Joining the Social Conversation
When professorial advice intimidates students, can peer tutors help?



By Deborah Ayer, Writing Center Director

 

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"If someone bumped into you in a pub and you said, 'I've just written an essay,' and he said, 'what's it about?' what would you say?"

"I liked the conclusion a lot. I thought the way you explained the conflicting feelings the reader might have was really interesting. So when you go back and think through what you're going to argue the reader thinks, go back to this paragraph, because you say it well here."

"So what I'm getting at is, where does that interpretation of the text lead? What does it do? What difference does it make?"

"Maybe you could rephrase it in terms of something visual, like, something that the reader can picture? Like, um . . . "

"This is the part I really want to talk about, because you seem to make a point but then you go back on it."

These are the voices of Writing Center tutors drawn from transcripts of conferences with graduate and undergraduate students last fall. Speaking as knowledgeable peers rather than expert authorities, tutors can often reach students who seem deaf to professors' precepts.

The voices are casual and encouraging, offering generous praise and savvy criticism. An anxious freshman is likelier to respond to a hypothetical pub-crawler's off-hand "What's it about?" than to the more formidable "What is your thesis?" encountered in faculty offices. Professors' efforts to get students to draw conclusions or to enliven their essays with vivid details may lead to head-banging and hand-wringing, whereas the tutor's "What difference does it make?" or strategic pause, "Like, um . . . ," will often unlock the writer's imagination, tapping ideas and images that were there all along. While a professor's hint-however gentle-that an argument is inconsistent can send a student into paroxysms of doubt and defensiveness, criticism from a peer is somehow easier to bear and thus easier to confront.

The theory behind this approach is best explained by Kenneth Bruffee, the guru of collaborative learning. In an often-reprinted article, "Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind,'" Bruffee asserts that peer tutoring fulfills the central aim of education: enabling students to join the "social conversation" that has gone on for centuries. Serving as "a community of knowledgeable peers," tutors initiate fellow students into the codes of values and assumptions particular to academic disciplines. Their collaboration leads to the discovery of new paradigms of thought, feeling, perception, and expression.

Writing tutors occupy a unique position: selected from among Emory's most outstanding students, they can work with faculty almost as junior colleagues, and they can talk to students in their own language. Thus, they serve as bridges, translating a way of understanding the course material and writing assignments into concrete steps for students to follow. A tutor may ask questions, act as a sounding board, suggest an alternative perspective, or point out ambiguous phrases. By helping students work through their ideas, tutors guide them to higher levels of thinking and writing.

A common misconception about the Writing Center is that we "fix" papers for students, correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, and producing a clean copy to be handed in. Every semester, students want to know why they can't just drop off the paper to be edited, and we patiently explain that we will teach them how to edit but will not edit for them. For example, in this conference with an international student, the tutor models a method of editing:

One way to address different editing issues is to read through your paper and just look at one or two things. We're going to practice this right now. In this pass let's do both articles and prepositions. Okay, here's a preposition: I'm going to read this out, and then I want you to make the change, based on the way it sounds.

By walking the writer through the process, step-by-step, the tutor is teaching a valuable skill rather than fixing a paper. Our primary aim is to make better writers, not just a better paper.

Another common misconception is that the Writing Center is patronized by "problem students," poor writers needing remedial help. We do see a number of weak writers, but we also help students with honors theses, personal statements for professional schools, and essays for graduate seminars. That our tutors sign up for conferences with other tutors suggests that even the best writer has something to learn from us.

At the Writing Center, Emory students learn to think for themselves and to trust their instincts, as well as to structure a compelling argument and to polish their prose. They also discover what constitutes a interesting idea, valid supporting evidence, or honest and accurate documentation, as the following excerpt shows:

Do you know anything about citation? Maybe it wasn't so important in high school, but it sure is in college. In fact, if something isn't cited or cited properly, that can bring you before the honor council, and if you get a mark on your transcript, you can pretty much forget grad school, if you don't get kicked out of undergrad.

How to avoid plagiarism is one of many lessons made more palatable because preached by a respected peer. Students' evaluations of their writing conferences attest to their worth:

"She asked me all the right guiding questions."

"In fifteen minutes, he helped me find a clear thesis--sophisticated
and creative."

"She made me feel like a writer!"

In nearly eight hundred writing conferences conducted last semester, Writing Center tutors helped give fellow students a voice in the "conversation" that shapes our world.