The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors : An Interview with Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta

Andrea Rosso Efthymiou, guest contributor 

Devoted to fostering research and conference participation for peer writing tutors, the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing (NCPTW) is gearing up for its 2017 conference at Hofstra University. In this post, NCPTW 2017 Chair, Andrea Rosso Efthymiou, interviews this year’s keynote speakers, Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta, co-authors of The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors (OGWT). In their interview, Fitzgerald and Ianetta discuss their personal processes as long-time collaborators, the choices they made writing and editing OGWT, and of course, writing center tutoring.

Andrea: Can you describe your writing process as co-authors of this book? How did you work together as co-authors? Did you work on separate sections individually or did you actively write each section together? Or was the process altogether different?

Actually, we used a range of collaborative and individual composing strategies to write The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors (OGWT). Our approach depended on the stage in the process and the immediate writing goal. Some of these processes were very organic and highly collaborative – with the controlling concept for the book which we articulated for the prospectus, for instance, we worked intensively together for a couple of days. The process was so natural and so focused that we really don’t know any more who came up with what idea.

However, some parts of the process are very individual, so that one of us takes responsibility for a chapter or subsection. We’ll talk through the chapters, then each of us goes away to compose, and we trade drafts. We respond to one another’s work and then the original author responds to the commentary and revision. We’ll then trade again and, at that point, we often have lost track of who wrote what. There was a time, for example, when Melissa praised lavishly a change in a much-revised chapter – she really thought Lauren had taken things in an exciting new direction. And her enthusiasm was only minimally dampened when Lauren told her that the revision was hers –Melissa herself had written the text of which she spoke in such admiring terms.

This instance of the composing process, however, is only one part of the larger research process that comprises our professional partnership. We chose to write this book in part because, together, we’ve been writing and talking about writing centers for many years: our first shared work was a set of paired conference reports for Writing Center Journal (WCJ) on the 2005 IWCA conference. And while we published two separate conference accounts, the process we used there laid the groundwork for the process we still use. We talk, draft, respond, revise, and talk again. This is the process we used when working with a large group of collaborators on “Polylog: Are Writing Center Administrators WPAs?” and, most importantly, when co-editing WCJ. Our editorial conversations not only shaped journal issues, but framed our understanding of the field: our two special issues – on peer tutor research and the landmark essays of the field, respectively – lie at the foundation of OGWT. And, finally, we still use that process today –we’re using it right now, as we answer these questions, in fact!

Andrea: How did you make decisions about which articles to include in this edited collection? If “diversity” or “representation” were ideas that you strove for, how did you define these terms and how did these concepts inform your choices?

First and foremost, we started with undergraduate research when we began selecting essays for the collection – we wanted, as much as possible, to feature tutor work in this book. So we gathered all the undergraduate research in the writing center that we could find. We started, of course, with the “Peer Tutoring And the Conversation of Mankind” special issue of WCJ, but from there we read widely in and beyond this journal in venues including Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Young Scholars in Writing, Stylus: A Journal of First-Year Writing and, of course, WLN. We winnowed from our initial reading by using the lenses of method – does the essay create knowledge in a manner that could be replicated or otherwise built on? – and applicability – does the essay offer insight that is broadly applicable in a writing center setting? Once we had selected our exemplary essays by such tutor-researchers as Mara Brecht, Jennifer Nicklay and Jonathan Doucette, we turned to the other scholarship of writing center studies to fill holes by selecting essays on those methods and matters not addressed in the tutor scholarship and to solidify the narrative we were creating.

