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Director as client: participatory observations in the writing center.

When I was a tutor at the University of Rhode Island Writing Center during 2007-08, Director Jeremiah Dyehouse observed one of my client sessions. I was not overly concerned. After all, I had two years' prior experience as a Writing Specialist at Soka University of America where I tutored domestic and international students. I judged myself a competent tutor and felt self-assured about responding to a student paper under scrutiny. The session went well, but I was acutely aware of being watched. Despite my confidence, I was nervous.

A year later, when I assumed the directorship of the Rhode Island College Writing Center, I considered implementing formal observations, perhaps modeled around my experience with Dyehouse or strategies in Bonnie Devet's "A Method for Observing and Evaluating Writing Lab Tutorials." Devet's recommendations include asking tutors which appointment they would like to have observed (81), using a standardized evaluation checklist (77), and conferencing with tutors soon after the session (81). But I decided, based on a vague discomfort, not to observe individual client sessions of our peer tutors. This decision was troubling because, at the time, I didn't have an alternate plan, and yet I felt obligated to gauge the tutors' practices. After several weeks of internal debate, I decided to try "participatory observations" (working as a client directly with each tutor).


To a large extent, I developed the procedure based on a desire to avoid formal client observations in a peer-tutoring center. I understood that my presence in a session (with notepad in hand) would almost certainly unsettle the most confident peer tutor--just as Dyehouse's presence had unsettled me--and I played a hunch that personal tutorials might offer a holistic impression of the tutors' abilities. Further, because I am a writer in need of reader response and a writing center director who must appraise staff performance, I hoped that the evaluative method could serve both functions.

Also, the writing center is confronted with a peculiar variation of the Lake Wobegon Effect and Strategy (1), i.e., all of our peer tutors are, by design, "above average." Each applicant secures two faculty recommendations; submits two representative pieces of their writing; passes an interview with me, the center's administrative assistant, and one or two experienced tutors; and then completes an eleven-week seminar on writing center theory and practice. So if I formally evaluate the tutors, I must inevitably measure degrees of excellence. And as Ben Yagoda explains in "Why I Hate Annual Evaluations" that he "deeply and irrationally resent[s] being judged by a boss," I similarly resent being a boss who must judge. And the evaluation process itself, Yagoda writes, "is undignified and unseemly." The real arbiter of a tutoring session seems to be tutor and client, together; plus if I must insert myself into that relationship, I wish to minimize the unseemliness.


I decided to present myself to the staff as a client whose papers would ultimately be submitted for publication, emphasizing the need for honest feedback. I even shared my rejection slips and editorial responses (plus two acceptances) with the students, which I hoped would illustrate some of the rhetorical negotiations among audience, purpose, and context during the peer-review process. At the very least, tutors might understand that not even a writing center director fires off prose like a Hollywood gunslinger fires a six-shooter (nor does she typically hit the target in a first draft).

These special sessions would supplement my more casual observations as I passed through the center for a cup of tea, listening to interactions between tutors and clients, tutors and clerical assistants, or tutors and tutors. Muriel Harris refers to this as an "eavesdropping observer" (14). And their tutorials with me might enhance the bi-monthly staff meetings wherein tutors are encouraged to talk about productive or unproductive appointments. Traditional observations could also have added to the meetings, but I hoped our participatory sessions would deemphasize my supervisorial role and encourage a power-sharing dialogue.

So armed with "good" rationalizations for something I wanted (feedback about my writing) and against something I disliked (formal staff evaluations), I booked individual appointments with all twelve RIC tutors at least once, occasionally twice, resolving to test this evaluative procedure during the 2009-10 academic year. I am convinced that participatory observations have benefits, some of which I did not anticipate.


As a writer, I was pleased that the tutors (2) often gave me genuinely good advice. For example, one woman reviewed a story about a quirky entomology student. Her comments (paraphrased from my session notes and written responses on the manuscript) include: "Good, but the main character reads like a prototype grad student. I'd like to know what makes her unique.... The description of the ant colony is excellent, but the story is too short.... Some of the puzzle pieces seem missing. For example, what do fellow students think of the protagonist?"

Most tutors did not appear to allow my role as director to censor their responses, but again, I stressed that the writing was a work in progress, editors would eventually read it, and I wanted advice. Some comments were bold: "Claudine, you really lost me here." "This struck me as over the top, too much detail." "Why not move this section up front? The real story's buried on page five."

Part of being an effective tutor is confidence, and I could often sense a tutor's self-appraisal during the sessions. Some were timid about assessing "professional writing" and said they didn't "feel qualified." Others seemed more confident working with fiction versus nonfiction, so I began asking tutors what genre they preferred. (3) And when I sensed hesitation, I countered with: "I'm trying to present academic material for a popular audience. Does it work?" Or, "This story has been rejected twice. Is there any hope?" The questions typically delivered personal reassurances from which critical opinions would follow, and my primary objective in these moments was to build tutor confidence.

