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Peer Tutoring: The Essential Contact Zone

I recently had the honor of giving the keynote address at the 2013 South Central Writing Center Association's Annual Conference.  Here is the text of the speech:

Keynote Address for the South Central Writing Centers Association Annual Conference

February 21-23, 2013
Corpus Christi, Texas

Clint Gardner
Salt Lake Community College Student Writing Center


How many here are peer tutors?

How many here have been peer tutors?

Being the good writing center person that I am, I’m going to have you do a little writing first. Strange thing in a keynote address, I realize, but bear with me.  “What are the most significant abilities, values, or skills that you developed in your work as a peer writing tutor?”

Peer Tutoring:  The Writing Center's Essential Contact Zone


Today I want to talk about why I think Peer Tutoring is the essential contact zone for a writing center.  By contact zone I mean the place where learning happens, in all its glory:  learning about writing, of course, is important for peer tutors, but it often seems that they aren’t necessarily learning anything about writing, per se, as they learn about how to work with other writers and how to help them improve and succeed.  There are also other things that peer tutors learn in writing centers that I think we often don’t pay enough attention to, or properly assess.


Please indulge me, however, while I set a  historical context for the role of peer tutors in the writing center.  It has been nearly 25 years since two foundational articles for composition studies and writing center theory and practice were published:  Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone” and Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary.  Along with other influential texts about social constructionism such as Andrea Lunsford’s “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center” and Christina Murphy’s “The Writing Center and Social Constructionist Theory”, as well as the work of Kenneth Bruffee, John Trimbur, Mickey Harris, Mark Waldo, Marilyn Cooper, Irene Clark, Steve Sherwood, and Peter Carino, these two pieces have helped shape how writing centers function in the 21st century.  The influence isn’t necessarily direct, however, but when Pratt’s “contact zones” or Rose’s “boundaries” are mentioned, many in the academy do think of  writing centers and the work we do.  Rose, in fact, writes in Lives on the Boundary  specifically about writing center work, the struggle to work with underprepared writers, and how such work is essential to helping students overcome deficits in their education caused by class and race barriers.  Pratt, although not specifically mentioning writing centers (she is a language and literature person, after all) does state that the academy needs to create “safe houses” where students from different cultural backgrounds can come and learn:
“Where there are legacies of subordination, groups need places for healing and mutual recognition, safe houses in which to construct shared understandings, knowledges, claims on the world that they can then bring into the contact zone.”
And lest we think that Pratt is just calling for a “safe house” where students can be sheltered from a harmful academy, her ideal  student is interacting with peers to share her cultural experience and learn from others:
“We are looking for the pedagogical arts of the contact zone.  These will include, we are sure, excercises in storytelling and in identifying with the ideas, interests, histories and attitudes of others; experiments in transculturation and collaborative work and in the arts of critique, parody, and comparison (including unseemly comparisons between elite and vernacular cultural forms); the redemption of the oral; ways for people to engage with suppressed aspects of history...ways to move into and out of rhetorics of authenticity; ground rules for communication across lines of difference and hierarchy that go beyond politeness but maintain mutual respect....”
 In all, a fairly analogous description of a writing center, I should think.

 Rose’s Lives on the Boundary focuses on students who have been marginalized throughout their educational careers.  Recently, Rose reflected on his exploration of class boundaries first started in Lives on the Boundary:
“Over the years I’ve come to understand that a key dimension of underpreparation is that some students have learned how to attend school in a routine and superficial manner, but haven’t had the kind of education that teaches them how to use their mind in certain systematic and strategic ways, how to monitor what they’re learning and assess it, and just the tricks of the trade of functioning effectively in this place called school....So what can seem like a lack of engagement or lack of focus can be more accurately understood as some of the results of a less-than-optimal education.”
Rose called for an overhaul of basic writing courses and work that goes on in writing centers to offer struggling writers more feedback and more challenge on their writing, while at the same time directly addressing with the students the conditions that brought about their problematic educational backgrounds.

