Writing tutors tutoring students, or writing consultants assisting clients: just semantics?

There are lots of different terms used for the people who work in writing centres, as well as for what the ‘units of time’, if we can call them that for now, are named. In many writing centres in South Africa and globally, the people who work in writing centres are called ‘writing consultants’ and the units of time are similarly named ‘writing consultations’. Another commonly used pair of terms is ‘writing coaches’ and ‘sessions’; a rather vague name for what happens within that unit of time. There are also different kinds of people working in different writing centres, and this has implications, I would think, for what they are named, and also how they are trained, supported and remunerated. For example, in some writing centres the consultants are postgraduate students; many American writing centres employ high-achieveing undergraduates to assist other students as peers; and in some UK and South African writing centres the consultants are academics, often with PhDs and academic posts. I am not going to get into all these details too much, because I want to think rather about whether the titles we give these people and the way we name the units of time  is just ‘semantics’ or whether there is a bit more to it than that.

In the UWC Writing Centre the people who work with students are students, at MA and PhD level, and they are chosen because they are good writers, but also because they have displayed an aptitude for and willingness to do the work that we do. They are passionate in their own ways about writing, and about helping other students to become more confident and capable writers. We started off, in 2009, calling ourselves ‘writing consultants’ working with student writers in ‘writing consultations’. At the time we used the terms that seemed to be most commonly used because I didn’t really know what else to call ourselves. However, in 2010 I realised that the terms didn’t sit well because they were too closely connected to the language of management. The terms ‘consultant’ and ‘consultation’ are often and everywhere used in the broad field of business – ‘management consultants’, tax consultants’, HR consultants’ and so on. All of these professionals provide ‘expert advice’ or a ‘professional service’ according to both thefreedictionary.com and Wikipedia, and they are supposed to have a wide range of specialised or expert knowledge on the subject about which they are consulting. A consultation, then, could be defined as a meeting between one without expert knowledge who needs to be given professional or expert advice in order to become more knowledgeable and take certain action, like seeing a tax consultant and then being able to file a tax return that earns them a large refund. None of this really sounds like a what I think a conversation about writing should sound like between two students – both with knowledge but one needing assistance or help in talking or thinking about it. Also, the language of management, and the ‘managerial turn’ so many universities have taken on where so many academics are valued only in terms of their ability to produce x research units, or y pass rates and so on is not a language we should be speaking in the writing centre, and thus these terms did not feel like a good fit for us.

In 2010, very briefly, I tried out ‘writing coaches’ liking for a while the idea of us being helpers of a sort rather than service providers. But that didn’t really feel like a good fit either – coaches are also experts, and are hired to produce excellent results or risk losing their jobs, even if this metaphor is closer to what we do than ‘consulting’ (think of the South African national soccer coach turnover and number of match wins for the last few years!). So in 2010, and since then, we have been called ‘peer writing tutors’ working with student writers in ‘writing tutorials’, and this feels like the right fit.

These terms are the right fit for us in our writing centre because the term ‘tutor’ is defined as a ‘person employed in the education of others’ (Wikipedia again). The article goes on to discuss the role of a tutor as playing a collaborative role in helping other students to adapt to different ways of learning through sharing their knowledge as well as giving advice or guidance. This is what we aim to do in our writing centre, and many writing centres have this goal. We cannot be specialists or experts in all of the subjects that students are writing about, and our goal is not to be the cleverest person in the room. Rather, though having a conversation that, with careful and insightful questioning borne of training, our own experiences as writers, and our own knowledge about writing in the university, leads students to gain confidence in the knowledge they do have and the way they are writing, and helps them to grow in the ways that they need to. Thus what we do is tutor – we guide, advise, support and collaborate. We are knowledgeable peers, but peers rather than experts or professionals.

I think the language we use to talk about what we do is important. Words are never just words – they have meaning and power, and even though we may make different meanings for the same words in different contexts, in our context the words that we have chosen describe the ways in which we work, and the roles we claim. This is more than just ‘semantics’ – they say something powerful about us, and what we do when we work with student writers.

What words do you use to talk about the work you do in writing centres or higher education? What do they say about you, and the roles you claim?

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