Genie Giaimo, Middlebury College
Joseph Gulino, Middlebury College
Special acknowledgement to Constance Gooding, an outside coder who contributed to the interrater reliability of the present study. Also, many thanks to the tutors whose notes and diligent work in our writing center helped inform this study.
The present study analyzes how role conflict, or distress or negative sentiments about tutoring work, are expressed in tutor post-session notes. Through corpus and linguistic analysis of session notes, researchers found that role conflict was not only present in many session notes–especially from tutors with more training and experience–but it often resulted from tutors’ feelings of powerlessness, time limitations, or other constraints around their work. In analyzing session notes’ linguistic features, we focused on hedging and boosting, or any words which reduce or amplify certainty in speech respectively (Lakoff, 1973). From this, we identified distinct “communication identities” among tutors wherein those who reported positive outcomes in tutoring work often using boosting language, and those who reported negative experiences used hedging language. Tutors overwhelmingly relied on hedging and non-constructive language to articulate role conflicts in their session notes, which suggests a discomfort with directly addressing work-related conflict. We found that tutors gravitate towards indirect politeness strategies (such as hedging) to discuss conflict in their work which paradoxically hinders their reflective processes and forestalls more meaningful engagement with conflict in professionalization contexts. This paper provides alternative and more generative ways to talk about role conflict, politeness strategies, and tutor work identities.
Keywords: Writing Center, Session Notes, Politeness, Role Conflict, Linguistic Analysis
This study aims to investigate how session notes are written by peer writing tutors in the Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC) writing center. Through the analysis of linguistic and thematic cues, we want to better understand tutor sentiments about their work and professionalization trajectory. Historically, writing center research has used session notes as a means of justifying tutoring work to faculty (Cordaro, 2014), evaluating ethics, and as research artifacts to study what is happening in writing centers (Jackson, 1996; Cogie, 1998). In recent years, research into session notes has placed increased focus on how tutors think and speak about their work (Bugdal et al., 2016; Giaimo et al., 2018; Giaimo & Turner, 2019; Dadugblor, 2021). As a small undergraduate institution, our writing center still manages to record thousands of such session notes written by approximately 40 tutors over the course of a semester, providing a large dataset of rich information. By analyzing the linguistic and thematic cues tutors use in their notes, we have observed several different kinds of work-related role conflict. These conflicts, characterized by a tutor’s experiences of work clashing with their expectations of that work, are often articulated through the use of hedging/boosting, politeness, or other linguistic and thematic cues.
This research began as a project for Issues and Methods in Tutoring Writing, a tutor training course. After reading Lakoff’s work on hedging (1973), we reoriented our study away from session notes as rhetorical sites of meaning between the tutor and the writer and towards analyzing how tutors make meaning in their notes through linguistic markers such as hedge words (e.g., “just” and “very”) and boost words (e.g., “very” and “really”), as well as thematic patterns of politeness and role conflict. During an initial coding of the data, we found that the hedge words and boost words were frequently included in tutor session notes. Further analysis of this naturally occurring dataset found that tutors overly relied on hedge words and boost words to describe their sessions and tutoring work.
The act of hedging (and using hedge words) is heavily researched in linguistics (Lakoff, 1973; Prince et al., 1982; Crompton, 1997) as well as in the study of linguistic and rhetorical features of academic writing (Kim & Lim, 2015; Gherdan, 2019; Gribanova & Gaidukova, 2019). Hedging has also been studied in writing centers and identified as a foundational indicator of underlying thematic elements, as opposed to empty linguistic filler (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013). Despite this, hedging is understudied in writing center research, but findings from fields like linguistics and writing studies provide clues as to why tutors rely on hedging as they develop professional identities.
Our research aimed to understand the interrelationship between the linguistic markers, like hedging and boosting, that tutors use to describe their work and thematic markers, like politeness and role conflict. Mackiewicz & Thompson’s (2013, 2014) research reveals how linguistic components can indicate more complex systems of meaning and expression, such as politeness and scaffolding. A situating context to our research is that both authors grew up in a similar cultural and linguistic environment in the Tri-State Area in and around New York City and have found themselves in a rural New England school context as a student and a faculty member. As a result of these different contexts between upbringing and current academic location, we wondered to what extent politeness strategies change across different backgrounds and contexts. Research has revealed that politeness functions as a fundamental strategy of communicating wants as well as conflicts that can vary in form and function across different cultures, languages, and socioeconomic strata (Brown & Levinson, 1987; Mills, 2003; Culpeper, 2011; Grainger, 2011; Haugh, 2013). So, linguistic markers—which might indicate politeness strategies, for example—can tell us a lot about how tutors navigate their work and handle conflicts that might arise while tutoring.
