Noise from the Rhode Island College Writing Center:
Narrative of a Research Project
By Meg Carroll
As a result of Elizabeth Boquet’s observation of the Rhode
Island College tutor preparation program as part of the research for her book,
Noise from the Writing Center, the tutors and director became participant
researchers themselves and gained new insights into the evolving nature of their
program, one that is based on collaboration, on exposure to a variety of theoretical
positions, and one that downplays the simple learning of tutoring strategies by
emphasizing a variety of learning styles, play, and risk taking.
The Bare Bones
During the summer of 2000, Elizabeth Boquet, the director of the Fairfield
University Writing Center, participated in our nine-week course, Workshop in Writing
Center Theory and Practice, in order to study our methods of tutor preparation.
Her work resulted in her innovative book, Noise from the Writing Center,
published in March 2002 by Utah State University Press. Noise is written in three
parts. In the first, “Tutoring as (Hard) Labor,” Boquet considers and
complicates the metaphors of location which have been used to define writing centers.
Chapter two, “Channeling Jimi Hendrix, or Ghosts in the Feedback Machine,” considers the metaphor of noise and the politics of who and what is heard. In
the third chapter, “Toward a Performative Pedagogy in the Writing Center,” Boquet evaluates current models of tutor preparation and focuses on the Rhode
Island College program. Those are the bare facts, but they don’t take into
account the genesis and the rich benefits of engaging in faculty/student research,
research designed to include the students, not as objects of study, but as research
participants who helped to develop and shape the final product.
For two years, 1995-1997, Beth Boquet and I served on the board of the Northeast
Writing Centers Association and learned that we were interested in some of the
same theoretical concerns regarding writing center work. The RIC tutors also had
an opportunity to meet and talk with Beth during the regional conferences as well
as at planning meetings hosted by our Center. They liked her, and our post-meeting
gatherings expanded to include the students in some rather lengthy discussions
of tutoring. In the spring of 1997, as a result of those long talks, Beth and
I decided to put together a proposal for the National Writing Centers Association
Conference in Park City, Utah. Our original idea was to show how the RIC Writing
Center weekly journals represented tutors’ struggles to avoid the fix-it-shop
view of tutoring held by many students and faculty (and sometimes by beginning
tutors) and to illustrate their moves toward a more collaborative, dialogic practice.
In other words, we hoped to see some tutoring growth that we could document, growth
that fit the usual discussions in the field. The preparation for that presentation
revealed some surprising insights. Although I knew that the tutors frequently
discussed the misperceptions others sometimes have of the Center, and that they
shared the ways they incorporate collaborative practice, and although I read their
journals every week, I had never consciously reflected on how those journals had
changed over the years. As we explored a decade’s worth of entries, we discovered
that the early ones were certainly focused on reporting what the tutors believed
I wanted to hear. For example, many were simply reports very much like this one
from December, 1992. “Today’s appointment with G. went very well. She
is a very bright Brazilian student who has been through the ESL program at RIC
and is now taking Writing 100. We have been working through the draft process
and she told me that her grades are improving because of the extra attention she
is giving to her writing. [. . . ] I have seen her motivation level soar. [ .
. . ] our work has been a success.” Not only is this entry somewhat triumphalist,
but there’s also a touch of the patronizing about it. Other entries reported
successful strategies, usually marked by a direct reference to me (“I tried
the strategy that Meg suggested, and it worked”), or by a reference to The
Practical Tutor, a strategy-driven tutor preparation text that we used at the
time. The later journals were quite different. They were creative. They were thought
provoking. They were witty and wise, incorporating ideas from the tutors’ favorite books, films they’d seen, courses they’d been taking, and,
yes, tutoring. For example, Beth quotes this entry written by Jay Peters on February
My Attempt at Relating Milan Kundera to Tutoring
I hope that, in retrospect, we will consider this journal (being that it
is my first of the semester) as “the journal that started it all.” The
ideas and theories I will set forth in this journal will prove to be revolutionary.
In a circular sense, that is.
Yes, this will be the first journal that will demonstrate my ability to
talk myself in circles about absolutely nothing. You will read along and think
that I am about to go somewhere, about to make my thetic point, but then I will
suddenly bring myself to a place in which I have already been, often to my own
and to your disappointment. But it is inevitable that we want to put ourselves
in the same situations we have been in before, so that we might get it right.
This is how we recreate ourselves. This is how we get answers.
