As I read more about writing center philosophy, I constantly come across clashing ideas—the editor vs. the tutor; peer tutors vs. authoritative tutors; nondirective vs. directive methods, etc. And most authors strongly pick one side or the other.
One such opinionated person is Jeff Brooks who, in his article “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work,” states very clearly that writing center consultants should be tutors, not editors. Brooks even goes so far as to say, “If you find a student pushing you too hard into editing his paper, physically move away from it” (132). I was shocked that Brooks wants me to act so repulsed by editing. If line edits, grammar, and punctuation are truly the subjects the writer wishes to discuss, why should I, as a tutor, withhold my knowledge? In fact, Peter Carino suggests that withholding knowledge is an abuse of power (122), which is a bold yet, I believe, accurate statement.
Brooks’s simple-minded view of a writing center consultation completely disregards the individual and diverse needs of the writers. He sticks with the long-held writing center tradition of making better writers, not better papers, but I am confused as to why we cannot do both. Making better writers creates better papers, and vice versa; what we should be doing is reading the situation—the writer, the assignment, the paper—and using whatever tactics we determine will be most helpful.
Linda K. Shamoon and Deborah H. Burns discuss alternative methods of tutoring in “A Critique of Pure Tutoring,” many of which reminded me of helpful processes that have benefited me in the past. Shamoon and Burns talk about “master classes” in music teaching where students learn from an expert by imitating or emulating the student. (Here’s a modern example of a master class with Pharrell Williams.) I saw nothing wrong with this way of learning, but many professors might argue that imitation and plagiarism are essentially the same. I would point out that writers have been emulating each other for much longer than writing centers have existed, and most were not plagiarizing.
Many writers draw inspiration from their favorite authors or books, sometimes even emulating the author’s style to enhance their own writing later. In my Intro to Fiction Writing class last semester, Professor Jennine Capó Crucet had us write “remixes” of our own stories based on different authors’ styles. This helped us add new tools to our writing toolboxes. But we never plagiarized, because we applied the concepts to our own writing. This style of teaching was extremely effective for many of us in the class, and using methods like this in the writing center could be beneficial.
Learning through imitation is NOT plagiarism! There are definitely right and wrong ways to emulate someone else’s writing, but Shamoon and Burns hit it on the nose when they say, “Rather than assuming this imitation will prevent authentic self-expression, the tutor and the student assume that imitation will lead to improved technique, which will enable freedom of expression” (140). Even though they are discussing music master classes, this statement may as well apply to writing center consultations. Many people learn by imitating. It’s how I learn certain concepts. When I used to play tennis, I had to watch someone else serve a certain way before I could try it myself. This practice only becomes “unethical” when applied to writing, which cuts off access to many beneficial writing practices.
Both figuring something out by yourself and learning from someone else are valuable processes. A writing tutor has to
determine what is best for the writer during the time they have together. The same goes for Carino’s debate between “peerness” and “authority.” Tutors have to possess a little of both. Sometimes, if a writer knows something the tutor doesn’t, it is best to use the question-and-answer technique, just two people talking about a paper. If a student seems to be struggling or the tutor has information that will help said student, the tutor should take some authority and help the writer.
I can edit and tutor. I can be a peer and an authority figure. As long as I am genuinely helping the writer, I know that I am doing the right thing, no matter what all of this writing center literature tells me.
Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, 1991, pp. 128-132.
Carino, Peter. “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, 2003, pp. 112-127.
Shamoon, Linda K. and Deborah H. Burns. “A Critique of Pure Tutoring.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, 1995, pp. 133-148.