After coding for these elements, we found that role conflict was not only present in many session notes, but it often resulted from tutors’ feelings of powerlessness, time limitations, or other constraints around their work. Research has shown that tutors experience conflict in the writing center based on background, questions of pedagogical identity, professionalization, race, class, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers that lead to the development of conflicts regarding their work (Getzels & Guba, 1955; Healy, 1991; Haltiwanger Morrison & Nanton, 2019; Dadugblor, 2021). In our analysis, identity was less of a predictor for role conflict than professionalization levels and engagement levels; namely, tutors who took the tutor training course or were in leadership roles reported more role conflicts in their notes. Through the coding of session notes linguistically, as well as rhetorically, with hedging and politeness strategies in mind, these conflicts can be both identified and understood, leading to a better understanding of how tutors construct their identities as educators and process tensions around their work.
For this project, our research questions were:
- To what end do undergraduate tutors use certain linguistic and thematic cues in their session notes?
- In what ways do tutors use session notes to articulate their conflicts?
- How can session notes become a place for productive expression of conflict?
Why Session Notes?
In the past, research on the impact of session notes on writing center work has often yielded disagreement. On one hand, session notes are seen as a clerical practice deemed unnecessary by peer writing tutors (Bugdal et al., 2016). Tutors identify several issues with filling out session notes, including that the practice is time consuming and not necessarily directly related to developing their pedagogical skills (Cogie, 1998). Tutors are, in some cases, resistant to writing session notes, perhaps viewing them as time that could be better spent with the client. Other research has echoed this sentiment by exploring whether writing session notes is a worthwhile practice or a drain on one’s relatively finite work time (Larrance & Brady, 1995; Bugdal et al., 2016). Bugdal et al’s (2016) research involved a focus group of writing tutors where one tutor questioned the necessity of recording session notes. This individual pondered whether time devoted to recording session notes was more important than conducting the session itself (p. 14). Both researchers and tutors have explored the purpose and outcomes associated with session notes. And, as some researchers have found, many centers use these documents administratively rather than for scholarly and assessment purposes (Modey et al., 2021).
Session notes, however, have also been seen as a valuable practice, sometimes even in the same studies that proffer negative findings. For example, Bugdal et al. (2016) also found that the majority of tutors and faculty (86%) responded positively to filling out session notes (p. 14). Faculty, in particular, have been shown to use session notes as a means to help further student growth (Jackson, 1996; Cogie, 1998; Cordaro, 2014). Cordaro (2014) found that an overwhelming majority of faculty either did or would consider using session notes as a tool for student growth (p. 5). Cordaro’s work is indicative of a willingness on the part of educational institutions to open channels of growth and communication with writing centers through the medium of session notes, a possibility that other researchers have also chronicled (Malenczyk, 2013). More than just a form of record keeping or a teaching tool, however, session notes can beget a positive feedback loop that encourages student-faculty collaboration.
A comparatively unexplored benefit of session notes is their capacity to shed light—through linguistic analysis—on tutors’ experiences as teachers of writing. Only a few studies, however, have conducted in-depth linguistic and thematic analysis on session notes (Malenczyk, 2013; Bugdal et al., 2016; Hall, 2017; Giaimo et al., 2018; Giaimo & Turner, 2019). There are even fewer studies that included a large dataset consisting of thousands of session notes. Large scale corpus analysis of session notes can be used to generate useful information from an otherwise large set of data (Giaimo et al., 2018). Giaimo et al. (2018) conducted large-scale corpus analysis and found that language in a session note can reveal the types of strategies and focuses implemented in a session. Furthermore, session note content has been shown to change and develop as a result of tutor training (Giaimo & Turner, 2019). Research that coded specific “types” of session notes also revealed that these notes can vary immensely by length, tone, directness, audience, and content, particularly based upon who is writing them (Bugdal et al., 2016, p. 26).
As previous research in the field has found, session notes are complicated documents that are not always engaged with by tutors in positive ways. Furthermore, session notes have been empirically shown to be more than a mere record of session activity but, rather, a valuable tool to gain a pulse on what is happening in the writing center and how tutors interact with their work. Large scale linguistic and data analysis of these notes can further reveal the effects of past training and offer directions for future training.
Hedging and Linguistic Cues
Session notes as a piece of writing are rhetorically complex and highly individualized. In the linguistic analysis of our session notes database, we sought to analyze hedge words and boost words, or ‘intensifiers.’ In his 1973 study, Lakoff used the concept of “fuzzy logic” to describe the use of intensifying and de-intensifying words or phrases to deviate from certainty. In this regard, “fuzzy logic” describes the linguistic blurring or accentuation of how language was employed (Lakoff, 1973). Examples of hedge words/hedging can include the use of modal verbs such as could and might, regular verbs such as seem, or expressions of probability such as likely. Hedge words such as just, a bit, sort of, as well as inverse-boost words such as not really and not quite are also common hedge phrases (Hedges, 2017). Boosting, on the other hand, is a linguistic component that serves to intensify or amplify meaning by approaching the higher end of certainty. For instance, very, really, as well as exclamatory punctuation can all be indicators of boosting in a sentence.
In the field of linguistics, hedging is a heavily researched subject with ever-emerging findings. Lakoff’s research has been expanded upon over the past several decades (Prince et al., 1982; Adamczyk, 2015). Adamczyk (2015) argues that “fuzzy logic” is too narrow to account for the motivation to hedge or boost, mainly pointing towards its use as a communicative element (p. 323). This corroborates Prince et al.’s (1982) research, which placed hedge words into two categories: approximators for “fuzzy” areas and shields for noncommittal speech.
Hedging and boosting have also been researched in writing contexts (Ginsburg et al., 2016; Gherdan, 2019; Kim & Lim, 2015; Gribanova & Gaidukova, 2019). Ginsburg et al. (2016) found that in written notes and comments from first-year medical residents, a high percentage (upwards of 70 percent in high performing groups) included hedging in their notes (p. 182). Hedging is also used a lot in academic writing. Gherdan (2019) suggests that increased hedging in academic writing suggests a desire to employ non-absolute language, thereby avoiding “the threat of opposition” (p. 125). Our research focuses on hedging and boosting in context, looking for presence of these markers and intuiting their purpose based on other linguistic and thematic cues.
Dimensions of Politeness
Like hedging and boosting—linguistic markers that are not just “filler” language but are important to meaning making—politeness research has established that it is not an empty form of decorative communication in between meaningful speech acts but, rather, a complex reflection of social order and perceptions of hierarchy. Brown and Levinson (1987) posited that politeness served as a “precondition of human cooperation” (p. xiii). In other words, politeness as a strategy is foundational to how humans interact and negotiate wants, concerns, and hierarchical notions. Of course, politeness is not always used altruistically. Brown and Levinson (1987) outline the communicative practice of face-threatening acts (FTAs), where politeness is used as a tool to balance parties’ shared interest in preserving their own face or neither giving nor receiving offensive remarks. In this sense, politeness is both cooperative as well as inherently selfish.
The “first wave” of politeness research (Culpeper, 2011; Grainger, 2011; Haugh, 2013) has since come under some scrutiny, specifically in its fixation on ethnocentric Anglo-American communication patterns. Newer research has aimed to understand politeness through cross-cultural differences and has further shown that interpretations of politeness are not culturally homogenous but vary immensely even between members of the same social group (Eelen, 2001; Mills, 2003; Haugh, 2013). Politeness is a means of communication that can vary in its use, outcome, and cultural/individual interpretation.
Writing Center research also studies politeness through a complex series of hierarchical, linguistic, as well as sociocultural lenses. Denny et al. (2018) draw attention to diverse politeness strategies in the writing center. They note:
Most of the time, cultural capital functions more stealthily because it is embedded in neutral-seeming ideas about what is “appropriate” and “normal.” It registers in such things as how we speak with professors and other authority figures, how we express grievances and complaints, what we assume we are entitled to or not entitled to, what we think is funny, and so forth. (p. 70)
Here, the authors characterize the nuanced nature of politeness in the writing center from a student-writer perspective. They found that class was a significant indicator in what was perceived to be polite speech. Furthermore, politeness strategies as well as deficit discourse in writing centers has been shown to conflict with the expectations of both working class and multilingual writers (Cirillo-McCarthy et al., 2016). Politeness in language and tutoring strategy generally fails to be uniform cross-culturally, as well. Idiomatic speech as means of reassurance, as well as speech patterns and ordering of concerns, can sometimes be misunderstood and misconstrued by multilingual and multicultural writers (Alshrief, 2017; Okuda, 2019). Yet another example is the discrepancy between tutor strategies and expectations and conflicts that arise from their interactions with diverse student populations. This is a valuable area of study on how uniform politeness can benefit from being more flexible (Dadugblor, 2021).
Research in hedging/boosting and politeness strategies indicates that people make meaning and express feelings about their work through varied means. Instead of identifying such communication acts as inconsequential or “filler” (as many linguistic scholars did before Lakoff and before current politeness research), we found that tutors used these strategies to communicate highly complex concerns with their work.
