Bringing two motivated people into one room to discuss writing offers immense opportunities for mutual learning, and that is what makes the concept of the Writing Center so appealing. The voluntary nature of meetings endows a tutor with discretion to give advice that will be heard. At the same time, it places a constraint on being overly didactic, which makes sessions more student-oriented than traditional lessons. Usually this system of checks and balances plays out well for both parties, especially when interests of a student and a tutor are aligned. Sometimes, however, a student’s focus on short-term goals, such as receiving a good grade or getting some professional editing, might drag a consultation into the realm of “populism,” when a tutor needs to excessively cater to student’s wishes not to lose her presence. Interestingly enough, if a tutor manages to establish a closer relationship with a student, this “populism” can be avoided, and more focus on the fundamental goal of improving writing skills maintained. Finding personal ways to deal with their fellow students, peer tutors make learning at the writing center even more accessible and effective.
To illustrate what I mean, here’s a fictional example of a consultation, loosely based on several cases from my actual practice. Suppose you are reading a student’s essay and start noticing many colloquial phrases, coupled with plenty of filler words like “basically,” “actually,” “well,” “obviously.” What you do is you draw the student’s attention to this writing aspect and ask whether he would like to sound more conversational rather than scholarly. To which you receive a reply, “I think the prof won’t penalize me for that. And I don’t need a perfect essay, I want, well, B+ material.” On your second attempt to discuss the issue, the student interrupts you and says, “Look, you don’t have to teach me all this academic writing stuff, I am not going to do a PhD or something. All I want is to drag this essay into a B+/A- area, and the deadline is, like, tonight.”
Now, here’s a problem. You wish you could convey your message on the importance of writing tone to the student. However, it’s hard to get him to listen, and not necessarily because he lacks intellectual curiosity — his desire to squeeze the best result out of his work under a harsh time constraint is perfectly understandable. Let’s paint it black and white and assume that your potential solutions to the problem are restricted to the binary world. At one extreme, you can start preaching the virtues of a formal tone to the student, risking that you will lose his responsiveness or even face some kind of retaliation. At the polar opposite, you act the “populist” way and decide to ignore the issue by saying “OK, let’s move on.” While artificial and hyperbolic, such a division highlights the problem of striking balance between your feeling of what is right and what the student asks for.
My argument is that, in a special case, when interests of a student and a tutor diverge on crucial matters, tutors can employ ethos of their peer status to convince the student to take their side of the table. This might seem counter-intuitive at first: one would think that, when a student solicits feedback, peer authority is weaker than that of a professionally trained consultant. The thing is, whenever a student conflates the writing center with a fix-it shop or sees it as a helping stick to pass the course, this is not the mechanism in action. If a student wants a tutor to consult him on how to “throw in some words to increase text volume,” his peer has more capital of trust than his more professional colleagues. What he needs to do is to spend this capital parsimoniously to transmit his vision to the student and change the way that person thinks about writing.
“Well, this is not just about academia. You read Financial Times, right? You won’t find that kind of style in Financial Times, even in opinion pieces,” you challenge a future investment banker sitting in front of you. “Well, yeah… I guess…” the student acknowledges. “That’s because throwing in useless words is the same as wasting time of your reader. It gets simply irritating at some point, you know?” After some discussion, the student sees what you mean, but his mind is back on more pressing issues. “So what, I just cross out all these? That would kill a lot of words, and I am barely hitting the word limit right now.” Here’s when you can tone down your righteous harangue and concede some playing ground. “Given you have little time remaining till the submission, it’s up to you, I guess you can forget about it this time. But next time you write a serious text — I mean, the one really important to you, not the one you write to get a passing grade — recall what we’ve just talked about. Like, when Forbes calls you to contribute an article, you’ll know what mistakes you should avoid.” This closes an example of a highly stylized conversation, in which you end up teaching the student something important — even though he was resistant initially — without losing common ground.
Mutual learning happens in many instances at the writing center. A consultation need not always be the story of Eliza Doolittle coming to Professor Higgins to learn to speak like a lady in a flower shop for actual learning to occur. In cases, where a student’s motivation is unclear or complicated, peer tutors can make learning happen even more seamlessly than some professional consultants. Trading off some professionalism for a deeper integration into the student body therefore is a right choice for some writing centers to make.