Thursday, October 06, 2005

Towards Organic Tutor Training...

Okay, after an hour of running, stairmaster, and elliptical trainer, I’m recharging in my friendly, Bay Ridge Brooklyn Starbucks. But oddly I want to take a nap despite the java in me.... What does it mean that Dylan and Crowe have exclusive CD offers here? Had a lovely tuna-salad on sunflower seed bagel that likely killed any benefit from the exercise… but I digress…

In spite of the flux that the larger writing program finds itself in, the writing center seems to be in a very different space. Thankfully, for the tutors, conferences don't have the same stakes that lecturers find themselves contending with. Still, we've tried to take up the data coming out of the larger assessment project as a way to collectively self-assess the direction of sessions and what the staff wants to focus learning on. Readers might remember that the Stony Brook assessment looked at writing captured a four different moments. Two of them don't intersect easily with what we do in the center--the "timed" essays performed during summer placement and the closing weekend of 102. The other moments--thesis-driven essays in 101 and 102--are the focus of many conferences (44% to be exact), so knowing how students "perform" was valuable information.

The assessment indicated that, as a group, students struggled the most with critical thinking and genre knowledge, and they did the best with rhetorical skills and mechanics. Put another way, the assessment found that students didn’t so well with their own engagement of texts, argumentation, sense of audience and perception of essay conventions, but they had greater competency controlling paragraphs, transitions, and sentence-level prose. Those “outcomes” shouldn’t be surprising to people familiar with novice writers. In staff meetings, I shared the data with the tutors and asked them to think about what it suggested to them. They had been reading Paula and Neal's Guide for Peer Tutors, Christina Murphy's source book, and selections from Landmark Essays. I'd either brainwashed them well, or they're just all brilliant and well-read: if given the opportunity to negotiate a focus for a session, the tutors agreed that the data seemed to support continued work on content, thinking, argumentation--high-order concerns.

But the tutors were quick to point out that our demographic is often caught in a bind--L2 writers often battle self-imposed and professor pressure to eradicate "accent" in their prose (about 60-70% of our students are L2). The tutors rightfully asked how they're supposed to reconcile competing sets of information--professors and students obsessed with correctness and writing program/comp studies scholarship making sentence-level instruction a dubious, uphill battle. Great question, one we're struggling to answer. Ultimately, we agreed to resist the binary nature of that thinking, to encourage students to move forward on parallel fronts and to foster awareness that no amount of prose polish will obscure a lack of substance.

At the IWCA Summer Institute I shared another couple ways we use data collection to drive staff education and training at Stony Brook. When students sign up for sessions, they complete an online registration that captures the usual essentials--course info, major, assignment information, goals for the session, due dates, etc., but we also ask for optional demographic information about language background. That information has been useful for documenting the wide reach of the center, but also the sheer diversity of our user base. After sessions, tutors also go online to do a formal conference reflection. The information gets dumped into a database and printed out for student’s files. Tutors use past reports as a guide for current and future sessions, and we code and analysis the information that the group produces. In some staff meetings, we'll use this data to workshop and problem solves difficult sessions but also as fodder for the tutors themselves to agenda set what they we need to be working on as a center. My associate and assistant directors and I also write back to the tutors about their conference reports as a way to mentor them and do outreach. With so many tutors and students, it's hard for us to come together and literally share the same page, so we hope that doing it virtually can be a provision substitute until face-to-face discussions and meetings can happen.



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