Measuring role conflict in Session Notes
Most research about politeness—thematic, linguistic, or otherwise—focuses on the student-tutor dynamic or student outcomes in the writing center, yet tutors are often responsible for guiding these sessions to such success. Despite their authority, tutors’ role conflicts are largely unexplored in writing center research. One of the earliest empirical studies on role conflict (Getzels & Guba, 1955) identified issues with perceived teacher authority versus actual teacher practice. They found that role conflicts were dependent on institutional, individual, communal, and cultural factors (Getzels & Guba, 1955). In the writing center, major conflicts are often also rooted in a contrast between the information a tutor possesses and the information required to fulfill a role, which has been defined as role ambiguity (Kahn et al., 1964). Kahn et al. (1964) also found that conflict occurs when client expectations bump up against a tutor’s understanding of their role (p. 45). Role conflicts, then, depend upon the expectations that each actor brings to the situation, the unique relationship between the tutor and client, as well as differences in demographics. More than tutors and clients, the writing center community consists of students who live and interact together, particularly on a SLAC campus. Outside relationships could foster further discomfort in a tutoring session (Healy, 1991).
It is clear that research surrounding “role conflict” in the writing center has not fully encapsulated nor defined the expansiveness of the ways in which conflict can arise. Conflict can arise from instilled deficit discourse, in which the expectations of clients and tutors are unmet (Cirillo-Mccarthy et al., 2016). Furthermore, conflict in a tutorial can come from uneasy collaboration, in which clients assume agency over the tutor or when tutors resent being obligated to inhabit the “teacher” role in the session (Dadugblor, 2021). In every wave of research concerning role conflict, the conflict described and its association with role expectations is by no means all-encompassing and remains under-studied in writing center work.
In our study, we investigate the ways in which tutors use linguistic strategies, such as hedging or boosting, and thematic cues, such as politeness, to introduce their role conflicts. These cues and their connection to role conflict can address to what degree tutors attempt to critically reflect on their role conflicts in the notes. Not all notes address role conflicts in the same way, so we attempt to parse through the varied instances of conflicts in tutor notes, as well as underlying sentiments they express about tutoring work, e.g., resentment, ambiguity, frustration, joy, excitement, pride, etc.
This research study was conducted at Middlebury College, a highly selective undergraduate New England Liberal Arts College with fewer than 3000 students. The study started in spring 2020, but data was analyzed from the fall 2019 semester to the spring 2021 semester for a total of four semesters. This research used qualitative coding to perform discourse analysis on a large dataset of session notes written by writing tutors (n = 57). Researchers coded a dataset of 1163 notes and eliminated a subset of notes (~263) that were either too vague to be analyzed or were rhetorically “weird” (e.g., written by the client rather than the tutor).
In the writing center, tutors are trained extensively on writing center theory and praxis, as well as specific strategies, such as metacognition, anti-racism, and mindfulness. For more examples of tutor training, see our tutor training guide as a compendium of several of our training modules, including one on role conflict. Tutors are also trained to fill out post-session notes as a clerical function of writing center timesheets, yet they are not told how to specifically write them. Tutors wrote their session notes naturalistically, which allowed the researchers to minimize bias in written response and improve the internal validity of this study. This approach further ensured that tutors’ writing reflected a personalized characterization of their mindset.
The session notes analyzed in this study were written exclusively by undergraduate writing tutors (n = 57) at the SLAC. These tutors varied according to their class rank, major, educational background, as well as their prior engagement with the writing center and training level. It was a very diverse group of tutors. Furthermore, each semester witnessed a restructuring of undergraduate tutor staff because students graduated or stopped tutoring. Despite the cohorts of tutors changing between academic years (2019-2020 and 2020-2021), the writing center did not experience any significant tutor attrition between fall and spring semesters; therefore, the SLAC Writing Center had a high retention rate, even during the height of the pandemic.
Participants began filling out notes on WCOnline in fall 2019. Prior to then, we used a paper note system. In the first academic year, the majority of tutors were juniors and seniors, hired through a writing prize and faculty appointment, whereas in the second year of the study, the Writing Center hired far more sophomores and even second semester first-year students through a tutor training course. The SLAC operates on a modified quarter system in which an additional cohort of students is enrolled each February. Because of this, “Febs,” as they are called, graduate half a year earlier than the rest of their cohort. At the time of analysis, the majority of our tutors fit into the following categories of seniors, juniors, and sophomores, with some overlap for “Febs,” who had additional credits.
This research comes at a time of great flux in the make-up and practices of the SLAC Writing Center. In fall 2019—when the current director and co-researcher arrived on campus—the writing center had a staff of ~60 tutors, about 20% of whom were students of color. By 2021, our staff was far smaller (~40 tutors), but everyone worked a more standard and greater number of hours, producing similar or even higher work outputs, compared with fall 2019. Additionally, we now recruit and support a far more diverse staff with 48% tutors of color. At the same time, our staff has been and remains mainly female presenting (~75%), though there are a significant number of LGBTQIA+ tutors on staff. Our leadership team is 75% queer and has remained about equally split between BIPOC and White students.
The primary material for analysis in this study are tutor session notes. Session notes are collected and stored online in the WCOnline system. The form includes a mixture of checkbox and open-ended responses that tutors fill out (Figure 1). The two most significant sections on this form were 5. Describe any strategies the tutor utilized in-session and 6. Comments, as these allowed the tutor to essentially free write on the conditions of the session as they perceived them. The dataset was downloaded from WCOnline to Microsoft Excel and then coded using a collaboratively developed qualitative coding rubric (Appendix A). The data was initially coded for linguistic markers, including hedge words such as just, a bit, etc. It was then coded using discourse analysis and the rubric.
Figure of questions included in the Middlebury Writing Center post-session note form.
Coding & Analysis
The qualitative coding rubric used to analyze these notes was informed by past research (Malenczyk, 2013; Bugdal et al., 2016; Giaimo et al., 2018). We engaged in iterative coding where we isolated patterns in the notes, made them into codes, and applied them to the dataset. We identified key terms that indicated hedging, such as “just,” and boosting, such as “very.” We then conducted discourse analysis on the session notes and collaboratively created a rubric informed by the following disciplines: sociolinguistics, politeness studies, and writing center studies (Appendix A). We then collaboratively coded a subset of the notes to establish interrater reliability, or agreement rates on the coding schema.
As we went through several iterations of the coding rubric, we focused on 10 categories including, but not limited to, linguistic cues (hedging/boosting), politeness strategies, level of detail, role conflicts, and evaluation. For a full list of all 10 categories, please refer to Appendix A. However, our findings focus on the interrelation between linguistic cues, politeness strategies, identity, and role conflict (Appendix B), which were informed by all 10 categories in our initial rounds of coding (Appendix A).
During the coding process, we enlisted the help of an experienced outside coder in order to test the reliability of our rubric. The coder was trained according to past research, as well as the study design, and was therefore as proficient and knowledgeable with the rubric as the other two researchers. The interrater reliability coding was conducted using a random subset of the total session notes data set. We randomly selected 100 notes from the dataset and coded these to establish similarities and differences in rubric interpretation.
After coding, both the researchers and the outside coder coded the notes with a significant degree of similarity. For linguistic cues, the researchers and the coder agreed 77.5% for the presence of hedging and 82.5% for the presence of boosting. For politeness strategies, there was a 94.5% agreement between the researchers and the coder, for both its presence as well as its category of politeness. Finally, there was an 81.3% agreement in the presence of role conflicts. These high levels of agreement suggest that our rubric is reliable between researchers and that the codes implemented are easily identifiable.
Overall, ~23% of notes lacked sufficient detail for analysis. After coding 1160 notes and analyzing 897 detailed notes, researchers noticed two critical patterns. On one hand, tutors employed linguistic cues such as hedging and boosting in their notes to a considerable degree (~50%), and they used these cues in conjunction with certain and distinct politeness strategies (Table 1). For example, when tutors hedged, researchers noticed that these notes also included more frequent instances of non-constructive and mixed politeness strategies as compared to when they used boosting, which was often accompanied by constructive politeness strategies.
Notes with constructive politeness strategies tended to have very little role conflict in them while those with non-constructive and mixed politeness had much higher instances of role conflict. Writing tutors, then, use specific politeness strategies (and emotional valences) to convey experiences of work in their session notes. And, also, the politeness strategies referenced in-note are connected to the types of linguistic cues and conflicts they report.
Further findings include that 22% of session notes articulated some kind of role conflict. When tutors described role conflicts in their notes, they also used politeness strategies ~90% of the time. Tutors frequently incorporated indirect politeness strategies, such as non-constructive and mixed politeness strategies, when describing role conflict. These conflicts are grounded in many unique situations, but the three main reported conflicts had to do with resentment, role limitations, and time constraints. These instances of particular conflicts represent how tutors navigate their frustrations around their work, which include negative emotions (e.g., inadequacy) and negative experiences in their tutoring sessions.
