By Molly Rentscher, Arizona State University
Molly Rentscher, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows Program alum, is the coordinator of the Writing Center at Arizona State University’s West campus in Glendale, Arizona. In June of 2015, she received an MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul University.
On May 26, 2015, I was a graduate student at DePaul University, anxiously awaiting graduation and frantically applying for jobs. On this particular day, I was also preparing a professional development workshop for DePaul University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) staff when Natalie Smith’s Wcenter listserv post popped into my inbox:
In the past, I was fortunate to have the funds to offer both CRLA training as well as weekly writing specific tutor training—tutors, by the way, are paid to attend training. I know that luxury won’t be possible in the fall. I need some creative ideas for training writing tutors and providing on-going support when the weekly, hour-long meetings the tutors want and need simply aren’t possible.
I found Natalie’s post astonishing, and admittedly, perplexing.
I had difficulty relating to Natalie’s post because I received training as a Writing Fellow at UW-Madison and as a writing tutor at DePaul University that was robust, challenging, and engaging. At DePaul, for example, not only did I complete my own scholarly research project in a ten-week graduate-level course on writing center theory and pedagogy, but I was also maintaining an ePortfolio where I reflected on the (paid) leadership meetings, coffee and commenting sessions, and inservices I attended throughout the year. These experiences were crucial in teaching me how to collaborate with others to identify and define core practices, values, and beliefs that help create a strong sense of community in any program or workplace. And the training I received at UW-Madison in 2010 really did change my life. In English 316 (now called “English 403”), a semester-long seminar on tutoring writing across the curriculum, I learned how to think critically about writing and teaching, how to conduct research, and how to understand and talk about writing processes. Perhaps most importantly, I also found a supportive, intellectually stimulating community in the Writing Fellows program–something I didn’t even know I was searching for as a fine arts major at the time.
In August, all of the astonishment I first brought to Natalie Smith’s post dissipated when I accepted a position at Arizona State University. As the coordinator of ASU’s West campus Writing Center, I now find myself in the same pickle that Natalie and so many other writing center coordinators/directors describe. Arizona State University (ASU) recently went through another round of budget cuts, and our writing center budget in particular was chopped by 14 percent. This year, one of the areas we are trimming throughout our unit is tutor training; we currently develop and facilitate an annual, all-day staff meeting for tutors in August, and then each coordinator provides six paid, one-hour staff meetings per term. This means that I formally meet with my writing tutors six times throughout the semester for on-going professional development. When I heard this for the first time, I think I actually said, “come again?”
But, it’s in my nature to make lemonade from lemons, and so my question is, how to turn six hours into sixteen?
My Training Has Prepared Me for This
The irony here is that my hopefulness is only partly due to my nature. I received such rich writing tutor training that I feel confident I’ll find creative and productive solutions to this problem (and the many that will surely surface over the years). It will be hard work, but I know I’m up for the challenge.
Being responsible for the tutor training and on-going professional development of seven undergraduate tutors and one graduate tutor is such a privilege. Like so many administrators around the world, I know the transformative potential in good tutor training, whether it’s a seminar course, staff meetings throughout a term, or a combination of these approaches. In his 2006 CCCC paper, Harvey Kail affirms that “a course in peer tutor training and the experience of being a peer writing tutor serves many, many peer tutors not only as a transformational experience in itself but also as a portal through which they are able to situate themselves inside the center of academic life where they are better able to develop their talents as writers, readers, talkers, and listeners.” But given our current limitations at ASU, it’s also a puzzle, and it’s got me thinking: what does on-going professional development really mean? What do I want my staff to be able to do in the writing center and take with them when they leave the writing center? And most importantly, how much training is really necessary to accomplish these goals?
I know a few things. I want tutors to see the connection between their training and day-to-day tutoring practices. I want tutors to be able to apply writing center theory to their work. I want to promote collaboration and reflection. I want to increase awareness of and appreciation for diversity. I want to create a community where tutors motivate and support one another. And I want tutors to be able to talk about the skills, values, and abilities they are developing in the writing center.
Developing New Projects and Initiatives
Arizona State University (ASU) has five physical campuses throughout the Phoenix area. Each ASU physical campus and online has a Writing Center and a Student Success Center. These centers all belong to one unit, University Academic Success Programs (UASP), which is administratively housed within the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. UASP offers a range of free academic resources to support students, including subject area tutoring, writing tutoring, Supplemental Instruction, math labs, and academic mentors. The West campus Writing Center saw about 2400 30-minute tutoring appointments during the 2014-2015 academic year.
In a recent conversation with one of our associate directors, I learned that for a while she fought for a credit-bearing tutor training course, but has come to believe that it wouldn’t be the best model for our unit given our budget restrictions and that our student employees occupy such diverse tutoring positions (subject area tutors, Supplemental Instructors, academic mentors, and of course, writing tutors). Nonetheless, I think it’s important to develop a research-driven writing center at the West campus.
The good news is that I have quite a bit of autonomy to use the six hours in ways that I believe will best serve the writing tutors at the West campus. The topics of these six staff meetings have already been set for the Fall 2015 semester and include collaborating with international students, working with students with disabilities, and citation styles, among others. I also have the freedom to develop projects and initiatives outside these six hours (as long as they don’t require tutors to work extra hours). As I settle into my new position, I’m trying to brainstorm creative ways to provide professional development during our normal business hours, such as downtime projects for tutors to work on when they’re not meeting with student writers.
Unfortunately, tutors’ “shifts” never overlap in the West campus Writing Center, which makes tutor-to-tutor collaboration difficult. But on average, each tutor has one or two hours of downtime per week, and if possible, I would like to maximize this time. A few ideas I’m considering:
1. Have tutors set goals for themselves at the beginning of each term and allow them to work towards these goals during their downtime.
2. Compile a collection of texts about writing center theory and pedagogy (a good mix of short and long to account for time). Have tutors read a text and write a brief reflection.
3. Create an informal, electronic form that (a) asks tutors to briefly reflect on their tutoring successes and challenges, and (b) allows tutors to ask me questions about the writing center and their tutoring experiences. Have tutors complete this form at the end of each week.
4. Have tutors explore, write, and revise a Tutoring Philosophy.
5. Each student writer completes a paper evaluation after he/she meets with a tutor in the Writing Center. Give these evaluations to tutors throughout the term, and have tutors write formal reflections.
6. Have tutors create and maintain ePortfolios to represent their writing center work. I think this would help build community in our center; even though tutors’ shifts don’t overlap, tutors could read each other’s reflections and get to know one another this way.
For Readers of the Blog:
I think it’s important to brainstorm ideas with colleagues near and far when our budgets are cut, and I hope to continue the conversation that Natalie Smith started in May. I’m excited to hear from you in the comments section! How have you reimagined your tutor training to essentially “do more with less”? Administrators, what creative or innovate professional development opportunities exist in your program? Peer writing tutors, what do you most enjoy about the training you receive?