Peer Tutoring and the Serious Work of Undergraduate Scholarship

Samantha Stowers, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, Samantha Lasko, and the author after their presentation.

Samantha Stowers, Rachel Herzl-Betz, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, and Samantha Lasko.

By Rachel Herzl-Betz

Rachel Herzl-Betz is an Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she has been a tutor and administrator since 2012. She is also a PhD candidate in Literary Studies, with a focus on Victorian Literature and Disability Studies. 

I’ve always been a fan of academic conferences. At their best, they offer an unprecedented chance for scholars, students, and practitioners to step out of their individual institutions and connect with the wider intellectual community. We often become so ensconced in our own contexts that we forget the possibilities being put into practice one state, one city, or even one neighborhood away.

This opportunity for communication and connection represents just one of the many reasons why I was so excited to travel with five undergraduate University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Fellows to the 2015 National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW) in Salt Lake City. From November 5th-8th, Samantha Lasko, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, Hannah Locher, Samantha Stowers, and I had the chance to take in more than 100 panels by tutors, administrators, and writing scholars following the conference theme: (De)Center: Testing Assumptions about Peer Tutoring and Writing Centers.

Christine Modey gives her NCPTW presentation on "Mini-Courses to Develop Tutors’ Expertise."

Christine Modey of the University of Michigan Sweetland Center for Writing gives an NCPTW presentation on “Mini-Courses to Develop Tutors’ Expertise.”

Since we couldn’t take the whole Writing Center community with us to the conference, we have set a up this blog post as a kind of mini panel. Two fellows— Hannah Locher and Samantha Stowers—each offered to discuss one takeaway from their experience. Hannah writes about a realization she had during the conference, while Samantha addresses the larger professionalization process, but both engage with what it means to put a research project in conversation with tutors from across the country and across the world.

While NCPTW may have lasted four days, the research projects the fellows presented began more than a year ago. At UW-Madison, Fellows work closely with ten to fifteen students, for whom they provide extensive feedback, both on paper and in person. To prepare for their work, all new Fellows enroll in English 403, a three-credit honors seminar on tutoring writing across curriculum taught either by Assistant Director, Annika Konrad, or by Director, Emily Hall. In the course, each Fellow completes a substantive empirical research project that explores an issue related to tutoring or teaching writing. All five presentations that traveled to NCPTW grew out of research projects for this course, after they were first adapted into power points and Prezis for their colleagues, then into conference proposals, and finally into professional conference papers.

Chelsea Felsik gives her presentation.

Chelsea Fesik gives an NCPTW presentation on high-achieving writers.

Our group presented on two separate panels, each of which was received with enthusiasm and generous questions. Samantha Lasko, Julia Boles, Chelsea Fesik, and Samantha Stowers each took part in a panel entitled “Touring the Peer Writing Conference: Empirical Studies on Student Stress and Conference Dynamics.” Samantha Lasko spoke on fostering a writerly identity in students, Julia Boles presented on the value of productive interruption, Chelsea Fesik spoke on the anxiety of high-achieving writers, and Samantha Stowers presented on student stress. Hannah Locher presented on a separate panel on “Work In Progress: The Connection Between Writing and Work.”

Hannah Locher on the “Many Incarnations” of the Writing Center

Since our panels took place at the same time, Hannah had the pleasure of introducing the UW Fellows Program herself. When asked what she had found surprising about the conference process, she spoke about the contrast between the system she had come to know and the variety of ways that Writing Centers are organized throughout the country:

Hannah Locher presents on the relationship between work and the writing process.

Hannah Locher presents on the relationship between work and the writing process.

“As a Writing Fellow at UW – Madison, we are exposed to the ideas of a Writing Fellows program and writing centers as academic spaces during our time in English 403. Given the nature of our program, it is easy to forget that there are bound to be differences between the many incarnations of Writing Centers and Fellowing programs. At NPTCW, the words “writing center” and “Writing Fellows” occurred naturally, but as the conference progressed, I realized no one had defined these terms in the context of this event. Every Writing Center serves the obvious purpose of providing writing feedback and assistance for students at the institution, but the story is more intricate in reality.

NCPTW made me aware of a few types of writing centers. First, there’s the type similar to ours at UW, where trained graduate students work in the writing center by meeting with students who have made appointments. The next is a bit different, and employs both undergraduate and graduate students as tutors in their center. Instead of only graduate students who are trained writing tutors who have more authority, there are also writing centers that add peer tutors to the mix. Finally, there are writing centers that require undergraduate students pursuing degrees that relate to writing tutoring/studies to work as a tutor in the writing center.

