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From design to delivery: the graduate writing consultant course (part 2).

Recent posts to WCenter make clear a new area of writing center demand: as word of the effectiveness of one-to-one work with writing spreads, graduate students seem increasingly to seek our services. Graduate schools, graduate directors, and thesis and dissertation advisors, increasingly aware of the good work of writing centers, play a role in this increasing demand. Those writing centers that lack graduate writing centers or professional tutors trained to work with graduate-level writing are asking themselves how best to meet this need. We have seen convincing proof that it's very good for undergraduates to work as peer tutors. (See the Peer Tutor Alumni Research Project at http://www.mu.edu/writingcenter/PeerTutorAlumniPage.htm.) We have also seen that our writing centers are enriched by undergraduate tutors from disciplines other than English, writing-intensive English, and English education. So now with the help of a grant from the Council of Graduate School's Completion Project (http://www.phdcompletion.org/), Marquette University has begun a program of training doctoral students from various disciplines to work in their programs as Graduate Writing Consultants (GWCs). This article will trace the steps of selecting a curriculum for the professional preparation of our graduate writing consultants and present the perspectives of the first two GWCs, Lorelle Lamascus of the Department of Philosophy, and Paul Heidebrecht, of Theology, as they took the course. It will also develop an argument for the delivery of a course-length GWC preparation program specifically for these specialist consultants that differs from a course that prepares generalist tutors.

An October article also printed here lays out the steps we took to begin this project, and invites others to begin such initiatives. We hope that this article will make it easier for others to find the right syllabus and curriculum for their programs, should they want to initiate a graduate writing consultant (GWC) program. Paula spent a semester planning and researching the course, supported by a grant of released time from the Graduate School. We then began our pilot year in the summer of 2006 with a three- credit course. Paula knew that she wanted to incorporate some of the elements from Marquette's undergraduate tutor training course, which had been offered since 1990. Paula also looked for models of courses for graduate tutors. Those she could find, though, were geared towards rhetoric and composition or English graduate students, educating and preparing consultants to be tutors and eventually perhaps to direct a writing center. The GWCs who would be trained at Marquette would not work in a writing center but would be employed within their departments. Paula found two programs that used interdisciplinary tutors within a writing center (and has since found a third), but they did not offer a course; rather, the preparation for tutoring took place on the job and through ongoing staff development. A graduate model for our course did not exist. Because Paula felt strongly that good tutoring is a process that is learned well through reflective practice, the course would last for roughly a month of meetings, reading, reflection, writing, observation of tutoring, and the preparation of materials GWCs would share with their peers and department faculty. Paul and Lorelle were paid by the Graduate School for this time, and all material was supplied for them at no cost.

Paula aimed for a course that would ground doctoral students both theoretically and practically, focusing on the needs of graduate writers, on genre, specifically the genres of their own discipline, and on genre theory. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring 2nd edition, written primarily for undergraduate tutors helping undergraduate writers, contained chapters the GWCs needed as they learned about the writing process, the tutoring process, the observation process, and the process of doing practice tutorials. The reflective essays in the book provided them with models as they wrote their own reflective essays for the course. During their training, Paul and Lorelle reflected both in writing and in class on their own writing process as they experienced being tutored by one another.

The GWCs also needed to know about ESL writers. The video Writing Across Borders was a good ice breaker and excellent preparation for the chapters they read from Bruce and Rafoth's ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. They read Jeff Brooks' "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work," alongside Shamoon and Burns' "A Critique of Pure Tutoring," arguments for two very complex and nuanced positions. The course did not treat these positions as examples of "good" and "bad" tutoring or as incommensurable strategies, but as two of many positions that can be taken along a continuum of tutoring directiveness. We also read an undergraduate favorite, Ken Bruffee's "Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind" as a starting point for discussions of the value of collaborative learning and conversation with peers. (A full list of readings are listed in the margins of pp. 10-11.) Paula was pleased and a little surprised that the reaction to these readings was very positive. Neither of the GWCs had ever read any theoretical material on writing.

In the early meetings it became clear for Lorelle, the philosophy graduate student, that the method involved in peer tutoring resonated with and helped her to reflect on her own teaching practices. Being exposed to the theory of peer tutoring was also particularly meaningful for Paul, in part because he found that he was already convinced of some of its central tenets. For example, Bruffee stresses the social nature of knowledge, and while many might resonate with this starting point because of their commitment to a philosophical perspective or a social-scientific paradigm, Paul did so because of his theological commitments. From his standing place there was actually nothing very radical, or at least nothing very new about the assumption that knowledge is continually negotiated in a social context. Indeed, while most church traditions prioritize either the authority of a hierarchy or scriptural texts, some have long argued that Scripture could only be truly understood when read, interpreted, and tested within the context of a particular worshiping community. And so from an early age this Mennonite student was aware that his thoughts were never his alone--that his knowledge of the world and of God was always mediated or, even stronger, constructed by his religious community.

In any case, Bruffee stresses the social nature of knowledge in order to argue for a more collaborative social context for learning. In short: "If thought is internalized public and social talk, then writing is internalized talk made public and social again. If thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized" (p. 210). Thus conversation becomes the model not only for thinking, but for writing as well, and so in order to teach students how to write for graduate school, we need to be engaged in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible. Bruffee (along with many other authors) insists that tutoring is less about improving the particular writing assignments of students than improving their grasp of writing in general. The concern is with a process, not only a product. Given that conversation has become a common metaphor for doing theology, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that this too resonated with Paul. The larger point to be noted here is that providing the opportunity for a variety of disciplinary perspectives to engage writing center theory may lead to some interesting affirmations and enrichments, as well as challenges.

There is much more that could be said about how Paul and Lorelle responded to the theory of peer tutoring. However, another integral part of the course was providing the opportunity to observe peer tutoring sessions as well as to practice tutoring. Indeed, the course provided a concrete example of how to connect theory and practice that was quite striking to Paul, given his longstanding interest in linking theory and practice without prioritizing one over the other. Both Paul and Lorelle appreciated the way they were encouraged to dive right in and practice tutoring themselves while they continued to develop a theoretical framework for their work. There was no test to pass before they were allowed to tutor. Since it is recognized that tutoring is more akin to an art form than a laboratory procedure, more about conversation and questions than about a canonical set of steps, being able to tutor well requires plenty of practice with the subtleties of the craft, more than the ability to recall and replicate formulas. Clearly tutors are formed just as much by practice as by theory. These initial tutoring experiences also helped to make clear for Paul and Lorelle the importance of having discipline-specific writing consultants for their peers. If thought and writing really are socially constructed, and thus conversation or collaboration really is an effective way to improve both thinking and our writing, then any effort to enhance the writing of graduate students must aim to enhance the potential for genuine collaboration. And the further a student moves within a discipline or concentration within an area of study, the more difficult it becomes to find partners for conversation--Lorelle, ever the philosopher, would call them "interlocutors."

Having a common disciplinary framework does make it possible for consultants and their peers to see themselves as part of a shared community of thinkers and writers, and this would come to have palpable effects on the culture of the departments of philosophy and theology. Paul was first struck by this realization when he contrasted his first two tutoring experiences-- one with a fellow theology student and one with Lorelle. Despite his established rapport with both writers, he found it much easier to address higher-order concerns such as the strength of an argument with the theology student. And his familiarity with the usual genres of theological discourse made it possible to offer more informed comments on matters of style. In short, he was able to collaborate with his peer--to move beyond a nondirective or "minimalist" approach to tutoring in a way that better met the expressed needs of his peer. Perhaps the best sign that true collaboration had occurred was that he found himself rethinking his own approach to a related topic. This contrasted sharply with the dazed and confused state in which he found himself after listening to Lorelle's paper on Themistius and the active intellect, a subject that may cause the eyes of even the most ardent philosopher to glaze over.

On the other hand, tutoring peers from within the same graduate department can also involve some unique challenges, interesting dynamics, and choppy waters to navigate. Lorelle's first experience working with a peer in her discipline involved tutoring a friend and former officemate. More than an established rapport with the student provided the context for the session; here there was a pre-existing friendship, a shared history, and a particular way of relating to one another. Lorelle recognized in herself a tendency to have definite opinions, a frequently unbendable will, and an impulse to "fix" whatever needed fixing; these characteristics, while useful in some ways, created particular challenges for her as a teacher and tutor, especially when a friend she wanted to help was involved. This difficulty was compounded by her friend's tendency to want direction, and to rely on Lorelle to take charge in the face of uncertainty, disappointment, frustration, or failure. Such a relationship sets up a somewhat dangerous dynamic for a tutoring session which resembles in its dynamics the kind of dependence we would normally associate with naive undergraduates.

In her efforts to steer clear of the relational dynamic that put her in the role of decision-maker and her friend in the role of decision-follower, Lorelle found the basic guidelines and rules for peer tutoring that she had been learning in the course to be very useful. Since the majority of the tutoring session focused on identifying the thesis of the 12-page seminar paper that was the occasion for their meeting, she concentrated on getting the writer to articulate what he wanted to argue. Toward the end of the session, however, the writer began asking such questions as "So how would you say that?" followed by the furious scribbling of her words. He even seemed to want the tutor to tell him what his thesis ought to be. This went on for a few minutes, and Lorelle began to feel uncomfortable--the way she felt when meeting with an undergraduate in her class who seemed only to want the "right answers." She backed off of her position a bit, trying to emphasize choices that the writer could make about the direction of his paper, and attempting to put the ball of responsibility for the paper firmly in the writer's court. Appealing once again to the peer tutoring guidelines, she concluded the session by asking the writer what he planned to do to revise his paper. The interactions from this session and the difficulties they presented formed the substance of one of Lorelle's reflection papers, and so also became the focus of class discussion.

Prior to Lorelle's session, we had discussed peer-tutoring as something done with students the tutor did not know well, if at all. Given the nature of the GWC program as discipline-specific, however, the GWCs were likely to know, to varying degrees, those who came to see them, would likely have some idea or impression of the personality of those who came to see them, and might have a pre-existing relationship that influenced the amount of direction the student sought from the tutor. This complication highlights the importance of the inclusion of basic peer tutoring guidelines in the GWC course, and the need to reflect on the different dynamic of tutoring that arises when peers who know each other enter into a tutoring session. It also draws attention to the differences among graduate students at different stages of their careers, another influential factor in the dynamic of the tutoring session. A number of graduate students experience times of struggle and doubt about their decision to pursue graduate education, and the insecurity that accompanies this can lead to the student's desire to look to the tutor as a sure guide to writing a successful graduate paper.

In working with the GWCs, Paula discovered that the basic readings in peer tutor theory and practice had greater application than she'd initially believed they would. Some of the assumptions she had made prior to the course about differences between graduate and undergraduate writers turned out to be false. She'd imagined that graduate students would show greater ownership of their writing and behave more like upper-division undergraduates than like first-year students. But she'd forgotten about the breadth of coursework required for doctoral students who are expected to specialize. And she'd forgotten about how uninterested she had been in some of the courses she had been required to take to get her own Ph.D. So the very same issues of ownership of and distance from course papers arose, the very same desire on the part of writers to ask the GWCs to supply ideas and write sentences that is seen in undergraduates, and the peer tutor training text had anticipated those issues and had given the GWCs resources for dealing with them.

Paula realized that the readings she feared would be too basic were exactly what was needed, to establish some basic assumptions. Paul and Lorelle's experiences with practice tutorials and observations were as vital for them as for undergraduates. Although there has always been plenty of discussion of genre and of disciplinary discourse in the undergraduate course, Paula has learned from working with graduate students that her undergraduates and continuing tutors can learn greatly from the intensely discipline-specific discussions she has had with the GWCs. But she would never combine the courses, as similar as they have turned out to be. Marquette undergraduates take two required semesters of rhetoric and composition, and are able to discuss discourse communities, genre differences, and code switching. The graduate students to date have had no such background and must establish this ground in the course.

Many undergraduates taking the course are surprised to find that they will not be editing papers any more, but rather that conversations with writers will lead to work on higher order concerns first. They have little or no experience with reading aloud or listening to texts. They also learn to listen differently to writers--to wait for them to finish their thoughts before jumping in with their own. While they are open to theory and will discuss it in class and in papers, their real motivation is to find "what works," the keys to good tutoring. While they are similarly open to notions of the need for both control and flexibility, they admit in writing and in class that they yearn for a blueprint. It can take weeks, or longer, to get them over that stage. Graduate students, on the other hand, have proved ready to begin tutoring right away, but also want to study and discuss theories of one-to-one consulting, writing, and genre. They want to connect the theories we study to their own disciplines and to the teaching of their disciplines, and they subsequently find themselves very interested in writing (or communicating) across the curriculum.

In class, the GWCs spend considerable time discussing elements of graduate school life, survival in a department, teaching, the writing--and the presentation--of conference papers, issues of graduate retention, differences in genres, and more. They discuss these topics animatedly, with the involvement of developing professionals who intend to teach and publish, so they see all of our writing center work as highly relevant to them. These discussions would no doubt interest the undergraduates, but would distract them from the kinds of discussions they need to have.

While the graduates plan to look for faculty positions, for the most part, undergraduates go on to professions of all kinds, so tutoring, for many of them, is a calling they care greatly about, but they do not always see how immediately it will tie into their chosen professions. Graduate students see this right away. Paul and Lorelle went on to have very successful first years as GWCs, to work with a range of students, and to change forever the climate of and attitudes towards graduate writing in their departments. In the future articles to follow, the GWCs will provide an account of the significant changes brought about by the program in their lives and in the lives of their departments.

(This is the second article in a series on the Graduate Writing Consultant project at Marquette University. Part I, in the October WLN, covered the process that led to the current state of the project, along with guidelines for setting up such a program.)

English 298 Reading List (in chronological order):

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. Ch. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 13.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind'," Writing Centers: Theory and Administration. Ed. Gary A. Olson. Urbana: NCTE, 1984: 3-15.

Brooks, Jeff. "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work." Writing Lab Newsletter 15.6 (February, 1991).

Shamoon, Linda A., and Deborah H. Burns. "A Critique of Pure Tutoring." Writing Center Journal 15.2 (Spring, 1995): 134-51.

Flower, Linda. "Revising Writer-Based Prose." Journal of Basic Writing 3.3 (Fall/Winter, 1981): 62-74.

Fulwiler, Toby. "Provocative Revision." Writing Center Journal 12.2 (Spring, 1992): 190-204.

Elbow, Peter. "Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment." College English 55.2 (February, 1993): 187-206.

Bean, John C.. "Writing Comments on Student Papers." Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. 239-53.

Russell, David R. "Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis." Written Communication 14.4 (October, 1997): 504-54.

Bruce, Shanti, and Ben Rafoth. ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. Ch. 1, 2, 4, 5, 11.

Sloan, Jay D. "Centering Difference: Student Agency and the Limits of 'Comfortable' Collaboration." Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists 8.2 (Spring, 2003): 63-74.

Melix, Barbara. "From Outside, In." Georgia Review 41 (Summer, 1987): 258-67. Elbow, Peter. "Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process." College English 45 (1983): 327-39.

Elbow, Peter. "The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing." College Composition and Communication 57.4 (June, 2006): 620-66.

Leverenz, Carrie Shively. "Graduate Students in the Writing Center." The Politics of Writing Centers. Ed. Jane Nelson and Kathy Evertz. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook, 2001: 50-61.

Rose, Mike, and Karen A. McClafferty, "A Call for the Teaching of Writing in Graduate Education." Educational Researcher (March, 2001): 27-33.

Powers, Judith K. "Assisting the Graduate Thesis Writer Through Faculty and Writing Center Collaboration."

Welch, Nancy. "Migrant Rationalities: Graduate Students and the Idea of Authority in the Writing Center." Writing Center Journal 16.1 (Fall, 1995): 5-23.

Black, Laurel Johnson. "Gender and Conferencing." Between Talk and Teaching: Reconsidering the Writing Conference. Logan: Utah State UP, 1998. Ch. 3.

Mazlish, Bruce. "The Art of Reviewing." Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 39.2 (February, 2001): 16-17.

Paula Gillespie, Paul Heidebrecht, Lorelle Lamascus

Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI
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Author:Gillespie, Paula; Heidebrecht, Paul; Lamascus, Lorelle
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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