By Stacie Klinowski, University of Massachusetts Amherst
“I think about that reading all the time when I’m tutoring. Literally all the time,” one undergraduate tutor told me as we discussed one of her sessions that I had observed. The reading in question, “Peer Tutoring: A Contradiction in Terms?” by John Trimbur, was something that this tutor had read two years previously when taking a class to prepare to work in our writing center.
Tutor training has long-lasting effects on undergraduate tutors’ practices, often beyond what we can see in the scope of the classroom, or in a single tutoring session. This is why it is necessary to think critically about the values we build into these training courses, since the students who take these classes form the community of practice that makes up the writing center.
Training Tutors in 2021
At my institution, UMass Amherst, the Writing Center has a full time director and two graduate assistant directors, who are on staggered two-year contracts. The new assistant director is heavily involved in new tutor training during their first year of the job. At our writing center, undergraduate tutors intern for a year for course credit before becoming paid tutors. Tutor interns take a 300-level class in the fall that is co-taught by the director and the new assistant director, and a 200-level practicum course taught by the assistant director alone in the spring.
When I was preparing to teach these courses for the 2021-2022 academic year, I couldn’t separate tutor training objectives from the fraught atmosphere present during this time. Fall 2021 would be the first in-person semester since our campus closed in March 2020, and while students and teachers alike continued to feel a deep anxiety and ambivalence about resuming in-person activities during the ongoing pandemic, we also felt a deep yearning to be in community with others. Additionally, knowing that our writing center has an ongoing commitment to social justice, including “valu[ing] the differences in writing and language that writers bring with them from different regions, nations, and areas, and the dialects and languages used in these spaces,” I questioned how we could effectively take up this mission in the classroom in the aftermath of rising anti-Black and anti-Asian violence in 2020 (“About Us”). Furthermore, early in the fall of 2021, as our tutor-training sequence began, our campus experienced several incidents of racist threats and sexual violence that were impossible to ignore or put aside in the classroom (Carrasco; Gardner, Pietrewicz, and Premus).
In trying to navigate training tutors during times of crisis, I was grateful not to be doing it alone: to have the mentorship of Anna Rita Napoleone, the director, as well as the materials and guidance of previous assistant directors who had already cultivated many resources on working toward anti-racism and reflecting on how identity influences writing.
Designing a Tutor Training Practicum
Working as a white woman at a predominantly white institution, I understand that antiracism is not something that a writing center can just arrive at. It is something we’re constantly working on and towards, and one crucial arena of that is tutor training. In designing the spring practicum course, I was fortunate to build off the groundwork of the fall course, which asked tutors to critically reflect on their identities and writing histories. I was also motivated by Rachel Robinson, Shelby LeClair, and Floyd Pouncil’s powerful call to “stop onboarding people to orientations that do harm—we must begin to reduce the need for restorative justice as an after-thought and, instead, consider the history of writing center tutorial training and courses as unjust and reorient ourselves to centering marginalized voices and bodies as the explicit way of introducing newcomers to the field of writing centers.”
While I can’t say that the curriculum I developed, building on and modifying years of previous assistant directors’ work, fully escapes the traditional course structure that Robinson, LeClair, and Pouncil point to of beginning with Steve North’s “better writers, not better writing” (438) ideal and ending by discussing how to tutor “Types of Students,” I sought to foreground antiracism and linguistic justice in the course by drawing on recent writing center scholarship, such as Alexandria Lockett’s “Why I Call It the Academic Ghetto.” In working these themes into each part class, I hoped to dispel some of the assumptions that Dan Melzer found in his study of white talk in his tutor training classes – e.g., that students can move neutrally between discourses, that academic discourse is “more sophisticated, articulate, and intellectual” than other discourses and unchanging at that, and that race is separate from language performance.
In designing lesson plans for each week, I wanted to explore how identity difference comes up in several levels of writing center work: between tutor and tutee within a session; between tutors in the writing center; with the writing center as an institution within a predominantly white university; and in the field of writing center studies more broadly. Each week, the tutor interns wrote and shared a short journal reflection about a session they had, and we began every class meeting with a discussion of standout moments from these entries in the hopes that we could learn from one another. In addition to reflecting individually on our experiences of our intersectional identities in activities given to the Writing Center by a trainer for the Stonewall Center, UMass LGBT+ organization, who visited one of our staff meetings, I also encouraged interns to reflect not just on the dynamics of our center, but also to listen to what other writing centers tutors had to say about how these factors come to the surface in their work. For this, I cannot recommend videos like the UConn Writing Center’s “Conversations from the Margins” or Ohio University’s series “Becoming an Ally” highly enough. Having tutors see sessions where translanguaging occurs, for example, such as in the “Allyship Without Appropriation” video of the Ohio University series, and listen to tutors of color talk about their experience of raciolinguistic oppression sparked invaluable conversations.
