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Tutoring graduate students in the writing center.


Graduate and professional students must learn new ways of writing, yet many of their programs offer little assistance. Writing center tutoring can help. Although pairing tutor and tutee from the same discipline works best, tutors from other disciplines can be effective if they respect the tutee' s expertise in her own field. Center administrators can offer workshops, organize dissertation groups, and arrange for tutors, students, and thesis advisors to work collaboratively. Research on this issue is sparse; more research should be done to ascertain effective tutoring practices.


Ten years before I attended graduate school in English, I went to law school. For the first legal writing assignment, I proudly turned in a paper rife with the characteristics that, I felt, had gotten me "As" in college English courses: close readings of wording, fancy language, and a pull-out-the-stops conclusion. To my horror, it was returned with the brusque comment that it lacked the prescribed legal form and style. I' d just had my first brush with the disciplinary conventions graduate and professional students encounter as they learn to write--and think--as professionals in their fields.

Many graduate students have similar experiences. Whether or not they are in a field requiring extensive writing, graduate students must take writing seriously, not just to make themselves understood but because writing in a discipline is intimately linked with thinking, reasoning, and persuading effectively in it. Besides, jobs in academia can be scarce, and well-written application documents and a record of publications give candidates an edge. The university writing center can help students make the transition from being smart undergraduates to being professionals. In this article, I summarize studies of graduate students as writing center tutees. I then describe many graduate students' writing concerns, then turn to the question whether a tutor and tutee must be from the same discipline. Finally, I outline approaches various writing center administrators have taken when working with graduate students. Since non-native speaker graduate students have sparked considerable scholarly interest, I concentrate here on native speakers, who have not.

Although a handful of articles and book chapters offer personal anecdotes about working with graduate students and tips on effective tutoring, only a few actual studies exist on graduate student tutees. Judith Nelson and Jane Powers surveyed various graduate institutions across the country regarding their work with native and non-native speaker graduate students. Writing center administrators reported that native speakers most often requested help with organization, style and content; tutors noted many students' general misunderstanding with the writing process and sometimes of the expectations of their disciplines. Survey respondents emphasized that writing centers need more interdisciplinary staff and increased access to faculty across the disciplines, and should train tutors in writing across the disciplines and in tutoring graduate students. The university as a whole should show more commitment to teaching writing and better fund writing centers. Finally, students need to understand the writing process better and to come in earlier (113-38).

Two scholars conducted conversational analyses of sessions between two graduate students where tutor and tutee came from different disciplines. Roger M. Munger noted that the graduate student presented herself as a novice but then resisted tutor suggestions. He concludes, unsurprisingly, that the framework of tutor as expert and tutee as novice did not neatly fit graduate-graduate writing center sessions (cite). Hansun Zhang Waring also examined tutee resistance. In the session she analyzed, the tutee "advice resist[ed]" (141) by invoking authorities in her field, asserting her own agenda, and minimizing the import of the tutor's advice. Having the tutor know discipline-specific content would be advantageous, the author suggests. If that is not possible, in order to preempt potential resistance the tutor should elicit the tutee's perspective fully before he or she delivers advice (163-64).

An informal case study of a graduate student's longtime tutoring relationship with another graduate student led Carrie Leverenz to conclude that tutors whose expertise is in English can help graduate students learn grammar, punctuation, and other writing-related areas. They also can "offer cogent critiques of the academic institution's exclusionary practices," she claims (60). Most importantly, tutors from other disciplines can give graduate students the chance to discuss both content and form with a sophisticated, interested fellow academic. Graduate tutors and tutees can form intense intellectual relationships, where students both get help with their writing and share their newfound professional expertise with their tutors. Leverenz concludes, "If knowledge making is akin to conversation, and if language learning is ultimately relational, then it stands to reason that writing centers should be at the center of the professionalization enterprise" (60).

