PAB Entry 3: Objects of Study


*Note: I have chosen to list these bibliographic entries chronologically as opposed to alphabetically because chronology helps establish their connections.

North, S.M. (1984). Writing center research: Testing Our Assumptions. In G.A. Olson (Ed.), Writing Centers Theory and Administration. (pp. 24-35). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

In this call to research, North advocates that writing center scholars test assumptions about writing center practice because, according to him at the time, “there is not a single published study of what happens in writing center tutorials (p. 28). He says that writing center research must address the broad question of “what happens in writing tutorials?” (p. 29). He surveys previous writing center scholarship, placing it in three categories: reflections on experience, speculation, and surveys. According to North, the first type, reflections, is the most common type of scholarship in the field at this time. In this type, practitioners look back at something they have done in their writing center to offer guidance for other practitioners. North doesn’t deny that there is a place for this work, but suggests it is not formal or systematic. North puts forth Bruffee’s work on collaborative learning and peer tutoring as examples of the second type of research, speculation. In this type, a researcher takes a theory or idea from rhetoric and composition, or another field, and uses it to explain a writing center practice or make suggestions about what a writing center should do. What this type of research lacks, however, is formal evidence from writing center practices that supports the speculation. The final model, surveys, is what North calls “counting” or “enumeration” research which looks at things like how many tutored, reactions or satisfaction with tutoring, etc. North also mentions that some past research has blended these types.

North calls for more systematic or formal research in the future that test the field’s basic assumptions. He offers two potential avenues for study. The first is the tutorial relationship. North suggests an experiment with videotaped simulated tutorials that examine how tutors react to different scenarios. North claims that research like this would allow practitioners to have a better definition of what constitutes a “good” tutor. Another avenue he suggests is research on the composition process and the effect of writing center invention within it. He suggests an experiment with case studies of a selected group, the example he gives is pre-law students working on their law school applications. Half of the group would use drop-in tutorials through the writing center and the other half would be trained in another intervention method, in this case composing aloud. A researcher would then examine what each grouped produced. With these examples, North is advocating the importance of research that helps us demonstrate why (or whether) our assumptions are true and provides evidence for the effectiveness of our practices. This call for systematic and formal research also ties in well with the push towards professionalization of the field that Boquet discusses in her history of writing centers. North calls for formal research because formal research will help writing center studies be recognized as a legitimate field.

Davis, K. M., Hayward, N., Hunter, K.R. & Wallace, D.L. (1988). The function of talk in the writing conference: A study of tutorial conversation. The Writing Center Journal, 9(1), 45-51. (Reprinted in The Writing Center Journal, 30(1), 27-35).

Davis et al. take up North’s call for formal and systematic research through research on writing center conferences that examines and codes four conversations between different tutors and students in writing center conferences. The study sought to extend and combine previous research on conferencing styles (Reigstad, 1982) and peer tutor conversations (Gere and Abbott, 1985). The researchers audio-taped each writing center conference and then each conversation was analyzed and coded by a pair of listeners. The researchers used a classroom analysis instrument devised by Fanselow that identifies four types of conversational modes in TESOL education: to structure the nature of the conversation, to solicit specific responses, to respond to solicitations, to react to responses, solicitations, or other reactions. In examining the tutorial conversation with this coding system, the researchers were examining whether real conversations were taking place or whether tutors were primarily engaged in “teacher talk” (p. 29). The researchers found that tutors were neither “functioning exclusively either as peers or as teachers, but as a combination of the two” (p. 32). They also complicated Reigstad’s distinct notions of teacher conferences because while tutors in all four conversations examined were in control of the session, analysis of the conversations showed that the direction of the conversation was often arrived at through collaborative negotiation. They present tutors as in between peers and teachers, though they note that the use of graduate tutors may contribute to this. The researchers encourage more research on conversation that examines other factors like type of speech and length of exchanges.

This article stood out to me for the connections I drew with linguistics and discourse analysis. The analysis of tutorial conversation reminded me of Ellen Barton’s explanation of her analysis of prognosis discourses in medical oncology in her chapter in McComiskey. Conversation as an object of study stands out as really interesting and intimidating to me. With a background in literature, I am most comfortable with textual analysis, but examining this article opens up other types of research that I could engage it. In my last paper, I discussed the debate over the use of peer tutors or professional tutors. Research like this would shed more light on the benefits and challenges of each model. Right now at my writing center we use professional tutors, but we will be piloting a peer training and tutoring class next semester. This puts me in an interesting position to be able compare and contrast the conversations between these different types of tutors and students, an undertaking that would not only help me best organize my own writing center, but could contribute to this debate within the field.

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