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A culture of collaboration: reflections on conferences and tutor training.

I arrived at the 30th East Central Writing Centers Association (ECWCA) conference (April 11-12, 2008) thinking about tutor training--my presentation topic--and about the ways we introduce tutors to writing center scholarship. While Andrea Lunsford called for conference participants to foster "a culture of writing" on our college campuses, those of us present, by discussing cultures of writing with each other, fostered a culture of collaboration as well. At conferences, the theory that our tutors talk about all year finally becomes visible, and tutors become part of the professional conversation.

In sharing best practices for tutor training at the conference, I stressed theory's importance but also shared writing center literature's occasional cautions about when and how to introduce tutors to theory. In particular, Peter Vandenberg suggests in "Lessons of Inscription: Tutor Training and the 'Professional Conversation"' that "[w]ithout a pedagogy that actively encourages the roles of literate activity in the social construction of knowledge," administrators who ask tutors to study theory can entrench them in a theory/practice divide, because these tutors aren't contributing to the theory and, therefore, don't see its connections to their work (70). Vandenberg presents this point as a suggestion for effective tutor study of scholarship, but it also presents a challenge: to introduce tutors to the professional conversation without excluding them from it.

Conference attendance is the antidote to this theory/practice divide, and conference participation is a stronger formula yet. The presence of tutors at conferences allows these tutors to go beyond being exposed to scholarship to acquiring ownership of the professional conversation by adding their voices to the discussion. This participation shows tutors what it means to be a part of a culture of collaboration. Tutors who participate in conferences enact the very collaborative thinking and writing practices we espouse in writing center sessions every day.

Engaging tutors in this culture of collaboration has been a particular challenge at Duquesne University, where graduate TAs in the English Department are required to work in the writing center as part of their teaching assistantships. The general sentiment at the beginning of the year is often, "I get to teach, and I have to work in the writing center." In my time at Duquesne, I've found that it doesn't take long for this attitude to change. These graduate tutors quickly realize how rewarding center work is and how many opportunities it offers for learning and implementing new teaching strategies. They also come to appreciate the value of collaboration by working alongside other tutors, sharing experiences, and learning from each other's expertise. Each year, new graduate tutors discover that the writing center field has its own body of scholarship, and that conversations about writing center theory are ongoing. Certainly, part of this realization is the theoretical material these tutors are exposed to in their training--learning a bit about writing center history, reading and discussing landmark articles--but I've found that the largest component of introducing tutors to the professional conversation is conference attendance and participation. At ECWCA, I attended a series of two consecutive panels that demonstrated the value of tutors joining the writing center conversation. These panels' conversation connected to the conference theme of "Looking Back, Looking Forward" by discussing, from different starting points, the intersections between tutoring and teaching. First, Jill Pennington, Leslie Farris, and Thomas Nicholas, and then Carrie Rodesiler spoke about the ways their previous tutoring experiences inform their current practice as teachers. Next, Marianne Holohan, Erin O'Driscoll, and Melissa Wehler, graduate tutors from the Duquesne center, explored how their roles as teachers contribute to and complicate their simultaneous roles as tutors. While Pennington's group considered notions of conversation and its differences between the classroom space and the writing center space, Holohan's group reflected on individual experiences within each space and the roles a tutor/teacher fills in each venue. This was not idle talk: panelists also addressed the tasks of teaching grammar and mechanics, the challenges of promoting critical thinking, and the ethics of sharing knowledge within tutoring and teaching roles. More important, the speakers reflected critically on their experiences and used past and current scholarship to negotiate and inform their own practice. For the tutors in particular, I can think of no better way to see oneself as an integral part of and contributor to the professional conversation.

Perhaps the most prominent value in tutors' conference attendance is the ongoing conversation it promotes. Shortly after ECWCA, Kim Ballard posted on WCenter that "'Community' and 'professionalism' and 'if only our institution understood us like this' all cropped up in the various car talk and cell phone conversations we shared during our five hour drive ... back to Kalamazoo." Conferences leave tutors energized and eager to continue talking about center work, and these conversations resonate within our centers when consultants return. For example, on the Monday following the conference, a consultant rounded the corner of my cubicle to say, "I just used my conference experience to work through a session!" Tutors can gain experience outside of conferences, but their experience, and the discussions we have about theory and practice in our individual centers, is closed. The experience gained at a conference is infinitely more valuable, because it shows tutors that their own worries are shared across states, across nations, and even, in keeping with the ECWCA theme, across time. Conferences give tutors the chance to make themselves heard and the awareness that someone is listening.

The ECWCA conference was one of many regional writing center conferences being held on the same weekend. As tutors and administrators gathered in Columbus to dissect old narratives and create new lore, our counterparts were doing the same at the Rocky Mountain Peer Tutoring Conference at Boise State University, the Mid-Atlantic WCA at Temple University, and the Northeast WCA at the University of Vermont. Thus the culture of collaboration continues, and ECWCA is one of many microcosms of writing center work that are collectively represented in the international Writing Centers Association (IWCA). How lucky we are to be thinking and working in a field in which each member's voice is heard, and each individual's ideas are considered.

Works Cited

Ballard, Kim. "East Central Writing Centers Association Conference 2008." Online posting. 14 Apr. 2008. WCenter. 14 Apr. 2008. <>htt p://>.

Holohan, Marianne, Erin O'Driscoll, and Melissa Welder. "Teaching, Tutoring, and Narratives of Authority." East Central Writing Centers Association Meeting. The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. 12 Apr. 2008.

Lunsford, Andrea. "Keynote Address." East Central Writing Centers Association Meeting. The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. 11 Apr. 2008.

Pennington, Jill, Leslie Farris, Thomas Nicholas, and Carrie Rodesiler. "Pedagogical Conversation: The Challenge of Moving from Tutor to Teacher." East Central Writing Centers Association Meeting. The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. 12 Apr. 2008.

Vandenberg, Peter. "Lessons of Inscription: Tutor Training and the 'Professional Conversation."' Writing Centerjournal19.2 (1999): 59-83.

* Ann Litman

Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA
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Author:Litman, Ann
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Conference notes
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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