9th through 11th Grade Reading
Philosophy of Tutoring Writing
When meeting a writer in a conference the phrase I use is always the same. “So what are we working on today?” I may say this after I introduce myself, as we are sitting down together, or as the writer is opening their bag to pull out their laptop. I could say anything, but I choose to say these specific words. At first, I believed that I spoke them out of habit or as a tool to “get the session going,” but as I reflect on my tutoring practice, I can see a growing significance in those seven words that hold meaningful implications for who I am as a tutor. Two concepts are the groundwork for my philosophy in tutoring writing. Writing is a social practice, and writing is a process of discovery. Both are hinged on a larger theoretical framework that assumes meaning as a social construct and learning as a negotiation of knowledge. It is essential for me as a tutor to approach writing as a space for collaboration and a site for unearthing the meaning-making processes of individuals.
In Andrea Lunsford’s “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center” she outlines two centers: Storehouse Centers and Garret Centers. Each center is accompanied by a theory of knowledge. While the Storehouse places control in the hands of the tutor and approaches knowledge as exterior and accessible; the Garret Center places control in the hands of the individual writer and approaches knowledge as an interior and inaccessible. Lunsford proposes a third idea for a writing center, the Burkean Parlors, as a space for collaboration where the power is in the hands of the negotiating group. This writing center approaches knowledge as “always contextually bound, as always socially constructed” (75). This approach to collaboration and the Burkean Parlor writing center subverts Western approach to higher education that values individual learning over collaborative. Lunsford’s idea of a center heavily influences my approach to tutoring writing. My belief in collaboration is rooted in the larger theoretical framework of post structuralism, reliant on the conviction that learning should operate as a gift economy where meaning making is a social activity. As a result of this foundation in my philosophy, I see conversation as thought because language precedes thought. It is how we construct our realities and our ideas. We acquire language through social interaction, it is not something found within us. Much like meaning, it is socially bound.
Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.
- Peter Elbow
To say, “tutors cannot truly collaborate with clients” is to ignore the process of meaning making as a social practice. I believe that tutors can collaborate with clients because whether consciously aware of the practice or not, we are already collaborating in the ways we construct concepts, make meaning, and form ideologies. It is impossible to construct meaning and knowledge individually. Every thought has been a construct of a social experience. Our very identities as writers are in constant evolution. However, it is important to acknowledge that this belief assumes a specific definition of collaboration. It asks for an approach to collaboration that validates the nature of human interaction as a social practice and by extension peer tutoring as a social practice.
Kenneth Bruffee asks, “How would it look if we assumed that people write in order to be accepted, to join, to be regarded as another member of the culture or community that constitutes the writer's audience?” (651). This question suggests that writing is a learning and meaning making process which lends it’s participants those tools for entering a particular discourse community. As a believer in peer tutoring, I advocate Bruffee’s call to reconsider writing motivations. If we indeed write to join, to be regarded, then the role of the tutor becomes collaborator, guide, and advisor. I believe in a simple definition of collaboration, the pair over the individual as well as their process over the product. Because I recognize knowledge and meaning as shared, I see writing as a site for meaning-making and learning. This belief makes process important to our skills set as writers.
The process theory of writing, chiefly advocated by Peter Elbow, can be considered the most influential theory in my developing philosophy, perhaps notoriously so. I defer to Elbow’s freewriting or discovery writing in my tutoring, an activity that acts as a journey for the writer to arrive at meaning. Thus, the function of freewriting in my tutoring conferences is to unearth the meaning-making capacity of each writer. Elbow argues that the writer needs liberation from the editor in order to say something. I find Elbow’s approach influential in past writing conferences. However, I find myself using this approach at specific times and for specific conferences. Elbow’s approach strikes me as particularly helpful for writer’s who are brainstorming and writers who are struggling to find the "right" words. The activity of freewriting is particularly useful when brainstorming because it allows writers the energy and freedom to explore what they find engaging or exactly how much they know about a subject. Freewriting also aids the writer who’s overwhelmed by the consequences and assessment looming over their work, the very nature and purpose of freewriting works to alleviate this pressure.
While this romantic view of the writing center might be thoroughly criticized as idealistic regarding the issues that centers and tutors face, I do find our work in process theory important because it addresses the space where writer’s start, the blank page. And any journey worth discussing, debating, and publishing should be addressed at its beginnings. In Elbow’s Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching he reflects on the inability to write, using his own experiences as a foundation to understand the writer. It is Elbow’s discussion of audience that reinforces my belief in the collaboration between writer and audience, or tutor and tutee, as well as the role of freewriting as a method of process.
When reflecting on his experiences with writers and the sharing of their work he says it is, “Because this writing is shared, most students feel more pressure from audience and conventions than they do with private writing” (23). This pressure that Elbow consistently addresses in his perceptions of writing, is the problematic position that I hope my tutoring practice can address by collaborating with tutees and encouraging their process of discovery.
In a number of conferences with students I have witnessed the pressure writers feel as it takes a variety of forms. Whether the writer is staring at a sentence in silence, pushing the laptop further in my direction, or pausing our conversation unsure of their own revisions, the pressures of writing stifles their process of meaning-making and isolates them as individuals competing for a chance to be heard. This is why my philosophy calls out the importance of a tutoring role that collaborates with the writer in order to learn the methods of meaning-making necessary to foster a writer’s voice that not only leaves the writing center but also enters the world.