In class, tutor interns shared stories that dug deeply into how they felt their identities manifested in tutoring session: when one cis white woman intern shared how male tutees repeated questioned whether she was qualified to tutor them, one of the women of color in our class shared how she experienced this frequently from white men in sessions. We brainstormed how to work through these fraught moments individually and as a center. Discussions of how to promote linguistic justice or practice critical language awareness in our tutoring were frequent. As Faith Thompson noted in her study of tutors committed to linguistic justice as antiracist practice, tutors focused on practices such as validating students’ uses of language, regardless of if they do or do not match professor expectations, which includes having discussions about language ideology or white mainstream English (Baker-Bell); actively encouraging and supporting students’ voices in their writing, including code meshing; and “disrupting power dynamics” by working together as peers instead of occupying the role of the language-correcting expert.
Listening to Tutors and Facilitating Reflection
Of course, we can never really be certain if a class is going as well as we think it is. Hoping to get a sense of how tutors remembered and interpreted the focus on identity difference and social justice in the Writing Center after they finished their training year, I surveyed current tutors about what stood out to them from the tutor training courses they had taken.1 This survey sought to understand how tutors understood and practiced the Writing Center’s mission in their sessions.
Survey questions included but were not limited to:
- How comfortable do you feel talking about differences of experience and identity in your Writing Center sessions?
- What reading(s) from one of these classes do you remember as being most influential for your understanding of collaborating across differences of identity and writing history? How was this reading(s) influential for you?
- What assignments or classroom activities from one of these classes do you remember as being most influential for your understanding of collaborating across differences of identity and writing history? How were these assignments or activities influential for you?
While the response rate to this survey was lower than I anticipated, perhaps because it was initially circulated as winter break was coming to a close, I was struck by patterns I found even amongst the handful of responses I received. For the purpose of this blog post, I cannot highlight every compelling comment or trend that I found. Instead, I want to focus on how tutors identified critical self-reflection in these courses as an ongoing site of learning about how to work with writers with different embodied identities and histories with writing.
Assignments like the tutoring philosophy, a mainstay of tutor education programs, unsurprisingly featured in every response to the survey as being central to tutors’ development as an opportunity for personal reflection. One tutor wrote, “By looking at how I was brought up as a writer and how it lead to me entering the Writing Center as a tutor allowed me to consult the areas I excel and the ones where I need work. By identifying myself, it allows for an anchor to root me as I see what other identities pass me by during sessions…” I am struck by the beautiful and perplexing reflection included in this comment. What does it mean to be anchored in one identity while others pass this tutor by? Do their identities pass them by? Do the tutees’? Others’ identities in the Writing Center? This response identifies the multiplicity of our identities and how different ones are activated in writing center spaces, perhaps because of our own personal histories or the center’s placement within a PWI. But, beyond the richness of this metaphor and all of its possible interpretations, I appreciate how it points out the utility of self-reflection for engaging with these different identities. This process is rooted in understanding oneself in relation to others and to institutions.
Typically, in our training sequence, the fall course ends with tutors writing their philosophies. When designing the spring practicum course, I added a new assignment that asked tutors to revisit the commitments they had identified and explicitly reflect on how it came up in sessions: a self-observation, which I share here. Several tutors who responded to the survey noted this assignment as being a turning-point in their understanding of how their tutoring practices reflected their relationship to writing and to other writers.
Self-Observation assignment sheet, created by Stacie Klinowski, for spring 2022
Video or audio recording sessions is a long-standing practice in writing centers (Carino; Funt and Esposito; Hall). As Alex Funt and Sarah Espositio note, recording and rewatching tutorials allows tutors “to get an objective perspective on their sessions, develop self-awareness, find reassurance in their successes, track their growth over time, and notice and improve upon communication dynamics.” Self-awareness was something that tutors noted as an outcome when they critically reflected on their recording. As one tutor wrote, “[these assignments] put me out of my comfort zone (especially the recording) but they left me with invaluable knowledge regarding my tutoring philosophy, practice, and goals and demonstrated how necessary and impactful real reflection is.” Another tutor mentioned that watching the recording back “allowed me to explore the differences between my tutoring philosophy and my actual tutoring practice.” In other words, watching back a recording was not just a self observation but an opportunity for self-call out. How do our practices match our stated beliefs? If we want to move towards a socially just framework for tutoring, what does that look like in session? For tutors, this was an uncomfortable but necessary experience that helped them become more attuned to working with the people in front of them in sessions, “pausing and seeing what the actual writer needs and wants in a session,” rather than the abstract concepts of what they thought some writers would be like, a common pitfall that Robinson, LeClair, and Pouncil observe new tutors falling into.
