Tutoring Controversial Topics in the Writing Center

Noah Slowik, Lewis University


In the framing statement of this conversation shaper on tutoring controversial topics, I provide a personal reflection of this problem to establish rationale for my interest in the issue. Additionally, a general explanation is provided to clarify what constituted inclusion for the recommended resources on this problem. In the bibliography section, full citations are provided for all 25 texts chosen as representative for understanding how to better tutor controversial topics. Finally, the field shaping section includes possibilities for future research, especially as it pertains to potential revisions for writing center policy, philosophy, and training.

Keywords: tutoring, controversial topics, writing center

Tutoring Controversial Topics in the Writing Center

There are few things scarier for a new tutor than when a writer comes into an appointment with a paper that has a thesis which the tutor fundamentally disagrees with. I have been turning over the idea for this project ever since my first semester as an undergraduate tutor at my university’s writing center when a student came in with a paper arguing why transgender people should not be allowed in the military. I felt wildly unprepared to approach such a topic, so I looked around the room hoping one of my fellow tutors could come rescue me. Of course, they were deep into their own tutorials, and this was before I realized the appropriate thing to do in this situation would have been to remove myself from the appointment. I stubbornly wanted to show I could do a good job during a challenging task, but, in retrospect, I should have tried harder to request one of my more experienced colleagues manage the session. So, how did I approach the rest of the tutorial? Well, I panicked, and in hopes of avoiding a heated debate, I fell back onto focusing on the student’s grammar and citation format in their paper for a majority of the appointment. Afterward, I rushed into the center’s common area, and I had an engaging discussion with my peers about the tutor’s role in approaching sessions that are politically charged and possibly polarizing. 

Five semesters and hundreds of tutorials later, and I believe my conclusion is much more nuanced than the one I arrived at after my initial conversation with peers regarding this issue. If the writer’s argument is sounding like hate speech, then the right thing to do is push back hard against their stance. On the one hand, the tutor’s goal should be to ask questions that will encourage the writer to improve their process, regardless of subjective opinion. On the other, we should be advocating for social justice and therefore denouncing hate speech if it ever arises. It is up to individual writing centers to implement into their philosophies how they will approach sessions where the writer’s thesis is potentially promoting harmful ideas.

Developing strategies for tutoring controversial subjects has become increasingly important in a society growing more divided by the minute. For example, topics like immigration, abortion, climate change, and Second Amendment rights are frequently addressed in college writing courses, so it is crucial tutors are prepared to discuss these challenging debates. Not all of these topics are inherently controversial, but conversations can become heated if the writer and tutor have diametrically opposed positions. Now, in the midst of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easier for separations in moral ideologies to grow even wider. In a face-to-face tutoring format, if a session seemed like it may have started to get out of control, there was a human component to being in the same physical area to fall back onto for deescalating the situation. However, now that a majority of centers across the world have gone either completely online or hybrid, there is no longer that genuine interaction to rely on. 

Therefore, the purpose of the following bibliography is to provide a cushion of background knowledge on implementing best practices for tutorials which can quickly cause writers and tutors alike to shut down if they feel their beliefs are being threatened. Moreover, the preceding media is presented through text, audio, and visual formats to engage a variety of viewing styles. For podcast listeners, I highly recommend Shankar Vedantam’s (2020) Hidden Brain episode, “Not at the Dinner Table.” This is one of the pieces that initially inspired me to create this list of resources because of its applicability to everyday life. If you are interested in sharing YouTube videos at your writing center, definitely watch Michele Moses’s (2018) Ed Talk on free speech. After watching her talk, I felt motivated to stand up and do the right thing in the future even if that means pushing myself outside of my comfort zone.

This research spans a range of time to gauge the evolution of scholarship on the complexities of tutoring controversial topics. For example, I included Andrew Rembert’s article from 1976, “Teaching about Values: Remaining Neutral vs. Advocating One’s Own View.” Although this work applies mostly to the classroom, it is a good indicator how the early approaches to dealing with controversy have evolved over time. Works are also included of various lengths, so the audience may either read entire books or single articles depending on interest and time commitment. Furthermore, voices are included across a range of writing center professionals from undergraduate tutors to coordinators to directors. For gathering this variety of perspectives, one of the places I looked for research was no further than the past issues of the The Peer Review

There are seminal works to understand the foundations of this issue, and there are also reflections on tutorials to acquire personal meaning. Additionally, a few of these sources are not directly related to writing center scholarship, but some of them are geared toward politics or teaching. In fact, one of the first articles I found during my research was about how this subject applies to the medical community in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (Pittenger & LimBybliw, 2013). The connection is clear, though, and analyzing how this problem applies across disciplines will be undeniably necessary. Tutors knowing how to identify and properly combat sophistry without pushing their own biases is key to creating effective learning communities.


Andrew, A. (2018). Who do we think we are, anyway? Writing tutor identity formation through storytelling. The Peer Review, 2(1). http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/relationality-si/who-do-we-think-we-are-anyway-writing-tutor-identity-formation-through-storytelling/ 

Brugman, D. (2019). Brave and safe spaces as welcoming in online tutoring. The Peer Review, 3(1). http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/redefining-welcome/brave-and-safe-spaces-as-welcoming-in-online-tutoring/ 

CU Boulder School of Education. (2018, July 17). It’s not about free speech. It’s about truth. – Michele Moses, Ed Talks 2018 [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BUbHPWNc9E 

Denny, H. C., Mundy, R., Naydan, L. M., Sévère, R., Sicari, A. (Eds.). (2019). Out in the center: Public controversies and private struggles. Utah State University Press.

