This past term I was working in our writing center when a professor came in and said that she had explained the writing center to some students who had inquired about it. My first thought was "isn't that nice." I quickly became disturbed, however, because she said she had used an analogy, comparing the assistance available at the writing center to the assistance available from a tutor. I cringed; I had never thought of myself as a tutor, and the more I thought about what she had said, the more certain I became that I wasn't a tutor in the usual sense of the word. I began to see the differences between my responsibilities as a writing center consultant and the job of a tutor, differences which were not included in the comparison made by our well-intentioned professor.
In her comments, our visiting professor lumped together two different peer relationships, the one of the typical academic tutor directing the student needing help, and the one of a writing center consultant collaborating with a student. I had never noticed the possible confusion between these two jobs because at our writing center we call ourselves consultants instead of tutors. The Webster's New International Dictionary defines a tutor as, "One who has charge of the instruction of another in any branch, or in various branches, of learning; specif. a) A private teacher or instructor." In defining consultant, the same source says that it is "One who consults another," and in the definition of consult it says "To seek the opinion or advice of another; to take counsel; to deliberate together; to confer." These distinct titles emphasize the difference in the techniques used when working with students.
Tutoring can often become an unbalanced learning experience, a parasitic teacher/student situation. The tutors have knowledge of a subject and it is their job to supply students with information that will assist their understanding. Since they know basically what they will be teaching, they come to their sessions prepared. So, while the tutors may reinforce what they have learned in the past by teaching it, they are not inevitably learning new things the majority of the time.
In contrast to meeting with a tutor, a meeting with a writing center consultant involves a mutualistic student/student relationship. I have learned more as a writing center consultant than in any other job I've had. I come in contact with so many opportunities to learn not only about writing, but also about the subjects of various papers and the people who write them. In consulting, unlike tutoring, anyone at any ability level can seek help. While we do have some conferences in our writing center in which our consultants give out rules about standard written English, we have many more that consist of simply discussing a paper. Perhaps one reason why so many of our conferences become extended conversations is that we employ freshmen through seniors of any major, and therefore we are not necessarily more knowledgeable, in either writing ability or experience, than the students with whom we meet. We do not always have the right answers but simply provide suggestions coming from a different point of view. Also, while tutors excel in the area in which they are tutoring and therefore are prepared when they go into their sessions, consultants do not know in advance what they will be discussing, as each paper is unique. In the majority of conferences, the first time we see a paper is at the beginning of the conference with the author sitting next to us, waiting. Therefore, we must respond with our immediate impressions of the writing.
I remember a conference in which I was handed a paper on Hamlet. As I read the paper, the student sat at the table, watching me. When I finished reading, I had no specific questions, just a couple small points to mention, which I used to begin our discussion. Although I had no plan for our discussion, the talking was productive for both of us, and the conference went well. However, after the conference was over, my mind continued to toss around the ideas from the paper. "Why didn't I say that? Or gee, she could have done this." I felt bad. I thought I should find her and share my new ideas with her, but at some point in my thinking, I realized my job didn't require giving her any answers. This was the first time I had really known what my job was, or perhaps better stated, what it wasn't. The thoughts I had after she left might have given the conference and possibly the paper a different outcome, but not necessarily one that was better. While my ideas about improving her paper may have been useful, a unique value of consulting is the fresh, immediate response that consultants give when they first encounter a student's text.
First-impression responding is important. Although a professor has much more knowledge about the subjects of his paper assignments than consultants, each individual paper is still new to him just as it is new to those of us in the writing center. By providing an immediate response, consultants give students a chance to see what reaction their papers could produce from a professor. The partial, or total ignorance that we often have of the paper's subject can also be helpful because we, as uninformed readers, are able to ask questions that will let the student know what is clear and what is not. It worries me to think that people who define a tutor as I do, may hear the professor's description of the writing center and decide that, since their writing is not a problem, they would not benefit from a consultation.
In tutoring sessions, many students come to the tutors expecting them to be experts on the subject, putting them in the role of teacher. In contrast, in writing center conferences the two people involved may successfully function at various levels of understanding. So, in our conferences, we get to the heart of writing consultations, creating an interaction of perspectives.
Published in the Writing Lab Newsletter, Sept. 1993