Since Pratt coined the term “contact zone” to mean the place where cultures meet, recognize each other on equal terms, exchange ideas, and grow without colonizing each other, and in the 25 years since Rose first discussed how it is vital for higher education to become the place where students can overcome the barriers that race and class thrown before them and be challenged with with meaningful composition/writing work, writing centers and writing center scholars, indeed, have taken up this work with gusto.

While some writing center colleagues may balk at going beyond anything but working on “writing” (as if the means of communication can be divorced from content), the recent work of writing center scholars such as Nancy Grimm, Beth Boquet, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Anne Ellen Geller, Harry Denny, Meg Carroll, Laura Greenfield, Karen Rowen, Terese Thonus, Moira Ozias, Beth Godbee, Rebecca Day Babcock and others whom I am failing to mention and heartily apologize to, strive to explore how writing centers can address socially endemic problems that have blockaded student learning in the past and created a hostile learning environment at the institution.  (There is a spate of recent scholarship that explore a broad view of writing center work: Everyday Writing Center, Noise from the Writing Center, Facing the Center, or Writing Centers and the New Racism, among others.)

It isn’t surprising,  since, as I mentioned, writing centers were nearly ready-made to do this work.

 Social construction theory espoused by Bruffee, Lunsford, Murphy, and Trimbur created a space where we learn from each other, students develop as writers,  and--to a lesser extent for this early work-- challenge received ideas from culture and the academy.  As Lunsford famously writes
“The idea of a center I want to advocate speaks directly to the these needs for its theory of knowledge is based not on positivistic principles...not on Platonic or absolutist ideals...but on the notion of knowledge as always contextually bound, as always socially constructed.  Such a center might well have as its motto [Hannah] Arendt’s statement:  “For excellence, the presence of others is required.”
Lunsford, of course, is well-aware that
“collaboration can also be used to reproduce the status quo, the rigid hierarchy of teacher-centered classrooms is replicated in the tutor-centered writing center in which the tutor is still the seat of all authority but is simply pretending it isn’t so...”
Trimbur also explores the problematic side of peer tutoring in “Peer Tutoring:  A Contradiction in Terms:”
“In practice, new tutors often experience cognitive dissonance as a conflict of loyalties.  They feel pulled, on one hand, by their loyalty to their fellow students and, on the other hand, by loyalty to the academic system that has rewarded them and whose values they have internalized.”
The work of Bruffee first created the space where students work one-to-one:  something that was no doubt a bit shocking to the academic audiences prior to the swinging 80s/70s/60s.  “Students learning from each other?” you might imagine a stodgy old professor ask.  “What can students learn from one another?  They know nothing!”  Ok--I know I’ve probably stuffed a straw man to represent our academic ancestors here, but we sometimes face such skeptical opposition to peer tutoring even to this day--even within our own writing center ranks...more on that in a bit.  Bruffee does address the issue of a supposed lack of knowledge in  “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind:’”
“One answer to this question is that while neither peer tutors nor their tutees may alone be masters of the normal discourse of a given knowledge community, by working together--pooling their resources--they are very likely to be able to master it if their conversation is structured indirectly by the task or problem that a member of that community (the teacher) provides.”
Bruffee further states that:
“Peer tutoring, again like collaborative learning in general, plays an important role in education because it provides a particular kind of social context for conversation, a particular kind of community:  that of status equals, or peers.  This means that students learn the ‘skill of partnership’ or re-externalized conversation not only in a community that fosters the kind of conversation academics most value, but also in  a community like the one most students must eventually write for in everyday life....”
The “status of equals” that Bruffee refers to most likely derives from his  work with writers in classroom settings.  His  A Short Course in Writing was primarily a classroom experiment, rather than a writing center one.  In other words, the peers he was working with in classes learned about writing and responding to the writing of their classmates.  Writers in such a class were better matched to be peers, in that sense.  Under a Bruffee’s model, students worked with each other in class, giving each other feedback and helping each other to learn about writing.  One could argue, therefore, that peer tutoring as a model is also an adaptation from other sources or classroom practice.

Trimbur went on to further explore the question of whether tutors can truly be peers with writers in “Peer tutoring:  A Contradiction in Terms?”   where he concluded that
“To emphasize expertise at the expense of an experiential knowledge of co-learning risks short circuiting the dynamics of collaboration in student culture--the communities of readers and writers that are always in the process of formation when peers work together in writing centers.”
The writing center, while advocating peer tutoring, also runs head on into the issues of authority or expertise and institutional placement, as well as the fact that many of our peer tutors are, most times, more advanced in their abilities in writing and in just being  successful students than the writers they work with.  Can a writing center peer tutor truly be a peer with a writer who is truly struggling through a literacy-level basic writing course?  Mike Rose recently wrote in his blog:
“As with any complex practice – from baseball to weaving to singing opera – you learn how to do it well by doing it and doing it over time, typically in some sort of formal or informal setting with guidance and feedback from others who are more skilled. The same holds for learning how to be a student in the formal setting of school.”
Rose, however, is talking about teachers there--not peer tutors.  The implication is that  the exchange is not a “peer exchange” since one party is more skilled and is a better student--or a better teacher.   Just last week on WCENTER, former IWCA President Roberta Kjesrud, in her words, “stirred the pot” by stating:
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a peer.  We talk about collaboration in terms of practicing a continuum of collaborative strategies ranging from authority-sharing strategies (like those most familiar to us) to authority-asserting strategies.  I find most writing assistants, no matter their “peer” status are very comfortable with authority-sharing strategies, so we also do some intentional work at the other end of the spectrum.  Authority-asserting strategies are most often invoked when tutors are in one-down hierarchical positions (for instance, when talking with faculty or when talking with writers who challenge our pedagogical practices or make unreasonable demands).  Practicing strategies across this continuum generates a lot of choices for fostering collaborations in diverse contexts.”
While I don’t think it is a misnomer to call students who work with fellow students in writing centers “peer tutors,” like Roberta states, we need to be more expansive in our view of what a peer tutor does.  We need to respect, I think, that peer tutors do indeed have some amount of authority to make decisions about the work they do.  We need to trust them to make those decisions and we need to support them and help them to learn when they make the wrong decisions.

It is, I suppose, a matter of trust.  As we must trust the writer to be a writer, we must trust the peer tutor to be a peer tutor.    We also need to trust peer tutors in shared governance of our writing centers.  They work there.  They know the conditions.  We as writing center professionals certainly have a role to play in governance, but I don’t think that role is one of being heavy handed and so adherent to rules that we lose site that everyone who works in a writing center as a writer, as a peer tutor, and as an administrator is a learner and is contributing to what happens to the development of a center.  

As far as the writers we work with, in league with Mike Rose, writing centers already are more expansive in our view of what struggling writers who come to us can do.   The default for most writing centers is to treat each person who comes into the center with respect and dignity and give them unconditional positive regard in that they are there to learn and grow as writers.  Most writing centers view struggling writers, of course, as people who can make decisions--if challenged to do so.  In the greatest tradition of writing centers, we do not see  struggling writers as people to be fixed, repaired or healed.  We truly do believe that even struggling writers can learn to be better writers.  In that sense the writers who come to writing centers and the peer tutors who work with them are peers:  they are all trusted to be decision-makers and to be learners.  They are peers in the sense that they are human beings:  we all have different levels of abilities--different skills, and we can all learn from each other.
Nevertheless, there are still those in the academy that reject peer tutoring.  Recently in a meeting, for example, I ran head on into an administrator who claimed that using peer tutors shortchanges our students. Without cursing excessively, I managed to dissuade him from this point of view by showing the effectiveness of the work we do in the SLCC Student Writing Center, and by outlining the impact that working in a writing center can have on the education and career of a peer tutor.  Unfortunately, the negative attitude toward peer tutoring does crop up occasionally--even from colleagues at, of all places, other writing centers.


 Way back in the 90s when I was pretty new to my writing center directing gig, I was presenting at our local Two-Year College Association Conference--TYCA West--on how we at Salt Lake Community College had developed a peer tutoring program.  It was a pretty standard presentation and I discussed all the pertinent issues:  how do you deal with turnover--we just deal with it and continually work in preparing new tutors to work in the Student Writing Center; how do you recruit tutors--as broadly as possible from a variety of majors and educational backgrounds--including students who have struggled with writing in the past; how we prepare peer tutors to work with the wide-variety of writers we see--we strive to offer a full response and feedback to all writers and help peer tutors to understand the variety of resources that writers can use to improve their writing; etc etc.  You can imagine, then, during the question time, that I was rather taken aback when my whole presentation and premise for hiring peer tutors was dismissed by a writing center colleague from another community college.  “Our students could never do that,”  she said.  In my mind’s eye, I have the person storming out of my session, but in reality I think she just sat down while I hemmed and hawed for a response.

