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Untapped resource: former tutors training current writing center tutors.

In the spring, when I see experienced tutors graduate, I think of T S. Eliot's line, "April is the cruelest month" (1.1) Although, as a long-time director, I am pleased for the graduating students, I lament the loss of these graduates' tutorial talents that have developed over many terms. These departing tutors--before they had left the center--placed in a notebook for all to read short "Advice to the Future" essays, directed to the current and incoming consultants, detailing two or three suggestions for success. These short essays, however, did not adequately tap into the departing tutors' talents and expertise. So, I invited back to campus four former tutors (whose experience as a group added up to fifteen years) so that they could speak to the current tutors.

Writing center scholarship abounds with advice about using currently employed, experienced tutors to train and/or mentor newly hired workers. In Noise from the Center Elizabeth Boquet describes how new and returning tutors underwent a summer training session together. In "Tutor Training Comes Full Circle: From E-marl to Practicum and Back Again," Matthew D. Klauza explains how to use current tutors to mentor new ones through e-mail. The most popular training books (Gillespie and Lerner; Ryan and Zimmerelli; Caposselia) also stress the value of having new tutors observe other tutors. There is, however, a relatively under-utilized resource for training: using former tutors who are now pursuing advanced degrees in graduate school, enjoying careers, or flourishing in home life. Bradley Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Karl have demonstrated that former tutors not only acquire expertise for their careers but also come to understand how a liberal arts education benefits their lives. The graduated tutors whom I invited back included those who were were now pursuing advanced degrees (Ph.D. in Physical Therapy and a Masters in Sociology), teaching high school English, or staying home as parents after being a computer technician.

During the session, I was expecting the graduated tutors would merely pass along practical advice, such as tips for successful tutoring and writing center skills useful for post-graduation. Indeed, one current tutor did comment after the session, "The information from the veteran tutors showed me new ideas for consulting techniques and gave me a perspective on what they took away from their experiences in the center." But the meeting accomplished far more: it reinforced the value of reflection, helped current tutors find greater significance in their work, and showed that being a tutor means establishing a "deeper human connection" (Johnson 8) between themselves and the clients they serve.


As the close encounter between graduated tutors and current ones began, the first few questions focused on the veterans' experiences as tutors. The former tutors' stories established a bond between the two groups, a "comradeship" (Johnson 7) where equals meet and talk about their common experiences, not unlike what also happens in tutorials when clients and tutors connect and support each other. For instance, the veterans shared their favorite types of tutorials as well as "horror" stories. One past tutor, Kathy, enjoyed working with writers who just needed encouragement because, as she explained, she and her client together "were working on ideas not being distracted by out-of-place commas." The horror stories, too, forged bonds, with the veterans describing some of their worst experiences. Sally and the current tutors connected when she told about the client who would not be corrected when he wrote that Ahab was the name of the whale in Melville's Moby-Dick. Establishing links through such stories had an immediate advantage. When workers who are doing or who have completed the same jobs meet, they often exchange strategies. Here, with a rapport established, current tutors were more than receptive to learning from the veterans.


Hearing the narratives also encouraged current tutors to reflect on their own experiences. Reflection on the meaning of an event is, indeed, a prime way to develop as a human being (Frankl). As Pat Belanoff argues in her article "Silence: Reflection, Literacy, Learning, and Teaching," reflection can direct one to a "changed concept of one's actions and the actions of others, which leads to a change in individual and group action" (416), exactly what directors desire for all tutors. The veterans' telling about the worst experiences fostered this reflective process, with current tutors seeing that they were not alone in their problems. As one current tutor noted, "I realized the things I am struggling with are inherent to the job, which encouraged me."


Another advantage of meeting the veteran tutors was that the current ones saw that they are part of a long line of student workers hired by the center over the years, student workers who share characteristics, all of which point to an identity as a writing tutor. From listening to the veterans, current tutors learned one part of this identity is being able to deal with both pleasant and not-so-pleasant situations. While thoughtful clients will return to tell tutors how the papers turned out, there will also be those students who refuse to listen to advice. The veteran Terry provided an example of the latter: "A writer brought his short story, but it had so many spelling and grammar problems. He claimed, though, that he was an artist so he did not have to edit." A major part of being tutors, then, is handling every kind of client, from the grateful to the recalcitrant. The veterans demonstrated another part of the tutors' identity: all tutors grow. When the past tutors first started to work in the center, they faced problems that allowed them to develop into tutors, the same evolution the current tutors were encountering. Mary, for example, told the current tutors, "I was afraid to tell clients, 'I don't know the answer.' If you don't know, tell the client that you will research it and ask the student to return later." Terry added a new angle to how tutors develop--they will become extremely sensitive to clients' problems: "I did not like working with those who just came as a requirement. They were hostile. I just tried not to take it home with me." The veterans' insight into the characters of student writers revealed the all-too-human struggles shaping tutors as they grow into more experienced writing center workers. Besides learning about human interactions, the center also molds tutors' knowledge, providing them with experiences not readily available elsewhere. Mary stressed she had learned from her many clients: "Working in the Center was like being in a class without paying for it." Terry provided the current tutors with a slightly different view: "Working in the Center I began to understand the struggles teachers were handling." Thus, being a tutor means gaining an education from others as well as obtaining valuable insight into the academy itself.