It’s hit or miss. Trial and error. Milan Kundera said that it is impossible
for us to know whether we did the right thing in life because “the only rehearsal
for life is life itself.” So we have microlives, lives within our lives,
in which we perpetuate those relationships and situations that we got wrong, until
we get them right. But the re-creation is healing only when there is change, variation,
in the re-creation.
Beethoven’s music, in this sense, must have been a way of healing for
him. He begins his fifth symphony with a theme (da da da dum . . . da da da dum)
that is used thoughout the piece in different forms, re-created and varied. In
this way, our lives are symphonies with themes that we are compelled to use throughout
in different forms . . .
This repeated return to where we have been and to what we know is where
I began this journal. In tutoring, we always repeat the situation and the relationship
of the tutoring session in an attempt to get right what we missed in the last
one. Although the only rehearsal for a session is a session itself, we have the
opportunity to recreate the experience in the next session, and to change it based
on reflecting on the last session. This is how tutoring becomes a theme in one’s
life, like a motif in a novel or a melody in a Beethoven symphony. Jay (126-127)
Clearly, this entry is quite different from the reportorial, good employee,
patronizing tone of the former. It is thoughtfully reflective about what it means
to tutor. It is, if you will, an example of the metacognition that comes with
experiences that go beyond the learning of decontextualized strategies. That first
work with the tutor journals was significant in that it provided some important
insights and implications for writing center inquiry. What caused the changes
in the journal entries, in the thinking of the tutors? What role did our tutor
preparation play in these changes? Perhaps the answers had something to do with
Jay’s observation that “re-creation is healing only when there is change,
variation, in the re-creation.” His insight seemed to mirror not only the
practice of tutoring, but the tendency to vary, to change, to recreate that is
inherent in a collaborative writing center.
Since our program has evolved in often unnoticed ways, it was surprising to
see our work reflected back to us through the consciousness of a friendly and
curious “outsider.” As Beth began to make observations about our program,
we began to look more closely at how we constructed our way of doing things. In
the spring of 2000, Beth submitted a proposal to our College research committee
to study our staff preparation. She wrote, “Currently most (if not all) of
the literature on tutor training presents a model of staff development geared
toward strategies for tutor training.” After a brief overview of the tutor
preparation texts currently on the market (texts based on strategy-oriented preparation),
she asserted that this type of training “may make tutors feel more secure
when moving through a session, [but that it serves] . . . to shut down conversation
among peers and to foreclose possibilities for discovery in a tutoring session." Then she delineated the reasons for her study of the RIC program.
Prof. Carroll has designed a staff education program that focuses on grappling
with texts and ideas. She has her tutors encounter and write about difficult texts
during their training. They write alone; they meet and discuss; they read the
text again; they write again; they respond. In other words, she has tutors do
what all participants will do in the Writing Center: read and write and talk about
In summary, while most tutor training programs which use a strategy-oriented
approach seem to draw tutors farther and farther away from the experiences of
the students with whom they will be working, Prof. Carroll’s training draws
tutors into the struggle that students are likely to be experiencing. The texts
chosen by Prof. Carroll and her staff are texts which also serve to move tutors
toward developing and refining a philosophy of teaching, of learning, of being
in the world with others.
Although Beth’s words are flattering to me (and are, perhaps, the kind
that need to be written when applying for permission to do research in an institution
other than one’s own), they don’t comment on the immense contributions
of the tutors, contributions which, I think, lead to that whole-person immersion
in the work evidenced in Jay’s journal. Each summer, at least two tutors
and I design the nine-week workshop to prepare new staff. One or more tutors are
people who have been on staff for a while; at least one has just completed his
or her first year. This arrangement evolved over the years when we discovered
that a course designed either just by me, or in collaboration with staff members
who were very familiar with the material, often did not address the needs of new
tutors. For example, there are certain readings, which, although seminal, are
ones that some of the “older” tutors and I would rather not revisit.
Frankly, they bore us after a while. However, when we have the input of the new
tutors, we remember again how important these texts are when they are encountered
for the first time.
In preparation for the summer workshops, the tutors and I discuss not simply
what we’ll read, but what activities will most enhance tutors’ understanding
and practical application of that theory. In many ways, I think that these meetings
should be the focus of another research project. They are often free flowing,
sometimes wacky, sessions, which never fail to bring fresh insights into how we
might introduce new tutors to this ongoing conversation. In essence, the Center
is re-created each year because of the individuals who inhabit it, who shape it,
not only in these planning meetings and the workshops, but in conversations in
the tutor lounge, in the journal book, and, of course, in tutorials. During the
summer of Beth’s research, Mike, a senior who had been tutoring for three
years, and Jill, a junior who had been with us for one year, were the two people
who shaped that series of workshops. Both brought incredible energy to the work.
