My practicum site is a writing center at a community college. I will be observing on Monday afternoons from 2 pm – 5 pm. I have taught at this community college since 1998 but I have never worked in the writing center. When I teach on campus, I often will meet students in the center to provide them with extra help. While they can get any extra help they need or want through the tutors in the center, they don’t always feel comfortable. When I teach off campus, if there is a writing center or lab component for the writing course, as the instructor, I teach that as well as part of the regular course section, so I am quite familiar with the book and the process as a whole.
During the thirty minutes or so Frank, the writing center director, and I spent some time catching up and going over the parameters of the assignment. I mention to him that I hadn’t really come up with specific research questions before coming because I wasn’t sure on how much access I would get to the center and the stakeholders. (I didn’t want to make assumptions.) Frank said he would mention the project to his students, so I should be able to observe a literacy event and have access to sample writing (or the text).
The writing center began in 1976. Frank has been the director since the early 1990s. Full time faculty are expected to work in the center for 3 hours weekly as part of their load; however, they can elect to teach a fifth course, but most do work in the center. Even the department head works hours in the center. The writing center seems to play a central role (no pun intended) in the English department. Each year the department hosts a part time faculty meeting in the writing center to welcome new teachers and review procedures.
Frank showed me the schedule of the instructors. All hours of the center are covered by at least one full time faculty, an adjunct (one who is guaranteed 9 credit hours each term), or a part time faculty. The evening hours have only one name listed but daytime hours have some overlap of 2-3 names in most places. Could this be due to wanting to work only during the day or is it because they are teaching courses in the evening and are not available except for during the day?
Each course with a writing center component has its own book that the student must purchase. These are ENG 050/051 – Basic Writing I and II, ENG 090/091 – Writing Fundamentals I and II, and ENG 111 – Composition I. For the sake of this project, I am going to focus on the English 111 course. The students are required to complete 11 assignments for the Composition I course (EMU transfer equivalent ENGL 121).
For the first day, I have positioned myself near the bank of assessing tables. The center is laid out with tables to seat 8 comfortably (5 of these), three tables along the windows that seat four people, and one area of four more comfortable office chairs. Oh, and there is one mauve recliner you would find in your grandmother’s living room. Students can come in and work at any of these available tables, or they can simply stand in stand in line and wait to see the next available “teller.” There are actually ropes to maintain the line length.
The tutors or “tellers” sit behind seven butt-ended tables (the last two turn near the entrance). They are positioned about every other seat and the next person waiting to have their assignment assessed sits across from the tutor, presents their assignment, and sits silently—waiting. The tutors will then begin to provide feedback and let them know if the student passed the assignment. If they have, the tutor indicates “Pass” and signs their name on two sheets. One sheet the students retain in their lab book and the other one is torn out and placed in a letter sorter for the clerical staff. The clerical staff then record these on a class spreadsheet and place them in the instructor mailboxes. The instructors are required to count the lab work as 25% of the final grade for the course.
There is a lot of discussion in the room. Some at the group tables where students are either helping each other or working on a group project. Some are just socializing. During the three hours the room is never completely silent, someone always seems to be moving somewhere or talking with someone.
There is also a computer lab area where students can work on their assignments and print them off for review. I see several students with laptops and I wonder if they are able to present the assignment on their laptop to avoid having to print the assignment. Frank did mention that maybe someday the students can pay a nominal fee to access the lab book as a pdf, instead of purchasing the $30 coursepack/book, but he claims that seems like a long time away still because of all of the political hoops.
I am noticing that one tutor likes to talk with the student as he reads the assignment while another tutor within earshot seems to be only commenting at the end. I am wondering if there are any recommended approaches to their jobs, training?
I really prefer not to take on a participant-observer role to the extent that I tutor because in this setting, tutoring equals power in most cases. The tutors are evaluating and grading so they aren’t really tutors in the traditional sense where they are helping the student get better at something and they are measured elsewhere. The center can be used for tutoring of papers for any class but typically, for the writing center assignments, the tutors are really instructors. They have the same amount of “power” as one of the faculty. They have the say whether or not a student has to redo the assignment or merely make a few handwritten corrections to it in order to satisfy the requirements.
I am getting a kick out one of the tutors. He is extremely vocal and doesn’t seem to stop talking if there is an audience—students, other tutors. He is talking mostly about himself and his accomplishment of teaching a student something while trying to frame within a humble disclaimer.
“See how I have revised your blueprint thesis statement? I think I have made it more clear to show what you plan to write about. Don’t you think? (Student nods) Of course, it is just my opinion. So did you learn something today? (Student nodded again and gave some soft-spoken response I could not hear.) Good that was my goal.”
I wonder what could she possibly say? He has the power to grade her work and give her the credit for the assignment. And he didn’t ask if she understood what he meant? Or let’s look at another example. He tore out the part he needed to give her credit and she retained her copy.
My goals before coming next week:
- Come up with the some research questions
- Research participant-observer models
- Maybe come up with some actual interview questions
- Review the Writing Center book for upcoming assignments and consider their purpose, type of literacy, etc.
- Do you have any suggestions?