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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.

Beginnings

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 11, 1997.

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.

The Proposal

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 ideas.

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 tutors:

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)

Tutoring Beth

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 her response:

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 correspondence 6/11/02).

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.

Some Implications

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.”

Works Cited

Boquet, Elizabeth. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan: Utah State University Press,
2002.

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.

Content may not be reproduced without permission. Contact mcarroll@ric.edu, Rhode Island College, Craig Lee #225.

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