Tutor Session Reports—Narratives We Build Together

Uncategorized / Monday, October 17th, 2016

By Angela J. Zito –

Angela, the author
Angela Zito has worked as a tutor with the UW-Madison Writing Center since 2013 and currently serves as a Co-Coordinator for the Center. She is a PhD candidate in English Literary Studies.

This past summer, I had the good fortune to step from the familiar position of tutoring at the UW-Madison Writing Center into two roles new to me: administration as co-coordinator at the Writing Center, and instruction with Madison Writing Assistance (MWA), our center’s community-based arm. While each of these positions has me thinking about the work of the Writing Center, its tutors, and its writers in many new ways, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about the documentation for all these MWA and writing center tutoring sessions—that is, their records.

MWA session reports are submitted and stored using Google Forms

I know, yes, session records tend to fall pretty low on the list of exciting and impressive things in writing center pedagogy and administration. But, in my work as a tutor with MWA, I’m continually struck by the clarity of function of these reports—they support the program’s funding and development by building a narrative in grant proposals detailing MWA’s effective responses to community writing needs.

Without that documentation of the writing assistance MWA provides, MWA might not maintain the funding necessary to provide that assistance. Session records, for MWA, are consequential narratives with a clear audience and purpose.

When I wasn’t writing for my colleagues, I wrote session records almost as reminders for myself, as in the case of my ongoing appointments with this dissertator.
When I wasn’t writing for my colleagues, I wrote session records almost as reminders for myself, as in the case of my ongoing appointments with this dissertator.

As an instructor in the campus writing center, I didn’t feel this same imperative when writing up my records at the end of a shift, though I knew our records contribute (along with student evaluations, testimonials, workshop attendance, campus outreaches, etc.) to a fat stack of evidence asserting both the need for and high quality of our center. I wrote my records primarily with my colleagues in mind, who might work with the same student I did at a later date and need some background on the student’s concerns and advancements. To keep the record-writing process as quick and smooth as possible, more often than not I used a narrative formula: Student came in with assignment x, concerned about y; we addressed y (and maybe z, too) by talking about a and practicing b.

In the administrative position of co-coordinator, I’m writing fewer of my own records these days and reading more of my colleagues’. The variety of style, structure, points of emphasis and level of detail multiply, for me, the potential functions of these session records. I wonder to what degree session records pose insular narratives of unique encounters between tutor and student? To what degree are they dialogic? Is there crosstalk in individual students’ records, and what might the significance of that crosstalk be? What do these narratives tell us about our students, our tutors, our culture of teaching?

Session Records and Institutional Narratives

In her article “’I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You’: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative” (2013), Rita Malenczyk notes that session records function differently from center to center: they might be primarily informational, in the sense that one tutor provides her colleagues with background information on a student’s challenges and successes, or provides concerned faculty with an account of what their students sought assistance in; they might be educational, as in tutors might turn to their own past session records to reflect on their instructional practices, or tutor educators might incorporate records in their training materials; or, as Malenczyk argues, session records might carry, as well, a community-building function.

Malenczyk sees the potential for this community-building function in the narrative forms of session records and what they suggest about not only the teaching and learning that occurs in sessions but the ways in which writing center workers talk with each other about the work they do in those sessions. I’m attracted to this idea of session records as community-building spaces where tutors convene, in a way, to collaborate in writing instruction, exchange knowing glances, or nod at one another in passing. I’m a little resistant, though, to the heavy institutional weight Malenczyk also sees in session record narratives. She argues that “like teacher end comments, tutor reports are not just exchanges between the tutor and one or more people but are, rather, part of an institutional network of relationships” (77) and “what writing center tutors write in their reports not only reflects their view of their work, but may also represent a larger message that the center, and by extension the university, is delivering to students about their status and ability as writers” (88).

Because session records at our center are written by often exhausted or hurried graduate students, and because they are not regularly or explicitly addressed in ongoing education for our tutors as a site of critical reflection or professional development, I hesitate to agree that the content of our session records are representative of what is actually accomplished in the corresponding meetings between tutor and writer, or of the messaging directed at the writer about their status and ability.

There is something compelling about Malenczyk’s argument, though. As Neil Simpkins notes in a 2013 post, even seemingly innocuous features in administrative documentation (like a space for preferred names as well as legal ones) can have huge rhetorical ramifications. What might a study of our own archive of session records reveal about the kinds of narratives we tell each other about our student writers, and about our work in the writing center?

I don’t mean to suggest that analysis of a single record sufficiently tackles these questions about the significance of session record narratives, but just to get a conversation started, take a look at the record below:


What might we assume or desire this narrative reveals about the work performed in our writing center specifically or in writing center culture broadly? I’m particularly drawn to those exclamation points, “(!!!).” Who are they addressing? What are they saying about the session, the student, the tutor, the center?

Please post a comment sharing your thoughts on session records and the narratives you feel, hope, or even worry they build in your center!

Work Cited

Malenczyk, Rita. “‘I Thought I’d Put That in to Amuse You’: Tutor Reports as Organizational Narrative.” The Writing Center Journal. 33.1 (2013): 74-95.

6 Replies to “Tutor Session Reports—Narratives We Build Together”

  1. Great post, Angela! I love how you’ve called attention to hidden, or underlying, narratives running through our writing center work. Underlying, but—crucially, I think—not “secret.” When I write records, I’m always keeping in mind the reminder I received during my writing center training: that what I’m writing is potentially available for my students to read. Amongst other things, this serves the important function of reminding me to attend to the agency of students. I also find that records are a good way for me to self-assess my own methods as a tutor. If I realize as I write my records that I cannot easily describe the major strategies used in a session or the evidence of student learning, or that I’m using the same strategies again and again, I become motivated to rethink my teaching methods for future sessions.

