Who Do We Think We Are, Anyway?: Writing Tutor Identity Formation through Storytelling

Ariel Andrew

Writing tutors develop their identities as educators not only through their interactions with the faculty and students they work with, but with each other. At San Jose State University’s (SJSU) Writing Center, the tutors’ lab has become a place in which tutors engage with their identities as peer educators through storytelling.

Conscious self-identification has happened in SJSU’s Writing Center in a way that’s much different than you might expect. During tutoring sessions, we’re navigating the tricky boundaries of maintaining peership and asserting pedagogical practices. When we email professors and compile reports, we’re navigating the sometimes trickier boundaries of maintaining peership with the student, authority as tutors, and helpfulness as colleagues to often older, more educated faculty. Rather than sitting around bemoaning our lonely status on the island of collaborative peer learning in composition, we developed ways to connect with each other. For example, we’ve started a post-it system of categorizing our individual personalities. We like to unwind by deciding who we are in the simplest metaphors possible. Our categories range from which fast food restaurant we are to which dinosaur best represents us to what our last meal would be if death were imminent. This activity of categorizing ourselves into un-serious identities grew into a wall of post-it notes. One of my favorite sample lists is which style of facial hair represents us. Mine is mutton chops. This penchant for playful, categorical self-identification represents a larger desire to self-identify, to compare each other, and thus to better belong as peer educators in writing centers. We develop and analyze our intersectional identities as writing tutors in both the tutors’ lab and in our monthly meetings. These spaces serve as safe areas for telling our own stories to each other so that we might gain a richer, broader perspective for our development as educators.

For this essay, I have chosen a queer theory approach through which I will examine the stories I tell about my experiences as a writing center educator. I use the definition of queer presented by Charles E. Morris III and K.J. Rawson (2013), who define queer theory as “a broad critique of normativity along many different axes of identity, community, and power” (p. 75). Power dynamics in education often assume the educator as the power-holder and knowledge-giver, and the student as the knowledge-receiver. Along these lines, the educator’s power, inherent in their title, seems to solidify their identity, while the student is still grappling with forming an identity as they gain knowledge. The very role of a writing tutor complicates these assumptions, because a tutor is often both a student and an educator. In the following stories, I will queer the way we tutors see ourselves and others within the roles of the university.

The writing tutors’ office serves as the space for much of the genesis of instructional development. It is the space in which writing tutors establish joint values, differing strategies, and ongoing conversations about peer education. Here, we work on client reports after each session with a student. The reports are small stories of patterns of error, strategies that worked, concepts that were explained, and impressions of student engagement. They’re designed in part to help other tutors understand returning students’ needs. The reports often spark informal dialogue in the office. While composing a report, a tutor will sometimes engage another tutor in conversation regarding a strategy or student discussed in the report. The conversations are particularly helpful for sessions that have more conflict potential than others.

For instance, a tutor who worked with a student unwilling to write on her own paper shared his experience with other tutors in the office while writing his client report. Other tutors who worked with the same student had similar experiences and expressed similar concerns that the student was trying to have tutors write on her behalf. We discussed other possibilities, too. Maybe the student was afraid to mess up in front of one of us. Perhaps writing was intensely private for her. The airing of these frustrations and confusions served not to demonize the student or gossip about her but to give the tutor support and understanding of larger practices as he formalized their interaction through a written report. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t crazy. He was navigating the complicated lines between tutoring and editing, and he made himself vulnerable to others by admitting that he didn’t know how to safely remain on the right side. What he found was that we were all struggling to remain tutors instead of editors, that it was an ongoing challenge, and that if it stopped being a challenge, it probably meant we’d failed. Through our shared struggle and vulnerability, we began to bond. We began to create an identity not founded in “us vs. them” but in “us vs. who we refuse to be” (i.e., sloppy tutors who skip the pedagogy and take pen to others’ papers like a hacksaw).

This unity in vulnerability and acknowledgment of a shared challenge created a conscious space in which we could tell our stories to one another and develop a richer, more layered understanding of student behavior and the varied factors involved in tutor-student interactions. During our conversation, we queered our own understanding of policy-based tutor authority to better understand students like the one unwilling to write on her own paper. This space prevented isolated overcompensation of authority enactment and promoted curiosity and awareness about our own instructional practices.

