Beyond ‘the Learn’d Astronomer’: Configuring Tutor Stories as Relational Spaces Inside and Outside the Writing Center

Helen Raica-Klotz and Christopher Giroux
Saginaw Valley State University

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

–Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

As Gillespie, Hughes, and Kail’s successful Peer Tutor Alumni Research Project (PTARP) tells us, tutors’ stories matter. The stories collected from our alumni tutors create a constellation of narratives that illustrate the ways writing center work has impacted our tutors’ lives, both professionally and personally, after graduation. Moreover, these stories provide rich data that demonstrate to our supervisors, colleagues, and administrations the value of writing centers not simply for the students they serve, but the tutors who work there. Gillespie et al. (2007) remind us that

The writing center is one of the very few places in the academy where students take each other seriously as writers and thinkers, and the professional training and liberal education of peer tutors in writing centers is unique in higher education. The activity of training and incorporating undergraduates into the educational life of the institution in the unique way of peer tutoring in writing has profound effects on the identity of the writing center itself. (p. 37, emphasis added)

But alumni narratives are only one of the many constellated stories that exist in the writing centers; tutors currently working in our centers have stories to tell about their relationships—with themselves, the students, the other tutors, their administrations, their universities, and their larger communities. Writing centers can move beyond abstract theory and conventional lore about our work by working to capture and examine the stories of working tutors by actively listening to the voices of the tutors themselves. And we need to listen carefully. As Grutsch McKinney (2013) notes, it is important to consider alternative perceptions of the writing center “grand narrative,” which has historically been created by and for writing center administrators, to allow for a more honest and nuanced view of the work we do—or, more specifically, the work our tutors do.

Indeed, if a writing center embodies Wenger’s (1998) “community of practice,” then “we can discern that at the heart of meaningful writing center administration lies not efficiency, marketing, and record-keeping (these are peripheral matters, in fact), but the leaderful, learningful stewardship of a dynamic learning and writing culture and community” (Geller at al., 2007, p. 14). Or, as Walt Whitman (1982) put it in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” we need to move beyond “the proofs, the figures /… charts and diagrams” (lines 2-3) we use to justify our work and talk more about the transformational moments that occur for not just the students we serve, but the students who currently work in our centers.

With this in mind, we examine two different collections of tutor stories we’ve assembled at the Writing Center at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU), the Tutor of the Week Facebook posts and the graduating tutors’ Last Lecture speeches, seeing these narratives as multiple discourses that serve multiple purposes, and that ultimately create a framework of relationality. As Wilson (2008) notes, “relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality” (p. 7). Playing with four definitions of constellation,[1] which serve to create the four sections of this article, we will explain how we’ve chosen to collect and share these stories, and then examine the stories themselves for recurring themes. To that end, the first two definitions below describe each collection of stories and their context, along a list of outcomes we hope to accomplish. The last two definitions examine these stories more carefully, using recurring themes from the writing of tutors themselves, to see what they have to teach us about the work of tutoring in the writing center. We argue these constellations of stories are compelling and useful narratives that serve a variety of purposes for our tutors, our writing center, and arguably the field of writing center work.

Constellation, A Definition: “A grouping of stars on the celestial sphere perceived as a figure or design”

One long-standing tradition in our Center is that the directors name a Tutor of the Week. To use the metaphor of constellations, we select this “star” for a combination of reasons: for showing particular skills in a tutorial session, being a creative problem-solver, pursuing a research project, delivering a workshop, presenting at a writing center conference, and so on. The Tutor of the Week’s name goes on our Writing Center bulletin board, and they get acknowledged in our weekly staff email update and receives a $5 Starbucks gift card. Finally, the other tutors receive a small slip of paper that begins “The best thing about our Tutor of the Week, (the tutor’s name is inserted here), is __________.” The tutors fill out these slips, sometimes being serious, sometimes silly, and drop them inside the Tutor of the Week’s mailbox.