A sizable portion (65%) of coded notes also included linguistic cues, such as hedging and boosting, and sometimes overlapping hedging and boosting (Table 2, Figure 2). For example, in the same note, a tutor used both hedging and boosting to describe conflict in their session: “This session was a bit difficult . . . It is often really difficult when professors do.” Hedging occurred at a rate of 34.7%, while boosting occurred at a higher overall rate, at 41.9%. On the whole, tutors incorporated this language into their notes two thirds of the time. Therefore, their language deviated from directive certainty, either through intensifiers or de-intensifiers.
In addition to linguistic cues, tutors often included thematic cues in their notes. For example, nearly half of the coded notes (47.5%, or 426) had at least one instance of a specific politeness strategy. We identified three unique categories of politeness within the notes: constructive politeness, non-constructive politeness, and mixed politeness. Each category has a host of associated behaviors, sentiments, and linguistic markers. For example, when a tutor used politeness “constructively,” the note included instances of enthusiasm, rapport building, and motivation. To see the full chart of these strategies, refer to Appendix B. Examples of each type of politeness strategy with corresponding notes can be seen below (Table 3).
When using constructive politeness strategies, tutors used praise or enthusiasm to build rapport. Non-constructive politeness strategies often use indirect linguistic cues (hedging, modal verbs), as well as indirect feedback and advice, for the purpose of not engaging in face threatening acts (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013). Mixed politeness strategies include both constructive and non-constructive politeness strategies. For instance, a tutor might engage in a non-constructive strategy, such as offering indirect criticism to avoid conflict, while also giving praise (constructive politeness) to counter any perceived client offense. These three categories were not used by tutors equally; tutors used constructive politeness more often than non-constructive or mixed politeness strategies (Table 2, Figure 3).
The most widely used politeness strategy was constructive (n = 204). Constructive politeness was most frequently used in positive notes. As we hypothesized, these notes had relatively low instances of hedging (~40%) and the highest instances of boosting (~80%). They also express the lowest levels of role conflicts (13%) among all the coded notes. The second most widely used politeness strategy was non-constructive (n=179). These notes were largely negative insofar as they either expressed some type of tutor insecurity through logical fuzziness, or they offered general criticism in vague—and therefore unhelpful—ways. These notes had high instances of both hedging (65%) and boosting (58%). Non-constructive notes also had the highest instances of role conflicts (~66%). The last category—mixed politeness—represents the smallest portion of politeness notes (n=43). These notes included equal amounts of hedging (51%) and boosting (51%). Mixed politeness notes also had comparable reportage of role conflicts (61%) to the non-constructive notes.
In notes that relied on non-constructive and mixed politeness strategies, role conflicts were expressed over 60% of the time. Therefore, while only 20% of all detailed notes (n = 198) included role conflict, the majority of that subset (86.4%) expressed their conflict mainly through non-constructive and mixed politeness strategies (n = 171) (Table 1). There is a strong relationship between a tutor experiencing role conflicts in the writing center and their use of politeness strategies, specifically non-constructive politeness.
Role related conflicts all differed from note to note, but patterns of similar expressions of conflict emerged. The three most common types of role conflict found in the notes were resentment, role limitation, and time. Resentment notes expressed conflict associated with an external force causing the tutor frustration, diminishing their control, intensifying role insecurity, etc. In such a note, a tutor might say, “The professor’s expectations seemed difficult to meet,” or “It’s often really difficult to have sessions with students who quite clearly do not want to get help.” Other sources of resentment, beyond the professor or client, include, but are not limited to: standards of academia, college administration, eurocentrism, etc. Role limitation notes expressed conflict associated with an internal cause of conflict, in most cases with the tutor feeling role insecurity, and expressing a lack of confidence in their ability as an educator. In this case, a tutor will often self-deprecate, expressing their need to work on a certain skill, or lament their own limitations while tutoring. Finally, time notes express a conflict associated with time constraints or concerns of labor, such as too much outside work, a session running late, etc. Resentment notes and role limitation notes accounted for 62% of total role conflict notes, whereas time-focused notes accounted for 7% (Figure 4). The remaining 37% were coded as other and included articulation of nuanced conflicts, such as difficulties with asynchronous tutoring, adopting a teacher stance (such as being pressured to assign a grade to student writing), etc.
