Harvey’s 2006 CCCC Paper

Harvey Kail, “Situated in the Center: The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project,” CCCC 2006, Chicago.

Harvey-in-MinneapolisThis year’s call for proposals for the 2006 annual CCCC convention speaks eloquently to the special place in the academy that our discipline often ignores: the informal, educational space between academic culture, with the authority and prestige of its knowledge, and student culture, with its enormous intellectual energy but its ambivalence about schooling. The practice of peer tutoring in writing centers uniquely situates undergraduates in this complexly configured space between text and author and between student and instructor. Those of us who have been teaching and supervising peer writing tutors in college and university writing centers know that something remarkable happens when this form of collaborative learning gets taken seriously over time. Not only have writing centers become the place to go on college campuses around the country for students to get useful individual feedback and instruction on their writing, but in the process of providing this service, writing centers have also become a unique training ground for hundreds of peer writing tutors in colleges and universities across the country.

These undergraduate students work in the fraught but intellectually rich middle spaces between the formal curriculum, student culture, and individual learning. When appropriately prepared for the rigorous social and intellectual work of tutoring their peers in writing, undergraduate students can become excellent critical readers and tutors of the academic writing that they and their fellow students must produce in the course of their college educations. The value of peer tutoring for campus writers is something that we assess in writing centers every day through tutorial evaluations of one sort or another. But what we don’t as often ask ourselves about is the value of collaborative learning for the tutors themselves. Writing centers and peer tutoring have been around for twenty-five years and more, so now seems a good time to look systematically at what peer writing tutors take with them into their lives and their work from the training and experience in this unique “center space” of higher education.

The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project aims to document and assess the value of peer tutoring for the tutors themselves after their graduation. Designed by writing center directors at three different institutions–Paula Gillespie, at Marquette University , Bradley Hughes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and myself at the University of Maine –the Project has moved through a series of developmental stages. We began collecting data in 2002 with videotaped focus groups made up of former tutors. The focus groups served to capture what tutor alumni had to say abut the value of their training and experience and also helped shape a written survey, which could then serve as the instrument for a broader study.

The project has now moved in two directions. First, it has moved outwards to the community of writing center directors and scholars who might find assessment research into former peer writing tutors worth considering. In order to encourage other writing center researchers in this direction, we have built a website at http://www.writing.wisc.edu/pwtarp (see handout) that contains a “research kit” from which writing center directors can develop their own alumni research project, including crucial information on getting started, obtaining informed consent from those participating in the study, selecting a sample, detailed information on conducting focus groups, a bibliography of related studies, and the survey instrument itself, which can be downloaded and put to work along with suggestions on maximizing results.

Second, the project is focusing on conducting the survey with peer tutor alumni who were not surveyed in the pilot studies. At the University of Maine , for instance, tutor alumni number over two hundred and cover a period of twenty-five years since the first peer tutor training course in l981. I have now put the surveys in the hands of about one hundred former tutors. Eighty-four have responded, a return rate that in itself suggests how highly former tutors value their experience and training. My purpose today is to report to you the results of the University of Maine study to date.

First, let me tell you just a little about the survey itself. There are two major sections: one for demographic information and one that asks for reflections on the training and tutoring experience. I’ll comment on the demographic section in a moment. The second section asks for reflections, narrations, judgments, and analysis about what students take with them from their training and experience as peer writing tutors into their post-college lives. The first prompt in this section asks respondents to catalogue the “abilities, values, or skills” that they developed as a peer writing tutor. This question sets the table for the rest of the survey, providing ideas and topics from which respondents can draw throughout the rest of their commentary. The second prompt asks former tutors to “share an episode or event” from their experiences that strike them as most meaningful. The next two questions prompt responses on likely post-graduate concerns: making career or further educational choices, and interviewing for jobs and/or applying to grad school. Questions then turn toward tracing elements of the writing center experience that continue to inform their lives and work. “In your occupation(s), have you used the qualities you developed as a writing tutor?” Do any of the qualities you listed above play a role in your social or family relationships?” And, finally, we ask them about their sense of how their own writing was influenced and what they learned from working with the writing of others. We conclude by asking what the downsides of the experience were.

I’d be happy to discuss the survey itself, if we have time during the questions/answer period. Now, however, let me turn to what I have learned so far about what students take with them from their experience with collaborative learning in our writing center.

The demographic section of the survey provides interesting information on, among other things, the kind of work former tutors tend to pursue after graduation. More than half the sample, 49, have gone on to graduate school, including three who have received law degrees; twenty-five who have earned masters degrees, and six Ph.D’s. About ten former tutors are in graduate school now. The surveys testify clearly to the significant influence peer tutoring had on their acceptance to graduate school and most particularly to their access to graduate teaching assistantships, Not surprisingly, the single most prevalent profession among our former tutors is teaching: fifteen former tutors are now teaching in primary, middle school, or secondary education; nine are working in higher education, either as faculty members or administrators, so about a thirty percent of our tutor alumni are employed in education. Around fifteen percent of former tutors work as technical writers, journalists, or do editorial work for magazines or other publishing ventures, putting their language skills directly to work for them. About eight percent work in information systems, software and web design; about the same number are in management positions in both profit and non-profit organizations and about the same in sales and service careers. About six percent are psychologists and social workers. Six percent started careers but have decided to be stay-at-home moms or dads. Four percent have become attorneys and a few are self-employed in such work as photography, acting, and graphic design. One former tutor is a Methodist minister in Cleveland, another the director of the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, one directs a camp in New Hampshire for troubled boys while another is waiting on tables here in Chicago while she applies to graduate school.

Collectively, what did these former tutors take with them into their occupations and lives as veterans of a peer tutoring program? Based on my reading of the surveys to date, the most significant benefit that students take with them from their writing center experience is earned confidence in themselves. The combination of training and collaborative experience is a transformative experience for students. Nearly every survey reflects on how training and experience in collaborative learning and peer tutoring helps individuals develop a deeper sense of their own competence, first as students and then, once they graduate, as individuals who can do the world’s work, particularly the heavy lifting that has to do with language and writing. This increased sense of self-confidence that students acquire in the writing center and then take with them into their lives is derived from several inter-related sources and experiences and is grounded in large measure by their proven ability to communicate effectively with others in complex and demanding circumstances. Let me break down this sense of earned confidence into some of the specific elements that peer tutor alumni tend to stress in the surveys.

A New Relationship with Writing

First, many of them report entering into a new relationship with their own writing and the writing of others. As Julie Cullenberg Bernier, Class of l990, and now a clinical social worker, put it: being a peer tutor “changed the way I approach writing completely.” Many former tutors write about gaining confidence in themselves through a new intimacy with and understanding of the writing process. Helping others invent arguments naturally helps the tutors to develop their own ideas; working with others to revise a draft over and over teaches the tutors the value of multiple revisions; helping others to shape their ideas into concise and persuasive argument helps the tutors to build their own compositions. Dan Dunkle, who graduated in l995 and now edits the Republican Journal in Belfast , Maine , summed it up: It wasn’t so much a matter of learning any one skill or ability as finding a place that helped accelerate my growth in all areas of my writing.”

Learning Collaborative Learning

If one can hardly be surprised that students improve their own writing through helping other students improve theirs, it is nonetheless striking to learn that this knowledge of and engagement with the writing process is carried well beyond the borders of school work and continues to benefit the writing of students on the job and in their lives. Based on my reading of the surveys, I am persuaded that this new knowledge of and faith in their own writing processes gets carried well beyond graduation because it is embedded in the experience of learning collaborative learning. It isn’t merely that tutoring tutors the tutor about writing. This is surely so, but there is something more subtle and enduring at work here that leads me to believe that the way peer tutors learn about the writing process in our peer tutor training course and in their writing center experience redefines writing for them as a collaborative rather than an individual process. As Scott Borchelt, now a technical writer for a Detroit, Michigan consulting firm, succinctly puts it: “Before tutoring, writing was a solo experience…Now, my writing process always includes asking as many people as I can recruit to sit down with me, to read my drafts, and to share their ideas with me. I can’t imagine writing anything important without invoking the writing tutor conversation with another interested set of eyes.” George Woodward, who graduated in 2003 and now works in sales and advertising, makes this telling point: “The biggest thing I learned about my own writing is that you can only reach a certain point without bouncing ideas off another person. Getting a fresh outside perspective is the only way to raise your ceiling for accomplishment. I write almost all of the advertising and promotional materials for my company, and none of it would have been as good if I had not solicited the opinions and ideas of others.”

Collaborative learning legitimizes and privileges conversation about writing as an integral part of the writing process, itself, and peer writing tutors become remarkably skilled in talking about writing, their own and others. The surveys suggest that they highly value their ability to participate in this conversation for the power and authority it bestows on their lives. Allen Delong, now an administrator at Bowdoin College , shared this insight in his survey: “Working as a tutor caused me to think about writing in a way I would not have done without it. Who talks about writing, really? Writers and tutors, mostly. I talk/think about words and the power of the written word, the beauty of it….I know I began to think differently about writing through the writing center.” Deanna House, now a teacher at a private high school in Florida , says the same thing in another way: “The peer tutor program helped me get the skills I now knew out of my head and into my mouth.” Loralee Clark, class of 1992 and an instructor in Speech Communication at the College of William and Mary, sees this engagement with others in a collaborative exchange on writing as spurring a change within herself: “There was a shift inside myself. I was no longer a writer on the sidelines with some I knowledge I could argue with myself about—did I really know this? I was an articulate, confident participant in the interaction of ideas and writing.”

Critical and Analytical Reading Ability

Tutor alumni testify compellingly to the impact that peer tutoring has had on their ability to read critically as undergraduate students and to take this ability with them into their careers. Not only do they have confidence in their reading abilities, they talk about how differently they read as a result of their experience. Michael Deneen, who graduated in l988 and who now works for an international financial services company, sees this change in the way he reads as fundamental to all he does in his work: “Most significant was a conceptual shift from encountering language in terms of what it says to dealing with it in terms of what it does. I can’t emphasize enough the force of this movement between levels of abstraction; it changed how I read everything, not just with tutees.” William Todd, 1995 and now a practicing clinical psychologist, is even more adamant about the significance of this conceptual shift: “Without a doubt, learning the difference between process and content changed my life. Deconstructing writing in terms of language and function…brought into consciousness for the first time a new level of how language and, by extension, all forms of communication, achieve an impact. In (the training course) we talked about the difference between what something says and what something does. In psychology we talk about content and process. Different strokes for different folks. Understanding the differences and inter-relatedness of these concepts not only improved my critical reading and writing skills, it has also made me a better psychotherapist. Many of my instructors complemented me on my attentiveness to process where many of my peers work at the content level. After thanking them for the compliment and taking credit for being brilliant, I remember back to where I first learned to do this…in the writing center.”

The Value of Listening

The ability to listen effectively is mentioned over and over and throughout the surveys. Listening well has become a deeply valued part of former tutors’ lives and careers. They mention the importance of listening–and the attendant qualities of patience, empathy and respect– in nearly every section of the survey, citing their ability to listen as key to their success in such diverse areas as collaborating with colleagues on the job to managing the crises of their teenage children. Here is Naomi Laskey, a journalist and mother, and a graduate from l983, on the value of the listening skills she took with her from her writing center experience: “My daughter Olivia is so ready to become a teenager. If I don’t listen to what she says to me, without comment, she stops talking. Children really seem to hone in on whether you are interested in what they are saying or if you are looking for an opportunity to educate them about any manner of subject they frankly don’t want to hear about.” Julie Ann Baumer, class of 1986, who works in the insurance industry, writes this about the value of the listening skills she developed as a peer writing tutor: “Truly, my listening skills are ones that I found most helpful to me in every situation, personally and professionally. As our world gets noisier and noisier…it’s evident how desperately people desire to speak and be heard. I am fortunate that I have the ability to listen intently and can communicate back to others what they night not be able to hear about themselves or their abilities. At the same time, with so much verbal popcorn out there, it’s also important to gently let people know when they’re saying nothing.” Patrick Files, a technical writer with Cisco Systems, who graduated in 1988, makes the insightful comment that listening isn’t so much a skill as it is a value that he became aware of in his writing center training and experience: “I think I didn’t so much learn to listen as I saw how important listening can be and how powerful it can be if you do it well. I guess listening could go down on this list as a value instead of a skill.”

Joining a community of knowledgeable peers

One of the insights of social constructionist theory into the teaching of writing is that learning to write is not only the acquisition of skills or competencies, habits or abilities; it is also about the social and intellectual process of learning to join in the discourse of a particular community of knowledgeable peers. The view of writing as a social as well as a cognitive activity has shaped writing center theory and practice since the early work of Kenneth A. Bruffee in the1970′s and 1980′s. Based on the surveys I have read to date, this theory is clearly born out in practice, and the importance to the academic development of peer writing tutors of joining an intellectual community cannot be overstated. The writing center with a peer tutor training program at its core is, indeed, a community, though not every tutor reports an easy community to join. Learning its codes of conduct and traditions of intellectual camaraderie, its high academic standards and habits of thought, can and often do serve as an initiation process through which peer tutors recognize themselves as members of the larger university community and through which they can rehearse and refine their social and communication skills as an integral part of their studies. Here are some examples from the surveys of how former peer writing tutors frame the significance of joining the community of the writing center:

My work at the Writing Center was a turning point for me as a student. Before my sophomore year when one of my professors recommended me as a writing tutor, I had little confidence or interest in my potential as a writer or a student. But when I joined the community of the Writing Center , I became much more engaged in what I felt was important work. It initiated me into the role of both educator and students. Plus it was fun.

Andrew King, Class of l988
Ph.D. student, CUNY

The Writing Center provided me “a place” while I was an undergraduate. This was more important than I realized at the time. Looking back, I know that I felt at home there. Without that community and connection between my curricular/co-curricular life I’m not certain I would have completed my BA. Working at the Writing Center provided a real sense not only of belonging, but insight into how my studies applied to life. I was able to interact with students from all disciplines and consult with faculty. That confidence guaranteed future success.

Bethany Round, Class of 1997
Assistant Director of Honors Program
University of Southern Maine

The opportunity to be part of a group such as we created in the Writing Center showed me the type of success that could be created in the professional world as well.

Heather McCarthy, Class of 1988
Executive Director, American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront


The writing center experience is not the only significant experience former tutors have as undergraduates at the University of Maine . As Bill Comstock, Class of l990 and now Head of Imaging Services at the Harvard University library, makes clear, “I had many transformational experiences as a student: classes with inspirational teachers, introductions to texts and thinkers that rearranged my world view, relationships with undergraduates, graduate students and faculty that changed me and helped reveal my skills and interests.” At the same time, a course in peer tutor training and the experience of being a peer writing tutor serves many, many peer tutors not only as a transformational experience in itself but also as a portal through which they are able to situate themselves inside the center of academic life where they are better able to develop their talents as writers, readers, talkers and listeners.

In the limited time afforded me here today, I have only begun to document the skills, values, and abilities undergraduates take with them into their lives from their writing center days. I believe that a sense of self-confidence earned in the writing center has reached well beyond the borders of school to enrich their lives and their life’s work. Reading the surveys has been for me the most satisfying experience of a long and satisfying career in writing centers, where I see on an everyday basis the power of collaborative learning, and I want to thank the more than eighty tutors who have responded so thoughtfully and in such detail to the survey. They are the best.