Volunteer Tutors

Editor’s note: like many others who shared the post on social media, we were very interested in the discussion started by Cortney Barko and Melissa Sartore’s “How to Start and Run a Writing Center With No Budget, or How We Did the Impossible!” So we were quite pleased when Diana Hamilton, associate director at Baruch College Writing Center, offered to share her thoughts.

In Cortney Barko and Melissa Sartore’s recent blog post, “How to Start and Run a Writing Center With No Budget, or How We Did the Impossible!”, the answer to their titular quandary is simple: they find a volunteer staff.

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Diana Hamilton, Associate Director at Baruch College Writing Center
I was alarmed to see the authors apply the same arguments used to justify “unpaid internships”—a line on a resume, valuable work training—to writing center work. To put the problem bluntly: using a volunteer-only staff ensures that only students who can afford to work for free can be hired. Having worked and gone to college in New York City, I’m familiar with the many industries that take advantage of the large pool of college students willing to trade time for experience. This system reproduces the socio-economic and cultural homogeneity of these industries: you can only work in publishing, art, and many nonprofits if you can afford to work for free for a few years. I know that Montgomery, WV is not NYC—but I would be willing to hazard that there are many students at WVU Tech who cannot truly afford to work for free, either.

Working for a cash-strapped university, though, I’m sympathetic to non-ideal solutions. I’m more troubled by the explicit arguments against paying tutors:

We also believe that volunteer tutors were a wonderful way to approach the staffing of the Writing Center. Our tutors truly cared about helping other students with their writing, and that sense of purpose gave the Writing Center a very positive atmosphere.

Among teachers I know personally, some work for $3000/class, for $5500/class, for $80K for a 4/5, for $60K for a 3/3, or for $25–$200/hr as private tutors. All care deeply about their students. Those with better working conditions, though, can afford to spend more time reading about pedagogy, holding office hours, evaluating student writing, reconsidering lesson plans and syllabi, etc. Those with job security, benefits, and sufficient hours also remain in these roles, and their students benefit from their commitment.

Politicians often justify teachers’ low pay by the logic of the “calling”: that we should work for love rather than money. We know, though, that these things are not at odds; to the contrary, workers respond well to being treated like the professionals they are.

I write this not to take issue with a successful attempt to start a writing center. More broadly, their argument for volunteers relates to a larger oversight in writing center scholarship: there’s not enough interest in what tutors get paid. Arguments for staffing peer tutors (rather than professional consultants) often keep silent on the obvious, non-pedagogical justification: student labor comes cheap. Now, it turns out, it also comes free.

Many writing center administrators will bristle at the implication they staff peer tutors for financial reasons. If this is not the case, though—if peer tutors are every bit as effective as professional writing consultants—why pay them so little? On the WCenter listserv, Clint Gardner gives $9.54/hour as the average pay rate for peer tutors, based on a recent survey (he plans to share the full results of this survey at IWCA Thursday morning). I led the training seminar for peer tutors at Cornell last year, where the pay rate was very close to that average (and at an incredibly wealthy school). It’s hard to ask tutors to acquire the professionalism, empathy, readerly generosity, and expertise necessary to do their jobs, when all could make more doing almost any job in town.

I’ll end with a question: Whether you staff peer tutors or professional consultants, how do you see teachers’ working conditions—pay, opportunities for development, job security, benefits, etc.—shaping the effectiveness of your writing center? Have you seen your own teaching change in response to your working conditions?

Diana Hamilton
Associate Director
Baruch College Writing Center
Baruch College, City University of New York

What do you think of Diana’s points? Comment below!

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