Monday, July 12, 2010

The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring: A Review

As an experienced writer I have utilized my own skills in assisting other writers (experienced and aspiring) through intense dialogue primarily in an intuitive improvisational manner. This has not been without effect and I think there’s more I can tap into based on my own writing experience which would require more concentration than I have yet given to it. Whatever degree of untapped knowledge I have yet to draw on in my vocation as a writing tutor, in working in college writing centers this past year I have profited by studying writing handbooks as well as broader theoretical work on writing pedagogy within the context of the culture of the college writing center institution.

One text that I have profited from is The Allen and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring written by Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner. This is a highly engaging text that lays out the core philosophy of many writing center programs and which provides stimulating ideas and supportive examples of many viable techniques for effective implementation. One such idea is that of asking the student to read his or her paper out loud after discussing the purpose of the essay as a pivotal baseline on getting them to focus and “own” their own work. Intuitively that makes a great deal of sense to me, which if consistently practiced by writing center tutors would go a long way in its own right in fostering student ownership of their own writing process.

The key assumption throughout the text, and also operative in the two writing centers I worked in last year is the sharp distinction made between the role of a tutor in that of supporting learning and student independence and that of an editor in correcting flaws and providing expert advice on how to improve a given piece of student writing. Based on the writing center model articulated in the text and promulgated throughout the writing center community is the underlying belief that effective tutoring is a process that requires intense student as well as tutor engagement throughout all the phases of constructing and completing a writing assignment in which the student is the ultimate expert on his or her own writing. This is premised on at least two pedagogical principles.

The first is that the student is not a blank slate, but is a potentially critical inquirer into his or her own learning process in which the tutor's primary task is to explore with the student those avenues of learning potentiality that may or may not be obvious on first blush. Thus, the tutor is encouraged to ask a series of probing questions on both the topic as well as on the student's current sense of strengths and well as weaknesses as applied to a given writing project. This assumption clearly builds on Paulo Freire's critique of banking education which is an underlying framework that underlies a good deal of contemporary writing theory.

The second has to do with the status of the writing center within the broader college learning environment; namely that the centers, while playing a critical support function to the various academic departments, possess their own autonomous authority based on their own academic expertise in writing pedagogy. Viewed thusly, writing center tutors are not primarily editors; in fact, many writing centers state explicitly that they do not edit, but tutor. That is, their purpose is to teach students how to improve their writing; more fundamentally, to become better writers, not simply to improve a specific paper. Stated otherwise, as powerfully developed by Gillespie and Lerner, writing center tutors are first and foremost teacher-research based educators and not merely or primarily editors.

Surely, this is a contestable assumption in which there is much potential resistance among participating students, the professors assigning the writing center to their students, the college administration, particularly in a tight budget environment, and often to the tutors themselves. This is especially the case particularly when students come to the writing center only at the final stages of the writing process with the assignment due the next day or even an hour from when the assignment is due. This later problem is more pervasive in drop in centers than in appointment-based scheduling programs even though there is much to warrant a drop in center; namely that of encouraging large numbers of students to utilize the services at any time a center is open.

Based on my own experience from last year, which I brought in from my work in adult literacy education, I tended to balance a dialogical approach with a more important emphasis on scaffolding in assisting students with their highly pressing assignments which, practically speaking was the stated purpose of their coming to the center. The assignments ranged from one paragraph to full blown lengthy essays in range. Some assignments were due the same day, others later in the week, and some the following week or even later. Writing issues that needed to be addressed covered a broad range in which typically the problems in a given piece were often multiple. The challenge for me was that of finding a hook where I could connect with a student’s own writing process at whatever level of support both I and the student sensed was needed. This required a good deal of subtle discernment of both a relational and technical manner in which the interplay of these factors played a significant role in determining the ultimate success of a given session.

While less evident with upper level undergraduate and graduate students, there were more than a few cases, where the syntax of a draft seemed so incoherent that I thought there was much to be gained in helping the student to improve the clarity on what he or she was attempting to express. In those papers I viewed such work as pivotal to help students and myself gain clarity on what the author actually intended to say even if the result inhibited working on what the authors referred to as higher order writing concerns, emphasized over and over again throughout their text. I see their point; if not attended to the tutor will all too easily slip into the editorial role.

Yet, I think there is a need to focus on these “lower order” concerns at least sometimes first particularly if the writing is so convoluted that neither the writer nor the reader has a workable understanding of what is being expressed in the draft. Moreover, based on the assumption that in a recursive writing dynamic one can, in principle, make progress at any viable point of entry, then there is nothing sacrosanct in starting with higher order concerns first as long as after working on grammar and syntax or even while doing so, one also addresses such issues as meaning, purpose, audience, logical flow and other issues contributing to overarching coherency.

Nonetheless, after re-reading The Allen and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring and based on a year's reflection I can at this point better discern how the many recommendations the authors make can help me focus in working with students more on higher order concerns based on a recursive intervention process. In an ideal context there is much to be gained by focusing as much as possible on first planning an essay, then drafting, followed by revision, and finally editing. Yet because both writing and tutoring typically involve a more complex interplay among these aspects of the writing process.

Notwithstanding the importance of helping students gain basic clarity in their writing through a strong emphasis on grammar and syntactical clarity, there were many cases where I was able to work with students on higher order concerns such as appropriate topic selection, critical analysis, thesis articulation and thematic consistency throughout the essay, logical argumentation, effective use of evidence, and persuasiveness. Even with the lower order concerns, as stated, the process was far from black and white. Even with those papers I was able to address these higher order concerns to some degree by focusing on the underlying objective of gaining maximum coherency as a way of working through both grammatical and syntactical issues as well as issues related to meaning and purpose as well as overall clarity and logic of presentation. Thus, I would not want to be overly dogmatic about the order of the interplay of the key components of the writing process.