“Our students could never do that.”

This colleague’s community college was no different from most other community college’s I’ve ever seen:  more racially and ethnically diverse than other types of higher ed institutions;  students from a wide range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds; more veterans;  more returning students; more refugees.  In other words, that community college, like most community colleges reflected the community that it came from.   As George Vaughn from the Academy for Community College Leadership and Advancement, Innovation, and Modeling stated, “if one wants to understand who attends a community college...stand on a busy street corner, and watch people go by.”  

 By saying “our students could never do that,” this colleague was dismissing the entire student body of the institution she worked at as unsuitable to work as a peer tutor in the writing center.  I can only imagine the reasoning:  they were ill-prepared and could not talk about writing; to have them do so would be having the ignorant teaching the ignorant.  In other words, everything this colleague said in that one statement of “our students could never do that” flew directly in the face of writing center theory from Bruffee on down as well as right in the face of Mike Rose who believes in challenging students to take on difficult tasks.

 While I have no idea what my reply to this writing center colleague was--I don’t think I swore excessively--the person’s indignation at my temerity in hiring peer tutors is burned into my memory and has been a prime motivator for me to study the efficacy of peer tutors at community colleges, what impact they have on the institution as a whole, and, most importantly, I believe, what impact it has on their education and lives.


 For several years now I have been tracking the careers of peer tutors (Peer Writing Advisors) who have worked at the Salt Lake Community College Student Writing Center--loosely based upon the guidelines put forth by the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.  That project was developed by Brad Hughes, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail in order to better understand the effects of working as peer tutors in a writing center has on students.  The project focuses on impact on learning (particularly in learning about writing), as well as career and education path.  In general the project asks alumni peer tutors to respond to a survey.  My spin on the project was to record exit interviews to probe the depths of the impact the writing center on their education and their lives.  The recordings, I feel, make a better connection with viewers than written responses.  I’ve used them, in fact, to show administrators the importance of peer tutoring to our institution.

 Sonia (not her real name) was one such tutor who worked in the Student Writing Center.  Sonia, as she later stated in her exit interview, didn’t come naturally to writing center work.  She had always struggled with writing and had to repeat several English courses during her rocky high school career.  After barely graduating from high school, she worked for several years in dead end jobs because “she hated school.” Sonia started at SLCC with great trepidation about taking classes again--numbingly worried about whether or not she would make it.  After the first week at the college, however, Sonia said that “she was shocked and surprised at how different it was and how she was much more interested in her course work.”  Sonia was placed in a Writing 990--a basic writing course--and proceeded through the semester growing and learning as a student.  By the time of the end of her first semester, she was touting a 4.0 average and said “she had never learned so much in her life.”  Her next semester was no different, she took our English 1010 (freshman comp) and by the end of the semester her instructor recommended that she would be a good candidate to work as a peer tutor for the Student Writing Center since she had done so well in the class, and gave excellent feedback to her fellow students in peer groups.   Sonia applied, had an excellent interview, and was hired.  Her peer tutor colleagues who sat as her interview committee found her to be engaged and passionate about her education and in working with others.  At the time, I will admit that I was worried that as a struggling writer herself, Sonia would not be able to provide adequate feedback to other writers.  After working successfully in the SWC for several semesters, however, Sonia’s evaluations were stellar, and the students she worked with came to me with high praise.   Sonia moved on from SLCC to continue with her bachelors degree.

In the exit interviews I ask the question “What are the most significant abilities, values, or skills that you developed in your work as a peer writing advisor?”  When designing the exit interview, I originally chose this question since I thought it would give me a good sense of the types of things that peer tutors learned about writing, composition, and rhetoric.  Sonia’s answer, however, took me by surprise. “Empathy,” she said without any pause.

