PAB Entry 2: What & Where


Image from

Bruffee, Kenneth. (1984). Peer Tutoring and “the conversation of mankind.”  In G. A Olsen (Ed.), Writing centers: Theory and administration (pp.3-15). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

In this essay, Bruffee looks at the history of the use of peer tutors in writing centers and the benefit that this model provides concerning collaborative learning. Bruffee suggests that peer tutoring came about as one possible solution to the problem of under prepared students not taking advantage of the help available to them because they often saw the writing center as “an extension of the work, the expectations, and above all the social structure of traditional classroom learning” (p. 4). So, Bruffee situates peer tutoring as a type of collaborative learning, claiming, “It did not seem to change what people learned but, rather, the social context in which they learned it. Peer tutoring made learning a two-way street, since students’ work tended to improve when they got help from peer tutors and tutors learned from the students they helped from the activity of tutoring itself” (p. 4). In essence, Bruffee is advocating this model because students will be more comfortable working with their peers and tutors can also grow from the experience.

Bruffee begins by situating peer tutoring within a discussion of the connection between internal thought and external conversation. He argues that reflective thinking develops from the context of our conversations, and as products of thinking, writing develops from conversation and becomes a new type of conversation because it externalizes thought for readers.  He suggests, “The inference for writing tutors and teachers should make from this line of reasoning is that our task must involve engaging students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible and that we should contrive to ensure that the conversation is similar in as many ways as possible to the way we would eventually like them to write” (p. 7). The second reason Bruffee offers in support of peer tutoring is that is creates a context for these conversations within a normal discourse community (i.e. one of peers and equals). Bruffee then turns to opposition to peer tutoring, namely questions of “the blind leading the blind” (p. 10). To this argument, Bruffee reminds readers that peer tutoring conversations are structured around the content and assignment that a teacher has provided. Bruffee suggests that the tutee brings knowledge of the course and the tutor brings knowledge of “conventions of discourse and knowledge of standard written English” (p. 10). Bruffee then connects peer tutoring with the importance of conversation and knowledge communities with the humanities generally, thereby connecting peer tutoring to this tradition. He argues that peer tutoring is one model to help students enter these conversations. Finally, Bruffee reminds us that this model can only work when tutors are carefully trained.

Bruffee’s model has been widely adopted by many writing centers, and promotional material created by writing centers, such as this video for Angelo State University, highlight many of his key ideas, like the peer writing center being a comfortable place for students to get help and the collaborative aspect of the help they receive:

*Note: North might not have appreciated the focus on grammar and mechanics espoused in this video; however, it does touch on the interesting notion that writing center tutors and professionals may have different goals and priorities than the students coming in seeking their services.

Bruffee’s broad framing of peer tutoring as part of the “conversation of mankind” is interesting when viewed within the context of English studies broadly. Many of the fields of English could be connected by  the notion of taking part in or analyzing “the conversation of mankind.” Though ostensibly tackling the narrow focus of models for writing center work, his essay as a promoter of conversation also works as a connector between the diverse disciplines of English Studies.

Lunsford, A. A. & Ede, L. (2011). Reflections on currents in writing center work. The Writing Center Journal, 31(1), 11-24.

In this address at the 2010 IWCA-NCPTW Conference, Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede reflect on the current state of writing centers and writing center studies. They frame their discussion amidst the broader political climate of the 2010 midterm elections and the rise of the Tea Party, concerns within higher education, specifically discussions of the value of the humanities, and their own scholarship. They begin by discussing what the work of writing centers is. Drawing on Bruffee’s notion of collaborative learning, Lunsford and Ede promote writing centers as distinct sites of learning, claiming that writing centers “serve as sites of collaboration that challenge hierarchies and traditional ways of producing knowledge, bringing student writers and peer tutors into conversations that can, and often do, change both them and their writing ” (p. 12). Like Bruffee, Lunsford and Ede champion the peer tutoring model, but they go beyond his notion of the broad “conversation of mankind” and suggest how peer tutoring within writing centers promotes feminist pedagogy:

“Because they challenge institutional hierarchies and traditional ways of knowing and of producing knowledge, and because they work to enhance student agency, writing centers are also powerful sites in which to embody and explore both feminist and rhetorical theory and practice” (p. 12).

After establishing what writing centers do, Lunsford and Ede turn to how location impacts the work of writing centers. They first examine physical space. They discuss how physical location can enforce marginalization of writing centers. Evoking North’s characterization of early writing labs in “Idea,” they claim:

“But it is also often the case that centers are on the margins, or in the eddies of the stream—in temporary housing, in basements, even in large closets in out of the way buildings. It’s amazing what our colleagues have been able to do from such marginalized locations: as a result, we often think of writing center advocates as the ultimate tricksters or bricoleurs, able to effect change on campus against formidable odds” (p. 14).

What is really interesting about this quote is the way that location actually reinforces their characterization of writing centers as sites that destabilize hierarchies. Thus location has influenced the larger ethos or goals of many writing centers, at least as characterized in narratives like this. Lunsford and Ede also talk about the powerful influence of location within institutional structures. They warn of the potential problems of the move of many institutions to merge writing centers with other academic support centers, many with competing missions or philosophies. Because of these dangers, they advocate free standing writing centers whenever possible. Finally, they turn to the issue of virtual space and the rise of OWLs and synchronous and asynchronous online tutoring. Though they admit that these changes make sense with the rise of distance learning, they advocate for the continuation of the physical writing center which promotes face-to-face conversation.  They state:

“But we hope and pray that virtual writing centers will not replace real-life centers entirely: for us, there is something about sitting face to face with a student, talking out ideas, raising key questions, engaging in rich dialogic interaction that is difficult to duplicate online, even in video conferencing or Skyping” (p. 15-16).

Interestingly, despite the passage of 16 years from the publication of Bruffee’s text on collaborative learning and this address, Lunsford and Ede’s vision of writing centers is remarkably similar to Bruffee’s and draws on many of the same tropes as North’s Idea published the same year as Bruffee. In today’s climate of uncertainty, writing center scholars seem determined to maintain a common vision of the work and place of writing centers. This leads me to wonder, though, about the place of disagreement within this narrative. Can you advocate a different vision of writing centers without violating the theory behind writing center work?

One Reply to “PAB Entry 2: What & Where”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *