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Documentation in Community Learning

alesnick's picture

by Becky Miller

The essay talks about tutoring in the position of a peer writing consultant by employing the example of Bryn Mawr's Writing Center.


            Ask a Peer Writing Consultant at Bryn Mawr College about her job's benefits and she'll recount story after story of breakthrough moments with struggling students.  Push the tutor further and she'll speak of tutorials with students that facilitate an aspect of her own writing - be it the way to approach the writing process, a critical framework to explore, or a new way to develop her own style.  Though tutors readily admit that the Writing Center benefits both tutor and tutee, they see such advantages as a sort of fringe benefit; the tutorial aims to assist the student with her current writing assignment, so much the better if the tutor gets something out of it.  Writing Center documentation reflects this emphasis on the tutee's experience over that of the tutor - tutors complete a brief and expository Tutorial Report upon conclusion of each session - yet no written procedures exist to formally elicit the tutorial's effect on the tutor nor the tutor's point of view.  Given Bryn Mawr's endorsement of community-based learning programs such as the Teaching and Learning Initiative, what role does documentation play in promoting fluidity among traditional instructor and student roles.  What significance, if any, does the Writing Center's current Tutorial Report practice have in terms of issues of reciprocity, institutional memory, and current tutors' future lives as potential teachers or mentors?

            While students generally go to the Writing Center in search of assistance with part of the writing process, the tutor does not go into each session with such specific goals about what she would like to get out of the conversation.  Most students make one-time appointments at the Writing Center; others, however, elect or are recommended by professors to enter into a Writing Partnership in which each student is paired with one tutor with whom the student meets once per week throughout the semester to work on writing assignments of the students' choice.  In such situations, tutor expectations concern the student's progression in terms of issues discussed with the student during past Writing Partner meetings.  In his reflections on the writing tutorial, Lad Tobin laments the state of his tutee's text:  "Now my fears are almost confirmed:  this is not the revision that I hinted last week, that I thought we had agreed she would try to write.  How can she feel the essay is done? [...] I had hoped for much more than this"[1].  Drawing upon physical and verbal indicators, Tobin concludes that the current draft of this paper satisfies the student's conception of her best writing.  Though Tobin focuses on the potentially strong writing brewing within the tension caused by the difference between the student's opinion of her writing and his disappointment, the frustration that arises in Tobin's tutorial also speaks to the problem posed by the Bryn Mawr Writing Center's documentation system.  Though Tobin's assessment of the student's estimation of her paper might be correct, his personal feelings towards her writing and her actual opinion about her draft and the tutorial become lost to institutional memory after the meeting ends, limiting other students or tutors' access to concepts learned or approaches used during the session that might apply to other students assignments, or tutorial situations.

            The Tutorial Report, written by the tutor for the Director and Assistant Director of the Writing Center and the student's professor if the student or professor so requests, requires a succinct summary of the issues addressed and exercises employed during the tutorial.  The tutor's report comprises the only written record of each of the hundreds of tutorials given each year.  Each session involves a much more interpersonal sort of communication than evidenced by a tutorial report, and connections between tutor and writer gain acknowledgement through spoken appreciation, an eventual grade that pleases the student, or the development of a more confident writer, not to mention benefits for the tutor.  If the tutor and the tutee know and value the tutorial beyond that which appears in the Tutorial Report, why might one deem written documentation preferable or even necessary?  Assuming that tutors, students, and professors pass on evaluations of their experience with the Writing Center, can the Writing Center claim word of mouth as an oral history to fill in the gaps left by Tutorial Reports?  Perhaps individuals exchanging experiences with the Writing Center suffices to perpetuate the teaching and learning that have taken place and continue to take place.  If entire cultures can exist within the oral tradition of communicating information, so might a college tutoring program; nonetheless, institutional memory at Bryn Mawr lasts approximately four years, meaning Writing Center tutors must start from scratch and reacquire any collective knowledge every four years, aided only by the memory of the Director and Assistant Director who have worked with the Writing Center across several "generations" of tutors.

            Thus, it would appear that the Writing Center could benefit from seeking additional perspectives in written reportage, specifically with regard to combating the limitations posed by a four-year institutional memory.  On a more practical and realistic note, a push for increased written documentation would change the experience of both tutor and tutee at the Writing Center.  Asking or requiring tutors to write about their own investment or experience in the tutorial would require Writing Center staff to spend more time on paperwork and potentially less time actually working with students.  Asking students to submit written accounts or feedback of any kind would move the focus of the tutorial away from helping the student with her paper and towards a more reciprocal model, perhaps, yet one wonders if students would accept the idea of leaving their tutorial with the responsibility to write their own Tutorial Reports in addition to revising their paper as discussed in the session.  As much as it might bolster reciprocity and formal acknowledgement of the mutual teaching and learning that takes place in the Writing Center, students come to receive help on pre-existing assignments, not to acquire more work, regardless of the straightforward and concise nature an ideal tutee-written Tutorial Report might have. 

            While the most accurate portrait of overall tutor and tutee experience in the writing conference would come from an examination of reports written by all who pass through the Writing Center's doors, it might prove more realistic to at least begin with an optional guestbook.  Peer Writing Consultants and tutees alike would have the opportunity to write about their tutorial experiences in the book, contributing to collective, metacognitive compilation of that which occurs in the Writing Center.  In seeking a polyvocal text that need not discriminate between the authority of each type of author (tutor or tutee), we could begin to create a contained written record to inform future Writing Center staffs and to link generations that would otherwise suffer from short institutional memory. 

            The Writing Center currently continues to promote a Tutorial Report and oral history model of community-based learning.  That said, tutors are expected to follow mentors such as Lad Tobin in an attempt to hear and understand the tutee's point of view by asking questions.  What do you want to get out of this tutorial?  In your own words (not reading from your paper), what is this paper's thesis?  What do you think of my suggestion?  How do you think you might revise this section to better address what we have discussed?  Though these questions do not speak to building and retaining collective knowledge at or through the Writing Center, they center the tutorial on hearing the student's voice and allowing her a large role in shaping her experience.  Looking farther into the future, we inquire as to the effect the current documentation procedures will have on tutors' possible careers as teachers.  In effect, this system socializes tutors into a mentoring environment in which only one written point of view has a place.  Is this how we want future teachers to approach mentoring?  In a culture that values writing as an intermediary of knowledge and information between individuals and groups and, as Plato's Phaedrus[2] suggests, a tool for the preservation of perspectives, we cannot deny the existing precedence for written documentation.  Perhaps we must look past the difficulties and search for a more holistic model of documentation that reflects mutual learning goals in the Writing Center. 


[1] Tobin, Lad.  "Productive Tension in the Writing Conference:  Studying Our Students and Ourselves."  96.

[2] Plato.  Phaedrus.  Cambridge University Press:  Cambridge, 1972.