 It is interesting to me to watch the tape because I am clearly not listening to Sonia.  I acknowledge her answer, but I ask the question again since I wanted to hear an answer that focused on what she learned about writing.  I can easily read my thought process from the video:  Empathy?  Empathy?  What’s empathy got to do with writing?  What’s empathy got to do with a writing center?  While listening to the interview, I realized that I had become pretty much like my strawman of old time professors who distrusted the whole idea of peer tutoring in the first place.  I came to realize that what peer tutors learn in writing centers goes beyond the limitations of composition and rhetoric.

 In reviewing other peer tutor exit interviews, I saw that most of them, at some, point in the interview talk about learning empathy for the writers they worked with.  For example, Kenna recounted when she realized that a Somalian refugee she worked with wasn’t just learning English, but knew five other languages and was also learning Spanish.

 “I realized that she wasn’t really struggling,” Kenna explained, “but that she knew a lot more about languages and a lot more about English than I did.   She was just learning.  Learning takes time.”

  Or there was Jim, who realized in one memorable session with a Bhutanese writer, that his particular struggles with writing were more about his spending 17 of his 21 years in a refugee camp than it was about his lack of ability.

 Ultimately, I think that empathy is a fine thing for peer tutors to learn in their experience in a writing center.  Certainly it isn’t the only thing they learn, but it is real and something that needs to be taken into consideration.  I think we in writing centers should be assessing the entirety of the learning that happens.

 Peer tutors are a contact zone:  they are the place where change happens and change can be observed.  Bruffee, in naming his article “Peer Tutoring and ‘The Conversation of Mankind’” was onto something.  Peer tutors do build connections with other human beings beyond just helping someone learn to be a more proficient writer.  They often cross Mike Rose’s boundaries and see what it is like on the other side.   I think many of you, if you look at your answer to my question at the beginning of this address, will, no doubt, have answers that go beyond the pale of writing, composition, or rhetoric.  I would hazard to guess that some of you even wrote down that you learned empathy from your writing center work.


Our writing center context is shaped by the fact that writing is the sharing and building of ideas.  As Christine, a Peer Writing Advisor at the SLCC Student Writing Center told me when I sought her feedback on a draft of this speech, “Writing let’s us see things differently;  writing let’s us interpret things differently;  writing let’s us share with each other.”   As Lunsford said, we write best together.  I think the same could be said for peer tutoring.  Like writing, peer tutoring is a series of decisions that we carefully consider and reflect upon and talk about with others.

In our willingness to help other people learn, but also to learn ourselves, we are all peers--no matter the role we play in a writing center.  Let me repeat that (but in different words):  as peers we can make a difference in the lives and learning of others, as well as making a difference in our own lives.   We are peers as human beings;  in seeing our differences we can learn about our problematic beliefs and prejudices;  when we engage in the conversation--the contact zone--the border crossing--whatever you wish to call it, we make headway into building a better world.  I realize that sounds awfully high minded and idealistic, but I think we need to keep a positive outlook while at the same time reflecting on the difficult encounters we have.  We all have significant experiences that shape our lives and we can share with one another.  As peers, we learn, in essence, to be better human beings.

Thank you.


Bruffee, Kenneth.  “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.”   Writing Centers:  Theory and Administration,  ed.  Gary A.  Olson, NCTE  1984.  Print.

Kjesrud, Roberta.  “Discussion of undergraduate peer tutoring vs. graduate student ‘peer’ tutoring.”  WCENTER Listserv Post.  Web.

Lunsford, Andrea.  “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.”  Writing Center Journal.  12:1 (1991). Print.

Pratt, Mary Louise.  “Arts of the Contact Zone.”  Profession.  1991.  pp. 33-40.  Print.

Rose, Mike.  Lives on the Boundary.  New York:  Free Press.  1989.

Rose, Mike.  “Inside the Remedial Classroom.”  Mike Rose’s Blog.  October 26, 2012.  Web.

Trimbur, John.  “Peer Tutoring:  A Contradiction in Terms.”  Writing Center Journal.  7:2 (1987).  Print.


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