Special People, Inquire Within: Recruiting Season in the Writing Center

From the Director, Peer Tutoring, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, March 27th, 2017

By Matthew Capdevielle –

Matthew Capdevielle is the Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Notre Dame. He worked in the Writing Center at UW-Madison while pursuing his doctorate in English Composition and Rhetoric. The author, feeling special at “Special Person Night” at his daughter’s school (Photo by Ms. Morgan, Rosie’s teacher)

Standing in front of the tutor photo board in the Writing Center, I marvel at the collage of faces, the collection of extraordinary—truly special—people we have working in the Writing Center at Notre Dame. Each and every one of these tutors has surprised me in the most wonderful ways with their insights, their humor, their true brilliance. And with each of these magnificent individuals, our relationship started with our very first conversation in an interview, a conversation that left me wanting to hear more.

Springtime is recruiting season in the Writing Center at the University of Notre Dame. This is the time when we begin to face the fact that several of these beloved veteran tutors will be graduating soon and heading on to other adventures. It’s a sad time, to be sure. There’s no getting around it—about a third

The ND Writing Center Tutors (including honorary WC Tutor St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers)

of our staff will say goodbye to us within a few weeks. And of course, they are wholly and entirely irreplaceable. And yet, as a director, I have to consider our resources, our scheduling demands for the next academic year.  So even as I stand looking at the photos of their faces, the thought creeps in, We’re going to have to hire at least 12 new tutors. Probably eight sophomores, two juniors, and one or two seniors.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in this endeavor. I have these very same tutors to collaborate with in the recruiting, interviewing, and hiring process, for in our Writing Center at Notre Dame this process is our largest-scale collaborative project. And in many ways, this is the most exciting work that we undertake together. The recruiting process presents us all with a unique occasion to reflect deeply upon our mission, on who we are, and who we want to be. Involving the current tutors in this process is not only an effective way of sifting through the hefty stack of applications or simply an efficient system of divvying up the workload of recruiting.  In my view, tutor involvement in the process is an essential component of our identity formation as a center. There is no better way of centering the Writing Center than to decide together who will join us next year. At our writing center, current tutors are deeply involved at every step in the process.

Our Recruiting Process

Our recruiting process begins with an emailed call for nominations, sent to faculty early in the spring semester. Here is our first opportunity to shape the pool of applicants. We put the call out with some fairly specific criteria. We are, of course, looking for strong writers, but beyond that, we’re looking for those among the strongest writers at the University who are excellent listeners, who are careful thinkers, who show potential to become good teachers. We receive upwards of 90 nominations in response to that call, some bearing full-scale letters of recommendation, others simply offering a line or two describing the nominee’s fitness for the position. They come from across the University at every undergraduate and graduate level (we hire both in our writing center). We also accept nominations from current tutors, many of whom discover prospective tutors during their sessions with writers. No one is better positioned to identify a promising candidate for the position than one of our own tutors.

Standard issue tutor jackets, so the crew can meet the elements with style.

Next, we invite all of our nominees to attend one of our Prospective Tutor Information Sessions in the Writing Center. These are 30-minute info sessions conducted primarily by current tutors, during which I congratulate the nominees on their nomination, and the tutors share with them the ins-and-outs of the work of the Writing Center. We tell them what we love about this job, but we don’t sugar-coat how difficult it is (what we love about it and how hard it is to do well being two sides of the same coin). We invite them to join us in this incredibly challenging and fulfilling project. Then, we sit back and wait for the applications to roll in, and roll in they do, the first often arriving sometime within an hour of the first info session.

Application review is also a shared project. We upload all application materials—cover letters, writing samples, and resumes—to a shared drive, and then tutors are assigned batches of applications to read, rank, and review in a shared spreadsheet. Each application is reviewed by multiple tutors, and each reviewer offers comments about the strengths of the applicants. By the end of the application review process, we’ve amassed a trove of detailed notes about each applicant and selected a group of candidates to interview.

We usually end up interviewing slightly more than twice as many candidates as we have positions available. We conduct all interviews during regular hours at the back of the Writing Center, where we have a cozy spot with four squashy armchairs and a coffee table. I and two current tutors meet each candidate. We chat with them, hear about their writing processes, pose scenarios, and answer their questions. After each interview, the tutor team ducks into my office next to the Writing Center to compare notes in a ten-minute conversation about the candidate. This three-way discussion reveals a good deal about what it is that we are seeking in a tutor as we genuinely work to discover and appreciate what is special—unique and irreplaceable—about each candidate.