Regardless as to where one intervenes, there is much to be gained in embracing the authors' three primary strategies; that of asking students their intended purpose in writing, asking what they want to focus on in the given tutoring session, and asking them to read their papers out loud to the tutor. With these baselines in place, both the student and the tutor would likely be in a better position to address the most pressing issues of the paper as well as that of working on the process of the student becoming a better writer in the very process of improving a given piece.

In the very process of writing this blog posting, the notion that the quest for coherency can be a central thread to underlie writing center tutoring now emerges in a way that I had not precisely thought before. Yet, even with that the tutor will need to guard against taking over the paper by reinforcing one's own sense of coherency rather than that of critically assisting the student in finding his or her own coherency by staying focus on enhancing writing rather than fixing up specific assignments. This then leads into the central chapters of The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring which provide an array of methods and suggestions for engaging the student in the learning process as the very means of enhancing that student's writing ability while dealing with the specific assignments at hand.

• Why did I choose this topic?
• What do I know about my topic?
• Can I change or modify it even slightly if it would be more strategic for me to do so?
• Does my topic interest me? Can I really get into it?
• If not what can I do to enhance your motivation to write so that there is a better chance of the essay becoming really mine?
• How can I best structure this essay? Compare/contrast? Summary? Critical analysis?
• Who is my ideal audience for this essay? What do you hope to convey to my audience?
• Writing a preliminary thesis statement
• Writing a provisional outline which might be stimulated through brainstorming or clustering activities

In an ideal scenario a student would come to the writing center before composing a draft, though in my experience that has been rarely the case. More typically, the tutor and student begin their work in the middle rather than at the beginning of the writing process. Even still one can still work with students writing project through the utilization of such questions as a critical resource at any point in the process as the authors imply in their last chapter titled "Troubleshooting," which moves outside the realm of the ideal, as characteristic of much of the rest of their text.

With some (clearly not all!) of these bulleted issues addressed, both the student and the tutor would be in a better position to focus on the development of a first draft, which, according to Gillespie and Lerner may involve a probing into some of the same type of questions. This is reasonable on their assumption since they are viewing the writing process as recursive in which the various issues involved in creating and refining a text circle on back and become enriched throughout the writing process. However, as stated, many students come to a writing center session with a first draft already intact, requiring, in turn, a more complex intervention than laid out in the ideal scenario of the sequenced model of the process writing model where one starts with planning before drafting.

A similar set of questions would be viable in encouraging a student to revise a piece, though much discerning probing of the initial draft might well be needed in order for students to creatively move into a substantial rewrite. This is where an exploratory dialogue can become especially valuable in working with the student in assessing various revisionary strategies. A second or third meeting on the essay may be needed in order to encourage the student to engage in the various writing developmental processes essential in not only writing an effective essay, but in internalizing the skills and knowledge base to transfer such enhanced competence to other writing projects. Revisioning can be extremely taxing and is often resisted by the student and tutor alike, but those who undertake it to a more satisfactory completion of a text can give much personal testimony to the ultimate value of such work, which comes only through much sweat equity.

Fine skill-editing is also important, but needs to be placed in perspective as a lower order competence, the authors argue; essential, but not until the higher order skills are addressed. Still, this may be less the case with computer-based writing where editing and revisioning can be more easily blended. Still, it is critical for students to clearly recognize the difference between revisioning and editing and not to confuse the one for the other.

Throughout The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring the authors are concerned with binary polarities which somewhat conflicts with the underlying dynamics of process writing premised on recursiveness rather than the linear-based sequencing assumption underlying their argument. Thus, as the authors contrast the two roles (p. 36:


• Focus on the text
• Take ownership of the text
• Proofread
• Give advice
• Read silently
• Look mainly for things to improve
• Work with an ideal text
• Make corrections on the page
Tell writers what to do


• Focus on the writer’s development and establish rapport
• Make sure the writer takes ownership
• Starts with higher-order concerns and worry about correctness last
• Asks questions
• Asks the reader to read aloud
• Comments on things that are working well
• Trust the writer’s idea of a text
• Keep hands off and let the writer make corrections; help them learn correctness
• Ask them their plans for revision

While the reality of the dynamics of writing center tutoring does require some blending of the two, the authors are rightly concerned that unless an emphatic intentional stance embracing the vision of tutoring pedagogy as they envision it is embraced it becomes all too easy to fall back into the editors role. I do not disagree with this. However, writing center instruction would be enhanced

• Through a more dynamic interface between a critical dialogical approach and one firmly grounded in a scaffolding paradigm in helping students constructively take next steps in their own writing process
• Through strong institutional support throughout the college of the writing center vision as a field of academic expertise in its own right
• Tight coordination especially between developmental English courses and the writing center
• Greater emphasis on students reinforced by the subject matter instructors of coming to the writing center early with the expectation that each significant writing project would include at least two or three substantial sessions

Short of this ideal there is likely to continue to be a good deal more tension between the respective roles of editor and tutor. It is my sense that a judicious study and application of The Allen And Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring could make that a creative tension in which each role mutually supports the other with increasing emphasis on students internalizing their own writing projects. My hope is that in this coming year I will get an opportunity to put some of the pivotal ideas in this important text into practice.

I gained much in reading this book. I also gained much in writing this blog, including a reinforcement of what I already know; that a sustained writing process requires both a motivation to write and a commitment to see it through.

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