Minimalist Tutoring & Collaborative Learning


By studying theory on the practices of writing and tutoring, tutors gather information to coincide with the empirical knowledge they gain from the act of writing or tutoring itself.  Only when coupled together do theory and practice produce strong writing and strong tutoring.  Lisa Ede says in Writing as a Social Process, “theory without practice is likely to result in ungrounded, inapplicable speculation.”

Speculation describes anything but what Jeff Brooks endorses in Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Workan article preaching a sturdy argument for establishing the writer’s ownership of a paper in a tutoring session.  Muriel Harris also provides strong theory in Collaboration is not Collaboration is not Collaboration: Writing Center Tutorials vs. Peer-Response Groups.

Fresh from reading and discussing Brooks and Harris, my classmate Lauren and I put theory to practice in a mock-tutoring session.  I brought her a piece I wrote for the Chapman Women’s Lacrosse team blog, and she brought me an excerpt of a final paper from a previous class.  Minimalism, as emphasized by Brooks, was the theme of the half-an-hour; collaboration, defined by Harris, was the methodology.

Lauren took the initiative to “make the student the primary agent” in the session, as Brooks would have wanted.  I had to take complete ownership of my piece by first reading it out loud, and then by explaining influences and inspirations for my writing.  It was a heavily influenced and inspired entry in the first place, but the words of the blog alone wouldn’t reveal the entire truth of that.  To expose the workings of my process, Lauren talked to me as an individual and respected my authority over the writing.  She surely kept Brooks’s advice in mind: “Get the student to talk.  It’s her paper; she is the expert on it.”

Brooks says a tutor functions as “a living human body who is willing to sit patiently and help the student spend time with her paper.”  To have another human body, another pair of eyes, another mind engage with the work you would otherwise develop alone opens you to a collaborative learning experience.  In tutoring, contrasted to peer-response groups, tutor and tutee collaborate to emphasize individualized concerns.  Harris says that tutorials are “minimal” (in conjunction with Brooks) because they are focused on one writer, or one piece of writing, instead of the group.  Despite the individual-oriented focus, the engaging process of tutoring is a social act between two able people.

As I reviewed Lauren’s paper, I aimed to “lead the student toward finding her own answers,” which Harris advises in Collaboration is Not Collaboration.  I wanted specific answers to questions she had not asked herself, such as an explanation of the choice of point of view, or how she actually wrote the paper, or what the rest of the paper was like.  However it was not my place to assume the answers for her, but to ask the appropriate questions instead.

I found it difficult to take any directive authority over the writing, which a teacher, rather than a tutor, might do.  Harris explains this by saying a tutor “becomes a hybrid creation”– neither teacher nor peer– for the tutee.  Equal status may be the case in a peer-response group.   In a tutorial there is a tiered, yet two-way authority: authority of the writer over her work and authority of the tutor as a trained professional.

As much as a tutored writer has to own her work, I learned from Lauren that a tutor has to own her ability to encourage the writer to “anticipate her readers’ questions,” “diagnose possible underlying problems,” “offer needed support,” and listen.  Harris says that “in a tutorial, tension exists when the writer wants to improve the paper and the tutor wants to improve the writer.”  Although I didn’t encounter much of this tension with Lauren, the mock-session gave me confidence that with minimalism and collaboration, that tension can easily be overcome.






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