In addition to reflecting on experiences and understanding tutorial identities, the former tutors placed writing center work into a larger perspective--tutoring "[has] a purpose that brings about a deeper human connection" (Johnson 8). Because of their work, the veterans developed vital interpersonal skills that helped them to relate to others. Sally explained: "I am more diplomatic. In graduate school, when we have to write a group paper, I have learned how to rephrase suggestions, such as 'Should it go more like this ... '." Kathy, a high school English teacher, connected her tutoring to her career: "When I help my own high school students, I am like a consultant now." The veteran tutors' comments provided the current tutors with an additional point about connecting with other human beings: valuing each client. In her article "Existentialism in the Writing Center: Tutors' Searching for Meaning," Peggy Johnson explains: "[T]utors [should] see as much dignity and value in the literacy and life experiences of others different from them as they see in their own" (8). Sally, the veteran, talked about learning that "I can appreciate others' styles of writing. I realized that they didn't have to write as I do." For Terry, her tutorial work meant she has been a better parent: "I avoid the Mommy Mold when I help my eight-year-old son with his book reports. Instead of pushing to help him get an 'A,' I am trained to help him to help himself." Such emphatic engagement became, then, a key feature of these tutors' identifies.


The former tutors were equally eager to provide advice on how working in the center transfers beyond the college's ivied walls. Kathy described an immediate, practical benefit: "From being in the Center, I could get part-time jobs while I was going to graduate school. It was handy to have on the resume." Terry, with the most work experience, offered insights into how writing center tutoring is invaluable in the corporate world: "I have also used my tutoring to my advantage because I have a skill other workers do not possess. If I help others like my boss, they remember, and they like that I helped them not to look like an idiot." For current tutors, the veterans opened up the future.


The meeting of the two groups was more than a one-way street. Just as current tutors took information back to their daily work, so did the veterans. Kathy reported, "Meeting current tutors rejuvenated my love for helping others with their writing. I plan to include more writing workshops and mini-grammar lessons in my English classes." The meeting of veterans and current tutors was, therefore, a session of mutual support, like any writing center tutorial where clients and tutors learn from each other.


Because other directors might also want to bring back veterans, here is some practical advice on setting up this special session. Luckily, my center had kept a fairly up-to-date list of former tutors' e-mails so it was easy to contact those who had remained in the area. Thus, directors should ask more veterans than needed; sure enough, one of the former tutors canceled at the last minute for the all-important reason of having a job interview. Naturally, I made sure to leave enough time during the meeting so current tutors could also ply the veterans with their own inquiries. Finally, this useful encounter between the two types of tutors occurred about two months before graduation, so tutors expecting to receive a diploma would be especially interested in the meeting with graduates. All training sessions can also be improved. After the questions, it would have been useful to break the meeting into smaller groups, assigning one veteran tutor to a group composed of just a handful of current tutors so there could be even more interaction. And more time could been have scheduled for the veterans and current tutors to mingle socially, over snacks and sodas (if only the school would have allowed the meeting room to be used this way).


It is true that directors could avoid all the effort of locating graduated tutors by merely reminding their current staff about how working in the center is useful. However, it is hard for directors to compete with the unimpeachable authority of former tutors, as one current tutor voiced to me: "You had told us the benefits of working in the Center, but here in these former tutors we can see how the benefits carry over." The power of peer-to-peer is strong, especially because of the veterans' vivid stories and anecdotes. As a result, the graduated tutors and the current ones formed a team of shared concerns, interests, and goals, all re-enforcing a key concept for any center: the need for "human interdependence" (Burmeister 15).

Works Cited

Belanoff, Pat. "Silence: Reflection, Literacy, Learning, and Teaching." College Composition and Communication 52.3 (2001): 399-428. Print.

Burmeister, Beth. "Letter from the President." Southern Discourse 13.1 (2009): 15-16. Print.

Boquet, Elizabeth H. Noises from the Center Logan: Utah State UP, 2002. Print.

Capossela, Toni-Lee. Harcourt Brace Guide to Peer Tutoring. New York: Harcourt, 1998. Print.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. 1922. Web. 23 June 2013.

Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square, 1959. Print.

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 2004. Print.

Hughes, Bradley, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail. "What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing tutor Alumni Research Project." Writing Center Journal 30.2 (2010): 12-46. Print.

Johnson, Peggy. "Existentialism in the Writing Center: Tutors' Searching for Meaning." Writing Lab Newsletter 28.9 (2004): 6-9. Print.

Klauza, Matthew D. "Tutor Training Comes Full Circle: From E-mail to Practicum and Back Again." Writing Lab Newsletter 35.2 (2010): 1-5. Print.

Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010. Print.

Bonnie Devet

College of Charleston, Charleston, SC
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Author:Devet, Bonnie
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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