During that interaction, one of the tutors could have affirmed normative power dynamics by subjugating either the seemingly unengaged student or the frustrated tutor under the “law of the land.” We could have given the tutor advice or admonishment. However, engaging with our fellow tutor by sharing experiences was more than an act of commiseration–it was a method for resisting binary power dynamics by establishing community. Saying what something could be rather than what something should be opened our minds to possibilities not only for the student’s identity as a writer, but the tutor’s identity as an educator.

This story is not without its problems. A potential danger in client-based conversations among tutors can be a snowball effect of negativity at the student’s expense. However, a space in which experiences are shared among colleagues is better than polite, silent, isolated tutor experiences devoid of communication and, therefore, growth. Maintaining an environment with honest yet still productive and compassionate attitudes towards students is possible through top-down leadership examples and behavior patterns from other tutors.

Conversations amongst tutors not only benefit attitudes and pedagogical strategies in tutor-tutee interactions, but they also improve tutor-professor interactions. Students can request that we send their professors emails about our tutoring sessions. The composition of this email, normally done alongside client reports, also happens in the tutors’ office. Crafting our stories to professors gives us a unique opportunity to engage and explore our liminal identities as students who teach.

There are rare instances in which a professor attempts to give a tutor guidelines, personal preferences, or tasks for future sessions. I received an email from a professor who was clearly well-intentioned and involved in his student’s development as a writer. He gave me a set of points to cover in future sessions with the student that were grounded in the subject matter of the course rather than writing. My identity was misunderstood as a graduate assistant for the class rather than an educator in a separate area of the university devoted specifically to writing instruction. I gently reminded the professor that these sessions are student-led and that we have no information but what the tutee brings us. This delicate boundary-setting invokes an authority via rejection–I am not the professor’s student assistant. I am an educator in a different space, happy to coordinate but not available to subordinate my and the student’s work.

This email exchange was borne of genuine misunderstanding, but the opportunity to resist an imposed identity was fruitful to question the positive identity I do claim as an educator. Bruffee (1984) believes the act of students teaching or peer tutoring will change how professors teach, as well, by challenging the power dynamics of knowledge. Bruffee (1998) argues that peer tutors “can help change the interests, goals, values, assumptions, and practices of teachers and students alike” (p. 95). As tutors operate in this liminal space within the makeshift binary of professor and student (knowledge-giver and knowledge-seeker), we have the opportunity to disrupt the binary, to shove our way into another identity dimension.

In other words, we don’t simply put on our different hats as we leave the writing center and enter our classrooms; instead, we always maintain a collaborative identity in which we are both educators and students. We are not professor surrogates, and we are not glorified students. Both of these identities still play into the binary identity politics of faculty/student. Corresponding with professors via email uniquely emphasizes the boundaries of identity.

In another writing tutoring (though not writing center) experience, I never met other tutors. My work was often unexamined, even by myself, and I never pursued scholarship or other pedagogical development to become a better tutor. My tutoring practices were much less effective. I had fewer strategies for session management and mnemonic devices to give students. My treatment of tutor-student interactions was far less thoughtful, and the lack of resources and peer support set me back, even as a beginning tutor with initiative and desire to improve. The risk of conversations biased against students beats the risk of tutor isolation from colleagues and a collaborative professional environment.

The crucial difference between my tutoring experiences was not the preparedness of the students or the physical space provided by the university. The difference was simply that I was alone, that I had no other writing tutors to talk with, write with, or ways to develop a self-awareness of my own identity struggles as a student-educator.

In creating knowledge together as tutors, we also create identity together. This process, which Bruffee (1998) simply, yet adeptly, calls “learning,” allows us to negate each other’s assumptions and negotiate “collectively toward new paradigms of perception, thought, feeling, and expression; and by joining larger, more experienced communities of knowledgeable peers through assenting to those communities’ interest, values, language, and paradigms of perception and thought” (p. 332). Tutor identities that may be internalized yet unexamined risk limiting or harming the tutor’s contribution to composition studies and development as an educator. Without collectively examining assumptions and creating “new paradigms of perception,” we may unwittingly bind ourselves as writing center tutors to stereotypes of surrogate professor, glorified master student, cheap labor, or other dismissive identities.

