Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
In writing center training we often talk about how valuable observing is because it gives the consultant the opportunity to reflect on the multiple roles people can take up in a tutoring session, including the different perspectives and positions that both the consultant and the writer might embody. Importantly, as Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner demonstrate with real tutor reflections, the observing process gives the consultant a chance to learn new approaches and also to reflect on what they might do in a similar session. It is with this understanding that our consultants have observed at least four—but often more—different sessions over the past two weeks. However, as we talk about and prepare consultants for the observing process, we tend to focus on the person who is doing the observing—how to do it, why it’s valuable, etc. We even spend time talking about making sure the writer is comfortable being observed. I’d like to think here, though, about the experience of being observed, because over the past two weeks, I’ve found there’s plenty to learn on that side of the situation as well.
First, I found there is just as much opportunity to learn new strategies when you’re the one being observed. We’re lucky to have experienced and reflective new tutors in the Writing Center this year. These tutors taught me new approaches and terms as we talked about the sessions we had just been a part of. In one session last week, one of the observing consultants and I stepped away from a student to let him work on revising and developing a new paragraph in his essay. During the session, I had been struggling to discover what the student wanted help with and how I could help him best for the paper and future papers. The observing consultant, Daniel, suggested that in addition to talking about paragraph development, we also show him the “3 by 5” structure for the whole paper. I had never heard of this term for what is basically the five paragraph model for essay writing. When we returned to the student, we looked over the paragraph he wrote, and then the observer talked to him about the “3 by 5” structure. The student knew exactly what he was talking about and saw how it could help him with his paper.
Similarly, even though I was at first nervous to be observed, I found that a number of the observing consultants were able to step in when I was having trouble explaining concepts to students. In one session, an observing consultant gave me more terminology so that we could help a student identify when to end his sentences. I was talking about “periods,” a term with which the writer was not familiar. The consultant observing, Brit, was able to simply offer the term “full stop.” This allowed the writer and me to understand one another and quickly address the concern in his writing. I had a similar but more complex experience while Scott was observing and he helped to explain the rules about the use of articles.
Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons for me over the past two weeks, though, has been simply the articulation of my tutoring strategies and practices. While our new consultants take a graduate course about tutoring practice, most of my writing center training has come from practice, instinct, and whatever I could transfer from my classroom teaching training. Talking to the new group of consultants about sessions and responding to their questions made me more conscious of the reasons behind the way I tutor. It gave me an explicit opportunity to consider my practices as well as the value of other practices. Also, because I was especially hoping to demonstrate a range of strategies while tutoring, I believe I’ve pushed myself to become a better tutor—one who is not as set in her ways and is more open to trying new things. More importantly, I push myself harder to listen to the student and think about what might be the best way to work with that particular student.
Thus, while I was initially anxious about being observed, I find that the experience has in fact been enjoyable and important to my theory of tutoring. I hope that as the consultants begin tutoring they are able to take similarly valuable lessons with them from these two weeks. Even when we have experience and even when we feel like we know what we’re doing, it’s sometimes nice and refreshing to be in the training position again.