You Can Take the Tutor out of the Writing Center…


Writing Centers / Monday, November 10th, 2014
The author, in a frivolous moment.
The author, in a frivolous moment.

By Mike A. Shapiro

Mike worked as a tutor at the Writing Center at UW–Madison for five years, and as a coordinator for two. This fall, he is teaching first-year composition in the College of Engineering.

As Julia Dauer wrote earlier this fall, writing tutors often balance diverse instructional lives. But what happens when that balance is disrupted?

From January 2009–August 2014, I worked almost exclusively as a tutor. In those five years, I tutored thousands of students working on multiple thousands of drafts. The time I wasn’t working directly with students was spent supporting other tutors.

This fall, for the first time since 2004, I am not working as a tutor. Instead, I’m back in the classroom, teaching four sections of first-year composition. This shift leads me to a basic question: what skills, if any, transfer from tutoring to teaching?

Are teachers alchemists?

The first month I was back in the classroom, I left every class frustrated that I couldn’t pack more learning into my fifty minutes.

In the writing center, time and learning have a predictable relationship. A writer who comes in for a 30-minute conference leaves having spent about 30 minutes learning about writing. There are complexities, of course, but an expert tutor has tools that help maximize student learning.

In the classroom, the math is just different: 20 students x 50 minutes = 1,000 student-minutes per class, but I will eat this blog post if the actual result is 1,000 student-minutes of learning.

The metaphor that’s been in my head since September is alchemy.

The tutor pans for gold in a stream, and can predict how many flakes of gold will appear after a day of work. The teacher, by contrast, weaves circles around a crucible of lead, and may not know whether any of it has turned to gold after a month of incantations.

As someone who spent four years kneeling by that stream, I struggle to see how the slow accumulation of writing experience can happen at the scale of the classroom. Is there an alchemical formula by which the best classroom instructors transmute fifty minutes of class time into fifty minutes of learning?

Or is the tutor rightly skeptical of classroom alchemy? Tutoring is a privileged and resource-intensive instructional tool. Is it absurd to believe a teacher should engage twenty students in the classroom as much as a tutor engages students in the writing center?

What does learning look like?

The terrazzo floor of the Engineering Centers Building evokes CAT scans and circuit boards. To the left is the engineers' the shop floor. What sort of writing will happen in a building like this?
The terrazzo floor of the Engineering Centers Building evokes CAT scans and circuit boards. To the left is the engineers’ shop floor. What sort of writing happens in a building like this?

There is also the problem of telepathy.

A tutor needn’t guess how much a writer has learned. As tutors, we invite the writer to answer questions, apply techniques, or put some words on the page. These checks help the tutor gauge understanding, and if the writer comes in for several weeks in a row these accumulated conversations can reveal the student’s growth.

In the classroom, the check-in is trickier. Does everyone understand? Of course they understand. Are there questions? There are no questions. Can they apply the process on their own, or in small groups, or as a class? Two or four or six students will rise to the challenge, and everyone else will be silent. They may understand everything, but I’ll only find out when their papers come in.

I recognize that what appears to be a problem with checking student learning isn’t as meaningful as it may seem. Tutoring taught me that students learn iteratively and through regular contextual practice. But it is difficult to go from the transparency of the tutorial check-in to the ambiguity and telepathy of the classroom.

Preach this, practice that

In cover letters and interviews, I argue that tutoring shapes the attitude and practice I bring to the classroom:

  • Tutoring writers from varied academic disciplines and with varied backgrounds taught me what needs students bring with them into the classroom.
  • Talking with students one at a time taught me to avoid compositional formulas and apothegms, and allowed me to develop a more personal vocabulary for talking about writing.
  • Working alongside students as they wrote and rewrote their papers taught me that learning happens between the student and the page, not between the student and the lectern.

But for all these honest expressions of what I learned as a tutor, everything reverted when I got back to the classroom. I offer simplistic formulas for good paragraphs and sentences, fail to recognize my students’ diverse academic interests and backgrounds, and use little of my scant classroom time to get students writing.

Should tutoring skills transfer?

Buckminster Fuller's 500-pound Tensegrity Sphere decorates the entrance to Engineering Centers.
Buckminster Fuller’s 500-pound Tensegrity Sphere decorates the entrance to Engineering Centers.

If four years of tutoring reshaped my ideals without shaking my habits, might this mean that skills can’t transfer from the tutor’s desk to the instructor’s classroom?

Clyde Moneyhun and Patti Hanlon-Baker (2012) investigate the teacher/tutor divide from the other direction. They ask how experienced classroom instructors’ teaching changes when they join a tutoring staff.

They found that experienced classroom instructors became strong tutors in the writing center, but when the same instructors met with their own students all the ideals of collaborative writing instruction vanished.

Is teaching so different from tutoring that expecting skills to transfer from one to the other is like expecting your skill as a bicyclist to help you become a better bus driver? After all, teachers and tutors have substantially different jobs.

Moneyhun and Hanlon-Baker conclude (spoiler alert) that skills can and should transfer from the writing center to the classroom, but that the act of transfer must be active and intentional.

What might transfer look like?

Two weeks ago, I caught myself teaching a lesson that violated my tutor’s sense of how writers learn. The topic was how researchers discover their readers’ expectations and needs, and work to meet those needs.

After that class, I guessed—here’s the telepathy—that the concept was too broad or vague to feel relevant. So the next day I put students to work discovering what readers needed to know. In five-minute bursts, pairs of students shared research topics with each other and interviewed their readers to discover what they needed.

