Book Review: Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education

Reviewed by Jiawei Xing
Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Shenyang Normal University

Hall, R. Mark. (2017). Around the Texts of Writing Center Work: An Inquiry-Based Approach to Tutor Education. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

In an era when the writing center is developing at an unprecedented scale and speed, and is widely recognized as an educational avenue, the exigencies that have attracted the most attention from scholars within the field of writing center studies are: Can we theorize the assumed daily routine of writing center work? How can the writing center provide affordances for research? Hall’s (2017) Around the Texts responds to these exigencies through drawing on practical theories such as community of practices, activity, discourse analysis, and reflection to explicate the applications of accessible resources such as observations, tutoring transcripts, session notes, and blogs for pedagogy.

As the author illustrates in the introduction section, Around the Texts is framed around two concepts: theories and research. The theories are brought in to challenge scholars’ habitual mindset that writing center work, such as tutoring practices, tutor reports, observations, tutor reflections, and tutor posts is of more practice than theory. According to John Nordlof (2014), on the one hand, writing center scholars show “considerable resistance” to the theoretical perspective; on the other hand, the theories that have been used on writing centers invoke the issue that says theories “do not function as theory should, to clarify tutoring approaches and provide impetus for research” (p. 45). Echoing Nordlof, Hall contends (2017), “writing center work remains under-theorized” (p. 5) – most books on tutor education are practical rather than theoretical. As such, he eyes these writing center everyday routines through multiple theoretical lenses. He discovers the values, assumptions, and beliefs underlying these routines and justifies these theories’ explanatory and guiding roles in writing center work. To examine tutoring observations, for example, he incorporates the theory of “communities of practice” and interprets the activity as a practice of collaboration, wherein the observer and the observee share a repertoire of experiences, knowledge, and interests and work together through interaction to address recurring problems. When employed between the experienced and novice consultant, observation establishes a community of apprenticeship, which helps with the novice consultant’s knowledge and skill development. This reveals what the author calls “learning as participation in collaboration with others on meaningful activities towards common goals” (p. 19). Hall uses the theory to (re)frame the “valued practices” in his writing center and requires that his tutors refer to them.

Unlike traditional macro theoretical notions, however, the theories in Around the Texts are micro and practical. The author challenges the prevalent scholarly belief that a theory is characteristic of being abstract, difficult to understand, and beyond practice. Along with these challenges, he illustrates in his book his own micro theories: communities of practice, activity theory, discourse analysis, reflective practice, and inquiry-based learning. These theories are best integrated with practice and become “…not the opposite of practice, …, not even a supplement to practice, … (but) practice, a practice of a particular kind…” (p. 6). For instance, to a large extent, the theory of reflection is practical. It occurs and recurs in all disciplines, including the author’s writing center. There, Hall asks his tutors to write a reflective report after a tutoring session, recalling and evaluating the major happenings, analyzing the causes, and considering options for change. Reflection helps them discover “why” underlying “what” in the past and “how” underlying “what” in the future. Not only the director and author but also his tutors view this theory as practical instead of uselessly abstract.

Similarly, we have the activity theory. Developed from the comparatively abstract sociocultural theory, the activity theory is delineated by Hall as a perspective of focusing on the context where tutoring is happening. Drawing upon the activity theory, Hall transcribes recording of tutoring and displays issues and their (un)resolved consequences emerging from the data. From the transcription, he concludes that tutoring should be treated more as a constructive than as a knowledge-based activity because knowledge-based tutoring only focuses on fixed knowledge, while constructive tutoring values the context of knowledge. Thus, the seemingly complex activity theory turns out to be very practical and useful.

Besides theories, Around the Texts also supports writing center interests in research. Responding to Driscoll and Perdue’s (2014) claim that the Writing Center Journal “had published few studies …that would be classified as replicable, aggregable, and data-supported (RAD)” (p. 105), Hall contributes five major projects to fill the gap in writing center research. All the projects are constitutive of research required necessary components, which are implemented in the order of problem, data collection, data analysis, conceptual framework, findings, and discussions. For example, motivated by the problem or issue of how novice tutoring is utilized in the writing center, Hall created the project of session notes where he asked his novice tutors to write a session report. This document serves several functions: recording the major issues addressed in tutoring, recommending additional resources, and advising for future learning. Hall collected 10% of the 700 documents completed in his writing center in two years and employed discourse analysis as the conceptual framework to guide his data analysis. At the same time, discourse analysis also works as the research method for this project, with which he coded themes and elicited ten rhetorical moves, such as “summarizing”, “recommending next steps”, and “addressing higher order concerns”. He also finds that tutors’ identities change among “peer”, “reader”, “teacher” and “indeterminate” during tutoring. In the discussion that follows, the author suggests that these findings should lead to certain basic principles or approaches recommended for novice tutor education and writer education as well. At the same time, he underscores his opposition to any “ideal” format of tutoring and contends that the principles or approaches used should conform with the mission or goals of that specific writing center. Thus, Hall implements his session notes project in line with what Driscoll and Perdue called RAD study; he does so with all his other four projects.

It is worth noting that spirited inquiries are used throughout every research project and throughout writing center work. Each project in the book starts with an inquiry–a question or doubt about writing center work. For example, novice tutors may inquire: How should they write session notes? What work do session notes do? Why use session notes? (Hall, 2017, p. 81). Such inquiries elicit the focal document: sample session notes, of which the author carries out a rigorous analysis and exhibits the consequential common rhetorical moves. Thus, an inquiry is well used to spark his RAD-researched fourth project. In fact, Hall treats an inquiry as an open strategy, not only for his research, but also writing center work such as tutor education. When asked about his ideal tutor education program, Hall would suggest an inquiry-driven curriculum, which is best represented by the focal documents and activities. While these documents and activities are inspired by inquiries, they can also be used as curriculums to further foster tutors’ habit of mind of an inquiry stance. An inquiry stance is so crucial that Hall uses it to direct his fifth project—writing center work. In the project, he assigns a tutor-led discussion over an inquiry concerning writing center work; the inquiry can be a problem, a question, an inquiry, or an issue. To exercise inquiry effectively, the author suggests collaboration often in a seminar, where tutors work in groups, raising questions, offering solutions, developing perspectives, sharing resources, etc. in the hope of enhancing learning and writing center work.

Around the Texts was published at an opportune time considering there are continuous concerns about the underdeveloped theories grounding writing center work and about the inadequacy of research on writing center studies. However, the theories and research methods offered in the book should not be regarded as the “ideal” resources for all writing centers. Rather, we should keep testing them until we find ones that fit in our own writing center. Also, the book enhances our understanding that tutor education is always the center of our writing center. As Hall does in his book, a good project should be one that includes and serves tutor education. When the tutor is treated as the final beneficiary of scholarly activities, writing centers can be a sustainable resource of writing assistance.

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