Now, thanks to the suggestion of one of our tutors who managed our Facebook page, our Tutors of the Week are asked to write a few paragraphs about themselves, which are placed next to their photograph inside a template with our Writing Center logo. This Tutor of the Week posting appears on our Writing Center’s blog (http://svsuwritingcenter.blogspot.com/), which is linked to our Facebook account (www.facebook.com/svsuwritingcenter/). As tutors introduce themselves in these posts, some offer practical advice about writing, but most address their work as a tutor. Some share why they became tutors; some discuss their favorite aspects of tutoring; others provide tips for writing. None of these posts has been longer than five paragraphs, but this “grouping of stars” has been particularly effective; in fact, these posts are liked and shared at a greater rate than any of the other postings on our site. Moreover, these posts serve multiple purposes: they allow us a public space to celebrate the tutors, to brand and to market the SVSU Writing Center on social media to other students, to give tutors the opportunity to reflect on their accomplishments, and to teach the university community about the important work our tutors do.

Constellation, A Second Definition: “A gathering or assemblage, especially of prominent persons or things”

Another recurring event at the SVSU Writing Center is our Last Lecture, an end-of-the-year event in which administration and faculty are invited to a talk given by our graduating tutors. This event, a take-off on the book by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow (2008), is an opportunity for tutors to reflect more formally about their work during their one, two, three, or even four years as tutors in our Center. The audience averages about 50 people: graduating tutors are asked to invite 3-5 faculty and staff who have been influential in their development at our university. The Provost and Deans, the Director of Alumni Relations, and various department chairs are invited, and, of course, our entire tutoring staff is in attendance. After a keynote by the Provost, the Writing Center Director gives a brief introduction to each tutor, who then steps up to the lectern to give a 5-8 minute “speech” about their work at the Writing Center. A sense of nervous expectation fills the room whenever a tutor begins to speak. There are sometimes tears and always laughter, as each tutor attempts to explain their experiences inside our Center and the impact of the Writing Center on their lives as students, as pre-professionals, and, most importantly, as people.

In addition to helping all of us feel good about the work we do (something most of us desperately need at the end of the academic term), this event encourages the university and the tutors themselves to view the Writing Center as an “assemblage … of prominent persons.” The event shares the same outcomes as the Tutor of the Week posts; more than this, however, the Last Lecture builds community identity and pride, and it provides current tutors with role models of support, success, and engagement. Moreover, this event enables the university administration to publicly acknowledge the impact of Writing Center work on the larger student body and on our peer tutors, thus establishing the Center as a distinctive program that provides opportunities for research, service learning, and professional development for its staff.

Constellation, A Third Definition: “The configuration of planets at the time of one’s birth, particularly regarded by astrologers as determining one’s character or fate”

Most interesting, however, is not what our Center has done by instituting the Last Lecture and Tutor of the Week post, but how the tutors have responded. Like most composition instructors will tell you, you can create a writing assignment, but how the students choose to respond to the assignment—what they write in their final draft and what they don’t—is always an unknown. To be honest, what the tutors have written in their posts and their speeches tends to support the outcomes we had envisioned for these narratives—we hoped that tutors’ narratives would help advertise and market our services, educate the university community about what our Center does, provide role models and a sense of community identity for our current staff, and celebrate the good and important work of our undergraduate tutors. However, there are themes that recur in their writing that we had not anticipated. The overriding messages of our tutors revolve around the impact the Center has had on them in deeply personal and profound ways, which, per our dictionary definitions, help in “determining one’s character or fate.”[2] Although the PTARP study demonstrates that alumni tutors experience this kind of transformation, we believe that our current tutors articulate this kind of transformation while they are still undergraduates at our university. Moreover, we suspect the themes they identify would resonate with tutors in other writing centers.

Overcoming a Lack of Confidence

Many of our tutors talked about beginning their time in the Center fraught with insecurity; they knew that they were talented writers, but their expertise was often linked to a particular field. Some nursing students and engineers, for example, assumed they would tutor only in their discipline or just deal with papers written in APA or ACS (Chevren, 2015; Sawatzski, 2017; Steinman, 2017); by comparison, our literature majors often think their specialty will be MLA. However, when they began their training, were exposed to the ideas and practices outlined in Gillespie and Lerner’s (2004) The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing, and learned the specific ins and outs of our particular center, their confidence was often shaken. With time though, tutors became more practiced and grew more secure in their abilities. Ellissa Chevren (2015), in her Last Lecture, spoke of her developing confidence in this way:

I was overjoyed when I was offered a position [at the Writing Center.] As I began training, the excitement quickly turned to fear and insecurity. I was quieter than the rest of the new tutors, and I was afraid I just didn’t have what it takes. Over the following months, [our directors] Diane and Helen always assured us, “You are all wonderful people. We know, because we hired you, and we only hire the best.” This phrase meant more to me than I think Diane or Helen knew. This phrase echoed in my head on the days when I doubted myself, both inside and outside the Writing Center.