As the Powers and Nelson and Leverenz studies point out, graduate students' writing woes stem from various causes. These students usually are motivated and hard working. Yet just as freshmen often have trouble adjusting to college writing, graduate students rarely write like professionals in their discipline when they enter graduate school. Freshmen must take first-year composition courses; graduate students, too, need introductory writing courses in their own particular disciplines. When they reach the stage of the daunting thesis or dissertation, a discipline-specific writing course or workshop would be welcome as well. Yet their departments may not offer these courses. Powers and Nelson received too few answers to report when they asked about availability of courses in graduate research writing or dissertation/thesis writing With no writing courses are available, students seeking writing help within their field tend to rely on individual professors and advisors. Some professors help, and some don't. Professors may have specific writing quirks which conflict with disciplinary conventions in the field or with another committee member's writing requirements. Also, since few professors have been trained in writing themselves, sometimes a professor finds a student's writing unsatisfactory but cannot pin down why or teach a alternative. Powers reports that one student arrived for a tutorial with a paper bearing the directive "This is wrong. See the writing center to fix it" ("Assisting" 13). Students unceremoniously dispatched to the center in this manner may be embarrassed to be there and resistant, at least initially, to tutoring (Farrell 4).

Students' writing issues vary. Native speaker graduate students may lack mastery of basic writing skills, such as proper sentence structure. Writers, even native speakers, also sometimes request word-for-word editing that writing centers will not provide. Most commonly, though, students who visit the center are struggling to learn conventions of their discipline, the terminology, the "moves" commonly made in scholarly articles. When students begin the master's thesis or PhD dissertation, new challenges emerge. The form is new. How do you write a literature review in your particular field? How do you synthesize and organize so much complicated information? What do you do when you can't find an APA citation form for the arcane document you're using?

Since students often need discipline-specific help, it seems preferable that tutors be from the students' own fields, as respondents in the Powers and Nelson study suggest and as the Munger and Waring studies imply. Tutoring students in disciplines other than the tutor's own may make tutors uncomfortable. Powers writes, "More often than we liked to admit perhaps, we were unable to assist thesis and dissertation writers in substantive ways because we could not understand their material or their disciplines well enough to be sure we would help them locate' real' problems and would give them good advice or reinforce good solutions" ("Assisting" 13). Munger and Waring's studies show that the tutee may not enjoy the experience, either. Undergraduate tutors in particular sometimes feel unequipped to handle the complexities of graduate student work. Some large universities employ tutors who are experts in the field--for example, the University of Texas School of Law and Texas' LBJ School of Public Affairs. But smaller schools may have trouble finding such tutors, and paying for them.

To circumvent tutor expertise lack, Judith Powers invented a process her center termed "trialogue." The center established initial contact with a student's thesis or dissertation advisor prior to conferencing on drafts. The tutor and advisor discussed where the student was in the writing process and what the advisor hoped the conferences with the student would accomplish. Center staff periodically contacted the advisor as they worked with the student ("Assisting" 15). While this approach means that the tutor and student have a resource with expertise and a way of checking that the student is fulfilling her advisor's expectations, several objections could arise. Leverenz claims that a tutor must "remain positioned as a student advocate, free from any direct obligation to fulfill faculty members' expectations" (57). If this is a particular writing center's orientation, then the "trialogue" approach introduces an unacceptable level of collusion with the faculty member. Besides, some faculty members will refuse to participate--ironically, perhaps, the very ones who hope to dispatch their students to the writing center to get their "wrong" writing "fixed."

Of course, as Leverenz emphasizes, those not trained in the graduate student's specific discipline can often point out vital rhetorical issues. In fact, a cohort of Missouri graduate students in writing-center led dissertation groups preferred to be in groups with members of other disciplines. This group structure eliminated competition and required the students to write in a jargon-free and clear manner so that group members in other fields could understand their writing (Fitzgerald, Mulvihill, and Dobson 137). Lissa Peterson notes that although she tries to pair tutees with tutors based on discipline, tutors from another discipline can be effective as well. The Munger and Waring studies, though, make it clear that tutors from other disciplines need to acknowledge and respect the tutee's greater disciplinary expertise, ask the tutee what she needs and then listen to her, and realize when she is advice-resisting. By asking challenging questions about the content and organization of students' writing projects yet treating them like professionals, tutors can sharpen students' craftsmanship and boost their confidence.