This return to the conversation between writer and reader was more than active transfer of techniques that worked in the writing center. It suggested a different kind of alchemy: a transformation of students from writers into tutors.

The skeptical instructor

UW–Madison's Engineering Hall
UW–Madison’s Engineering Hall

This experience, with many others in the last ten weeks, taught me something I should have known from years of tutoring. It is difficult to apply an abstract concept learned in one context to another context, even if it looks similar. Transfer is not intuitive or automatic, but active and difficult.

One of the consequences of going from the writing center to the classroom has been, at least for these first two months, a skepticism about the work of teaching. It has been difficult for me, as a tutor in teacher’s clothing, to see how twenty students en masse can learn something as practice-oriented as writing.

This skepticism may be the most important skill I learned as a tutor.

In the writing center, it is exactly when a particular tutorial move feels easy or right that the tutor must step back and ask whether it is leading to student learning. The work of teaching may be the work of skeptics who challenge, test, revise, and improve every interactive strategy we bring to the classroom.

When the tutor meets with students for conference after conference, tutee after tutee, they have a clear opportunity to reflect and grow. Teachers in the crucible of a classroom must create that opportunity for themselves.

Questions for you

I worry that this post exposes not what tutoring has taught me, but what I have failed to learn. Perhaps I am surrounded by thousands of

alchemists who have discovered the transmutative properties of the classroom. What does my simplistic or naive view of the problem of tutor-to-teacher transfer omit? What victories have you had in the classroom that you feel you may owe to you expertise as a tutor?

5 Replies to “You Can Take the Tutor out of the Writing Center…”

  1. The writing process in the classroom can be developed over many different assignments that range from one-page reflections on the required readings to longer multi draft research reports. Along the way MEAL outlines, peer reviews, and electronic conferences/editing with the instructor can bring the same alchemy you experienced as a tutor. In the few cases where students need even more help one can schedule one on one writing conferences.

  2. Even if one cannot spend very much time in class with the students actively writing, the instructor can still draw their attention to the style and format of their readings, looking not just at the content, but also its presentation. The best writing classes I ever took in college were actually history classes, for this very reason. A focus on writing in a vacuum can be very difficult for some students to grasp, especially, as you note, in the classroom setting, so tying writing to content can be very helpful. (I’m also very pro assimilation of multiple academic skills in general, disillusioned as I am with TESOL’s focus on split-skills teaching methods.)

  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on the challenges of making that transition from tutoring in a writing center to teaching in a classroom. I hadn’t thought about how different those roles really are, what needs to be translated for the classroom, and what can be lost. I agree with George and that individual conferences with students are critically important to help the students make significant improvement; in fact, I’d go further than he has and say that in all cases, students can benefit from one-on-one conferences. Even the best writers benefit from in-depth discussions of their work, and we make ourselves more relevant by helping them see how some of the material we’re covering in class applies directly to their work.

    My hope in my own courses is that I can find more time for students to check in with their peers about their work, and that I can set aside more of my own time and energy to meet with them individually. People here in the College of Engineering like to talk about the flipped classroom a good deal, and for us a successful flipped classroom might mean that some of the time we’d ordinarily spend lecturing can be condensed so that we can meet more with students on the drafts they are developing.

    By the way — thanks for including pictures of our side of campus in your blog . . . I do think writing of some kind can happen in the Engineering Centers Building: we have a machine shop here, that is true . . . but we are also teaching these engineers to design and build some of the most important machines they will need for their futures — persuasive and technically rigorous arguments. So glad you’ve joined us in that effort!

  4. איך טראַכטן פילע פון די זאכן איר שרייַבן זענען אמת, אָבער אַזוי פיל דעפּענדס אויף די מאָוטאַוויישאַן פון די סטודענטן. מיר אויך געפֿינען אַז ווייניק פון זיי פֿאַרשטיין אַז די סקילז קענען זיין טראַנספערד צו אנדערע אַספּעקץ פון זייער לעבן. עס נעמט אַ געוויסע מדרגה פון צייַטיקייַט איידער זיי פאַרשטיין דעם באַגריף.
    .אַמאָל זיי טאָן, זיי טאַקע אָפּשאַצן וואָס מיר האָבן געטאן פֿאַר זיי.

    [Google translation: “I think many of the things you write are true, but so much depends on the motivation of the students. We also find that few of them understand that these skills can be transferred to other aspects of their lives. It takes a certain level of maturity before they understand the concept. They do, they really appreciate what we have done for them.”]

  5. Mike, I enjoyed reading your insightful reflections on the differences between teaching writing inside and outside the classroom. I agree with what others have already mentioned—that we provide students with a number of different opportunities inside the classroom from reading and analyzing the work of other writers including themselves and peers as we try to prompt them to grow as writers. I have to admit that I, too, believe that some of my most productive teaching time is spent with my students outside of the classroom in conferences. But even there it is difficult to trade in the role of the teacher, the authoritarian figure to whom students turn for directions to produce a better paper that will earn them a more desirable grade, for the role of the tutor, who has a better chance of offering them various options or strategies that they then make judgments about trying out as writers. Your post reminded me once again that I need to pull back from that role of holding forth because when I’m quiet, at least some first-year students are ready to make the intellectual leap to deliberate about the moves they want to make as writers, something some of them haven’t done much before. That’s where the most satisfaction in teaching writing lies.

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