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"Writing Centers and Inter-Institutional Writing Strategies" a Presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication 2016

I want to share a story with you.  It is a story that I’ve shared before in venues like this.  It is a story that I’ve shared in just talking with folks about peer tutors and writing centers.   While I do apologize for the repetition, I must add that this is one of those stories that I repeat not simply because it is a good story, but, more because it is a foundational story to my work at a community college.  I usually call it “A Tale of Woe and Intrigue.”

Way back in the 90s when I was pretty new to my writing center directing gig, I was presenting at local TYCA conference about developing the SLCC Student Writing gCenter.  It was a pretty standard writing center start-up story, overall--Nothing really any different from other types of institutions, I supose. 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. I wish I would have said something profound in response, but in reality I think she just sat down while I hemmed and hawed for a response.
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.

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 cursed excessively--the person’s disbelief 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, and most importantly, what impact it has on their education and lives.

For several years now I have been tracking the careers of peer tutors 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 or PWTARP .  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.  Hughes, Gillespie, and Kail have found significant academic and career trajectory outcomes for peer tutors who have worked in their institutions, as they report in their 2010 article from Writing Center Journal, “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.”  The PWTARP project focuses on impact on learning as well as career and education path.

My adaptation of the PWTARP, shows that working as a peer tutor in a community college gives the peer tutor a chance to really engage with their peers and learn while helping them to learn--in the best traditions of peer tutoring.   The Community College Survey on Student Engagement or CCSSE seems to agree:
“Students perform better and are more satisfied at colleges that are committed to their success and cultivate positive working and social relationships among different groups on campus. Community college students also benefit from services targeted to assist them with academic and career planning, academic skill development, and other areas that may affect learning and retention.”
(CCSE web site)
 “Student engagement,” of course, is a vague term, but it
“ concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution.” (Trowler)

Statistically, the tutors who have worked in the SLCC Student Writing Center complete their community college degree and graduate from their transfer institution at a significantly higher rate than do other students who have not availed themselves of the opportunity to work in a writing center.    They also go on at a significantly higher rate to further education, and land fulfilling careers in their fields of choice.  I assume the same holds true for the Community Writing Center, although I only have data on the Student Writing Center.

I want to be clear here: working as a consultant in the Community and Student Writing Centers at Salt Lake Community college influences their success, rather than just simply motivating tutors to success.  In other words, this isn’t simply about motivation:  this is about real, tangible outcomes that show success.  While it may seem amorphous, intrinsic motivation--motivation that comes from the individual when external circumstance and motivations are carefully planned--can be measured.

Extrinsic motivation has often been dismissed as cheerleading and having very little impact on cynical or jaded students who feel that they are being glad-handed.  With activities such as peer tutoring, however, students engage in real conversation with real human beings with real high stakes outcomes.  This work leads peer tutors to engage with their own education and the education of others in a way that is “real” to them.  Peer tutors feel that they are the producer of their own education rather than simply the product of it.  A further benefit of SLCC’s Community Writing Center is that its writing assistants engage in authentic, “real world” community engagement, as demonstrated in Tiffany Rousculp’s Rhetoric of Respect:  Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center:

“Rather, CWC writing assistant training was intended to raise awareness of their ability to negotiate rhetorical problem spaces, an ability that would equip them to work with community members on their writing.  It was to provide them with the tool of awareness, with which they could navigate the unease of not knowing what to do.”

Furthermore, our findings at Salt Lake Community College are substantiated by the creators of the PWTARP :

“When undergraduate writing tutors and fellows participate in challenging and sustained staff education, and when they interact closely with other student writers and with other peer tutors through our writing centers and writing fellows programs, they develop in profound ways both intellectually and academically.  This developmental experience, play out in their tutor education and in their work as peer tutors and fellows, helps to shape and sometimes transform them personally, educationally, and professionally.” (Hughes et al)

I’ve heard again and again over the years that having peer tutors at a community college is extra-challenging because of the high turnover rate in staff.  Basically, I am told, that you just hire a peer tutor and they are transferring elsewhere.  These tutors can only provide a year, or sometimes a semester of service.  The training of these tutors, I’m told, is a waste of the writing center director’s time.

Waste of time?

I won’t get into that rather negative attitude towards education, only to say, is a class a “waste of time” because a student is only enrolled in it for a semester?  I think we in writing centers sometimes have the wrong notion of what our centers are.  Rather than thinking of them as places where tutors work, we need to conceptualize them as places where tutors learn.  Where they grow from the experience.  Places of learning, not places of employment.  A job in the writing center is not the same as a job in the food court.  The work they engage in in our centers has real, tangible impact on their futures.

When we take on attitudes represented in “our students could never do that”  or, perhaps,  even that they won’t be in the center long enough for it to matter, we are accepting the trite an misinformed perception of community college students as failures instead of real human beings with real potential.

We are falling into the cultural trap that students who attend community colleges are either just victims of themselves or society and cannot take action for themselves that will effect change in their lives and their communities.

Works Cited

Community College Survey of Student Engagement.  Web.

Hughes, Bradley, Paula Gillespie, and Harvey Kail.  “What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.”  The Writing Center Journal 30.2 (2010): 12-46.  Print.

Rousculp, Tiffany.  Rhetoric of Respect:  Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center. Urbana, IL:  NCTE Press, 2014.  Print.

Trowler, Vicki.  “Student Engagement Literature Review.”  The Higher Education Academy.  Lancaster University.  November 2010.  Web.


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