One of the most important roles of the writing tutor is to be a sympathetic audience for writing. Student writers often do not know what a reader needs to know, or what a reader expects. Most students come to the Writing Center with an unfinished first draft that only begins to get the writer's ideas down on paper. Your job is to help the student start the revision process that will turn this "writer-based" draft into a "reader-based" one that serves the reader's needs. As you read, give the writer feedback on your reading experience, voicing your confusions and curiosities.
Stephen North, in “The Idea of the Writing Center,” argues that writing centers should adopt the motto "Better writers, not better papers." This means that your primary goal is long-term improvement over time. However, students are often very focused on improving the immediate paper by whatever possible means. As a tutor you must try to balance these competing concerns.
To be an effective tutor, you have to deal with the whole writer. As Muriel Harris notes, tutors must be skilled enough to:
And you have to do all this for a student who probably thinks that all the paper needs is some proofreading!
Most writing center researchers agree that asking appropriate questions is the tutor's primary role, and that supplying answers and judgments is counter-productive, because it discourages the student from doing his or her own thinking. Yet most students want correction, answers, and direction. You will often find yourself in a quandary about how much guidance you should give, caught between the student's desire for answers and the knowledge that providing the answers often doesn't address the long term problem. You will have to strike a balance. Keep the student engaged in thinking about solutions to problems, but don't frustrate the student by refusing to provide any answers at all.
The Writing Center tutor faces a special responsibility regarding the issue of how much collaboration is ethical in helping students with academic assignments. By its nature the work is collaborative, but we must make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate collaboration. Do not do the work for the student. Your focus should always be on helping the writer become more and more independent. This means providing strategies and techniques for going about the task, rather than emphasizing correct forms, words and phrases. The key is to keep the writer engaged with the task and making both decisions and discoveries.
In a recent portfolio evaluation an instructor discovered a portfolio in which the second draft of each of the three papers had been extensively marked by a third party. Someone had crossed out and rewritten whole phrases and sentences, adding vocabulary and sentence structures that the student clearly could not have produced, and probably could not understand. This person had also written a conclusion for one of the papers. Clearly the papers were much improved in a sense, but the portfolio was no longer an indication of the student's writing ability. This is a classic example of what Writing Center tutors should not do.
Because over time it is easy to succumb to the constant pressure from students to provide all the answers and correct all the errors, and because as tutors become more knowledgeable they tend to slip into a teaching role and talk too much, it is a good idea to re-evaluate your tutoring practices on a regular basis. In the appendix you will find a list of self-evaluation questions. Look at these questions at least once a quarter and think about how your tutoring practices have grown or changed.
How you begin the conference sets the tone and direction for everything that will follow. It is important that the student feel relaxed and comfortable, and confident that his or her needs will be addressed. Some students want to get right down to business, while others are more comfortable if you chat a bit about other matters before you begin to work. Some students are very anxious or emotional at first; establishing a relationship first may help to calm them down. Of course, if you are new to tutoring, you yourself may be a bit anxious and a bit of light conversation may help you too.
In subsequent sections we will expand on most of the ideas here, but these are the essentials:
It is best to sit side-by-side with the student so that you can read and edit the paper together, which is hard to do if the student is sitting across from you. Once you are seated, ask the student what he or she wants to focus on in the conference. Let the student define the agenda, at least at first. Whatever strategy you ultimately take in the conference, it should address the student's main concerns.
Establish the context in which the writing is occurring. Ask what course the writing is for, and ask to see the assignment. Ask what the instructor has said he or she wants. Find out if it is an individual assignment or a group project. Ask when the paper is due, so that you can get an idea of what scale of revision is possible or appropriate.
Listen carefully to everything the writer says. The writer's attitudes, intentions and beliefs are important to the tutoring process. It is easy to talk too much and miss important clues. If you find yourself talking more than 50% of the time, you are talking too much. Your role is to ask questions that help the writer understand the problems the text causes for the reader. Give the writer time to think about your questions. Don't be afraid of silence. Many students need time to think before they can answer.
Keeping the student's priorities in mind, skim the draft quickly to find the major problems or areas of possible improvement. It is easy to fall into the practice of reading the paper sentence by sentence and marking errors as they are encountered, but the usual result is an overwhelming, disheartening, and contradictory morass of corrections and notations, with no clear plan for improvement. It is therefore important to read the paper first, and make a tutoring plan. It is helpful to think about three possible levels of response, and in making your tutoring plan you must weigh and balance all three. In some conferences the emphasis will be on global issues, in others the main concerns will be at the syntactic or grammatical level, but it is best if every conference addresses all three levels in some way.
1. Global/Rhetorical: (The paper as a whole) Considering the audience and format required by the assignment or the purpose for the writing:
2. Syntax/Style: (Readability or sentence-level negotiation of meaning)
3. Grammatical Systems: (Long-term language development)
In most cases you will not be able to deal with all of the apparent problems in thirty minutes. That's ok, however, because the writer can't cope with all the problems at once anyway. Here is a five-step process for beginning the writing conference:
Proofreading could be seen as a fourth level of response, but it is a special case in many ways. The Writing Center is a learning resource, not a grammar fix-it shop or a proofreading service. Proofreading is the very last stage of the writing process, something to be done after all other problems have been considered and resolved. If the student comes in with a paper that is due in an hour and is very resistant to any other kind of help, proofreading may be the only appropriate response. However, the tutor's role is to help the student learn to proofread the paper. The student must be involved in the process and must make decisions about corrections and changes.
Proofreading is a skill that can be taught. If students come to us with a nearly finished paper and need help with proofreading, we can help them identify problems and we can provide explanations of the concepts behind those problems.
When asked to help a student proofread, turn the responsibility for correctness over to the student as soon as possible. Remember that our policy is not to mark on student papers. We don't proofread and correct the entire paper for the student. We are not a proofreading and editing service. However, do not tell the student "We don't do proofreading." We help the student learn to proofread, but that distinction is too subtle for many students.
One way to help is to create a "Personal Proofreading Checklist" for the student that lists the major problems in the paper. Teach the student how to look for and correct these problems in subsequent papers.
Some writing centers will not help students with papers that the instructor has not already marked. That is not our policy. We can help the student at any stage of the writing process, and we help any student who comes to us in some way. Just make sure that it is the student who is doing most of the work.Proofreading Policy
The University Writing Center has a "Proofreading Policy" which is the basic guideline for tutoring practice. Copies of this policy are available for students at the front desk (see appendix). The following scenario illustrates why you have to be careful about how you explain the proofreading policy to the student:
What went wrong in this situation? The tutor presents the actual Writing Center policy, but the student reacts in a very negative way. What could the tutor do differently?
It is a good idea to have scratch paper available for explaining concepts, but you should avoid making any marks on the student's paper. It is always better if the student takes notes on the conference and marks revisions and corrections on the paper. Use your finger to point out problems. If you have trouble following this advice, put your pen back in your pocket and tutor with empty hands. There are a number of reasons for this practice:
There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes a student comes in with a non-academic document, such as a job application letter, which needs proofreading in a hurry. Use your judgment.
Ideally, the student should leave feeling positive about you, him or herself, and the Writing Center. The paper you worked on should be better than it would have been if the writer had not come in to see us, but it doesn't have to be perfect or error-free. The writer should have some insight into long-term problems, and a plan for working on them, which may include coming back to see you again.
Now that you have the bare essentials of the writing conference, the rest of this manual will present these essential concepts and practices in greater detail. But before we move on, watch what can happen when you don't listen to the student: