Aims & Scope

A Story About Tutors


He felt good about the article. It was one of the more challenging essays that he had assigned that semester, but he assumed his class would appreciate how the author strove to find ways that would give students control over their own learning. Sitting at the round-table with this group whom he had come to see as curious, opinionated and intelligent, he foresaw them talking about ways that they could create a discourse community about the subject that had brought them together: peer-to-peer writing tutoring.

The discussion he wanted to have never materialized. To say that the class disliked the article would be an understatement. One of the students said, “I even hate his name. He sounds like a Bond villain. Peter Vandenberg.” Doing his best imitation of a snooty book reviewer, he added, “Writing from an abandoned castle in the Carpathian Mountains, Vandenberg uses dense theoretical language to singlehandedly alienate prospective tutors from around the world.”

Later in the class, another student folded her arms and asked, “Why did you assign this essay, Tom? This is more for someone like you than for us.”

Tom had tried to organize his class so that this type of difference between teacher and student would not be so blatant and stifling. He had wanted them to think of themselves as peers eagerly searching for their own answers to a shared set of questions. Perhaps the round table discussions and the first-name basis were not powerful enough to dissolve the divide they sensed between teacher and student.

After all, he was learning the subject as well. For the past four years, he had been living in Newfoundland, developing a dissertation on representations of writers in Canadian novels. When it became obvious that this obscure PhD concentration might not land him a job, he was told by his wife, their newborn daughter curled into her breast, that he had better apply for this job at a Learning Center in Plattsburgh, New York.

He made friends with a couple of colleagues, and one of them, Ed, had been the director of a writing center at a university in the Midwest. They were standing next to their cars when they started chatting. Ed explained his interest in multiliteracies as Tom squinted at the low sun behind his friend. Pulling his tuque down over his ears, Ed with a sliver of a drawl said, “Multiliteracies are a way of accepting that people use a variety of different modes to communicate with one another, and so I think that we need to really explore how students might use these modes.” He paused and then nodding, he added, “Yeah, I think we really need to explore that.”

He talked for a few minutes about how he was getting this group of students to compose texts through audio files. Tom pulled his hand away from the car door. This was exactly the type of conversation that had led him to pursue a PhD and to seek work at a university—any university—so long as people were having these types of conversations. He was listening to what was for him a new language.

Ed went on to explain that this exploration of different modes was about more than just making use of trendy technological innovations or pandering to students who liked podcasts. These multiliteracies were a way of cultivating an academic discourse that was open and democratic.

On the drive home, Tom followed his headlights back to the apartment, and he searched the radio for any stations that were broadcasting from Montreal. Plattsburgh was only an hour’s drive away. He had flown into Montreal when he left Newfoundland, and he really didn’t know where he was going. He and his wife had their car shipped to the port, and it was waiting for him on the docks of the Montreal harbor. A cab driver from Haiti, who had four children from two different marriages, got him to the docks. After about an hour, he was driving his Toyota through these rows of massive warehouses, cars lined up as though this were a parking lot to a mall. He felt stunned to be rolling over the icy roads, leaving the docks and finding his way to a grated bridge that would take him out of Montreal. All he needed was to get to the highway, and he’d be fine. He had a sense of where he was going, and his wife and daughter would meet him two weeks later in Plattsburgh.

A week after Peter Vandenberg’s “Lessons of Inscription: Tutor Training and the ‘Professional Conversation’” he was sitting in front of his class, talking about the assigned readings for the day. They were both from a student publication titled, “The Dangling Modifier.” One of the articles was about where to draw the line when a peer is attracted to a tutor, and the other was about the power dynamic among tutors, tutees and professors. He had to work a little to get them talking, asking a few questions that might spark a conversation, but once the class began he hardly needed to speak. The same student who had compared Vandenberg to a Bond villain talked about how he viewed himself as a professional. “When I’m at work, I refuse to think about personal things,” he said. “If a peer flirts with you, then you just change the focus back to the paper you’re working on. If it gets to be too much, then you just tell them that you’re not comfortable. And that’s it.”

Another student, one who didn’t speak very often, objected: “It’s not really that simple. What if you see that person outside of the Learning Center, and you feel the same way? What if that tutee turns out to be your partner for the rest of your life?”

Tom sat back and observed. He didn’t see a class being inscribed or alienated by a discourse, but an articulate and willful group of individuals who were situating their own voices in a conversation.

He was in a different parking lot, this time in Vermont, but he was talking to the same colleague, Ed, about the same topic: multiliteracies. They had gone with their families on a day trip to Burlington, and they were packing up to leave when Tom said that he’d found their conversation interesting and that he’d been researching multiliteracies. Ed joked that the best academic conversations always happen in parking lots. He said, “It’s because you can say what you’re really thinking and then escape.”

Tom decided that he’d share an idea that was just sort of coming to him as they spoke. After all, he could escape if it wasn’t any good: “I want to start something like The Dangling Modifier, but with multiliteracies. The students pick their own mode or genre, and I try to work with them to get it to publication.”

Ed nodded. “That might be interesting,” he said. “I like that idea. Yeah, that could work. That could be good.”

They could have talked more, but they both had one year old daughters waiting in their car seats. It was cold, and they needed to catch the ferry to Plattsburgh.

Tom sent out some emails telling people about the project that he was hoping to start. A retired writing center director, Muriel Harris sent an email offering to post a “call for papers” in her publication, The Writing Lab Newsletter. She signed the email, Mickey, and for some reason he felt comfortable plying her for advice and even addressing her as Mickey in his emails. He confessed that he wasn’t completely sure what he was doing, and she told him that it was okay so long he could admit that. He would need to figure it out as he went along.

After about a month of working on the idea for the journal, the “call for papers” went out. Tom was proud to see his idea in a publication like The Writing Lab Newsletter, but with that pride came a quick tightness in his hands. He had set himself on a course, and he would need to travel to its end point without really knowing where that was. Even worse, there was the distinct, palpable fear that no one would inquire about the call, and that his blunder would be archived for all to see. He would simply have to wait. Only a few students would need to respond. Maybe one or two.

The clink and hum of the kitchen, the chili and citrus fragrances steaming up from the plates in his hands, Blake moved from the kitchen to a booth with an elderly couple slurping on glasses of ice water. He had been splitting his work time between this Mexican restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky and his university’s writing center. Between the lunch and dinner rush one day, he jotted down a few notes on a napkin about the similarities between these two roles. Before the spring semester ended, his director told all of the writing tutors about a journal that was interested in publishing student work about tutoring. Blake expanded on the notes he had jotted on this napkin, and he sent an inquiry to Tutors: A Multiliteracy Journal.

He got an email back encouraging him to compose his ideas and send in a submission. The editor’s process of bringing this kernel to publication was influenced by tutoring philosophy, in which he asked Blake open-ended questions and gave positive reinforcement where it was warranted. Once Blake had completed a few drafts, Tom, the editor, asked Blake if he would think about recording his submission as a video monologue, and to think about what that mode would make available to his audience. Blake decided to record himself delivering his paper directly into a camcorder, and then edited his work on a laptop. Tom thought it turned out to be an engaging, funny argument, but he worried that even by suggesting this mode that he had inscribed his own interests and assumptions onto Blake.

Tom sat in front of his computer typing up his notes for a presentation on this journal. There were six articles published in the fall issue of Tutors, three of which were composed by Tom’s students from the spring semester. He didn’t expect all of them to care, but if Tutors became a site where students cultivated their own discussions in modes and in genres of their choosing, then they would have more influence in how they defined themselves as tutors and as scholars. From his interaction with Blake, Tom realized that he needed two or three students who were willing to take on editorial roles and make this discourse their own. He could get them working in the same way they would go about tutoring a peer.

He thought about how he assumed he’d feel when he finally sent out the work of these six writing tutors. He had expected a sense of completion, that he’d arrived somewhere, but it wasn’t altogether different from when he got to his apartment in Plattsburgh. It was empty, and the previous tenets hadn’t swept the floors. There was this weird yellow dust on the windowsills that made him cough. His only furniture was an air mattress and a sticky card table that he’d found behind a door. He wasn’t worried. He would buy a broom, and he would get a chair for the table. He was going to be fine. It was enough that he had a job and that his family would be arriving soon after. He didn’t mind the uncertainty. He wanted to work.

Image: “St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada to Plattsburgh, New York, USA.” Map. Google Maps. Google, 12 May 2015. Web. 11 May 2015.