Jill, quiet and reflective, provided thoughtful insights. Mike, a six-foot monument
to unbridled energy, used his talents in poetry, art, acting, and music to help
the new tutors enact the sometimes difficult theoretical texts they were reading.
Together, we created the syllabus; and together, we dismantled it when we realized
that the current group would not benefit from some readings which had been Writing
Center staples. We revised, restructured, reshaped our overall plans in ways that
are reminiscent of good tutoring sessions. As Jay might say, each year, the tutors,
the prospective tutors, and I have “the opportunity to recreate” in
the next workshop by “reflecting on the last one.”
How the Tutors Saw It
For nine weeks, Beth and I taped each meeting and collected written responses,
journals, and final papers. We were excited by what we learned about the importance
of what we’ve come to call “performative tutoring,” playful practice
that ideally engages the talents and literacies of both writer and tutor. We’d
read difficult texts and found ways of understanding them that encompassed music,
art, and storytelling. We discussed issues of class, gender, race, and learning
styles. There was often tension. There was frequent laughter. There was confusion.
Although I am hesitant to speak for the tutors who participated in the project
(many have graduated), I can use some of their words, words from Noise, to describe
what they thought at the time. The following thoughts are those of two senior
Sarah admits that, as a beginning tutor, “all this theory doesn’t
feel like a wealth of information. It feels like we just talked all summer, like
a whole bunch of ideas.” In retrospect, though, she says she is glad there
was no handbook or template on tutoring to follow: “If I had that, I would
have felt secure. The summer session taught me that you have to be invested, have
to hear [students], have to hear what they need from you, what you can offer them.
It gives you a lot of freedom.” (103)
. . . . . . . . . . . .
For Mike, the summer sessions create “enforced equal confusion,” or critical unease, that leads each participant in the group to consider where-am-I
and to ask, how does another person go through this process? He sees parallels
with the students who come to the RIC Writing Center because “that’s
where students are when they come in here.” (103)
During late fall, Beth sent each of the tutors a draft of the final chapter
on the summer sessions, and in characteristic good tutoring form they responded
with a mixture of praise and prodding, and with comments that illustrated their
investment in the project. Barbara, for example, said that it was interesting
to see what Beth decided to include in the book, but ended with a bit of criticism:
“[I]t left me hanging. It sort of ended without a concluding point . . .
I was confused by that. Maybe it’s me, maybe I missed something, because
I like things to be tidy and in a neat little package” (145).
In one section, Beth had written about how surprised she was at her inability
to identify the sound of a CD being removed from its jewel box as part of the
“Secret Sounds” game sponsored by a New York radio station. Joanne emailed
p. 164. Are you going to further your section on the CD-jewel box noises
and connections? That last paragraph screams “tutoring sessions” and
“WC” to me. Things like: straining to hear/listening/characteristic
noises/familiar/making a connection/disappointment/slightly different sounds/tighter
the fit, higher the pitch. (148)
Beth had deleted that section. She restored it.
Reaction to the Book
When Noise was published, there were several copies in the Writing Center,
and, understandably, the tutors were quick to turn to the chapter about them.
I emailed Mike, who was in Italy at the time and gave a copy to Jay who, although
he wasn’t physically a part of the research, generously gave us permission
to use his journals. Mike’s response reflects the humor and energy he brought
to the project:
Congratulations to beth and her sabbatical subjects on the conception of
her immaculate collection. all of this experience is being treasured, formatted,
shrink-wrapped and mass produced for the mike cellemme nostalgia warehouse. (email
Jay, who graduated in 1998, responded in his usual reflective way:
I’m really enjoying Noise. I’m only into the second chapter right
now, but I like the book’s logic, the associative thread it follows, from
sound sculpture to Derrida to Beth’s own first-hand accounts of peer tutoring.
She lets the ideas and impressions play off and with each other. It reads like
a prolonged journal entry. I also like the foursquareness of her analysis of writing
center history, the section on the historical accident of naming the writing lab/clinic/center.
She brings a certain fearlessness to her writing.
I’m really happy she wrote that book and included our writing center,
because while I was involved with the RIC WC, I suspected that I was participating
in something special, something that maybe hadn’t been done before on that
level, and that would be difficult to recreate. It’s nice to see my suspicions
reflected and affirmed in an “objective” work on the subject.
I’m interested to see how everyone else reacts to it at our meetings.