One of the biggest decisions we made, it seemed to us, was the decision to root our story in Kenneth Bruffee’s “Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind” rather than in Stephen North’s “The Idea of a Writing Center.” We know it’s unusual (some might say perverse) to omit North’s clearly-canonical essay. We made this choice for several reasons. The first reason is best articulated by Beth Boquet and Neal Lerner in “After ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’”: North’s essay was written for an audience external to the writing center rather than the students who work and learn there. Second, while North’s essay is about an abstract space – or an “idea” as the title announces – Bruffee’s essay and our book are very much about human people – tutors and writers. And while we may contend with Bruffee on some particulars (and we’ll say more about these at NCPTW!), we are very much with him in putting tutors front and center at our shared intellectual enterprise. Once we had placed Bruffee as our touchstone, we moved to other areas we thought that tutors would want to explore: learning differences (Babcock), historical study of writing centers (Lerner), New Media (Grutch McKinney), and tutoring strategies (Mackiewicz and Thompson). As with the peer tutor essays, each of these works was selected with an eye to audience and method. So while we were certainly invested in representing a range of identities and perspectives, we focused our anthologizing efforts on representing what tutors have said and supplementing their conversations with useful works from the field.

A scene from Lauren Fitzgerald’s Yeshiva University Writing Center

Andrea: How does a tutor respond to a student who challenges their role as a tutor, without playing into a hierarchy sort of thing of “I am in charge?”

It’s really difficult to avoid the “hierarchy thing” in one-to-one tutoring within a college or university setting. On the one hand, because you are an employee of your writing center, you do have more institutional authority than the writer in this particular instance of your interaction with her. On the other hand, and in the situation you seem to be alluding to in your question, the writer herself is reinforcing your authority by challenging it in the first place or defining your role in a manner you find uncomfortable – now THAT’S a clear power move whether or not it’s intentional. And, in this instance, we don’t think it would be overly aggressive to assert the tutor role as defined in your center.

But you can try to disrupt—or at least de-emphasize—the hierarchy of the situation by telling the writer that you want to collaborate and work together and/or by metaphorically stepping back from the session to talk about how tutors and writers typically work together and what kinds of interactions seem to the be most successful, in your experience. Keep in mind too that people try to hide their anxiety by challenging authority, so you might try rolling with the punches for a little while to see if the other person might eventually grow more comfortable on her own.

Andrea: While the book advocated for focusing on global over local issues in student writing, when do you feel it is appropriate to focus on grammar, and what advice do you have for new tutors navigating this balance?

Melissa Ianetta’s writing center at the University of Delaware

Grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and other sentence-level matters are worth addressing when they are themselves are global issues. If a reader is prevented from understanding the meaning of a text because the words the writer has used don’t convey it well or precisely enough, there is potentially communication problem that rises to a global level. What tutors often need practice in is learning is how to distinguish errors that truly do prevent them grasping what the writer is trying to convey from the kinds of errors that just don’t “sound right.” Sentence-level issues also worth addressing when doing so helps the writer learn something about how he can edit his own work. Pointing out a couple of instances of a pattern of error—such verbs that are consistently missing past-tense markers like “-ed”—and asking the writer to locate other instances himself give the writer practice in seeing his writing as a reader.

Also, it’s worth noting that local issues are often usefully addressed by helping writers activate their own grammar facility via proofreading strategies. Particularly when working with native speakers of English, tutors can help writers understand proofreading as a writing stage quite distinct from developmental revision, model a range of proofreading strategies, and have writers try out various approaches themselves. Oftentimes, these are the high-impact approaches to local error.

Andrea: Is the book coming out in a 2nd edition? If so, what can we expect that’s new?

We’re excited to report that we are currently working on the second edition! We’ve heard from lots of tutors and directors about the first edition and we’re very grateful we get a chance to revise. More specifically, and building on the excellent research that’s come out recently, we are expanding our sections on multilingual writers and writers with learning differences. You can also expect to see an expanded treatment of multimodal literacy/writing as well as empirical research methods. The second edition will also have a companion website. We’ve had a lot of fun sharing ideas and resources via our Facebook page but we’d like an easier way to share such documents as syllabi, text resources, and assignments. OUP has generously agreed to create a website that will function as a flexible repository for this information.

We’re looking forward to both the next edition and the companion website. Look for them in the next year or two.

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