Origin Story

Tutoring Writing at Emory University's Oxford College

When Humanities Professor Gretchen Schulz proposed in 1986 that I become a peer tutor of writing at Emory University’s Oxford College, I could not have imagined then that I would make a career as a writing teacher and director of college writing centers.

Writing centers are campus resources that provide free individual and small-group consultations to students, faculty, and staff, for any writing in any situation. Their purpose is not merely to fix papers but to teach writers strategies to understand and to navigate complex situations for writing, both in and outside of school. In the past fifty years, writing centers have become ubiquitous on campuses across the globe, from colleges, to high schools, and even middle schools. Tutors are sometimes faculty or staff. More often, they are students. Typically, tutors undergo extensive training in writing pedagogy, often through a semester-long course on the research, theory, and practice of tutoring writing.

More than thirty years ago, when I was a sophomore at Oxford College, there was not yet an established writing center there. Professor Schulz said simply that, as an English major, I was a pretty competent writer, and, with that in mind, she wondered if I might be interested in a job. She pointed to a small classroom near her office in Language Hall. I could sit there for a couple of hours a few afternoons a week and offer writing help to other students. And I would be paid, she added. “I don’t know if anyone will show up,” she said, “but let’s find out.”

At Oxford College, for the first time in my life, I was discovering that school could be fun and engaging. I basked in the attention of dedicated teachers who were eager to discuss ideas and who took mine seriously. Professors Clark Lemons, Mike McQuaide, and, later, Floyd Watkins, at Emory College, made me see that college teaching could be a richly rewarding path. I loved to visit my professors during their office hours. Recently, I had overheard Professor Schulz make the same offer of a tutoring job to another student, a classmate I had a mad crush on. If she was going to become a writing tutor, then I would too. Perhaps the two of us would find reason to work together.

As it turned out, I don’t recall that we ever tutored together. But I did get hooked on teaching writing. Only a handful of students dropped by Language Hall for tutoring, but those who did seemed grateful for the support. With no tutor education or training, I wasn’t quite sure what to do, exactly. I didn’t know anything about writing pedagogy, only what I had experienced first-hand from my own teachers at Oxford.

In her end comment on my analysis of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott,” Dr. Holly Stave had written, “I could (and will) hug you for this. It is stunning—one of the very best papers I’ve received all year—or ever, for that matter.” I never knew that I could get a hug for good writing. Although she did point out quite a few mistakes, Professor Stave was no Miss Grundy, merely harping on errors. From her I learned the powerful impact of leading with praise. And so, as a peer tutor, I tried to do the same. I searched for what was good in other students’ writing. I worked to prompt them to build on their strengths, however slight or emergent. I didn’t learn until a decade later, studying writing pedagogy in a PhD program, the research-based evidence for the value of praise in writing instruction.

Tutoring writing at Oxford College made a profound impression on me. I learned that I liked teaching. I began to think that teaching might even be something I could become good at. Not long after I graduated from Emory, I landed a graduate teaching assistantship, this time, tutoring in the writing center at the University of Alabama. While I could intuit some best practices for tutoring, this second writing center, as at Oxford, included no formal tutor education or training. On my first day, I asked a more experienced tutor what I should do, how I should work. She pointed to the stacks of Writing Center Journal and Writing Lab Newsletter that filled the bookshelves there. “You could read some of those to find some tips on tutoring,” she replied.

Now more than three decades since my first tutoring experience at Oxford, I remain preoccupied with tutor education and training. It has become the primary focus of my research and teaching in rhetoric, composition, and literacy studies. I’ve worked in six college writing centers, directing three of them, from California State University, Chico, to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to my current post leading the University Writing Center at the University of Central Florida. As my involvement in writing center work has continued, my interest in tutor education has deepened.

The culmination of this research and teaching in writing centers is my recent book Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education, published by the Utah State University Press.

Around the Texts of Writing Center Work examines the conceptual frameworks underpinning and created by ordinary writing center documents. The values, assumptions, and beliefs underlying course syllabi, policy statements, website copy, assessment plans, promotional flyers, and annual reports critically inform writing center practices, including the vital undertaking of tutor education.

Each chapter focuses on a particular everyday document or document set. I explore its origins, its use by writing center administrators and tutors, and its engagement with persistent disciplinary challenges in the field of writing studies, such as tutoring and program assessment. I then analyze each document in the contexts of the conceptual framework at the heart of its creation and day-to-day application: communities of practice, activity theory, discourse analysis, reflective practice, and inquiry-based learning.

Around the Texts of Writing Center Work approaches the analysis of writing center documents with an inquiry stance—a call for curiosity and skepticism toward existing and proposed conceptual frameworks—in the hope that the theoretically conscious evaluation and revision of commonplace documents will lead to greater efficacy and more abundant research by writing center administrators and tutors.

Emory’s Oxford College is the origin of my career as a writing teacher and university writing center director. At Oxford, I learned what good teaching is—and just how meaningfully and profoundly it can shape one’s life for the better, both in school and out. I learned the power of students working and learning together with other students. I learned by numerous examples the tremendous influence high-quality, high-impact teaching can have.