Mike Jacoby is the Tutor and Mentor Coordinator for the Athletics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Previously, Mike worked at the Northern Michigan University Writing Center for many years.
When I graduated with my master’s in writing in 2015, I was fortunate to find a position coordinating a tutoring program for student-athletes at the University of Wisconsin. I had just completed my second year of managing a writing center as its associate director, and writing center administration was work I found both fulfilling
and challenging. My writing center experiences anchored me, but the move into student-athlete support as a tutor coordinator brought me into unfamiliar waters: I hadn’t worked with student-athletes before, and I didn’t (and still don’t) personally care about sports. In addition to being out of my element in that way, I also waded into another unknown dimension: the realm of multi-subject tutoring.
The Athletics Tutoring Program is funded and housed completely through the UW Athletic Department (we have an Office of Academic Services within the athletic department). We exist apart from campus and from any other department, which has more pros than cons. We’re funded through the (well-off) Athletic Department and thus aren’t pressed for resources in ways we might otherwise be. Our program employs over eighty tutors to support over five hundred student-athletes per semester in plethora of courses (we have usually over eight hundred student-athletes enrolled but not all student-athletes make use of our program).
Weeks into the job and fresh out of a writing center, I was interviewing tutors for calculus, econometrics, biochemistry, and many more subjects with which I am utterly unfamiliar. Here’s how it works: Student athletes request a tutor for a course and are then paired with a tutor for an entire semester. If I’ve done my job, my pool of tutors is deep and varied enough that I can match the student with a tutor. We don’t support every class our students take, but out of the six hundred requests for a tutor I received this winter semester, I was able to fulfill all but seventy.
When I started my job, the tutors I met and began supervising weren’t familiar with the model I’d come to know as a writing center administrator. Similar to many college writing centers, the staff I had overseen was primarily 18 to 21-year-old undergraduate students. At UW, our tutors are in both undergraduate and graduate programs, and many of them are professionals or retired instructors. Thus, I was asked to oversee employees who had been tutoring for longer than I’d been alive.
The culmination of these factors was that I had a common thread to my life in the first year of my position: I was positioned as the expert without being the expert. During my interview I was asked how I would, having a writing and psychology background, manage and hire tutors outside of my disciplines. My answer then, and it turned out to be true after I was hired, was that writing centers prepare us to play as an authority without being the authority. When confronted with varying types of subjects and writing, we reflexively adapt to what a writer needs (or we do this if we’ve been trained and have practiced). We seek to understand writing, although in our tutoring we don’t always have familiarity with the subject matter. And that’s a role I’ve sought to make my own since 2015. I’ve studied the flow and methods of tutoring, and although I don’t understand the content I can evaluate, teach, and coach the form. However, learning how and when tutoring methods should change to suit a specific discipline is something I’m constantly considering and analyzing.
After taking on this role for a year or so, I realized I was struggling in another way I couldn’t have foreseen. In grad school, cohorts often develop a common language built upon shared ideologies and experiences. In a writing center, most people hold certain things to be true—the writer should be in charge of the process and we should employ nondirective methodology when possible. In Athletics, I am an island to myself for those ideas. My coworkers’ experience and focus are in other, equally vital, directions. But as an extrovert who studied writing, I have a constant need for collaboration and idea building. In my writing center Englishy world, I took for granted that people thought similarly to me and shared common fundamental understandings. Thus, in the world of Athletics I’ve realized how lucky I was to share a community like that. While this lack may have snipped a few ideas that weren’t given room to grow, it’s certainly pushed me to become a more decisive and thoughtful leader. I don’t lay ideas on the ground anymore waiting for them to be picked up. Now, I make commitments to follow through on ideas that are practical and worth my time. That cold fact forces me to decide what I value in tutoring. If I only have a total of six training hours with new tutors, what values do I seek to share with them?
A core difference in values is another way in which I’ve been challenged by leaving the writing center word. This is generalizing, but many people who enjoy reading and writing aren’t inherently competitive—at least this is common among those I know. And they aren’t competitive in the sense that sports fans are. My specific experience is that the professors and students I worked and learned with in grad school sought harmony, growth, and novel stories. That can be found in an Athletic department, but
in a way I was wholly (and sometimes still am) unprepared for. I don’t find novelty in sports, games, or athletic competition (short of watching Adam Rippon and Evgenia Medvedeva in the winter Olympics). While I’ve learned that harmony can exist in a team and can be utilized to create intriguing narratives and stories, my time in Athletics hasn’t made me any more likely to watch the Super Bowl.
And this difference in language brings us back to the writing center. When tutoring writing, we aim to bridge communication. What does a writer want to say? Why do they want to say it? How do they want to say it? Those fundamentals inform my work everyday at Camp Randall (the football stadium complex where our offices are located). And, at the end of a work day, my mission is the same as it was in the writing center: How can I best support students? The population has changed, but the goal hasn’t.
What this means is I’ve had to boil down the essentials behind the concepts we discuss and practice in the writing center and then I must apply them to different molds. This demands that I spend much time trusting tutors to complete pictures for me. When I teach tutors about non-directive methods, we discuss how this isn’t always ideal or possible in a tutoring session on organic chemistry—depending on the student and where they’re at with concepts. I thus rely on tutors with experience to show me and other tutors how this concept has worked or failed to work in their discipline focused tutoring. And opening up to learning from my tutors has taught me more than anything else in my past three years in this job.
When training tutors, my examples are consistently given through the lens of “now this happened in a writing tutoring session but the concept can be applied into different disciplines.” How I’ve grown and been enabled to step away from this phrase is rather simple: I watch my tutors work. Evaluations teach me more than my tutors know, and although we conference afterwards and I share suggestions and ideas with them, I’m fortunate to consistently walk away having learned more than I could have expected.