Also, the tutorials sometimes generated ideas that flowed toward our regular clients. In one session with a first-year tutor, "Jennifer" complimented my use of dialogue, which we discussed further. A week later she came to my office and said, "Claudine, a client plans to introduce her essay with a dialogue that will lead into why she wants to become a nurse. I thought about your story and wonder if this is the best approach." Jennifer and I talked about how such an introduction might be handled, its potential downside, and a possible prose conversation. I asked Jennifer whether she needed me to intervene with the client. "Oh, no," she said, "I can handle it. I just wanted to talk because our session made me question this student's paper." Based on Jennifer's recommendations, the client dropped the opening scene.


In Training Tutors for Writing Conferences, Thomas Reigstad and Donald McAndrew write, "Although the basic structure of most tutoring sessions is the same, every encounter with a writer demands an individualized response...." (29). I often question whether tutors respond more to the writer or writing, and I was able to consider this by working with different tutors on the same piece of writing, different tutors with different pieces, and a single tutor with two pieces in multiple sessions--but always the same writer.

My impressions suggest that the paper initially sets the tone for the session and, to some degree, defines the writer. For example, when I discussed a humorous essay, "Ten Reasons Why You Probably Won't Quit Writing (Even if You Should)," with two upper-division English majors, our dialogue seemed to flow effortlessly. The topic was of great interest to these tutors, "easy to understand," "inspiring," and "fun." Both sessions were consequently chatty and enthusiastic, and each tutor volunteered his or her literary ambitions at personally meaningful sections of the essay. This was contrasted by tutorials that employed a speculative, quasi-postmodern story, "The Protectionists." One reader said that she "sort of got it." The session began awkwardly and gradually improved as the tutor recognized Cold War, Alice in Wonderland allusions and became overtly more interested. Another tutor spent too much time reading the story, and when we finally began talking five minutes before the end of the session, it was clear that, despite having underlined 29 passages and highlighted another half-page, my tutor had no idea what to say or ask. He was likewise apparently frustrated, perhaps embarrassed, by his lack of authoritative understanding. And because I was the same writer in all instances, I assume that the writing itself played an important role in the tutor's "individualized response."

According to Ted Remington, Director of Writing at the University of Saint Francis, "One possible shortcoming of the [participatory] method ... is that the level of the writing ... is quite high. As a tutor, I have certainly experienced the phenomenon of 'tutoring to the level of the writing', ... [and] it's often easier to respond thoughtfully to writing that is quite good already than to an essay that's a train wreck." Remington's observation echoes responses from tutors who preferred the method because of the higher level of writing. Katie Brunero, now a graduate student, said, "This provided an opportunity to spread our wings, to test ourselves as tutors, maybe talk about structure, effect, rhetorical devices, instead of rehashing comma splices and fragments. And it was nice for you to see us spread our wings." Another tutor commented, "It was fun to read and respond to your stuff."

As a director, I know that dealing with train wrecks is important, but it also seems fun and beneficial for tutors to tackle more advanced writing (even if it comes in the form of a quasi-evaluation). Fun, because the tutors tell me so. Beneficial, because working with complex material can increase tutor confidence in train-wreck triage and/or in diagnosing rhetorical strategies (such as dialogue) that may be used ineffectively. And while about 45% of our clients come from first-year writing classes, the tutors must also work with advanced writing that is generated in senior seminars or graduate courses. Finally, because I was a discerning writer with an eye toward better prose, and because the tutors had to negotiate that client package, the special sessions functioned as supplemental training in what Remington calls the "fuzzy, messy, intangible ... human interaction between tutor and client."


I was relieved that, during my sessions, I did not doubt any tutor's foundational ability to work in the center. This is not to say I did not have moments of pause, some of which I described above, but I tried to incorporate concerns into discussions that would lead to more effective practice. For example, after I encountered unproductive timidity or time management, I would ask at staff meetings: What's the ideal ratio between assessment of an essay and conversation with the writer? How would you handle a tutorial where the client's disciplinary understanding, perhaps a graduate paper in philosophy, is beyond yours? Or a client who seems a better writer than you are? But I would hinge the questions around my institutional past, not the sessions at RIC.

One-to-one tutorials seemed to strengthen our working relationship in more productive ways than direct supervisory observation, which is, to some degree, confrontational because of institutional power structures. A proper writing consultation should regulate power between tutor and writer like a limited-slip differential, providing equivalent force to each axle while accommodating varying momentum. After my first year of participatory observations, I plan to supplement my "theory and practice" course for new tutors with more complex exemplary papers that might build confidence in negotiating with advanced writers.


