Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

So what did you expect? Confessions of a confused tutor

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Roberto Montiel, Saint Mary’s University

Expectations, so many of them, everywhere—and we, tutors, aren’t immune. It is good to have them, we might think, for they are like compasses to our actions. Yes. Yet, while initially invigorating, these expectations often prove a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they may inspire us as tutors to walk the extra mile so as to excel at our job. On the other, they can be a constant source of disappointment, particularly when we discover that our expectations fail to match the reality of our sessions. As John Trimbur suggests, those tutors who find their expectations shattered within the first weeks of tutoring tend to turn their hopes into feelings of despondent self-doubt, flagrant cynicism or overwhelming guilt (21-22). These feelings are likely to emerge when the tutor’s expectations are set by the tutor their self. The more personal the expectation gets, the more unrealistic it tends to be, and the more likely the originally excited tutor will end up a disappointed fellow. Yes, this might be why so many of the current debates about peer tutoring consider the relationship between the tutor’s expectations and the tutor’s performance as an integral part of what it means to be a tutor (Corbett; Galbraith & Winterbottom; Leung; Moussu).

Unrealistic expectations, nonetheless, are very common in peer tutoring for the simple reason that this kind of expectations abound in young people (Arnett 1-7). Unrealistic expectations are the matter of which youth is made. Some tutors, for instance, may find the urge to do something meaningful not only for their tutees but also for the English written language itself (Trimbur 21). Although a very noble expectation, this is way beyond the powers of a tutor and, it could be said, of any writing centre—maybe even beyond the powers of higher education. This is the kind of expectation that can quickly turn into a major source of disappointment. Yet there are other kinds of expectations that, at a first glance, don’t seem too far from what a tutor can achieve within a one-hour session; and then these very expectations prove, on the long-run, just as counterproductive. Consider a tutor who expects their tutee to excel in the assignment with which they are working together. As it turns out, the tutor pushes their self to the extreme of almost taking the students’ assignment as if it were their own, futilely trying to convey their know-how by almost rewriting (and singlehandedly so) their tutee’s work. It might be worth pointing out that this type of pedagogical aberration, as Jeff Brooks observes, seems not to be very uncommon in higher education (1-4).

And then, we cannot help to ask, how can a tutor avoid this kind of expectations? I would argue that the tutor’s expectations are very closely related to the measures that they use to evaluate their self. Not only can these expectations be thought of as sins of youth, they are also learned by and built within the tutor as they have internalized a hierarchical system of teaching and learning. Expectations just don’t emerge out of nowhere; the tutor is channeling in and through them a whole system—a system in which they were taught to learn. In other words, the tutor has learned to set these expectations and has learned to evaluate their self accordingly. It could be argued that as a tutor acquires more and more experience, and experiences more and more disappointments, they will learn to readjust their lens to the reality of teaching. Their expectations will likely become more “realistic,” as disappointments and broken expectations are inevitable outcomes of growing up. This, of course, could only be argued if we are “growing up” within a hierarchical system in which knowledge is passed down rather than shared.

Indeed, tutors are used to evaluating their good performance based on the same measures on which the students who they tutor do, that is, based on their marks—“the central measure of success in higher education” (Trimbur 22). As we know, this is the central measure of success in any hierarchical model of knowledge. Probably by the time the student is inducted into higher education, good marks and good performance have already become interchangeable terms. This is to such an extent that a student who fails to understand their mark will most likely fail to assess how good, satisfying or ultimately gratifying their work is or could be. Similarly, tutors are accustomed to evaluate their own success in terms of their good academic performance, i.e., based on their good grades.

