Book Review: Beyond Dichotomy: Synergizing Writing Center and Classroom Pedagogies

Reviewed by Travis Webster
Pace University

Corbett, Steven J. (2015). Beyond dichotomy: Synergizing writing center and classroom pedagogies. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse. Anderson, SC: Parlor P.

Beyond Dichotomy: Synergizing Writing Center and Classroom Pedagogies offers a timely, multi-method glimpse into course-based tutoring (CBT), a term that often describes peer-to-peer writing tutoring that takes place “on location” in writing classrooms, whether through formal partnerships or strategic collaborations between writing centers and programs (Carpenter, Whiddon, & Dvorak, 2014; Spigelman & Grobman, 2005). Examining CBT partnerships at two sites, the book offers semi-ethnographic case studies using rhetorical and linguistic analyses of transcripts, interviews, and field notes. Steven J. Corbett (2015) names writing centers and classrooms as dichotomous, arguing that Rhetoric and Composition’s disciplinary history assumes locational and pedagogical separation of these sites (p. 6). In light of this history, he calls for “synergizing” these spaces, drawing from the Greek word synergia, where collaborators recognize and contribute their foremost affordances (p. 21). For Corbett (2015), CBT itself is a form of such synergy, whereby writing instructors can and ought to make strategic, pedagogical choices that intentionally unite writing classrooms with what he calls CBT “parent genres,” namely writing center tutoring, peer writing groups, WAC writing fellows programs, and supplemental instruction (p. 13). His call for this unity informs his empirical research question focused on “how […] peer tutoring one-on-one and in small groups—especially the implications of directive and nondirective tutoring strategies and methods—inform our work with students in  writing centers […] as well as classrooms” (p. 23). For him, these synergized spaces can teach practitioners about the affordances and limitations of writing center “best practices” for directive and non-directive tutoring practices, both in writing centers and “on location” in writing classrooms.

Chapter Summaries
In his first data chapter, Corbett’s (2015) transcript analyses suggest that CB tutors both align and depart from CBT scholarship that calls for non-directive tutoring strategies in classrooms (p. 81). Yet, Corbett (2015) cautions  practitioners not to assume CBT to be a “bad thing” (p. 86), when a CB tutor (“Julian”), for example, hardly allows space for a writer to speak during a session, despite his non-directive tutoring methods. Corbett (2015) identifies such moments as problematic but argues that these less-than-ideal instances reflect tutors’ pressured, inflexible adherence to “best practices” (i.e., non-directive tutoring) of CBT scholarship (and, ultimately, of writing center scholarship, as well). The chapter concludes with a CB tutor (“Sam”) who uses “on location” knowledge to ask situated questions. During her session, she finds balance between directive and non-directive strategies, taking notes, referring directly to course-based activities, but allowing space for the student to ultimately lead the session. Using Sam’s transcripts, Corbett (2015) cautions practitioners not to get caught up in the imperfections of the showcased sessions themselves, instead focusing on CBT’s potential for the “instructional flexibility” (p. 22) that Sam embodies. From these examples, Corbett (2015) argues that CBT affords tutors and instructors alike complicated but productive negotiations of directive and non-directive tutoring methods (p. 86). Here, he signals, as he does in his conclusion, that the CB tutors, like Sam, who adopt flexible tutoring approaches for the nuances of their course’s parent genre, offer the best student writing support, despite whether or not these approaches align with best practices for writing tutoring.

His second data chapter delves into his CBT field notes and interviews from six tutor-instructor teams at University of Washington and Southern Connecticut State University. Here, Corbett (2015) relays that his study “persuades [him] that the pros of encouraging tutors to practice at the edge of expertise, by and large, outweigh the cons” (p. 116). His close investigation into the six teams showcases varied degrees of success and failure: readers meet Julian again, where he struggles as much on location as he did one-on-one in the writing center. His and his partner instructor’s interviews reveal that his formal writing center training holds him back: his on- and off-site non-directive methods afford students little, Corbett (2015) claims, despite tutoring methods and parent genres that align with CBT’s best practices (e.g., Julian has formal writing center tutoring in non-directive methods, and the course itself adheres to the traditional conventions of a WAC Fellows Program). When juxtaposed with other teams, readers see tutors and instructors operating more fluidly, synergistically, and productively. For example, two CB tutors (“Kim” and “Penny”) help their partner instructor understand the specific needs of students, and subsequently help him build and revise the course curriculum—an approach traditionally frowned upon in CBT scholarship, but which resonates with students in the class according to exit surveys and to Corbett’s (2015) investigation into tutor and instructor interviews and journals (pp. 102-107).

In his conclusion, Corbett’s (2015) recommendations encourage practitioners to make “hybrid choices” (p.117) about CBT design, planning, pedagogy, peer response, and in-class activities (pp. 124-128). He does not favor one parent genre or tutoring strategy, arguing, instead, that practitioners ought to push back against “best practices” for CBT tutoring, especially strict adherence to either end of the directive or non-directive tutoring continuum. For Corbett (2015), CBT affords practitioners glimpses into what’s possible when tutoring and teaching methods are flexible and when sites (i.e., centers, classrooms, and sessions) are synergized.

Implications and Applications
The only book-length study of its kind, Corbett’s (2015) empirical research does not just teach practitioners about leading course-embedded tutoring programs but signals us to reexamine the field’s “best practices” for tutoring both within and outside of our writing center sites, especially as we help tutors consider rhetorically evolving tutoring strategies both on- and off-site. Course-embedded and fellows initiatives, while transformative for students, tutors, and faculty, are inherently complex, sometimes interpersonally and politically messy, and often require stakeholders to adapt, rethink, and revise their practices. Tutoring strategies that work in writing centers often do not immediately and necessarily translate to “on location,” classroom-based support. Corbett’s (2015) work aligns with recent empirical scholarship that encourages disruption of dated orthodoxies that may not represent modern student perspectives of writing center work (Denny, Nordlof, & Salem, 2018). In this sense, Corbett (2015) offers practitioners a student-focused lens for disruptions to our “best practices” both for CBT and for directive and non-directive tutoring method debates.

As writing centers evolve within twenty-first century institutions of higher education, practitioners must align with inward-looking, reflective administrative practices but do so alongside outwardly “synergistic” (to use Corbett’s term) methods of partnerships and collaborations. In this way, Corbett’s (2015) research mirrors current writing center research about institutional ethnography and cultures of writing (LaFrance & Nicolas, 2012; Miley, 2017; Rousculp, 2014) as well as students’ perspectives of writing in higher education (Geller, Eodice, & Lerner, 2017)—all of which link to an ecological framework for writing center work and partnership. The CBT gestures that best situate Corbett’s (2015) work in such ecologies are his transcript and interview analyses. Corbett (2015) uses this data to showcase how student and tutor stakeholders—identities that are regularly blurred in his work—sustain relationships and engage partnerships with instructors. He claims that such partnerships are nuanced and complex, sometimes difficult, yet no less rewarding for its stakeholders and for building a synergized writing culture. He is forthcoming about such partnerships’ complexities, namely when things don’t go well, relaying that not all instructor relationships were seamless due to distinct personalities and ideologies (p. 107-108) and that not all CBT on-site tutor-student interactions went smoothly (pp. 59-64), all of which pinpoint the realities of WC partnership and fellows programs work. Corbett (2015) focuses aptly on varied, micro- and macro-sites and ideologies of on-campus writing cultures, alongside his frankness about interpersonal and ideological political dynamics that arise from CBT interactions and partnerships.