When investigating the patterns between the linguistic cues used by tutors, we isolated instances of hedging and boosting within the notes. In two thirds of session notes (n=582), tutors incorporated hedging or boosting to intensify or de-intensify their language about tutoring work. Furthermore, although boosting occurred at a higher rate than hedging, both cues occurred at a relatively even rate. On the surface, the presence of such linguistic markers shows that tutors use “fuzzy logic”—hedging and boosting which diminishes the certainty of what is said—in their notes to different effect. In many instances where tutors use boost words, this “fuzzy logic” intensifies meaning, just to an immeasurable extent, i.e., how good is “very good” as opposed to merely “good.” In this way, their meaning is amplified but remains clearly positive, despite being abstract. However, when tutors hedge in their notes, the certainty and meaning in their language is obscured. For instance, a tutor wrote in their note, “This was kind of a tough session,” in which “kind of” confuses meaning, making it unclear exactly how the tutor perceived their experience. When tutors hedge in their notes, it perhaps reflects a desire to evade the responsibility of directness or certainty. It could also indicate feelings of inadequacy. For instance, if a tutor says they “just” worked on something, the tutor might feel uncertainty concerning the quality of the session or the importance of the work that was done. Hedging—indirect linguistic choices in the notes—contributed to the unhelpfulness of the tutor feedback. The boosting statements had a lot of “empty enthusiasm.” This type of enthusiasm is characterized by inconsequential or otherwise vague markers of excitement or approval without enough specificity for the tutor or client to act upon constructively.
Simply put, politeness strategies are not represented in the notes equally, nor are they used to equal effect. The link between linguistic cues and specific politeness strategies informs tutors’ communication strategies. The notes displayed different politeness strategies being used by tutors to communicate their work. Among a variety of different strategies, such as enthusiasm or inoffensiveness, politeness strategies were broadly characterized according to their constructiveness, in which they either provided constructive feedback or hindered communication through indirectness. Furthermore, the politeness strategy used by the tutor tended to have a high correlation with the linguistic cues they employed. When tutors hedged, they often did so while also using non-constructive politeness strategies, and when they boosted, they used constructive politeness strategies. From these findings, we identify what we believe to be a “communication identity” whereby tutors become accustomed to the standard communication patterns of an “elite” predominantly white college. These patterns include hedging, indirect speech, and face saving acts, all of which indicate a need to “get it right” (broadly conceived) in their work. The “communication identity” of tutors that we have identified is framed around this desire to excel within sessions, as well as ingrained patterns of speech that support direct conveyance of positivity and indirect circumventing of conflict.
The overwhelming presence of tutor notes that include both hedging and non-constructive politeness suggest a desire on the tutor’s part to relinquish authority and responsibility for the writer. It may also be part of a larger communication trend within an elite predominately white institution (PWI). This communication trend relies on indirectness, in which both the linguistic and thematic cues are used together to obfuscate meaning. For example, “I’m a bit worried for him, but I couldn’t help too much since he wasn’t even done with the essay and his time was so limited :/.” In this instance, the tutor hedges (“a bit worried”) and includes non-constructive politeness to reflect upon and describe a session that did not go “smoothly.” Instead of directly addressing the student’s lack of preparation and poor time management (as perceived by the tutor), they indirectly express frustration through a vague statement about how much they could do to influence the session/the student’s writing in the moment. They do not directly critique the student but rely on indirect speech and face saving acts. This may be because of an internalized culture of optimism, a reluctance for being direct in naming critique and conflict, or perhaps fear of being rude. Indirect politeness allows tutors to avoid exercising authority by communicating negative issues indirectly.
While tutors make many rhetorical leaps to express negative experiences and emotions in their notes, they excel in their optimism and appear to have little discomfort in reporting positive outcomes from their work. There is a strong relationship between constructive politeness and boosting. When things go well in a tutorial, or in tutoring work more generally, the tutors adopt direct speech patterns and offer largely constructive feedback in their notes. For example, they intensify rather than obfuscate when using constructive politeness. Yet there are also instances of intensifying (or boosting) in non-constructive notes, which might be yet another way in which tutors repress their criticism or complaints about their work through using vague and obfuscating language like empty praise, when describing a session or a writer.
Of course, we do not expect tutorials to be without conflict or every session to be productive. What is interesting, however, is that tutors will use empty praise in order to make a session seem more productive or positive than it is. For example: “It went well,” or “Interesting session” are common phrases that use empty/aimless praise. We are curious why tutors feel the need to “front,” in their notes, so to speak, or engage in face saving acts. This might be, in part, because of unrealistic expectations around writing pedagogy and teaching work. This might also be part of a culture of “toxic positivity”—which can arise as an unrealistic amount of positivity or optimism—and perfectionism, where realistic or honest criticism is seen as threatening (by others but also perhaps perceived internally) and is therefore left unexpressed. A communication identity reliant on optimism and indirectness does not facilitate reflection, growth, or genuine engagement.
