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Writing Center Consultants

What is the Role of a Writing Center Consultant?

A writing center consultant’s (or tutor’s) role is to help students to be successful in the academic environment by assisting them to learn the writing requirements/guidelines of various disciplines such as: English, psychology, history and government or any other field the student must write texts for. This one-on-one attention can help a student’s knowledge or skills develop more rapidly than in a classroom setting when done effectively (“Tutor,” par. 3). Writing center consultants differ from copy editors in that they use theory to evaluate the needs of the students they tutor and aim to help students improve their writing as a whole as opposed to focusing on the errors within a single text. Consultants are generally close in age and academic background to the students they tutor, but many work with English as a second language students as well.

A Consultant’s Use of Theory

Modern writing center pedagogy stresses that consultants use a collaborative style of learning and that a consultant should encourage students to express their own perspective on course topics. Grammar and mechanical issues (sometimes called lower level issues) are often ignored by the consultant, at least in the initial sessions, so that both s/he and student can focus on the broader issues within a text. While consultants vary greatly from copy editors in that their function is to encourage long-term change in a student’s writing, as opposed to the correction of a document, the distinction is often not made by faculty and students unfamiliar with the writing center (Williams and Severino).

Power Issues Within the Writing Center

Unlike professors and other members of the faculty, the power balance between a consultant and student (tutor and tutee) is not clear-cut. While a consultant can offer advice on writing, s/he is not necessarily knowledgeable about the student’s field and does not have any power as far as the student’s grading (Hansun Zhang Waring 141). Most Writing Centers use the peer-to-peer model, pioneered by Kenneth Bruffee, which argues that tutoring is best seen as an interaction between peers with similar backgrounds, experience, and status (Williams and Severino). While making this a less intimidating environment for student visitors, the competing expertise of the consultant and student, as well as the consultant’s status as a peer and not a grader, can cause the student to resist advice or show other forms of hostility (Hansun Zhang Waring 141–142).

Consultants as Supplementary Instructors

What makes writing centers ultimately successful is that, unlike the regulated and graded work done in the classroom, centers are a place of freedom in writing where risk taking should be allowed (Turner). Writing centers must be a place where writing is always encouraged even when it falls outside of the final requirements of a student’s assignment so that a student can develop his/her process enough to be able to respond to what is asked by the professor. “Fluency must be developed before clarity; clarity (control) must be developed before accuracy….Writers need to get it down before they worry about getting it right,” (Nicolini 67). This is not to say that students should not be challenged on their writing decisions. “Tutors not only have a right but an obligation to challenge students’ ill-conceived and sometimes morally questionable ideas,” (Murphy and Sherwood 10). However, if the first stage of a student’s visit to a center results in a great deal of negative feedback, it will undoubtedly cause the student to shut down and refuse to continue the assignment or accept even the most well-intended advice. Encouraging the research and development of a student’s ideas, or how to include such ideas within a professor’s guidelines, is the most effective way to prevent the writing process from stalling. Unlike many other academic fields, writing involves a lot of different research standpoints and revision. “Often students cannot think about their writing in meaningful and productive ways because they are unpracticed at extensive revision,” (7). It is up to consultants, then, to encourage students to continue to write beyond this initial point and, only when this has been completed, to worry about course guidelines such as the use of American Psychological Association (APA) verses Modern Language Association (MLA), third person instead of first person, and grammar or mechanical issues. It is a consultant’s job to create “…zones where different cultures meet” a place that is open to cultural, perspective and language differences more so than society as a whole (Thonus).

Beth Rapp Young stated in her essay “Can You Proofread This?” that “Errors are no joke in most teachers’ minds…and students are justifiably concerned about the impact that errors will have on their grade” (142). This is clearly true, but it is not the only issue that must be taken into consideration. Students are often afraid to write because they do not want to face the criticism involved in the writing process. The reason many students procrastinate is to save face: by saying they only worked on it at the last minute, they can blame their procrastination for their poor grades instead of having to deal with more deep-seated writing issues. Writing centers give students’ the opportunity to have their work evaluated by someone who can take the time to help them, which professors with an number of classes and students cannot, and consultants can as a result help to further the student’s knowledge.

Questions to Consider:

Should a consultant be able to suggest topic choices or sources to a student or should this be considered collusion/plagiarism?

Can a tutor help a student with anything besides the guidelines or flow of a paper in a topic or with a genre writing style s/he is unfamiliar with?

What requirements should a consultant meet, academically or otherwise, in order to be able to tutor students?


Works Cited

Hansun Zhang Waring. “Peer Tutoring in a Graduate Writing Centre: Identity, Expertise, and Advice Resisting.” Applied Linguistics 26.2 (2005): 141–168. Academic Search Premier. 7 April 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com>.

Murphy, Christina and Steve Sherwood. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Nicolini, Mary B. “Making Thinking Visible: Writing in the Center.” Clearing House 80.2 (2006): 66–69. Academic Search Premier. 15 April 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com>.

Thonus, Terese. “What Are the Differences?: Tutor Interactions with First- and Second- Language Writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 13.3 (2004): 227–242. Academic Search Premier. 15 April 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com>

Turner, Melissa. “Writing Centers: Being Proactive in the Education Crisis.” Clearing House 80.2 (2006): 45–47. Academic Search Premier. 7 April 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com>.

“Tutor.” Wikipedia: The Free Encylopedia. 24 April 2007. 24 April 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutoring>

Williams, Jessica, and Carol Severino. “The Writing Center and Second Language Writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing 13.3 (2004): 165–172. Academic Search Premier. 2 April 2007. <http://search.ebscohost.com>.

Young, Beth Rapp. “Can You Proofread This?” ‘’A Tutor’s Guide: Helping Writers One to One.’‘ Ed. Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005. 140–147.

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Page last modified on July 27, 2007, at 10:58 PM