Dr. Steve Sherwood is the the Director of the W.L. Adams Center for Writing and co-wrote The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors with Christina Murphy. During our conversation, we discussed philosophies of writing center instruction, balancing the demands of student’s unique voices and academic discourse, and how students approach the writing process.
For more about the Center for Writing, visit their website.
“We always have to remain open to change and to changes in the English language as affected by writers from all backgrounds. Writers working right now are changing our language. Rules can be useful or they can be oppressive. And we do not want to be oppressive, or agents of acculturation.”
—Dr. Steve Sherwood
What do you see as the work of the TCU writing center and writing center tutors?
In many ways, the work of tutoring is translating, not just for non-native speakers and writers, but all students. As tutors, we cannot be definitive about meaning—all we can say is “I don’t understand this. Is this what you mean?” As much as possible, we want to intuit where students are going, what their purpose is, and what their voice is—advice tutors give should fit into these constraints. In the end, tutors are not just representatives of “the academy.” We are all individual writers here.
Students will often ask me about grades, but I cannot tell them how a professor will react to a paper. All we can ask is if the writing conveys the student’s intended meaning. And if it does, that is pretty good start right there. In a way, we have to liberate ourselves from the question of grades and professor evaluations. All tutors can do is help our students learn something about writing during their time with us.
How does the writing center approach the work of non-native speakers or writers with limited knowledge of academic English?
This depends on the goals and purposes of the student. Depending on the assignment or the course, non-native writers might be hyper aware of correctness. Especially with English language learners (ELL), we are searching for a compromise between the voice of the student and the expectations of academic English. We try not to intervene too directly or too severely. But that does not always happen. For many ELL students, depending on where they are from, articles will be missing or prepositions will be used incorrectly. We are a little bit more directive on these issues with ELL students than we would be with a native speaker.
On the other hand, we have to be loose and adaptable to changing circumstances. If students are writing for a more traditional, conservative professor, then students probably need to write in standard English. If they are writing for a more liberal teacher who will accept vernacular English as an acceptable choice, then we can encourage that. Ultimately, we must not be absolute in our advice because we exist between students and professors. Our judgements have to tempered by the fact that we are not the authors or the evaluators.
A lot of what we do is building confidence. Particularly for ELL or ESL students, we try to reassure them that they appear to be on the right track and to ask questions about what they mean.
How do you attempt to balance the demands of academic discourse and the desire to preserve a student’s language?
Again, purpose and goals. Even as I grade for my own courses, I struggle over how I should grade for correct English, how much for uniqueness and style or clarity. The line is very blurry and it moves on the page even as you are reading. If the writing makes sense, I generally do not care so much if it is standard English. But, correctness does help with clarity. The reason we have grammar is to signpost and to let readers know how to interpret the text. Without that, readers are on their own. Where do we go with these two tensions? This is the dilemma that both teachers and tutors must consider all the time.
We always have to remain open to change and to changes in the English language as affected by writers from all backgrounds. Writers working right now are changing our language. Rules can be useful or they can be oppressive. And we do not want to be oppressive, or agents of acculturation, as Nancy Grimm argues in Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Postmodern Times. Writing center tutors often work as unwilling or unaware agents of acculturation to white culture. All of us in the writing center world need to make our own calls and we don’t always agree about the best way to approach this. This is why we write our articles and read scholarship in the field. Reading research in the field, such as Grimm and the collection Writing Centers and the New Racism by Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowen, causes you to confront your own approaches and reconsider your practices. This is really what I try to get my tutors to do as well. They have to wrestle with these issues and consider how to help a student who is learning English, but also taking college courses in English.
How do you train writing center tutors to work with students, particularly students from underrepresented backgrounds?
We have a section in our training course about working with students from various populations, such as students with disabilities or students whose first language is not English. Tutors read chapters about theories of tutoring, ethics, working with different student populations, and then online tutoring. Then, tutors will write reflections on and theorize about those readings.
When I hire peer tutors I tell them that this is a learning job. Writing tutoring is not something you come into knowing everything and writing center directors cannot anticipate what tutors might need to learn. Because no one is a specialist in all the fields or genres we see in the writing center, tutors have to be open to learning all the time from students and from different disciplines.
What can TCU composition instructors learn from your experience in writing centers?
There is a lifetime of learning. I have been here at TCU for 29 years. In a writing center, you learn something new pretty much every day. Humility is the best response to both tutoring and composition teaching. You cannot come into these jobs expecting to know everything, because you don’t. If we did know everything, we would be bored.
Also, in a writing classroom, there are students at so many different levels. You simply cannot teach them all in the same way. Therefore, writing center instruction can be so helpful for writing teaching. The benefit of writing centers is that students get our entire attention for almost the same amount of time that instructors will talk to an entire class. In the writing center, we are very focused on what the students needs, not what the professor needs or the class.
In your opinion, what do the students you serve want composition instructors to know?
The students who come into the writing center are trying to do their very best. They are here because they want to do well. That is a general statement about writing center students, but this very much applies to ESL or translingual students. They also probably want a little bit of mercy as a result of that effort.
Students might also want professors from all disciplines to know that assignments are not always clear. A lot of the work we do in the writing center is interpreting assignments. Assignments are not always clear, even if professors themselves understand their expectations. I feel the same way about assignments I create for my courses, but why do I spend so much of my time explaining them? That indicates to me that assignments are just not that clear.
Loading students down with too many assignments in a semester can be difficult for students as well. Fewer assignments with more time for revision is something students often want. Not all students will take the time to revise, but students visiting the writing center will engage in that revision.
Finally, it is important to remember that students, and writing tutors along with them, are groping for meaning. Writers rarely set out with a clear sense of both the assignment and how they are going to meet it. During the writing process, students are triangulating toward that and part of what we do here is help them move in that direction. In tutoring sessions, we are trying to get toward a meaning that makes sense to both of us, and hopefully to the teachers too.