In addition to one-on-one tutoring, many writing centers offer workshops for graduate and professional students on, for example, research proposal writing and dissertation writing. Besides on-line handouts geared towards graduate students, the University of Mississippi's writing center offers workshops on abstract, proposal, and dissertation writing and on keeping motivated through graduate school. Other university writing centers hold workshops or minicourses on grant writing, oral presentations, literature reviews, and overcoming writer's block. Other university writing center administrators have set up dissertation writing groups. Some engage faculty members directly in the center's work; Lissa Peterson, then of the Claremont Graduate School writing center, arranged panels of faculty members to discuss their own writing techniques and what they considered good writing. The panels interested students and helped combat the faculty misperception that the center was remedial. Interestingly, the advice professors gave was rarely discipline-specific or even graduate student specific; any writing tutor would suggest, as these professors did, that a student take advantage of a professor's offer to read drafts, write clearly, and so on. It seems that the professors themselves, as Powers puts it elsewhere, "presumed a sort of generic, all-purpose rhetoric underlying academic writing, rather than the actual multiparadigm, multidiscipline community that exists in research writing" ("Helping"). Peterson noted that she planned workshops on more focused topics in the future.

Despite the little empirical work on graduate student tutees, practitioners' experiences and the existing research do suggest some conclusions. Many students need guidance to become strong professional writers, and many programs and professors don't or can't give it, as Nelson and Powers' survey found. Writing center tutors can assist graduate students in various ways, from teaching them punctuation to acting as sympathetic but critical ears as tutees talk out their ideas. While tutor and tutee may communicate best if they share common disciplinary knowledge, as Munger and Waring imply, a tutor who solicits and draws out a student's disciplinary knowledge and resists taking on the role of expert can accomplish much as well. For their part, students need to understand the importance of graduate writing and the recursive nature of the writing process, come in earlier, and be aware that thinking of themselves as novices can be unproductive. Graduate departments and professors would do well to increase writing teaching, not just offering standard writing advice but teaching and modeling effective specialized document preparation. University administrators, too, should act on their ubiquitous stated commitment to good communication by making graduate writing skills a priority. Finally, as Leverenz concludes, tutoring graduate students in the writing center results in an enjoyable synergy between tutor and tutee, making each better writers and better scholars.

Conferences between motivated professionals are a good model for making new knowledge--better than agonistic discourse. And that's why, twenty years after that first law school paper came back, I find myself a writing center coordinator.

Works Cited

Farrell, John Thomas. "Some of the Challenges to Writing Centers Posed by Graduate Students." Writing Lab Newsletter 8.8 (1984): 3-5.

Fitzgerald, Sallyanne, Peggy Mulvihill, and Ruth Dobson. "Meeting the Needs of Graduate Students: Writing Support Groups in the Center." The Writing Center: New Directions. Eds. Ray Wallace and Jeanne Simpson. New York: Garland, 1991. 133-44.

Leverenz, Carrie Shively. "Graduate Students in the Writing Center: Confronting the Cult of (Non) Expertise." The Politics of Writing Centers. Eds. Jane Nelson and Kathy Everz. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann/Boynton-Cook, 2001. 50-61.

Munger, Roger M. "Asymmetries of Knowledge: What Tutor-Student Interactions Tell Us About Expertise." Presentation. Cone On Coll. Composition and Communication. Milwaukee, March 1996.

Peterson, Lissa. "Engaging the Faculty: A Successful Strategy." Presentation. Annual International Writing Center Conference. St. Louis, 1995.

Powers, Judith K. "Assisting the Graduate Thesis Writer Through Faculty and Writing Center Collaboration." Writing Lab Newsletter 20.2 (1995): 13-17.

--. "Helping the Graduate Thesis Writer Through Faculty and Writing Center Collaboration." Presentation. Conf. On Coll. Composition and Communication. San Diego, April 1993.

Powers, Judith K, and Jane V. Nelson. "L2 Writers and the Writing Center: A National Survey of Writing Center Conferencing at Graduate Institutions." Journal of Second Language Writing 4.2 (1995): 113-38.

Waring, Hansun Zhang. "Peer Tutoring in a Graduate Writing Centre: Identity, Expertise, and Advice Resisting." Applied Linguistics 26.2 (2005): 141-68.

Julie Garbus, University of Northern Colorado

Julie Garbus, an assistant professor of English, coordinates the University of Northern Colorado's Writing Center.
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Author:Garbus, Julie
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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