By Mitch Nakaue
From the 6th through the 8th of November, four of the University Writing Fellows—Nick, Rebecca, Eamon and Jennifer—attended the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, held this year on the beautiful Mount Holyoke College campus. This year’s theme was “Leadership and Peer Tutoring: Hope, Vision, Collaboration, Action.” Nick, Rebecca and Eamon presented original research that they conducted last year in English 316, the course on writing theory and practice taken by all new Fellows. Their panel, “Questioning Authority: Exploring Traditional Institutional Boundaries in Peer Tutoring,” dealt with power dynamics and how institutions, predetermined ideas about student writers, and the doctrines of Composition and Rhetoric pedagogy are complicated, productively, by the sometimes unpredictable outcomes of the tutoring situation. Jennifer had modified her research into a workshop presentation titled “Collaborating with Campus Communities: Peer Revision in Students’ Social Settings”; in it, she asked session participants to consider the ways Writing Center resources could be mobilized in service of bringing peer revision strategies to students in the residential, social, extra-curricular, or non-curricular environments they inhabit.
I went along with the Fellows in my capacity as Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program, and it was a privilege watching them give professional, well-prepared and thoughtful presentations, ask rigorous and interesting questions, and respond to the other participants at the conference. We had a delightful time at Mount Holyoke and the village of South Hadley; we were blessed with unseasonably warm weather and the sight of lots of autumnal foliage; we enjoyed meeting and interacting with Writing Center professionals, tutors and administrators from around the country. As we were waiting in the airport to return to Madison, Rebecca and I discussed some of our experiences at the conference and reflected on some of the ideas we encountered there.
Q: What was the process of integrating your papers into a coherent panel?
Rebecca Rozek: Coordinating our three presentations started with reviewing our individual research projects. Initially, our proposal incorporated leadership through our individual questioning of canonical Writing Center literature and concepts. As a group, we had not seen each other’s presentations for months, so we met together to brainstorm exactly how we could infuse leadership into our research discussions. Collectively, we agreed that all three of our presentations sought to define leadership not as static and authoritative; rather, we envisioned leadership as a spectrum from a facilitator to an authority; these two positions are not mutually exclusive, but are effective ways to gesture towards different tutoring strategies.
Practicing our presentations at the OGE [a Writing Fellows Ongoing Education session] allowed other fellows to give us feedback on whether or not they could follow our mission of redefining leadership and questioning traditional Writing Center dichotomies. As we were practicing, Eamon described a kind of “telescopic” paradigm, whereas Nick’s presentation encouraged large-scale questioning of how we interact through institutional structures and endorse knowledge through our positions as peers, students, and tutors. My presentation served as an interpersonal example whereby we can investigate how preconceived notions of a tutee’s language ability can affect our conferencing techniques with native or non-native English speakers. Eamon concluded our sequence by questioning our global versus local tutoring strategies and how this divisive distinction may discourage the kind of sentence-level processing that we need to clearly articulate ideas. Overall, the feedback from the OGE helped us identify the overlapping points of our individual research and helped us design a coherent platform. Additionally, we also learned where we needed to better define our research terminology, where we could include more theoretical support (or exclude extraneous concepts), and how we could use other media to incorporate concrete examples into our panel.
Q: What surprised you the most about NCPTW?
RR: What surprised me most about the conference was the variation in institutional size. Because NCPTW is a national conference, I thought that the majority of schools represented would be larger research institutions. However, hearing presentations from colleges that had student bodies of 1,000 people or less brought up questions of Writing Center resources and tutor training that I never would have considered otherwise. How can you establish academic leadership through peer tutoring on a campus when the student body is small and over half commute to class? Will there be a physical space for the Writing Center, or will tutoring services primarily be online? What other student needs can a Writing Center fulfill? Interestingly enough, many smaller Writing Centers had adjunct specialist tutoring areas or even represented student organizations. Jennifer’s workshop attempted to expand the Writing Center beyond the typical academic boundaries of peer tutoring, but limited resources and a smaller student population may act as barriers to incorporating writing in other campus arenas.
Q: What did you expect the conference to be like? How did it pan out in reality?
RR: I expected that the conference would be an opportunity to showcase nationwide research on leadership and authority in writing tutoring. However, I found that the conference was more of a collaborative brainstorming session for ways to implement better training programs and generally more effective Writing Centers. I think that most of us were surprised by the response we received from our presentations, as our emphasis on original research distinguished our panel and our tutor training program from the presentations and training at other universities. While adopting a Writing Fellows Program in addition to having a Writing Center may not be feasible for all institutions, I think that the conference will enable smaller universities to expand their programs by carefully selecting certain ideas from the conference. More importantly, I realized some of my assumptions about the size, scope, and effectiveness of Writing Centers. I approached my research as a student from a large university, and identifying my own position will help me understand the limitations of my own research project.
Q: Tell me a little about the conference theme. Is leadership a useful or productive term to describe the work you do as a Writing Fellow? If we’re “transforming” the concept of leadership somehow, do we need a new word to describe what it is we do?
RR: As we met to try and merge our individual research projects into a panel, Nick, Eamon and I came across this problem of defining “leadership.” Our main source of challenging authority was actually deconstructing the very terms that we use to describe our tutoring strategies. . We found the term “leadership” to have the primary association of an authority or expert tutor, followed by the competing association of a leader as an enabler of facilitator. One of the main ways we “questioned authority” was to subvert the authoritarian associations of leadership in favor of highlighting the nuanced, “facilitator-like” connotation that figures more prominently when working with peers. Gesturing towards a leadership dichotomy is useful because we need to gauge our tutoring techniques by some standard; however, we need to realize that imagining leadership positions as static and exclusive does not represent how we actually tutor. I certainly have not been able to come up with a new word to reflect our transforming definition, but I would not be opposed to using a new term.