By Mike Haen
Mike Haen is an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center and a third-year PhD student in the Composition and Rhetoric program. He currently works as the Assistant Director for the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program and has previously worked as a writing center tutor at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.
Earlier this month, an interview published in The Chronicle of Higher Education revived a long-standing debate in the writing center community about non-directive and directive tutoring approaches. The Chronicle’s interview featured writing center director Lori Salem and her award-winning research, which aimed to better understand students’ decisions to use, or not use, the writing center. By conducting quantitative analyses of correlations between  writing center use and  individual variables (e.g., parents’ educational attainment; SAT scores) in Temple University’s 2009 incoming class, Salem found that “women, students of color, English language learners, and students with less ‘inherited merit’” were most likely to decide to use Temple’s center (p. 160).
Because these “less socially privileged” students (p. 158) use the center more often and because education research has shown that non-directive instruction—a hallmark of orthodox writing center pedagogy—is often most effective for “students with privilege and high academic standing” (p. 162), Salem suggests that we ought to rethink teaching practices that might miss the mark for less social privileged writers. In the Chronicle interview, Salem levels a similar critique against non-directive approaches, claiming that these approaches can be counterproductive for many students. In a subsequent letter to the editor, Salem criticized the Chronicle’s portrayal of her research and correctly explains how she is not the first scholar to call attention to problematic aspects of orthodox writing center teaching, especially being non-directive.
…Salem suggests that we ought to rethink teaching practices that might miss the mark for less social privileged writers.
I align with Salem’s concerns about the limits of non-directive tutoring for some students. And in this post, I want to sketch out an approach for helping tutors reflect on those limits and how those limits play out in real-time teaching. To reflect in this case involves tutors developing a more critical and in-depth understanding of their interactional practices and most importantly, how those practices fit with their pedagogical values. I use pedagogical values to generally refer to tutors’ beliefs or commitments about writing center teaching. For example, tutors might believe that non-directive approaches are ineffective when helping non-native English-speaking writers with lower-order concerns (e.g., grammar). In fact, the Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors (2015) warns that non-directive tutoring can “fall flat” and frustrate many writers (p. 106).
Preference: A Concept for Unpacking Tutoring Conversations
My rough sketch of this approach is grounded in the concept of preference, which is adapted from the field of Conversation Analysis (CA). CA focuses on how interlocutors contribute to conversation through taking turns, which means that one participant typically talks at a time and alternates with another. As the participants take turns, they are making sense of each other’s contributions to the conversation (Sidnell). Their turns and contributions build and accomplish certain actions, such as giving advice or complaining (Sidnell 122).
Central to the idea of preference is that interlocutors follow certain principles “when they act and react in a variety of interactional situations,” or as they take turns talking (Pomerantz and Heritage, 2013, p. 234). Familiarizing tutors with preference will be most beneficial when preparing them to video-record, transcribe, and review their sessions—either by themselves or in a group of peers—as part of a training or professional development activity. Such activities are employed at many writing centers, and a foundational approach to transcription (which I also model in this post) can be found in a 2003 Writing Center Journal article (Gilewicz & Thonus, 2003).
Central to the idea of preference is that interlocutors follow certain principles “when they act and react in a variety of interactional situations,” or as they take turns talking (Pomerantz and Heritage, 2013, p. 234).
The term ‘preference’ does not refer to what might be understood as psychological preferences, or what any speaker likes or dislikes in their own mind. Instead, it refers to the structural relationship between speakers’ turns in a sequence of talk. And so, for understanding writing center tutorials, preference is useful because it can draw attention to the ways that interactional practices are organized when addressing different writing issues (e.g., local and global concerns) and when working with different types of students.
In everyday interactions (between friends, family, and acquaintances), conversation analysts have shown that when a first speaker does some action, like giving advice (‘You might do X’) and the second speaker accepts the advice (‘That makes sense’), the second speaker has produced a preferred (or aligned) response to the first speaker’s action (60). A dispreferred response would be rejection. Generally, analysts observe preferred responses more frequently than dispreferred ones. Because a central goal of social interaction is to promote solidarity between interlocutors, it makes sense that talkers follow principles that promote the agreement, alignment, or affiliation indicative of preferred responses.
Using a simple example from data I’ve collected during a past study, I’ll briefly illustrate what it looks like for a responding interlocutor (in this case, a writer with the pseudonym Joy) to produce a preferred response. When Jen (tutor) asks a ‘yes/no’ question (marked ‘Q’) that is typically observed in agenda-setting stages of tutorials, Joy’s responding action (marked ‘A’) indicates agreement and constitutes a preferred response to Jen’s question.
As shown above, Jen’s question proposes a typical activity done in tutorials and Joy aligns or agrees with (indicated by ‘sure’) Jen’s initiating action. However, in writing center talk, not all sequences exhibit the relative simplicity that most question-answer sequences like the one above does. In advice-giving sequences, for example, tutors and writers are doing more than just moving towards solidarity. In those stretches of interaction, they follow a specific kind of principle, or preference, which I outline below.