Within such a hierarchical model of learning, a “peer tutor” looks like nothing more than an exotic oxymoron. Not only is the role of the tutor a most obscure one, it is a most demanding one as well. The tutor almost always wants to attend to the demands of their fellow student, to whom they want to respond with a well-intentioned sense of loyalty: ‘I know what you’re going through’, ‘I know exactly how you feel’, ‘I’ve been where you are now’. Such identification between the tutor and the student is as desirable as it is logical—after all, the tutor is a student their self. In an ideal world, this identification would actually motivate a different form of learning, i.e., a collaborative one (Bruffee 44-47; Corbett 94-95). Yet this sense of identification often elicits an unwelcoming response on the part of the student, who, coming from the hierarchical model, expects the tutor to have some sort of authority over them (Corbett 87-94). ‘After all’, the student might think, ‘if I am seeking for your help, it is because you know something that I don’t’. Alternatively, the tutor, out of their sense of loyalty, may prioritize the student’s marks over the student’s learning. Many tutors may hence be tempted to place the paper, and not the student, as the main priority of their sessions—as this is where the student’s focus is usually placed.

Along these lines, it may be safe to assume that a tutor often works in a sort of limbo. For the faculty members, the tutor is an expert in training who should be perceived as a peer by their fellow students—an exceptionally skilled peer, but a peer nonetheless. For the students, the tutor is an expert student and a proficient writer with a sound knowledge of the ins and outs of academic writing. And for the tutor? How does the tutor perceive their self? Or, better still, how should the tutor perceive their self? To be sure, a position between an expert and a peer is not a very advantageous one for an authority figure; and yet, to some degree, the tutor is expected to be one at the eyes of the student. We thus come back to our initial question: how should the tutor evaluate their performance?

Most of the literature seems to agree that the success of a good writing tutor should be evaluated on the basis of long-term results, typically on the basis of an ongoing development in the student’s writing abilities (Brooks; Bruffee; Corbett; Gilbraith & Winterbottom; North; Trimbur). This means that there is a developmental, temporal element in excelling as a tutor. It is worth noting, however, that each tutor comes to a writing centre with different experiences, different backgrounds, different interests and different expectations. The only common denominator among tutors seems to be that they are (or recently were) excellent students with a fairly good command of the English language, and more particularly of the academic genre. The success of a tutor who is seeking to make their way into academia may be measured quite differently from the success of a tutor who is seeking to become a creative writer and differently yet from one who harbors neither academic nor creative prospects. Development will mean something very different for each of these tutors; it will move at different rhythms and point at quite different directions. In this context, ‘good writing’ would be measured differently by each tutor, as this bears a strong relation to the tutor’s experience, background, etc. Thus the measure of the development of a student’s writing abilities will vary from tutor to tutor, and not only from student to student.

Then again, who should evaluate said development? Should it be the tutor, the student or the faculty? Ideally, the student should be the first to notice their improvement as a writer. Yet it is often the case that the student’s evaluative capacities are superseded by the evaluative capacities of those who they perceive as authority figures (Corbett 82-84). Customarily, students interpret better grades as the clearest indicators of their improvement—in any field. Most students have gotten accustomed to assess themselves within a hierarchical system that grades their performance on the basis of how well they manage to respond to the criteria of their superiors. Since marks are the main tangible expression of approval available in such a system, any possible improvement will be gauged and perceived through the lens of higher marks. As a great lot of the student’s confidence is deposited in how high their marks can get, grades are the main, and likely only, known way to reward, recognize and/or validate the student’s development. Most students have thereby learned to view their grades as the academic barometer of their improvement—and only thus can they tell whether they have developed or not.

Perhaps the point I am trying to make is clearer by now: within a hierarchical system of knowledge how can the tutor evaluate their self? More specifically, how would the tutor be able to set realistic, stimulating expectations in an environment in which the only accurate measure available to evaluate both the student’s development and performance is encompassed by a numerical figure? After all, tutors are obliged to their fellow students; they have a clear responsibility towards their education. And, seemingly, the tutor’s development and performance should tally with the student’s own development and performance—at least in the eyes of the universities’ administration. To the eye of this beholder, numbers are the only means to assess positive or negative results (that translate into more or less financial support to the writing centres, etc.). But if this development is to be assessed solely by better grades, how could a tutor avoid making their tutee’s mark a concern of their own?

We all know how limited a term can be in almost every possible sense. We all know that a term compresses a very short period of time, that most faculty have to welcome a significant number of new students, that most TAs are juggling with more than one priority at a time (answering to the demands of graduate school being one of the most common), that there are just too many students to pay enough attention to the individual development and performance of each and every one of them. Yes, this is common knowledge.

In spite of all these caveats and limitations, we should keep in mind that a developmental model of learning, a long-term model that encourages the development of the student’s abilities in the long-run can only work in a place wherein there are long-term, developmental objectives. Within this latter kind of model, every faculty member would view their self as a facilitator rather than as an expert passing down knowledge to their students. Knowledge, in turn, would be regarded as something that is created and in constant transformation rather than as something that is vertically transmitted and horizontally reiterated (i.e., mouth to mouth, almost as a rumor). And, if I am coming back to the role of the faculty, it is because they are the first who should be on board in order to create a different model of knowledge—because most students, their purpose notwithstanding, are looking for their professor’s approval.

Certainly in this paper, such a model resembles much more wishful thinking than a clear alternative to the current hierarchical system that dominates our universities today. Such resemblance may be because this humble tutor has much more questions than answers. As of now, I see no realistic alternatives to start implementing a different model of learning—a developmental one. And still, one thing is clear to me, and that is that such a model must count with the faculty’s active participation. It is that or founding an alternative university. It is that or opting for a sort of counterculture—precisely at the very place in which culture is meant to be discussed and understood in all its depth and complexity.

As it is true that “long-term” and “youth” are two terms that don’t mix well together, the responsibility of creating an environment that fosters long-term, developmental goals should start at the faculty level. It is just too much to ask from a tutor, a pedagogue in progress, to set realistic expectations upon their jobs, their performance and, all in all, their mission within an environment in which short-term goals are the rule rather than the exception. A true change of paradigm, of model will only occur when the culture of the faculty (i.e., those who grade) starts to show some signs of change as well. If this is not the case, a writing centre that both cultivates and expects long-term, developmental improvements from their students will certainly have a very low demand, since all development is, by definition, gradual. As things stand now, most students (particularly the younger ones) come to the writing centres to fix their papers rather than to become better writers. This has to do with the fact that the student’s success is measured upon their grades and not upon their individual development.

A truly unrealistic expectation is to put on the youth the burden of being the mature party in the relationship. It is not reasonable to think that it is the student’s job to focus on long-term goals in an environment wherein they are constantly measured upon short-term results. It is not sensible to expect the student to unlearn what they have learned throughout all their academic lives. It is not logical to expect the student to focus on their development in a place that is so considerably centered on their results. It is not fair to expect any of these things from the tutor either. But as the tutor sets their expectations within the ruling paradigm of knowledge, my advice, and perhaps the only recommendation I’d be entitled to make, is: do your best to respond to the needs of your tutees; hopefully, they will get a good mark as a result of your work with them—ideally, your work will stick with them longer than the grade.

Works cited

Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. “Emerging Adulthood: Understanding the New Way of Coming of  Age.” Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century. Ed. Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Jennifer Lynn Tanner. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2006. 3-19. Print.

Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do all the Work.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 15.6 (1991): 1-4. Print.

Bruffe, Kenneth. “Collaborative Learning: Making the Most of Knowledgeable Peers.” Change 19.2 (1987): 42-47. Print.

Corbett, Steven J. “Negotiating Pedagogical Authority: The Rhetoric of Writing Center Tutoring Styles and Methods.” Rhetoric Review 32.1 (2013): 81-98. Print.

Galbraith Jonathan, and Mark Winterbottom. “Peer-Tutoring: What’s in for the Tutor.” Educational Studies 37.3 (2011): 321-332. Print.

Leung, Kim Chau. “Preliminary Empirical Model of Crucial Determinants of Best Practice for Peer Tutoring on Academic Achievement.” Journal of Educational Psychology (2014): 1-22. Print

Moussu, Lucie. “Let’s Talk! ESL Students’ Needs and the Writing Centre Philosophy.” TESL Canada Journal 30.2 (2013): 55-68. Print.

North, Stephen M. “Training Tutors to Talk about Writing.” College Composition and Communication 33.4 (1982): 434-441. Print.

Trimbur, John. “Peer Tutoring: A Contradiction in Terms?”. Writing Center Journal 7.2 (1987): 21-28. Print.

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