The Final Round-Up

The Writing Center is on the second floor of Coleman Morse Center at Notre Dame. The author’s office is safely nestled behind those battlements in the center of the photo.

The most important piece of the process is the final round-up, when we meet together as a staff (sometimes over pizza in the Writing Center, sometimes over pancakes at my house) to sift through all of the application materials and the interview notes and to make final arguments for shortening the short-list to a staff invitation list. This is where the real magic happens, because here is where we give full voice to our commitments and articulate our values as a group, collaborating to bring into focus a communal vision of what the Writing Center is and should be. There are disagreements. There are competing priorities. What about her writing sample? Did you hear her answer to the second tutoring scenario? How might he contribute to the diversity of the staff? What do we mean by “diversity” anyway? The conversations are honest and sometimes difficult. We become attached to the candidates on our respective short-lists and we uncover assumptions about what we value in the candidates—and ultimately about what we value in ourselves and in one another.

In the end, this process does more than simply yield 12 new photos for the tutor photo board. This shared project gives us a chance to inquire within ourselves about what motivates us at the deepest level to do this work. Making the recruiting process a fully collaborative endeavor is not just about fostering good citizenship in the Writing Center or streamlining a complex administrative task. It is a transformative experience, helping us to see anew just how special this work is.



13 Replies to “Special People, Inquire Within: Recruiting Season in the Writing Center”

  1. Thank you so much for this post, Matthew. It is a wonderful testimony to the spirit of collaboration and community that you have been able to foster at the UND Writing Center. I found particularly striking your point about how recruitment and hiring is caught up in larger issues of mission and identity. Like you, we are in the midst of interviewing right now for the new cohort of tutors at our Center. It’s something that of course we do every year at this time, and it can be tempting to take the process for granted. Your piece has got me thinking, though, about the larger implications of what we do when we gather and read applications, conduct interviews, and ponder selections. It’s about so many things – the personalities and unique talents of the applicants; finding the right mix of sophomores, juniors, and seniors; ensuring diversity and wide representation of the student body – but, as you point out so well, it’s also and perhaps most fundamentally about who we are as a Center, what we care about, what we think is important, how we understand our mission. I will be taking that renewed understanding with me through the rest of our process this year. Many thanks!

  2. Matthew, thanks for this fine post and for the invitation to think about it and comment on it. What I appreciate most about this post concerns how intentional your recruitment process is and how valuable it is to your tutors’ own professional development. I enjoyed reading about how the process is a defined process with clearly marked stages, at which there are goals and also time for reflection and discussion. Besides your magnetic, inspiring character, I imagine what makes the process so meaningful is that you can consider, at well-defined intentional moments, your center’s intentions and the intentional nature of your recruitment process (definitely no fools rush in there…). You and I know, as do many of those people with whom we’ve worked, how important it is to be inclusive with this work for the tutors’ own professional development. The lessons learned by your tutors (ranking, sorting, liking, collaborating, disagreeing, selecting, etc.) are applicable in many important ways to their future work, in any field. At my university, recruitment and application time for our honors program is fast approaching: although we traditionally involve our honors students in the process, now I am inspired to make that process a more intentional part of current students’ development as good university citizens.

    Dr. Christopher Syrnyk
    Director of the Oregon Tech Honors Program
    and Asst. Professor of Rhetoric and Composition

  3. Good and timely stuff, Matthew! We’re starting our hiring process now, too, and your post makes me intrigued by the idea of getting input from a wide array of staff on the applications. We use a small committee, made up of equal numbers of professional/admin staff and student managers, but I’m sure there’s some awesome insights we’re missing by limiting who reads apps. Something for us to think about!

  4. We are also just starting our recruitment for the fall, and I love reading about the ways you incorporate your tutors into each stage of the process. We have tutors visit the training course to talk about their experiences (happening this evening, actually) and current tutors help lead interviews, but I’m intrigued by the final round-up with the whole staff. Now I’m wondering if that’s something we can swing with this round of applicants . . .

    Thank you for this timely post, Matthew!

  5. I’ll join the chorus and say that we’re also in the midst of hiring season at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center. Our consultants are involved in the screening and interviewing processes, but in the past, we haven’t had the entire staff give input on the final decisions. Food for thought!

    I do enjoy the whole process, despite how time-consuming it is. I find it fascinating to see what people do and don’t reveal about themselves, and I like learning what other folks on staff value most (and what their pet peeves are).

  6. Ditto everyone, Matthew: we’re also in the middle of hiring, so thanks for the timely, thought-provoking post. Just one (of many possible) questions for you:

    You mentioned that sometimes conversations during the final round-up are difficult. How so, and for whom? Is it possible to avoid such difficult conversations, or are they actually central to the transformative nature of this process?