The most common type of Writing Fellow differed a bit from the UW Writing Fellows Program. A presenter discussed the writing fellows at her school, and the program seemed much smaller than ours. Instead of being assigned to a specific class each semester, these students engaged in community outreach by tutoring primary school students and engaging them in the writing process. A program that was open to anyone who wanted to get involved was another version of a Writing Fellows program, and it did not require the same application process as ours at UW. After learning about these Fellowing programs, I have realized how applicable our training as tutors is to all types of tutoring settings, not just peer-to-peer tutoring for assigned courses.

Gaining awareness and learning about the different types of writing centers and Writing Fellow Programs allowed me to consider other ways in which undergraduate writing tutors can contribute to the writing community as a whole. Tutors can become involved in community outreach and the general tutoring scene at their universities. I had not considered a program that had undergrads in the writing center or thought of Writing Fellows who had more general tutoring duties. Now that I know about the ways writing programs can be constructed and implemented, I can see the importance of each school’s rendition of a Writing Center or a Writing Fellows Program. Each is necessary for achieving the universal goal: improving student writing while making writing a fulfilling process for the writer.”

Samantha Stowers on “the wider scholarly discussion”

Image from Samantha Stowers' presentation

Image from Samantha Stowers’ presentation on student stress and the writing conference.

NCPTW wasn’t the first professional conference for every Fellow on our trip. Both Chelsea Fesik and Samantha Stowers had already had the opportunity to present at previous conferences, including the Conference on College Composition (CCCC) and the International Writing Centers Association Conference (IWCA). When asked what she took away from her experiences in the Writing Center community, Samantha spoke about the sense of validation as a presenter and a scholar:

“When I first joined the Writing Fellows Program at UW-Madison, I knew there was a research component, but I had no idea exactly how significant the research project would end up being for my college career. What began as a research paper evolved into a series of trips to share my findings with others – not just with my peers, but beyond the reaches of a campus. After having my research accepted at Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Tampa, I felt like I had truly become part of a wider scholarly discussion on tutoring and writing. From conducting research, formatting my findings for a wide array of audiences, and getting plenty of practice with public speaking, I have obtained skills that will undoubtedly assist me in my future. As a senior graduating this upcoming May, I can say that the experience of presenting my research is one of the fondest memories I will have of my time as a student at UW-Madison. I would encourage anyone to apply and take advantage of such an amazing opportunity, especially Writing Fellows as they have so much support from the Writing Center community.”

While Hannah and Sam address individual experiences as presenters and scholars, they both hone on the legitimacy that makes undergraduate research and professionalization so important. For Hannah, seeing different organizations in practice expanded her vision of the tutor in the University. For Sam, conference participation granted a kind of intellectual legitimacy that she will carry with her after graduation.

NCPTW attendees discuss presentations during a questions and answer session.

NCPTW attendees discuss presentations during a question and answer session.

This confluence registers, in part, because of NCPTW’s unique emphasis on tutors and new scholars. Here, peer tutors have the chance to contribute to writing center discourse in ways that are often limited to graduate students or administrators, and that dedication to new voices manifests throughout the conference. Beyond the centrality of undergraduate presenters, panelists and other event coordinators made a concerted effort to provide context for their arguments and to orient listeners to debates in the field. It was an admirable form of intellectual accessibility and one that contributed to the sense that undergraduate research wasn’t just welcome at the conference; it was the conference. Undergraduate tutors shape the field and, as their research demonstrates, they deserve to be taken very seriously.

In the comments, I’d love to hear about your experiences as a conference goer, presenter, and planner!

  • How would you characterize your first experience at a conference? Did you feel welcome?
  • What do you see as the relationship between Writing Centers and conferences? Have you ever made changes to your program or Writing Center practice after an experience at a conference?
  • Have you presented at a conference as an undergraduate or helped prepare undergraduates for presentations? How can we prepare to take part in a community outside of our own centers?
  • Why does that broader Writing Center conversation matter for you, your students, or your program?
  • Finally, how do the conversations that take place at conferences like NCPTW relate to blogs like this one? Are we all taking part in the same discussion or is there something special about addressing Writing Center practice in person?

15 thoughts on “Peer Tutoring and the Serious Work of Undergraduate Scholarship

  1. Thanks for this great post, Rachel! Writing Fellows are the best, always. I think academic conferences can feel really unwelcoming if you don’t know other people there, and it can feel (has sometimes felt to me) hard to break the ice, especially if you’re new to the conference scene. It’s so great that you were able to travel as a group and navigate the conference space together. And that also provides a way of detoxing from conferences — you all have people to talk about the conference with later, to think with as you translate that experience back to life at UW. At this point, I know more people, so I can usually work that out, but going solo as a beginning conference presenter can be so hard, both in the moment and as you think back afterwards. And that’s maybe an important different between conference space and blogs like this one — the post breaks the ice here, the comments follow, we can all come back and read it again later. Thanks again for writing about what sounds like a great trip and inviting us to think together about conferences, undergraduate research, and the Writing Center!