  2. Thanks, Angela, for drawing much-needed attention to session records! As for the record above, I agree with Erica that a crucial part of the story is what the student did. I want to know what B decided to do with the “talking through” – did she decide what to cut or did she leave still feeling stuck with a well-written-but-too-long statement? I’m a little concerned that this record suggests the tutor is trying not to say that they weren’t quite sure how to respond to an above-average personal statement.

    One thing your post makes me think about is those occasional reports for sessions that definitely didn’t go the way we wanted. Maybe the “I’m not sure that actually helped the student” kind but especially the “Wow, that was a massive failure” kind. For example, when students flat-out don’t agree with advice we know is solid or when we’ve exhausted the two or three ways we know to teach specific writing skills and a writer is still confused and frustrated. Those are some of the hardest to write, and I wonder what the things we write suggest about the rest of our session records. I find those to be important moments of reflection, as your post suggests. I also write more detail in those, perhaps as a way of relinquishing culpability or prepping a future tutor for negative backstory. Maybe the point I’m trying to make is that it’s easier to write records in which the draft provides the problems or conflict, but when the tutor-writer relationship becomes the source of conflict, it’s much harder to write about.

  3. Angela! What a fantastic post! I hadn’t considered record-keeping through the narrative lens here, which I love, but it’s definitely something to consider across the kinds of students we help. For instance, like you, I work with MWA and UW-Madison writers. Within those UW-Madison writers, some might be undergraduates, graduates, special students, and even colleagues. I completely agree with the differences you’re charting out between MWA writers and Writing Center writers. The audience for MWA feels a little more immediate, less imagined, and more material. In addition, because those who visit our community sites are often dealing with high stakes writing and may not have other outlets to seek help, I feel that I should communicate that in my record—I should communicate their reactions to our instruction and the availability of the service, which often lends to the narrative form.

    That’s not to say that communicating the value of our instruction isn’t important for an academic institutional writing center; however, it does feel different. If I were to look closely at my writing center records, I’d be sure to find what reads like a distilled, perhaps even sterile account of that thirty minutes to an hour appointment, much like the formula you draw attention to in your post. For the reasons you chart out here, I’m thinking about my other colleagues who might help this student or my future self who might tap back into records for an ongoing appointment, and because of which, I move rather quickly and logistically. But one thing I do try to hold in my mind is this: Does this record feel representative of the student’s perspective and if they were to look at this record, would they believe it to be an accurate representation of their experience with the writing center? Your post (and the comments above) turns me to the student’s voice as something we must be considering—representing—within our records. What was their experience in the center? How did they communicate struggles and how did they react to our responses? Do they feel successful and capable of making the next revisions or overwhelmed and inundated? What are they feeling?

    Thanks for a great post!!

  4. Thank you for your comments, Erica, Zach, and Stephanie! In thinking about representing student writers in session records (e.g. what they did in the session, how they responded to suggestions), one thing I worry about is how that record might present the writer as kind of a flat character to the next tutor who works with them, who might then assume/expect the student to *be* a certain way because of their behavior/demeanor during a previous session. I think tutors generally are very generous and open to learning a student writer through their own session, but I worry that preconceptions of a student’s character (especially after one of those tough sessions Zach mentions) might inform the kind of relationship a later tutor builds with that student as much as it would help them anticipate what strategies best to use. Perhaps this is always part of the balancing act in collaborative writing instruction!

  5. Angela, I like how your post offers an opportunity to think through how we communicate through Writing Center records–both as their authors and as their readers. The other comments draw attention to some of the power dynamics in the Writing Center that influence my own recording keeping practices. While Erica and Stephanie’s reflections on writing records that students could see definitely resonate with my own concerns that my records accurately reflect my students’ experience at their appointments, I am really interested in a different set of power dynamics that Zach’s comments implicitly address and explicitly perform.

    I also find it difficult to write records for appointments that end with a dissatisfied student and tutor. While a portion of that difficulty is informed by the possibility that the student could read my record’s negotiation between what occurred in the appointment and what perhaps should have occurred, much more of that difficulty (for me) is created by the possibility that my record becomes documentation of my own failure that then becomes publicly available. And I don’t mean to overstate, but my most challenging Writing Center appointments–the ones that result in difficult records–are appointments in which I am constantly second guessing the choices I’ve made throughout the appointment because they don’t seem to be working. In the best case scenario, writing the record becomes an opportunity to reflect on these choices to the improvement (hopefully) of my own tutoring, but even this is accompanied with the possibility that someone will read the record and read into the record something I don’t intend and something that might inaccurately represent the appointment.

    Even here, the record that Angela ends on (which I’ll own as mine and that I gave permission for its use here) reflects one of the best Writing Center appointments I’ve had this semester due to that appointment’s challenges and nevertheless elicits a reading that it was crafted to excuse or hide a weakness or at least an opportunity for growth. In addition to the wonderful possibilities that Writing Center records have for communicating across a community of tutors, students, and administration, I wonder as well about how those records capture the structural pressures that are present even in Writing Centers and in what directions those traces might lead us.

  6. As a student and future educator, this blog widens my perspective and gives me ideas on how to have an effective report. Thank you!

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