    Dave Stock
    Coordinator, BYU Writing Center

  7. Very timely post, as I am embarking on hiring and have to hire from the general university pool (and not just out of the tutor training course) for the first time. I really appreciate having a new perspective on how I might recruit tutors. I almost proposed an IWCA panel on hiring . . . I bet this would be a hot topic!

  8. Matthew, thank you for this wonderful post! As Kevin noted above, we are in the midst of our hiring process and it’s really exciting to get a “look” at what the process is like at ND. I love how involved your tutors are – at this point I’m not sure if we could bring our tutors into the process this much, but I’m also now thinking about why it is that I think that. I agree with Cydney that this would be a great topic for a conference panel or discussion. Have any of your tutors considered presenting something related to this at NCPTW? I’d love to hear from them, too!

    Taryn Okuma
    Director, WC Undergraduate Tutor Program
    The Catholic University of America

  9. I’m so glad to have public much of the wisdom you were generous enough to share with me privately last fall as Marquette’s writing center shifted (for the first time) to a competitive application process. I was very nervous about it–but for us, it actually increased the level of interest and yielded a terrific cohort of new tutors.

    I too would echo the value of having multiple staff members in on interviews. We cap it at four on the interviewing team (me and 2-3 others)–but we also explain to every candidate that the reason there are so many is becausewe see this as a professional development opportunity: being the interviewER helps us become stronger interviewEEs further down the road, after graduation.

    And I love the idea of having a full group deliberation over pizza or pancakes. Maybe we’ll give that a try next year.

  10. Good timing, Matthew! We are also in the midst of hiring season. We hire for 3 different positions, so the process is quite time-consuming. But it’s also really important, so we put a lot of effort into it!

    This year, we offered 3 information sessions before the application deadline. About 20+ people came to each session. We provided details about each position, talked about our values and our ethos, and even provided guidance on how to answer tough interview questions.

    We then asked applicants to make an appointment to have their application materials reviewed before submitting them. Although I’m not typically in favor of required visits, in this case, the requirement proved useful. Candidates were able to experience the online scheduling system, visit the space, see with their own eyes what administrators do, get a feel for what actually happens during a consultation, and determine if they could see themselves working here. Not surprisingly, we also found that their applications materials improved tremendously!

    After candidates have submitted their materials, we invite the entire staff to provide feedback via a Qualtrics survey. These “recommendation letters” prove quite useful to the selection committee, and they allow everyone on our staff (even the freshmen! even the introverts!) to feel like their voice has been heard.

    Another administrator and I interview all the selected candidates. We limit it to two people because even I feel intimated when walking into a conference room where a group of people are waiting for me! We have a mixed staff where undergraduate and graduate students all tutor each other, so we especially look for maturity and intellectualism in candidates. I’d love to hear what other interviewers look for!

    Dr. Christa Tiernan
    Director, Writing and Media Center
    Lecturer, Department of English
    Iowa State University

  11. Thanks for sharing the inner workings of the hiring process, Matthew. As one who has the privilege of occasionally working with these tutors, I can attest to how smart, how devoted, how creative, and how special they are in so many ways! The process really does work.

  12. Having been on both sides of this process at Notre Dame – hired as a grad tutor, and then as a tutor helping to interview other potential grad tutors – I admit to some bias. But I found this system to be very effective in the center at Notre Dame. It’s very different from how we hire at Purdue, where we really struggle to recruit undergraduate tutors, probably because of the many, many institutional pressures faced by them (the requirements for engineering students are so intense that many students take 18 or more credit hours every semester). I’m the Business Writing Coordinator, and we’ve only managed to recruit one student to be a business writing consultant next semester. At both Purdue and Notre Dame, though, the input of the tutors in the hiring process is really vital, and I can’t imagine hiring without that input from the people on the ground.

  13. This is a great post, and it’s one that is not only useful to those of you hiring writing center tutors but to those of us who are already writing center tutors. Each semester, I read dozens of application letters for every kind of post-graduation job that students from every field bring to UW-Madison’s Writing Center. One thing that is missing from many of them is a sense of who the writer is. In striving for professionalism, they often hide their lights under bushels, as it were. I tell them that employers are looking for more than a set of skills; they’re hiring a real person. “Your skills are important,” I tell them, “but the real asset is you.” When they begin telling me their stories and we begin thinking about how we can weave that into their education and skills summaries, we invariably end our session with the road map for a more interesting and more readable letter. Who we are is the best thing we’ve got.

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