At a regular staff meeting, after I had held sessions with every tutor at least once, I asked for opinions about their work with me. One tutor said, "I was a little nervous at first because, let's face it, you're the boss. But after awhile, I was fine." Another, "It was good. I appreciated the fact that you needed real feedback. When you sat down, it was like, What do you think? Do you have recommendations? I felt that I was working with a writer who wanted help." A third echoed the first, "I was nervous at the beginning. Then OK." A fourth, who read a science fiction story in early development, said, "The experience was good, especially since you started low key--What did I like? What worked and what didn't? And you specifically valued my science background. That was nice."

Two first-year tutors were quiet during this discussion, and I approached them together after we adjourned. When prompted, one admitted, "I was really scared because I thought you were going to give me a paper and say, 'Now! Find all the errors!' Like a test." The other said that she worried our meeting would resemble the summer's mock tutoring sessions, adding that those were more nerve-wracking than her first real client appointment. Yet both women concluded that once we began our conferences and they realized that there was no hidden agenda, they could relax into a more conventional discussion.


I can't say that participatory tutor evaluations provide the best system for skills assessment because I do not know anyone else who uses them, and I suspect that no one method is right for every center or management style. But I find my participatory approach more comfortable and, I believe, more constructive than formal observations in a peer-tutoring venue. I also believe that our writing center community will spread the word about these sessions to upcoming tutors, reducing apprehensions. Nonetheless, at the end of the above-referenced staff meeting, I asked the tutors directly, "Would you prefer to work together in a session or have me observe a client appointment?" The collective response was immediate and (to my surprise) unanimous. They would rather be my tutor.

It is impossible to avoid the reality of my supervisory role, yet I try to reduce or obscure the authoritative framework whenever possible. I might have used formal observations or random client surveys, but when I began to work in a law office in 1978 and was considering law school, my boss gave me a piece of advice. "Beware the client," he said. "Those who want the most improbable outcomes will often bite the hand that kept them out of court or prison." I do not trust clients as impartial evaluators of tutors (4); I do not want to defer my responsibilities, to rank tutors by client review, or to disrupt regular appointments through observations.

A writing center director can perhaps exert the greatest managerial influence with the least managerial footprint by prescreening tutor applicants for language skills, work ethic, attendance, attitude, and sensitivity to diverse clientele. Beyond that, once I hire peer tutors for an academic season, my super visory commitment is to mentor all of them. My job requires that I field complaints from faculty and clients about the writing center, and my subsequent investigations are evaluative in nature, but when I began working directly with tutors, I placed myself in the middle of the tutorial process--a fortunate writer in search of a better paper and a mindful supervisor in search of better service. My first round of participatory observations felt like a firm handshake between me and the tutors, and this is why I will continue to be a director who is also a client.

Works Cited

Brunero, Katie L. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2010.

Devet, Bonnie. "A Method for Observing and Evaluating Writing Lab Tutorials." Writing Center Journal 10.2 (1990): 75-83. Print.

Harris, Muriel. "The View from the Writing Lab: Another Way to Evaluate a Writing Program." Writing Program Administration 5.2 (1981): 13-19. Print.

Reigstad, Thomas J. and Donald A. McAndrew. Training Tutors for Writing Conferences. Urbana, Illinois: ERIC/NCTE, 1984. Print.

Remington, Theodore J. Messages to the author. 10 Oct. 2010 and 15 Dec. 2010. E-mail.

Yagoda, Ben. "Why I Hate Annual Evaluations." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2010. Web. April 1, 2010.

Claudine Griggs

Rhode Island College, Providence, RI


(1.) According to a web posting by Peter Norvig, Director of Google Research, "The Lake Wobegon Strategy" implies that organizations should "only hire candidates who are above the mean of ... current employees."

(2.) Seven of the twelve tutors were English majors; other disciplines included anthropology, history, biology, pre-med, and education. Eight were seniors, three were sophomores, and one was a graduate student in English who worked only during the fall semester 2009. Six were first-year tutors.

(3.) Overall, they chose fiction at about two to one. I considered whether fiction was appropriate, but the tutors often commented about audience and purpose, as well as character and plot, and they do occasionally meet with our creative writing students, so I continued to allow this option.

(4.) Many clients are unhappy for reasons that confound tutoring pedagogy. For example: Last year, we received a complaint regarding our satellite location (the campus library) because "the tutor wasn't there and nobody knew how to find her"; the client neglected to mention that she was an hour and a half late for the appointment and arrived thirty minutes after the close of tutoring. Another client, a graduate student, put under my door a one-page note about her peer tutor, a sophomore, complaining that the client's writing was so advanced an undergraduate could not be of assistance, and furthermore, as a graduate student, she should automatically be provided with a graduate-level tutor. The client did not mention that, because she had delayed coming to the center until the evening before her paper was due, there was only one available appointment, or that the tutor had offered to reschedule the session with "a senior tutor," or that the client had belittled the tutor to tears before settling down to work (and during my follow-up conversation, the client admitted that the tutor had been "somewhat helpful" after all). I also received reprimands from clients who said, "I forgot my appointment, but the tutor should have called to remind me."
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Author:Griggs, Claudine
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2012
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