Preference in Advice-Giving
One comprehensive conversation-analytic study (Waring, 2012) has examined how preference operates in advice-giving during writing center talk. That study looked at 74 tutor-initiated advice-giving sequences and found that those sequences generally adhered to a preference for (or a principle of) “tutee- initiated solutions” (p. 97). That is, when a tutor start a new sequence, that tutor’s initial turns create interactional space for the tutee (or writer) to offer a solution (or infer advice) to a problem that the tutor has identified. Furthermore, the tutors’ observed interactional practices (e.g., turns-at-talk) in Waring’s study are quite reflective of what the writing center community describes as being non-directive.
The transcript and video segment of a tutoring moment shown below exemplifies Waring’s findings on how preference operates in advice-giving (2012). The tutor (Jen) points out a problem with the following sentence in Joy’s paper: “It fulfills the criteria with little inconsistencies to be closer to fulfilling complete and ideal journalism.” Notice in the talk how Jen reiterates the problem with the sentence (marked with ‘P’) three times throughout the sequence (lines 02-03; 07-09; 17-19) and withholds straightforward advice/solutions (marked with ‘S’) about how to revise the sentence. This example, like the first, comes from my own data. Numbers in parentheses indicate seconds of silence and words inside double parentheses indicate participants doing some reading aloud.
Example 2 (Corresponding Video)
Much can be said about this stretch of talk and clip, but the important point for the purposes of this post is that after Jen’s three descriptions of the problem, it is not until line 26 when Joy produces a solution to the problem and Jen approves that solution as adequate. Although Jen offers what could be interpreted as a solution in line 13, she reiterates the problem again (line 17) and seems to task Joy with articulating with the solution, or revision to the sentence. You also might have noticed the long pauses in the talk, which echo Waring’s findings that tutors often provide space for “tutee-volunteered solutions by withholding advice” (p. 109). This example is also thought-provoking because it deals with a lower-order concern (e.g., sentence-structure) as opposed to a global concern (e.g., argument; organization). Being non-directive (to use terms of writing center researchers like Salem) to help with lower-order concerns is arguably counterproductive in many cases, especially for students who lack knowledge of formal English grammar rules and are likely to struggle with producing their own solution and/or inferring the tutor’s advice.
Reflecting on the Fit Between Pedagogical Values and Interactional Practices
I hope this post has offered new insights about tutoring talk—especially how tutors regularly structure their talk to elicit tutee-inferred solutions. For tutors, transcribing a moment of their video-recorded tutoring, observing their interactional practices, and familiarizing themselves with conversation-analytic concepts like preference, can create opportunities for them to critically reflect on the fit between their pedagogical values and their interactional practices.
For tutors, transcribing a moment of their video-recorded tutoring, observing their interactional practices, and familiarizing themselves with conversation-analytic concepts like preference, can create opportunities for them to critically reflect on the fit between their pedagogical values and their interactional practices.
For example, if Jen (and I don’t mean to bash her approach here) were to reflect on her pedagogical values (e.g., her beliefs about being non-directive) in relation to the above example, she might ponder the following questions: How does the structure of her talk in this moment align, or not align, with how preference has been shown to operate operate in advice-giving sequences? How would she describe the fit between her values (her pedagogical beliefs) and her interactional practices in this moment? What might she think about doing differently in similar or different interactional contexts and why? The self-reflection facilitated by these types of questions can help tutors see their interactional practices from a distance, build a stronger sense of their pedagogical commitments or values, and better understand how those values are reflected in their actual practice.
Regardless of your stance on non-directive tutoring as a pedagogical approach, we ought to equip tutors with tools and concepts to systematically examine and reflect on their practices, so they might find opportunities for rethinking and reimagining their values, assumptions, and actions—and how they fit together.
Featured Image From: www.kairos.com/blog/56-facial-recognition-research-groups-to-watch
Gilewicz, M., & Thonus, T. (2003). Close vertical transcription in writing center training and research. Writing Center Journal, 24, 40-55.
Fitzgerald, L., & Ianetta, M. (2015). The Oxford guide for writing tutors: Practice and research. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mackiewicz, J., & Thompson, I. K. (2015). Talk about writing: The tutoring strategies of experienced writing center tutors. New York: Routledge.
Pomerantz, A., & Heritage, J. (2013). Preference. In J. Sidnell and T. Stivers (Eds.) The Handbook of Conversation Analysis (pp. 234-249). Wiley-Blackwell.
Salem, L. (2017). Decisions…decisions: Who chooses to use the writing center? The Writing Center Journal 35 (2): 147-171.
Sidnell, J. (2013). Basic Conversation Analytic Methods. In J. Sidnell and T. Stivers (Eds.) The Handbook of Conversation (pp. 234-249). Wiley-Blackwell.
Waring, H. Z. (2012). The advising sequence and its preference structures in graduate peer tutoring in an American university. In H. Limberg & M. A. Locher (Eds.), Advice in discourse (pp. 97-118). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.