Strengths and Limitations
Both a strength and limitation of Corbett’s (2015) work is his attention to and entry into discussions about diverse students. Early on, Corbett (2015) identifies the text’s disciplinary exigency (pp. 8-9) as related to CBT’s potential impact on developmental students, most of whom are students of color, of first-generation and working-class backgrounds, of varied learning abilities, and of myriad neurodiversities. He proactively enters these conversations about student diversity and equity through the developmental writing classroom lens—a rhetorical move dictated by his project’s scope—and does, indeed, engage with identity research, citing Harry Denny’s (2011) seminal writing center identity theories. Despite deliberate gestures toward CBT’s intersection with African American Vernacular English, learning disabilities, and class-based camaraderie (Corbett, 2015, pp. 47, 83-84), I wondered how a later study might further situate actors intersectionally. This prospective framework evokes Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s (1991) methodological term (“intersectionality”), which refers to how identities—such as race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and linguistic background—overlap to constitute nuanced, lived experiences. Corbett’s (2015) sound replicable, aggregable, and data-driven (RAD) model—one methodological framework of current writing center research (Driscoll & Perdue, 2012)—could shepherd intersectional analysis in that a further RAD study might hone CBT discussions of stakeholders’ identity intersections. Per the field’s recent focus on data-driven research, CBT stakeholder identity could be further examined, though I felt on occasion that Corbett (2015) covered too much ground in the CBT world: the entire text, perhaps, could have rested simply on an empirical investigation of CBT transcripts and their relationships to understanding, locating, and queering (my read and lens) best practices of “on location” writing interactions. At times, his research question, the project exigency, the developmental student diversity, and the directive and non-directive tutoring frameworks were difficult to synthesize and digest simply because of the breadth and depth of the data he presents.

Parting Directions
Perhaps the most salient, final point I can make in support of this work: Beyond Dichotomy was required reading for my tutor and fellows training courses at my previous writing center, where Corbett’s (2015) work inspired a tutor-instructor article about CBT and social justice pedagogies (Seahorn & Jones, 2017). As a WAC faculty administrator at my current institution, I will use Corbett’s (2015) study to facilitate and inspire research and practice among tutor and faculty partners within my forthcoming faculty fellows initiative. Beyond these local implications, I find that this text ultimately offers a carefully researched CBT discussion of varied sites and stakeholders; in particular, WC practitioners launching writing fellows or course-embedded tutor programs will find value in Corbett’s (2015) data and conclusions. When writing centers and classrooms unite through CBT, practitioners may productively complicate the boundaries of sites of writing and writing instruction – an action that becomes more critical as the mobility of our sites and methods continues to evolve. Such evolution – the movement of writing centers outside of their conventional, physical boundaries and into classrooms – offers distinct opportunities for partnership and mentorship among the stakeholders of these prospectively synergized sites.

Carpenter, R., Whiddon, S., & Dvorak, K. (Eds.) (2014). Special double issue on course-embedded writing programs in writing centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 12(1).

Corbett, S. J. (2015). Beyond dichotomy: Synergizing writing center and classroom pedagogies. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse. Anderson, SC: Parlor P.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.  Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-99.

Denny, H. C. (2010). Facing the center: Toward an identity politics of one-on-one mentoring. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

Denny, H. C., Nordlof, J., & Salem, L. (2018). “Tell me exactly what it was that I was that was so bad”: Understanding the needs and expectations of working-class students. Writing Center Journal, 37(1), 67-100.

Driscoll, D., & Perdue, S.W. (2012). Theory, lore, and more: An analysis of writing center research in The Writing Center Journal, 1980-2009. Writing Center Journal, 32(1),11-39.

Geller, A.E., Eodice, M., & Lerner, N. (2017). The meaningful writing project: Learning, teaching, and writing in higher education. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

LaFrance, M., & Nicolas, M. (2012). Institutional ethnography as materialist framework for writing program research and the faculty-staff work standpoints project. College Composition and Communication, 64(1), 130-150.

Miley, M. (2017). Looking up: Mapping writing center work through institutional ethnography. Writing Center Journal, 36(1), 103-129.

Rousculp, T. (2014). Rhetorics of respect: Recognizing change at a community writing center. Urbana, IL: College Composition and Communication, National Council of Teachers of English.

Seahorn, C., & Jones, M. (2017). Brave(r) conversations and course-embedded consulting, or once more unto the breach. The Peer Review: Journal for Writing Center Practitioners, 1(2).

Spigelman, C., & Grobman, L. (Eds.) (2005). On location: Theory and practice in classroom-based writing tutoring. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.