(email correspondence 5/19/02)
Like Jay, our current workshop team was also interested in how the new tutors
would react to the book at our last meeting. When we began discussion at our last
meeting, they delighted in Beth’s playful use of language and metaphor, and
they were often confused by many of the difficult concepts she was exploring.
In fact, one tutor commented, “The book is soooo hard, but it’s also
inviting.” Out of the chaos, they created a collaborative reading of the
more challenging sections of the text. Each wrote; they shared the writing; they
explained the concepts to each other; they disagreed; they complicated their thinking.
Not a bad way to learn to be a researcher.
The impact of that summer’s work has had almost immeasurable ramifications,
and I am reminded as I write this of Hannah Arendt’s assertion that: “For
excellence, the presence of others is always required (qtd. in Lunsford 6). Beth
provided the necessary lens of the outside researcher; the tutors brought the
richness of their readings and experiences to the varied texts (both written and
lived) about writing and tutoring. There were some easily identifiable quantitative
results (some of the tutors, for example, have co-presented our work at two major
conferences). However, the research was qualitative, and the most important results
are not quantifiable. How do we measure the impact on the tutors of working as
co-researchers, of having their voices foregrounded in what may be a seminal book
in the field, of having their revisions implemented by the author, of having the
traditional hierarchy of the student/ faculty relationship re-configured into
one of mutual respect? Serious collaborative work among faculty and students is
difficult. It’s messy. It’s, as Beth would say, noisy. The results are
not neat, and I hope I haven’t written a triumphalist narrative here, although
the temptation is great. Are all the tutors as creative as Mike? As reflective
as Jay? No. Are Mike and Jay always creative and reflective? No. Each brings unique
insights and gifts to the work, and not everyone is invested in it to the same
degree. Each also brings tensions, personal problems, and the occasional anger.
However, despite the messiness, the inexactness, the NOISE of this work, I do
know that my best teaching and thinking happens in the chaos of collaboration,
collaboration with colleagues and with students. I also know that building upon
the talents and varied literacies of others is essential, that flexibility and
respect for learners is essential. Can I prove quantitatively that our theoretically,
multi-literacy tutor preparation course is more effective than the strategy-driven
programs most commonly offered? No. That would take years of documentation both
in this Center and in others. However, I am pleased when a tutor is able to adapt
the practice to the needs of the student. For example, Mike spent last summer
working with Justin, a student from Korea who knew very little English. Both had
an interest in drawing, and communicated stories about themselves in pictures,
adding vocabulary and phrasing along the way. Ultimately, the student wrote a
full essay about his childhood. Mike did the same. If it were not for the theory
we read about cultural difference, about various literacies, about the nature
of conversation, of the politics of rhetoric; if it were not for the fact that
we explore ways to use these literacies in art, music, acting, I don’t think
Mike would have been in a position to explore the teaching of writing in such
an unorthodox way. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I mean is to give you
a glimpse of the kind of practice which is considered “good” by the
authors of a recent tutor preparation textbook, Tutoring Writing: A Practical
Guide for Conferences, one that stresses a quantitative, strategy-driven approach.
The following is from a case study written by, Tom, one of the students in authors
Donald McAndrews and Thomas Reigstad’s class:
Attached is the first essay I read. One sentence contained 46 words, another
38, and within each, prepositions were the main connectors. For example, in the
first sentence, a sentence of only 25 words – one of her shortest – there were 5 prepositions. That’s not so bad but in the third sentence there
were 8, and that’s a heavy load for any sentence to carry. (139)
I can’t imagine what would have happened to Justin had Mike used this
kind of approach. Certainly, Justin’s English grammar mistakes could have
been quantified in such a way. Mike could have worked as Tom did, counting errors
and offering solutions “learning prepositions by heart and offering “alternatives
– other connectors like relative pronouns, conjunctions, and the semi-colon.” Instead, Mike and Justin worked on making meaning first, on Justin’s desire
to communicate what it felt like to be in a strange country, knowing no one, and
feeling like a failure. In short, Mike, unlike Tom, responded on a human level
with empathy and a sense of play that allowed Justin to take some risks with his
writing. Perhaps, as Jay says, “This is how tutoring becomes a theme in one’s
life, like a motif in a novel or a melody in a Beethoven symphony.”
Boquet, Elizabeth. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan: Utah State University
Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The
Writing Center Journal 12 (1991): 3-10.
McAndrew, Donald A. and Thomas J. Reigstad. Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide
for Conferences. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2001.
Copyright © 2002 Meg Carroll
Noise from the Rhode Island College Writing Center:
Narrative of a Research Project, Issues in Teaching and Learning, 1:1, 2002.
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