Denny (2010) draws attention to the “sideways” positions of writing centers within universities and writing center professionals within academic communities: “As contingent staff or untenured faculty, we fear real material consequences if we fail to conform or adapt to conventions of pedagogy and performance, or, more directly, if we fail to pass” (p. 115). According to Denny (2010), awareness of the power dynamics and shifting identities in academic discourse is just as critical to writing center professionals’ effectiveness as the content we teach (pp. 120-121). Queer theory is important to keep this awareness fluid and flexible. Sure, the writing center is a nontraditional educational space compared to the lecture hall. However, valuing ourselves as inherently nontraditional stunts our ability to grow and adapt to the changing needs of students, and even risks blinding us to the ways in which we do occupy more “traditional” positions of power.

For this reason, tutors need to not only engage in our awareness of our shifting identities in composition education, but also the intersections of those identities with other identities we (as well as students) bring into the writing center. SJSU’s Writing Center holds mandatory monthly meetings during the academic year. We all get together Friday afternoons, have lunch, and talk shop. Toward the end of our two-hour gathering, we tackle a larger topic, trying to educate ourselves in a deeper way than is possible with routine tutoring tasks.

Last year, we talked about intersecting identity-associated privilege and oppression. Fifteen tutors, gathered at tables of three, dipped slowly into conversations about race, sexuality, homeland, gender, and other aspects of social identity. We made ourselves vulnerable to each other, opening up about the intersectionality of our identities and the struggles and privileges we navigated every day. Our conversations were honest, thoughtful, and unexpectedly personal. We addressed the multiplicity of our socially constructed identities and how they affected our attitudes, ambitions, and relationships. Telling our stories of who we are made us more empathetic toward the intersectional identities of the students we tutor, but it also made us more empathetic toward one another and ourselves.

I talked about my gender and small physique. I told my stories about how these socially-constructed yet physically obvious identities sometimes gave me unusual challenges for establishing authority and expertise within my many roles in the university. I also talked about the privileges society gives me as a pale-skinned, cisgendered woman that I often fail to adequately examine in my tutor-tutee interactions. I felt as if I’d released a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. Instead, I inhaled the fresh air of acknowledging the difficulty of the roles we navigate. I was given a unique opportunity to listen to my colleagues explain the difficulties of intersectional, marginalized identities, including those of race, sexual orientation, and immigrant experiences. I won’t go into specifics out of respect for the safety of this storytelling space we created.

My emotional experience may verge on eye-rolling spirituality. So what? Being a part of academia is sometimes just trying to be a part of academia. Several institutional norms tell us which of our identities should be a priority. “You’re student first,” I’ve heard from well-meaning professors and policies that cap my employment hours. I know the intention is that I don’t merely become a source of cheap labor for an educational machine. But this statement’s implications differ from the reality of my identity navigation within the university; my roles are modular and interchangeable. I don’t cross the Writing Center doorway and morph back into a student. I am a student who teaches. I am a person who learns in classrooms and learns in teaching situations and learns in coffee shops.

This may sound like a poorly-disguised case of semantics, but I believe that the way we picture tutors as people fitting into a single, modular role within the university is an oversimplification of the complicated identities we navigate and maintain both within and beyond our tutoring hours. Furthermore, imagining tutoring as role-based can stunt the professional and pedagogical development of peer educators.

Queering our understanding of imposed, internalized, stereotypical tutor identities through collaborative identity-formation can form a critical foundation of writing center tutor development. By resisting binary, role-based understandings of who we are and what we do, we can better negotiate a “new paradigm of perception” in how we see ourselves and how we self-identify. Speaking the unspoken and valuing storytelling communities makes us better learners and better teachers–identities that are better together than apart.

Works Cited

Bruffee, K. A. (1998). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and the authority of knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bruffee, K. A. (1984). Peer tutoring and the ‘conversation of mankind’. In G. A. Olson (ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration, pp 3-15. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Denny, H. (2010). Queering the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 30(1), 95-124. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/43442335

Morris III, C. E. & Rawson, K.J. (2014). Queer archives/archival queers. In M. Ballif (ed.), Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric, pp. 74-89. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.