The Nature of Role Conflicts
Tutors overwhelmingly use non-constructive politeness strategies to communicate their role conflicts in session notes. Within the dataset, 66% of non-constructive notes incorporated role conflicts, compared to only 13% of constructive notes. The connection between role conflict occurrence in session notes and the use of non-constructive politeness by tutors suggests that tutors are uncomfortable with directly reporting their discomfort. In all, 198 notes had role conflicts. However, when looking into how many of those notes also included politeness strategies, researchers found that it was a staggering 86%. From this, we can deduce that non-constructive politeness strategies can perhaps serve to exacerbate role conflicts in the writing center. In one dimension, role conflicts become clear to the tutor during the writing session, and the tutor wants to express their frustration or ambiguity in the notes. However, their internalized identities of communication (positive, perfect, optimistic, non-antagonistic) prevent direct naming of role conflicts, which serves to obfuscate their meaning. In one note, a tutor wrote, “I was hoping for a little more collaboration, but all in all a good session.” Here, the tutor hints at their discomfort with the lack of collaborative effort on the part of the client but uses both hedging as well as politeness to obfuscate the conflict. This pattern serves as evidence for how indirect communication can exacerbate tutorial experiences of role conflict.
Among the notes, three main types of role conflict were commonly reported: time, role limitations, and resentment. These are all conflicts that reflect a feeling of powerlessness on the part of the tutor. From either time/commitment demands, intrinsic feelings of incapability, or extrinsic causes of resentment, tutors express their frustration concerning a lack of control in their work. This powerlessness finds its outlet in the session note, written right after the session concludes when the conflict is fresh in the tutor’s mind, and they almost always report it indirectly. This reveals that in addition to the lack of control they feel in certain tutoring sessions, they avoid expressing those conflicts in writing. Tutors use non-constructive politeness to detrimental effect wherein their role conflicts are left under-examined, which may lead to feelings of powerlessness.
In the instances where role conflict occurs in the notes, there is often little to no reflection or analysis of one’s role beyond a cursory level. We believe that allowing role conflict to remain at the level of assertion is both a catalyst for tutors experiencing long term burnout, as well as a missed opportunity for tutors to cultivate their identities as educators. Burnout has three main characteristics: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency (Sanchez-Reilly et al., 2013). In the notes, tutors often expressed frustration borne out of inefficacy (e.g., “I don’t know why we do things this way,” and “what’s the point?). Such inefficacy, or role limitations, cause tutors to feel even more powerless in their identity and capacity as a tutor, thereby creating a vicious feedback loop in which burnout begets burnout. While not all writing center sessions can be productive and free of conflict, we actually believe working through such conflict is critical to developing one’s tutoring identity. Failure to engage with the less productive aspects of the work can make tutoring work uncomfortable, frustrating, and ultimately unpleasurable.
To mitigate this cycle, tutors should not only communicate their role conflicts directly in their notes, but also engage in reflective and restorative practices around their tutoring work, which they can do through session notes and in other reflective spaces, such as training. For example, practitioners can engage in a note coding activity where they examine a set of their own notes and code them for role conflict, hedging, boosting, and politeness markers and then reflect upon why they included specific linguistic and thematic content in the notes. However, beyond session notes, writing center administrators ought to attune to role conflict and address it directly, early, and frequently with staff. This might include defining role conflict and leading tutors in exercises where they identify and work through instances of it in their work, or it might include scenario discussion of mock role conflicts that commonly occur in tutoring work (perhaps derived from information shared in session notes).
Tutors should also be trained to discuss role conflict in their notes in meaningful and specific ways because more fully exploring role conflict can be good for tutor development. Such training involves defining role conflict, identifying attendant markers of role conflict (hedging, non-constructive politeness, etc.), and modeling how to write about role conflict in session notes. Whatever the approach, additional identification, discussion, and reflection on role conflict will help tutors to theorize and process their tutoring work. It should also help to mitigate some of the negative feelings associated with role conflict like powerlessness and frustration or futility.
This research has in large part revealed the bidirectional relationship of conflict in the writing center. If a tutor expresses frustration or concern when talking about a session, it is likely an indication that both the client and the tutor experienced conflict, indicating that role conflicts in the writing center can cultivate a no-win situation. This is only exacerbated through non-constructive communication strategies. With this in mind, we can support tutors in developing individual and more effective communication strategies that may include directness, constructive politeness, and introspection, not to mention setting boundaries on tutoring praxis.
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