Creating a Community of Knowledgeable Peers:
Writing Center Benefits for Beginning Writers
As a result of my past experience as a writing tutor, when I began teaching composition I required each of my students to visit the University Writing Center at least once per major paper. Though each student had a different writing center experience, by the end of the course several students agreed with their classmate’s testimonial: “I will always take my papers to the Writing Center to be reviewed. Even if the teacher doesn’t require this” (Doxey, “Final” 1). This student’s language demonstrates that she has gained valuable experience by visiting the writing center and believes her visits have been beneficial. One major goal of university composition instructors is facilitating cognitive development in our students; another important goal is preparing them to contribute to the academic community. These goals may be promoted simultaneously when instructors make appropriate use of collaborative learning opportunities available in most university writing centers to initiate student writers into academic discourse through critical conversation about their writing.
Michael Oakeshott argues that the “human conversation takes place within us as well as among us,” and the internal conversation is reflective thought (qtd. in Bruffee 419). If thought is internalized conversation, then it is likely that thought and conversation work in much the same fashion. An important goal of writing instructors is to teach their students how to think critically, both to support their cognitive development and to initiate them into university discourse. If thought and conversation work the same way, then we can teach students how to think by engaging them in critical discourse. Kenneth Bruffee argues, “the view that conversation and thought are causally related assumes not that thought is an essential attribute of the human mind but that it is instead an artifact created by social interaction” (420). If we accept this view, that thought is created through conversation and social interaction, then we must also accept a reversal of commonly held notions concerning thought: we think because we can talk, rather than the opposite. If thought is the result of conversation, then our thoughts are also influenced by the societal instruction we have received concerning how to speak. So to the extent that thought is internalized conversation, “writing is internalized conversation re-externalized” (421-22). The writing teacher’s task, then, is to involve his or her students in conversation about their own writing and reading processes and organize their conversations in such a way that they resemble the way we would like them to write. Bruffee says, “the way they talk with each other determines the way they will think and the way they will write” (422). This conversation requires a social context to take place, and the writing center is a valuable social context within which students may learn collaboratively.
College teachers in most fields want students capable of critical thinking and writing; acceptable prose in the university is socially constructed knowledge, attained through conversation with peers and instructor. David Bartholomae notes that students have to appropriate “a specialized discourse” to succeed in the university, and conversation between students about their own work can improve their writing (624). Only between peers can this conversation most effectively take place, since classroom situations produce a power hierarchy that stifles some students. Through visits to the writing center, students can gain a clear understanding of academic discourse and how to enter that community. Bruffee claims that “our first task must involve engaging students in conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and the reading process as possible” (422). In standard composition classrooms, it is difficult to incorporate as much student conversation about students’ own writing as teachers would like. Writing center tutors can engage students in conversation about their writing process and product as peers outside the classroom power structure, allowing students to work out an understanding not only of what constitutes solid academic writing, but why and how those choices work.
Bruffee defines collaborative learning, in which he includes peer tutoring, as “a form of indirect teaching,” the indirectness of which allows students to escape the hierarchical power structure common to most classroom settings (418). Collaborative learning is distinguished not by a change in what students learn but by a change in the social context in which they learn it (418). Students can learn from discussing their internal conversation externally within a community of experienced writers because knowledge, or thoughts, can be obtained through conversation. Bruffee links the idea of social context to conversation and to “a community of knowledgeable peers” wherein students collaborate to create knowledge (qtd. in Boquet 28). Such a community should be available in the writing center, where more experienced writers can tutor and discuss writing with beginning composition students. Having access to knowledgeable peers with whom they can discuss their writing will help students produce a form of critical writing acceptable at the university, and learning to write themselves into the discourse community promotes the cognitive development of beginning composition students by requiring them to think critically about their own work.
David Bartholomae argues that one major purpose of the freshman composition course is to introduce students into the academic community. Despite the prevalent image of the scholar in his ivory tower, much academic work is accomplished collaboratively, and peer review is an essential element of knowledge creation in scholarly circles. So for students to succeed in joining the scholastic community, they must learn how to collaborate within the academic context. “What our students need to learn,” argues Bartholomae, “is to extend themselves, by successive approximations, into the commonplaces . . . that . . . constitute knowledge within the various branches of our academic community” (634). Our students must learn to appropriate various academic discourses, and as they make the attempt and discuss their attempts with other writers, they develop critical thinking skills that will promote their cognitive development. Writing centers, especially those based on peer tutoring, are a valuable resource for beginning writers because their tutors not only model the appropriate form of discourse but also explicitly discuss that discourse with students, helping them break it down and replicate it.
Beginning writers benefit from collaborative learning through peer tutoring as they attempt successive acts of appropriation, which serve as both an introduction to the university and instruction in composition. Most writing centers operate on a system of self-referral, a voluntary tutor-student relationship where “students who want to improve their writing drop in or make an appointment to work with a peer tutor” (Kail and Trimbur 5-6). Writing centers that focus on discussing student writing create a social context for learning that is relatively informal, creating knowledge through a critical conversation. Though Bartholomae argues that “education has failed to involve students in scholarly projects . . . that allow students to act as though they were colleagues in an academic enterprise,” composition students and writing center tutors can collaborate as academic colleagues through peer tutoring (632). Students are more invested in a conversation about how composition principles apply to their own work than they are in a class discussion about general writing principles. As instructors, we can use that personal investment to persuade beginning writers to visit the writing center, and once they are there, the tutors can use it to persuade them to apply to their own work the knowledge they collaboratively construct. But for peer tutoring to most effectively encourage cognitive development and promote initiation to the university, students must attend willingly.
Writing center educators have long argued that “student-centered practices provide students an alternative to the often unequal relationship of power maintained in many writing classrooms” (Briggs and Woolbright 109). In the classroom, the instructor holds all power over curriculum, grading, and pedagogy. In the writing center, tutors have no such power and are usually trained in resisting student efforts to set them up in such a position; as peers, they exercise no power over grades, so many students feel more confident about choosing whether to accept or reject a tutor’s advice than they do with an instructor’s advice. Conversely, because of the tutor’s training and experience, students generally trust writing center tutors enough to ask their advice, as they cannot safely trust other peers, such as friends or roommates. Harvey Kail and John Trimbur argue, “By organizing tutors and tutees as co-learners, peer tutoring based on collaborative learning . . . offers an alternative to the dominant hierarchical model of teaching and learning, an alternative based on voluntary social interaction among students” (9). The voluntary nature of their association is perhaps the most important aspect of the tutor-student relationship. In escaping the power hierarchy present in most classroom situations, students are able to discuss their work more freely in a low-risk environment.
Faculty members are older and more experienced, but because they have a strong connection to the institution and operate within the power structure of the institution, students tend to rely on their expertise rather than question the advice they receive and work out their own revision strategies. Because the tutor is a peer, students feel less risk in appearing confused or unsure about their writing, and the more informal atmosphere invites students to open up and discuss their own writing, which is a necessary part of the educational process since “collaboration among peers can help students reach a critical understanding and redefinition of themselves as learners” (Kail and Trimbur 5). Because the tutor is a peer and lacks institutional authority, students are encouraged to make their own decisions about incorporating, amending, or even disregarding the advice they receive. Peer tutoring invites students to discuss their own work and writing processes.
Most students who visit the writing center do so during what they consider the revision stage of the writing process. Nancy Sommers argues that revision may be seen as a “recursive shaping of thought by language,” which implies that conversation and feedback would be particularly useful to beginning writers at this stage, and that a writing center focused on developing knowledge through collaborative peer tutoring could succeed in revising student notions of revision (43). Since beginning writers often “do not see revision as an activity in which they modify and develop perspectives and ideas” but consider it a mere “rewording activity,” they generally do not recognize the value of feedback to the revision process (46-48). When students define “revision” as “rewording,” they will not spend the necessary time on their own writing to develop critical thinking and composition skills requisite to successful appropriation of academic discourse. As Brooks notes, “The primary value of the writing center tutor to the student is as a living human body who is willing to sit patiently and help the student spend time with her paper” (2). As student writers spend time with their paper in the company of a more experienced writer, they will learn that successful revision often requires seeking a form of feedback, and as they construct this definition of revision, beginning writers will become more effective in appropriating academic discourse and will write more effective arguments.
When students own their work they are more willing to invest in it and branch out on their own. Hope Hartman says that tutoring should “facilitate academic gain and develop self- directed or independent learners” (qtd. in Healy 2). This does not mean that students will eventually reach some level at which they will never more need feedback from a peer or benefit from discussing their work. One of my students said, “I went there twice for my Issues Paper because I have found it to be so helpful . . . I like to go there to just jabber at them to get my thoughts organized . . . Going to the writing center has improved the quality of my finished products” (Doxey, “A Refection” 2). Though all the student and tutor did was discuss her draft, the student’s writing improved considerably.
Peer tutoring is most effective as a means to university initiation and cognitive development if students choose tutoring on their own, but instructors can succeed in encouraging students to attend if they teach their students to focus on specific needs and avoid singling out particular students in need of remediation. Despite the importance of voluntary, or at least student-accepted, attendance to student success in writing center tutoring, some students attend the writing center on the recommendation, or even the express order, of an instructor. Boquet, Writing Center Director at Fairfield University, argues, “Most of these students still come (or are sent) because they’re having ‘trouble’” (42). When instructors send beginning writers to the center without clear instruction in how to use it to their advantage, students often feel more like unjustly sentenced prisoners than budding scholars obtaining feedback. Composition instructors must give the student specific passages or techniques to work on when sending a particular student to the writing center for help. One of my students recently said, “I have really come to appreciate the writing center . . . I received a lot of help on my thesis, my topic sentences, and making sure that my argument in each paragraph made sense and stayed with my thesis” (Barker 1). This student went to the writing center with the specific goal of improving unity and coherence, and came away with a better understanding of acceptable academic discourse and of her own writing process.
Writing instructors should also monitor their students’ writing center experiences by maintaining contact with both their own students and with the writing center to verify that students are involved in meaningful conversation about their work and collaboratively learning about writing, rather than milking superficial editing advice out of tutors. Tutors have no obligation to make writing choices for the students with whom they work; they are obliged to talk students through making such decisions for themselves, so they can learn the principles which guide successful composition. Making these decisions themselves will foster their cognitive development through critical thinking.
Dave Healy argues that “to be able to talk with a reader, to receive impressions and suggestions, to get a better sense of how my words have been understood and misunderstood,” are also benefits of conversing with knowledgeable peers about one’s own writing (3). Talking about their own work with a more experienced writer allows student writers to grant their own work the same intense attention they have been trained to apply to literary texts and which they often do not think to pay to their own writing. Brooks claims that “The most common difficulty for students is paying attention to their writing” (2). Tutors are necessary to show students how to give their work the attention requisite to true improvement. This requires many repeat visits to the center: “Far from failing repeat customers, the Burkean Parlor Center has given them that most valuable of lessons—that a writer’s work is never done, and that two (or more) minds are better than one” (Healy 3).
Brooks claims that, ideally, “the student should be the only active agent in improving the paper” (4). For most of my own students, this has been the case with their writing center visits. One student writes, “The tutors helped focus my thoughts, allowing me to get more done” (Cooney 2), and another adds, “The writing center has contributed so much to my new writing confidence. . . . They appreciated my creativity and weren’t there to judge my ideas” (Darm 2). Tutors cannot only guide beginning composition students to produce writing appropriate to the academic community but also guide them to an understanding of how and why the writing choices they made work or do not work. Composition instructors need not teach composition in isolation; students can help instruct each other in the writing center.
It is the instructor’s job, though, to find a viable method of getting each student in need of help to the writing center without producing the negative impression of remediation. One student wrote, “Some people avoid the writing center because deep down they don’t want to be judged, but I have found it is very important to get a fresh perspective on my paper through the eyes of someone else. I go to the Writing Center when I am out of motivation or ideas. Either way I always leave with lots to work on” (Doxey, “Final” 1). Many beginning composition students know their writing does not meet the standard for college composition; they judge their own work regularly, and are insecure about allowing another person to judge it as well. It is the job of the instructor to create a classroom environment that makes students more comfortable sharing and discussing their writing with their peers; when this is done, students will gain enough confidence to take their work to knowledgeable peers, like writing center tutors and eventually their instructors, without prompting from the teacher.
Brooks says that as teachers, “We sit down with imperfect papers, but our job is to improve their writers” (2). We can do that by employing the collaborative peer tutoring available in most university writing centers to promote our students’ cognitive development. Writing center tutors can help make our composition students better writers by engaging them in conversation about their own writing, which will train our students in critical thinking, a necessary skill for success in any academic community. As knowledgeable peers, writing center tutors can provide appropriate guidance to students, especially when the center operates as a Burkean parlor, producing knowledge from social context and conversation. To promote our students’ cognitive development and successfully initiate them into the university, composition instructors must fully realize and utilize the benefits writing centers offer beginning writers.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Villanueva 623-54.
Barker, Brooke. “Rhetorical Analysis Reflection.” Unpublished essay, 2007.
Boquet, Elizabeth H. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2002.
Briggs, Lynn and Meg Woolbright, eds. Stories from the Center. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.
Brooks, Jeff. “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.” Writing Lab Newsletter 15 (1991): 1–4.
Bruffee, Kenneth. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” Villanueva 415-36.
Cooney, Mallory. “Final Exam.” Unpublished essay, 2006.
Darm, Ashley. “Final Exam.” Unpublished essay, 2006.
Doxey, Rachelle. “A Reflection on Writing.” Unpublished essay, 2006.
—. “Final Exam.” Unpublished essay, 2006.
Healy, Dave. “Countering the Myth on (In)dependence: Developing Life-Long Clients.” Writing Lab Newsletter 18 (1994): 1–3.
Kail, Harvey, and John Trimbur. “The Politics of Peer Tutoring.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 11 (1987): 5–12.
Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” Villanueva 43-54.
Villanueva, Victor, ed. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory. 2nd ed. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.