  2. Thanks, Julia! I couldn’t agree more about the awesomeness of the fellows. I didn’t explicitly mention it in the post, but traveling with these incredible women was easily my favorite part of the conference. It’s hard for me to appreciate a solid wall of research and presentations (regardless of their strength) when I don’t have a community to decompress with at the end of the day.

  3. I really enjoyed reading about the experiences of undergraduate Writing Fellows. As one of the few grad students who does not work at the Writing Center I will admit to being a bit mystified about its inner workings and this blog post really helped clarify the Writing Fellows program for me. It is so great to read about the way these students experience their first academic/professional conferences and I am especially into the notion that attending and presenting at conferences conveys a sense of “intellectual legitimacy,” as Samantha Stowers describes, for example. That sense of legitimacy is so important not only for the kind of work we all do now but for what we hope to someday do as well. It can be world-changing to realize that one operates within a community, that there are peers to be found in the great “out there” and total strangers who have an interest (and maybe even a stake) in what we research and write about.

  4. Thanks for sharing this piece! This kind of work is such a great model for mentoring undergraduate–both those who are interested in continuing to work in writing centers and those who want to go into other fields. I appreciate learning more from these Fellows’ perspectives!

  5. Thanks for your post Rachel, and thanks for all your dedicated work with this program! I’m so impressed with the professional experience these Writing Fellows gain while undergraduates. Smart, intuitive, hard-working folks who teach me a lot about my own perspective as a tutor!

  6. Rachel, your invitation to think back to our first conference experiences took me back!

    When I was an M.A. student in English at Villanova, and living in West Philly, I took the opportunity to attend the MLA, which was being held in Center City Philadelphia in 2006 or 2007, something like that. To attend, all I had to pay was a registration fee and a couple of trolley tokens. So why not? I wasn’t giving a paper, so I was free to attend panels and keynotes as I pleased. Before the conference began, I remember combing the list of participants to see if I recognized anyone from my undergraduate alma mater. Lo and behold, my former Italian professor was giving a paper; I contacted her and we met up for lunch in the Reading Terminal Market.

    I remember two distinct take-aways from that experience: 1) Who knew hotels have so many rooms with overly dressed windows (if windows at all) and gold trimmings? 2) It seemed clear to me that social capital generated from prior relationships (like the one with my Italian professor), friendships, collaborations, and even disagreements, seemed to differentiate circles of conversation. For me, this observation made entrance into the profession appear both more appealing (the possibility of meaningful, ongoing exchange is real) and intimidating (will I fit in? where? how?)

    Reflecting back on my own experience helps me to appreciate the supports that I see you and the Writing Fellows program providing: a circle of peers to ease entrance into a conference scene, and an explicit invitation to beginning scholars to participate as colleagues in research. Well done.

    -Rebecca Couch Steffy
    TA Coordinator, UW-Madison Writing Center

  7. Rachel, thanks so much for this post! You ask whether our participation at a conference has ever led us to change what we do in our regular Writing Center work. For me, the answer is yes, and the conference was actually the annual mini-conference that the Writing Fellows put on every spring at a Writing Center staff meeting. Many presentations have stood out to me there, but one from this past spring was a presentation that questioned the purpose of praise in writing conferencing. In response to that paper, I have honed my own stance on the purpose of praise (which is that it’s most convincing and helpful when it is specific), which has, in turn, become an important part of my Writing Fellow mentoring. I use what I learned from a Writing Fellow to push other Writing Fellows to be specific in their praise and not simply praise in a vague way that thumbs-ups a whole draft. Conferencing like this establishes a productive feedback loop.

  8. Zach, the research and presentation you are referencing was my own! I am really happy you were able to gain something meaningful from my work. It is fantastic that you try to be specific in your praise, as that is exactly what I have been trying to do in my own work as a Writing Fellow. Doing so, in my opinion, can help Writing Fellows become more active, more effective mentors while helping students become more confident writers. I had a lot of fun investigating praise, and it is truly awesome to hear that it has positively affected other people.

  9. Dear Rachel, what a wonderful and rich post, thank you so much! You can’t know how many of the things you said comply with my findings when I was doing my research trip around the States. The WC at UW Madison sets such a great example when it comes to fostering knowledge exchange and creating wonderful learning experiences. Your post is one for me! I especially love the fact that you quote the fellows’ presentations literally, it shows how much you value them. I’d like to send my peer tutros and writing fellows the link to your post and will ask them to maybe contribute from their point of view.