Donabo, J. (2017). Tutoring controversial topics in the age of social injustice. The Dangling Modifier, 24(1). https://sites.psu.edu/thedanglingmodifier/?cat=124 

Draxler, B. (2017). Social justice in the writing center. The Peer Review, 1(2). http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/social-justice-in-the-writing-center/ 

Duffy, J. (2012, October 8). Virtues of conversation: Ethics in the writing center. Another Word. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/virtues-of-conversation-ethics-in-the-writing-center/ 

Fredericks, M. (1993). Truth in packaging: Teaching controversial topics to undergraduates in the human sciences. Teaching Sociology21(2), 160–165. https://doi.org/10.2307/1318637 

Habib, A. (2019). The writing center’s role in civil discourse. The Dangling Modifier, 25(1). https://sites.psu.edu/thedanglingmodifier/?p=3906 

Holley, R. (2018, March 19). When the thunderheads gather: Ethics and sophistry in the writing center. Another Word. https://dept.writing.wisc.edu/blog/when-the-thunderheads-gather-ethics-and-sophistry-in-the-writing-center/comment-page-1/

McNamee, K., & Miley, M. (2017). Writing center as homeplace (a site for radical resistance). The Peer Review, 1(2). http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/writing-center-as-homeplace-a-site-for-radical-resistance/ 

Moses, M. (2016). Living with moral disagreement: The enduring controversy about affirmative action. The University of Chicago Press.

Pemberton, M. A. (1999). The ethics of content: Rhetorical issues in writing center conferences. Writing Lab Newsletter, 23(8), 10-12. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v23/23.8.pdf 

Pittenger, A. L., & LimBybliw, A. L. (2013). Peer-led team learning in an online course on controversial medication issues and the US healthcare system. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education77(7), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe777150 

Purdue University Writing Lab. (2014, October 23). Purdue Writing Lab tutor training video: The intractable tutee [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2JZViSNgPg 

Rembert, A. (1976). Teaching about values: Remaining neutral vs. advocating one’s own view. Peabody Journal of Education, 53(2), 71-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1491622  

Richards, D. P. (Ed.). (2020). On teacher neutrality: Politics, praxis, and performativity. Utah State University Press.

Rothgery, D. (1993). “So what do we do now?” Necessary directionality as the writing teacher’s response to racist, sexist, homophobic papers. College Composition and Communication, 44(2), 241-247. https://doi.org/10.2307/358842 

Salem, L. (2016). Decisions… decisions: Who chooses to use the writing center? Writing Center Journal35(2), 147–171. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43824060 

Swets, Megan. (2017). Contentious content: The line between radical openness and sanctioning disrespect. The Dangling Modifier, 24(1). https://sites.psu.edu/thedanglingmodifier/?p=3772 

Vedantam, S. (Host and Executive Editor). (2020, October 26). Not at the dinner table [Audio podcast episode]. In Hidden brain. Hidden Brain Media. https://one.npr.org/?sharedMediaId=928038043:928038045 

Williams, A. (2012). Correcting the disrespectful: A writing tutor dilemma. The Dangling Modifier, 19(1). https://sites.psu.edu/thedanglingmodifier/?page_id=927 

Williams, J. A. (1994). Classroom in conflict: Teaching controversial subjects in a diverse society. SUNY Press.

Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. (2020). Teaching controversial topics. https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversial-topics

Zumbro, E. (2020). Stabilizing sessions: The polarization of online writing consultations during the pandemic. The Dangling Modifier, 27(1). https://sites.psu.edu/thedanglingmodifier/?p=4251&preview_id=4251

Field Shaping

In conclusion, there are two main research avenues that would naturally be explored from here given this bibliography. Firstly, a survey may be conducted to uncover what policies are currently in place across writing centers for when students come in with papers that are potentially controversial. In cases where centers do not already have policies pertaining to circumstances like this, the goal would be to provide those institutions with guides and models for their handbooks or manuals. Secondly, tutor training materials may be developed to help better prepare staffs for encountering situations where they are working with students who are writing about polarizing topics. A majority of tutorials are most likely not going to involve raised blood pressure from heated moral debates. Still, it would not be ideal to first encounter a situation like this when working with an actual student. For example, it makes sense to start role-playing training tutorials off light, but working new tutors’ way up to more difficult conversations during orientation may benefit them before their first truly challenging appointment. 

  Policy, philosophy, and training revisions will help writing centers in establishing guidelines for approaching how to tutor controversial topics. Evidently, the subject of tutoring controversial topics was being researched prior to the pandemic, but it goes without saying that COVID-19 has drastically upended the way writing centers are operated. There are many logistical questions that require a great deal of research at the moment. However, the problem surrounding how to best tutor controversial topics is another one of the avenues to consider in the midst of this ever-evolving virtual landscape. As we are learning in real-time, it can be substantially more difficult for cooler heads to prevail without the luxury of human connection.