While I would revise the self-observation assignment when using it again to include questions asking tutors to reflect specifically on how their and the tutee’s embodied identities manifested in the session, doing this work of self-observation and reflection offers tutors a way to work through the everyday occurrences of these larger crises in social justice we are facing. We are working to incorporate this into the structure of our writing center, and I encourage others to try it out as well. This self-observation assignment is being used again in the current version of the spring practicum taught by the new assistant director at our center. Additionally, we have adopted a revised version of this exercise to be a part of the spring training all paid tutors participate in at the center, an inquiry group model where we hope to discover what values are emerging for our center as a whole from our tutors’ practices. This will lead to additional structural changes and considerations for our center, as we continue to work towards being an antiracist and socially just writing center. When living through times of crisis like this one, it’s important to hold a mirror up to what we are doing, as individuals but as members of institutions. Ongoing critical reflection for tutors and other writing center professionals is a crucial step towards change.
- This study (protocol number 4121) was deemed exempt by IRB.
“About Us.” University of Massachusetts Writing Center,
https://www.umass.edu/writing-center/about-writing-center. Accessed 30 Jan. 2023.
“Allyship Without Appropriation.” Vimeo, uploaded by Talinn Phillips, 2018, https://vimeo.com/252777561.
Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.
Carino, Peter. “Posing Questions for Collaborative Evaluation of Audio Taped Tutorials.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 14, no. 1,1989, pp. 11–13.
“Conversations from the Margins (RITM 2021).” YouTube, uploaded by Kyle Barron, 3 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIk6S6RJ11g&ab_channel=KyleBarron.
Carrasco, Maria. “‘We Are Hurt’: UMass Students Upset After Racist Incidents.” Inside Higher Ed, 27 Sept. 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/09/28/%E2%80%98we-are-hurt%E2%80%99-umass-students-upset-after-racist-incidents. Accessed 5 May 2023.
Funt, Alex, and Sarah Esposito. “Video Recording in the Writing Center.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 43–6, no. 5, 2019.
Gardner, Sophia, Ana Pietrewicz, and McKenna Premus. “‘There’s No Place for Rapists at UMass:’ Students Gather Near Theta Chi House in Protest After Accusations of Sexual Assault Surface.” The Daily Collegian, 19 Sept. 2021, https://dailycollegian.com/2021/09/theres-no-place-for-rapists-at-umass-students-gather-near-theta-chi-house-in-protest-after-accusations-of-sexual-assault-surface/. Accessed 5 May 2023.
Hall, Mark. Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education. Utah State UP, 2017.
Lockett, Alexandria. “Why I Call it the Academic Ghetto: A Critical Examination of Race,
Place, and Writing Centers.” Race & The Writing Center, special issue of Praxis, vol. 16, no. 2, 2019. http://www.praxisuwc.com/162-lockett.
Melzer, Dan. “Exploring White Privilege in Tutor Education.” Race & The Writing Center,
special issue of Praxis, vol. 16, no. 2, 2019. http://www.praxisuwc.com/162-melzer.
North, Stephen M. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.com/stable/377047.
Robinson, Rachel, Shelby LeClair, and Floyd Pouncil. “Empowering the Process: Redefining Tutor Training Towards Embodied Restorative Justice.” Researching and Restoring Justice, featured issue of The Peer Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 2020. https://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-4-2/empowering-the-process-redefining-tutor-training-towards-embodied-restorative-justice/.
Thompson, Faith. “‘Try and Fight that white Supremacy:’ Tutors on Antiracist Praxis.” Another
Word, 21 Feb. 2023, https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/fight-that-white-supremacy/. Accessed 27 April 2023.
Trimbur, John. “Peer Tutoring: A Contradiction in Terms?” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 7, no. 2, 1987, pp. 21–8. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.com/stable/43441837.
Stacie Klinowski is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is also Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Her dissertation research focuses on how community writing groups can create spaces for people to write their way through social change.