Another one of our tutors, Kaylee Davis (2017) used her Last Lecture to reassure her co-workers, particularly our newest tutors, about their angst: “The best part about the Writing Center is that I have gained more confidence in myself…. To all the new tutors: confidence might not come right away. In fact, your first semester has ended, and it probably still feels real scary. But I’ve learned that change, the hardest thing in the entire universe, can lead to some amazing experiences.” Tutors’ confidence in their own abilities—and the ability to instill such confidence in the students with whom they work—is also a common thread found throughout the Tutor of the Week posts; one post, in fact, described that growth in confidence as nothing less than “exponential” (Houser, 2017). This focus on increased confidence is similarly noted by alumni tutors in the PTARP data (Gillespie et al., 2017, p. 41).

Discovery of Skill(s)

Beyond issues of confidence, our tutors’ narratives speak of the discovery, if not acquisition, of specific skills. This, of course, is something of which we were aware as writing center directors and even expect our tutors to experience in our Center, but it is not something most tutors expect to find in a part-time campus job. Like the PTARP participants, many tutors speak of their growth in the academic realm; they talk, naturally, of becoming better writers, but also better thinkers and listeners (Gillespie et al., 2007, p. 41-42; Geffer, 2017t; Houser, 2017; Martin, 2017; Okenka, 2017). They speak about what it means to acquire the skill of tutoring writing, often internalizing and reiterating much of what is discussed in the field. In their Tutor of the Week posts, for example, tutors regularly talk of the importance of valuing writers’ individual voices and the importance of codeswitching (Martin, 2017; Rivet, 2017); they also reassert the Northian tenet of improving writers and not papers (Geffert, 2017); and several stress the importance of conversation within a tutorial session, that sessions are ideally collaborative in nature (Atkins, 2017; Martin, 2017; Rivet, 2017). They speak, too, of learning to write and work in different disciplines, genres, and venues; as Sara Houser (2017) wrote in her Tutor of the Week post: “I have been involved in research projects, presented my own research at a handful of conferences from the state to international level, facilitated a creative writing camp for middle and high schoolers, and have even presented workshops to prepare future educators for the College of Education Professional Readiness Exam.”

Additionally, tutors speak of growing in the area of interpersonal skills. “I have skills and abilities I can use to help others,” Chevren (2015) noted in her Last Lecture. “I can see into the lives of others, meet them where they are and lead them to greater possibilities. This is my goal both in my work as a writing tutor and my pursuit of nursing as a career.” This sentiment is echoed by another of our tutors, Kara Steinman (2017), in her Tutor of the Week post; she has learned of her ability to adapt her tutoring style to best fit the student sitting next to her in a session, an ability that, she notes, will pay off in her own future as an occupational therapist. Hillary Degner (2015) has attributed her time in the Center to her growing abilities as a public speaker and ease in networking in professional settings. “These skills,” she maintained in her Last Lecture, “will be incredibly important as I move on to graduate school.”

Personal Growth/Revelation

Other aspects of tutor growth glimpsed in the tutors’ narratives are much more personal in nature, emphasizing metacognition, self-awareness, and personal identity. Although these themes exist in the PTARP study, they seem to be particularly pronounced in this collection of narratives; this occurs, perhaps, because undergraduates are expected to constantly examine and re-examine their possible future selves, to think not only about who they are, but who they wish to become. We find these stories particularly moving and remind us of the power of writing centers to teach our undergraduate tutors the process of thoughtful self-reflection, helping to support them in making what we might call “good choices.” For example, Riley Millard (2017), one of our most upbeat and optimistic tutors, chose to share this narrative at a recent Last Lecture:

Just a month after I started here [at the Writing Center], I lost my father. And while he had been sick for eight months and in the hospital in critical condition for a week, it was still devastating. My family encouraged me to consider taking some time off to process this event, to heal. However, among many things, growing up in the Air Force [I learned from my father…] ‘duty before self.’ I knew I had obligations to get back to, especially after starting a new job, and I was responsible to do so. That is how I wanted to heal. So, two days after the funeral, I was back on campus, back in classes, and back in the Center. The support I received … was invaluable and [allowed me to continue] at SVSU. I would not be where I am today without it.

Here, you see this tutor claiming a central part of his identity tied to his understanding of his father’s beliefs and his choice to embody that belief through his work at our Writing Center.

Another tutor focused in her Last Lecture on her “ah-ha” moment of personal self-discovery in the Writing Center. As someone who was highly motivated to excel in tutorial sessions, in research and conference opportunities, in online work, in our community engagement activities—in short, in all the various aspects of writing center work—Ky Wojciechowski spoke of moments she failed often because of what she saw as misguided ambition:

When I stopped doing things [in the Center] for how good they would look on my resume, I found my path. I found what I valued, and I found how I could extend the products of my values to better others. When I started focusing on the quality of my presence, things changed for me. No multi-tasking, no half-assing things. In the words of Ron Swanson [from Parks and Recreation], “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” It’s been much easier to focus on the quality of my presence when I’ve genuinely enjoyed the people I work with.

This insight, with its casual language and pop-culture references, speaks to this tutor’s growing self-awareness in an honest and approachable way.

Awareness, too, often extends beyond the individual. Many of our tutors speak of their work with international students and non-native speakers of English (NNSEs) as particularly fulfilling—an opportunity for understanding their personal and cultural identity in relation to others—as noted in this Tutor of the Week post: “I love to see the way different cultures respond to the same writing assignment. The opportunity to learn about cultural differences makes me understand my own life and beliefs through new perspectives. It reminds me that we are all more similar than we are different, and we all have something important to share” (Geffert, 2017). Such revelations enable tutors to communicate effectively across different cultures, a finding that was consistent with the PTARP study (Gillespie et al., 2007, p. 42).

Sense of Community

Finally, many tutors emphasize the importance of community and comfort found at the Writing Center. As Grutsch McKinney (2013) and Boquet (2002) remind us, the concept of coziness is part of the lore surrounding centers, one that our tutors have readily embraced. Beyond the idea of plants, good lighting, coffee, and couches, our tutors’ narratives speak to the importance of comfort not just to the students who frequent our Center but also for the community of tutors themselves. Although this theme of belonging in academia emerges in Gillespie et al.’s (2007) PTARP (p. 37), it is notably pronounced in the current tutors’ writing, perhaps because these undergraduates so deeply want a place to feel as though they do belong. We hear these ideas reiterated in various Last Lectures:

  • “I’ve had the good fortune to be surrounded by the smartest, kindest, funniest people at this university… How lucky I am to have something—someone, actually many someones—that make saying goodbye so hard” (Wojciechowski, 2017).
  • “I didn’t realize that my time at the Writing Center would be so much more than just part-time student employment. I finally found the place on campus where I belonged” (Degner, 2015).
  • “I came into a whole new family of people I cared about and loved” (Millard, 2017).

These sentiments and the focus on the deep relationships formed between tutors are likewise found in the Tutor of the Week posts. Caroline Sawatzki (2017), a transfer student, wrote in her post about her transition to our campus and the role that the Writing Center played for her in the process: “I barely knew anyone. As an introvert, my usual method of making friends was waiting for an extrovert to ‘adopt’ me into their world. Working at the Writing Center offered me a home and friends to go along with it. … [O]ur similarities in personality, compassion, and love for writing unite us.”

Constellation, Yet Another Definition: “A set or configuration, as of related items, properties, ideas, or individuals”

We readily acknowledge this set of stories is limited in scope and number, focused only on our university’s writing center tutors’ experiences over the past few years. We also acknowledge that these stories offer no quantitative data, only our own interpretations of qualitative statements, conducted by two directors who are certainly biased in our interpretations. And we also know that our undergraduate tutors are skilled rhetoricians, acutely aware of audience and purpose. Because of this, their reflections are uniformly positive; they knew they were writing for an outside audience and being held up as exemplars, so none of our tutors wrote in depth about their frustrations, disappointments, or sense of unhappiness with their work or our Center. Grutsch McKinney (2013) notes, “telling the story of our centers as cozy places does less to describe the lived, material realities and does more to reveal our loyalties to the writing center grand narrative” (7). Thus, although these narratives do little to challenge the “grand narrative,” we argue for the importance of collecting and examining these narratives from our tutors, nonetheless, because these texts help us as administrators know not only what not to do, but what to do to help our tutors feel engaged and fulfilled by their work.

These current tutors’ stories, over time, have the potential to provide our field with a rich repository of data, texts we can examine to determine the ways that our writing center—and other centers—can help tutors grow and develop. Indeed, every story told by a tutor about any writing center represents, at least in part, all writing centers. We are all part of the same larger constellation, “a configuration … of related properties and ideas.” When we make our unofficial narratives more official, we embrace a new narrative, one of the writing center as a dynamic site of power, advocacy, and change. We simply need to provide a context and audience for the stories so many of our current tutors tell and then “from time to time, / Look… up in perfect silence at the stars” (Whitman, 1982, line 8).

References

Atkins, J. (2017, Feb 13). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/02/tutor-of-the-week-josh-atkins.

Boquet, E. H. (2002). Noise from the writing center. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Chevren, E. (2015, Apr 17). Last lecture. The Writing Center’s Last Lecture. Speech given at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI.

(2016) Constellation. Retrieved from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/constellation

Davis, K. (2015, Apr 17). Last lecture. The Writing Center’s Last Lecture. Speech given at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI.

Degner, H. (2015, Apr 17). Last lecture. The Writing Center’s Last Lecture. Speech given at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI.

Geffert, S. (2017, Mar 27). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/03/tutor-of-the-week-sam-geffert

Geller, A. E., Eodice, M., Condon, F., Carroll, M., & Boquet, E. H. (2007). The everyday writing center: A community of practice. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Gillespie, P., Hughes, B., & Kail, H. (2007). Nothing marginal about this writing center experience: Using research about peer tutor alumni to educate others. In W. J. Macauley & N. Mauriello (Eds.), Marginal words, marginal work?: Tutoring the academy in the work of writing centers (35-52). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Gillespie, P. & Lerner, N. (2004). The Allyn and Bacon guide to peer tutoring (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson/Longman.

Grutsch, M. J. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Houser, S. (2017, Mar 20). Tutor of the Week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: http://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/03/tutor-of-the-week-sara-houser

Martin, M. (2017, Feb 28). Tutor of the Week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/02/tutor-of-the-week-madison-martin

Millard, R. (2017, Apr 14). Last lecture. The Writing Center’s Last Lecture. Speech given at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI.

Millard, R. (2017, Jan 30). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/01/tutor-of-the-week-riley-millard

North, Stephen. (2008). The Idea of a Writing Center. In R. W. Barnett & J. S. Blumner (Eds.), The Longman guide to writing center theory and practice (63-78). New York, NY: Pearson/Longman.

Okenka, R. (2017, Apr 3). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/04/tutor-of-the-week-renee-okenka

Pausch, R., & Zaslow, J. (2008) The last lecture. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Phelps, V. (2017, Jan 25). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/01/tutor-of-the-week-victoria-phelps

Rivet, B. (2017, Feb 20). Tutor of the week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/02s/tutor-of-the-week-bria-rivet

Sawatzki, C. (2017, Apr 10). Tutor of the Week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/04/tutor-of-the-week-caroline-sawatzki

Steinman, K. (2017, Apr 17). Tutor of the Week [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://www.svsu.writingcenterblogspot.com/2017/04/tutor-of-the-week-kara-steinman.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Whitman, W. (1982). When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer. Complete poetry and collected prose (409-10). New York, NY: Library of America.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Wojciechowski, K. (2017, Apr 14). Last lecture. The Writing Center’s Last Lecture. Speech given at Saginaw Valley State University, University Center, MI.

  1. Per thefreedictinary.com, these four definitions include “A grouping of stars on the celestial sphere perceived as a figure or design”; “A gathering or assemblage, especially of prominent persons or things”; “The configuration of planets at the time of one’s birth, regarded by astrologers as determining one’s character or fate”; “A set or configuration, as of related items, properties, ideas, or individuals” (2016).
  2. Interestingly enough, although they didn’t use the word fate, a few of our tutors maintain they wanted to work at our Center once they had discovered its existence (Atkins, 2017; Houser, 2017; Martin, 2017). We like to think that on some level they were “fated” to work here.
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