considering how these shifting contexts and roles might alter or affirm our pedagogical practices.
Healy, Dave. “A defense of dualism: The writing center and the classroom.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 14, no. 1, 1993, pp. 16-29.
Hewett, Beth. The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors. Macmillan Higher Education, 2015.
Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to student writing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 33, no. 2, 1982, pp. 148-156.