  10. Thank you so much, authors, for writing about the conference. I was unable to attend this year and hoped to hear reports about what was valuable for tutors this year. If you worked up papers to deliver at your sessions, I would love to read them, if you would be willing to share (Brad can give you my e-mail, if you have time to send them). Our Writing Fellows program is in transition this year, as a federal grant has recently expired, so with the restrictions of the grant lifted, we are eager to revisit our underlying assumptions about our practices, so the more we can learn from other programs, like your excellent one, the better!

  11. Rebecca: I had a remarkably similar first conference experience. Mine was during my first year in grad school and I had the opportunity to travel with several colleagues, but I was also struck with the relationships that seemed to exist– apparently fully formed– around me. Not only were we jumping into ongoing literary conversations, for which we could theoretically prepare, but we were jumping into ongoing personal relationships that couldn’t simply be claimed by “networking.” Thanks for commenting!

    Stephanie: That’s a wonderful idea. I would love to hear your tutors’ and fellows’ perspectives on the post and on undergraduate research more broadly. The fellows worked so hard on their presentations, so I just want to spend all of my time bragging about them.

    Paula: Thank you so much for asking! I will be sure to invite the fellows to share their presentations. It’s good to know that they can have a second or a third life after the conference.

  12. I enjoyed seeing you, Rachel, and meeting these fine writing fellows in SLC. Thanks for this post!

    I brought seven undergraduate writing tutors from our writing center, and they had similar experiences to your writing fellows: exposure to differences in tutoring programs; broadened awareness of writing centers as a field of study; excitement in presenting to and hearing from peers who share their interest in and enthusiasm for tutoring writing.

    These tutors definitely see their writing center work differently now, in a much broader context (institutionall and professionally). I think there’s something about the international scope of the conference that resulted in a different feeling or impact than what some tutors have experienced when presenting at regional peer tutoring conferences. But regardless of scope, writing center/peer tutoring conferences strike me as especially welcoming spaces to help undergraduates have a positive professional development experience.

    It certainly was time-intensive for me and my tutors to get ready for the conference, especially because they all presented original research requiring IRB approval. But the payoff was definitely worth the effort. I plan to use findings from our tutors’ research to create more robust assessment measures and more deliberate outreach efforts for our writing center.

  13. I appreciate that this post clarifies how the writing center community has seen that the possibilities of mentorship and participatory involvement can move beyond individual conversations tutors have with writers on specific campuses. The idea that all voices and agencies matter is furthered by our collective attention to a range of scholarship at our conferences. I feel like there is a consistent ethic at play here. The values that guide our tutorials also guide the way we encourage undergraduate tutors and fellows to actively learn and contribute to the learning of others.

    I know, I certainly feel like I’ve been tutored into my participation in larger writing center conversations. Through my experiences with DePaul University’s University Center for Writing-based Learning and now here at UW-Madison, I have been given many opportunities to talk about my ideas and share my work at conferences and contribute to the research of others regardless of what my degree-status has been. These opportunities have been a product of the support of centers and directors and peers.

    Rachel, I’m so glad that you were able to continue to extend this kind of support to these particular fellows, and I’m glad to be a part of a scholarly community that strives to live into its high ideals of both vigor and validation at all levels.

  14. It’s always fun to revisit a conference from another perspective, so thanks for sharing this post and these Hannah’s and Samantha’s reflections on their experiences!

    For my peer consultants, attending professional conferences is one of the highlights of their time at the writing center, the sort of experience they point to as an important moment, personally and professionally. They are always delighted to find “their people”–as am I! It’s a delight to be around people who share similar concerns and interests, who have done what you have done. Especially when you’re new to the field, whether you’re a new peer tutor or a new writing center director, this opportunity to connect with peers and see how they do things “out there” is enormously important.

    I’ve definitely taken ideas home from writing center conferences (I could name at least two from the most recent NCPTW!) and I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed preparing writing consultants to propose and prepare presentations. I’m currently teaching our tutoring preparation course with a heavy emphasis on empirical research in the writing center itself. Because the new Oxford Guide foregrounds the interplay between practice and research, it’s helped to make this process easier. And my current students have conducted amazing research projects of their own design. I plan to coach as many of them as are able and willing to propose sessions either for the IWCA or NCPTW next year.

    Thanks, peer tutors, for all the work you do and for the community you create in your writing centers and beyond!

  15. For my peer consultants, attending professional conferences is one of the highlights of their time at the writing center, the sort of experience they point to as an important moment, personally and professionally. They are always delighted to find “their people”–as am I! It’s a delight to be around people who share similar concerns and interests, who have done what you have done. Especially when you’re new to the field, whether you’re a new peer tutor or a new writing center director, this opportunity to connect with peers and see how they do things “out there” is enormously important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *