Tutoring & Teaching as a Nonfiction MFA Student

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As a Graduate Student Instructor teaching in the First-Year Writing Program, I require that my students attend at least one session at the Writing Center, housed in the Learning Studio, in order to gain new perspectives on their writing and to expand and explore their ideas with someone outside of our classroom. I get some grumbles, the occasional “Do I have to?” or “I’m already going for another class; does that count”? (No, it doesn’t.) Overall, however, my students generally have positive feedback and are surprised at how helpful working closely with a tutor can actually be for their writing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my role as a writing teacher and about the differences and similarities between a writing teacher and a writing tutor. This past week I interviewed a few of my Nonfiction MFA peers, Ryan Spooner, Naomi Washer, and Tatiana Uhoch, to get their perspectives and learn about their experiences working as writing tutors at the Writing Center and as Graduate Student Instructors for the First-Year Writing Program.

Ryan and Tatiana are third-year MFA candidates who both have extensive backgrounds working in a variety of capacities at Columbia College Chicago’s Writing Center and at their respective undergraduate institutions. Ryan is also a co-curator for the Dollhouse Reading Series and a Graphic Designer for H_NGM_N Press. Naomi Washer is a first-year candidate in the Nonfiction MFA program and co-editor of Ghost Proposal, a new online literary journal, and comes to the Writing Center with experience working in a variety of writing-centered capacities as an undergrad.

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Ryan, Naomi, and Tatiana speak to their experiences as writing tutors, graduate students, and writing teachers (multi-taskers!) in the interview below:

1. How did you find out about the job opening at the Writing Center, and did you have experience prior to applying at Columbia working in a Writing Center or as a writing tutor in some capacity?

Ryan: I responded to the mass email from Sarah Kelley, the previous Coordinator of Graduate Writing Consultants, (forwarded through David Marts in the Graduate Admissions & Services Office, I think), calling for applications. Before working here at Columbia, I trained and got master-level tutoring certification from the College Reading & Learning Association at my undergrad, the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. I tutored there for, I don’t know, three years?

Tatiana:  After working for four years at the University of Rhode Island as both a traditional tutor and in-class tutor for students returning to college after 5+ years, I was hunting for opportunities to tutor at Columbia.  I had very positive experiences with the community at my first writing center and was hoping to find some kindred spirits here in Chicago.  As far as training is concerned, undergraduates at URI (like those at Columbia) take a semester-long course that covers writing center theory and praxis—it is very similar to the theory and praxis course that grad students take before teaching.  As an incoming grad student, I also went through the graduate training program that Ryan runs now.  After my first semester tutoring, I was offered my position as the Coordinator of the Undergraduate Peer Mentor Fellows Program (or CotUPMFP), and now I’m looking to replace myself.

Naomi: My friend and co-editor of Ghost Proposal Zach Green tipped me off to the position. He’s a Columbia alum and former Writing Center tutor, and he recommended I apply. Tutoring hadn’t even been on my radar when I first applied to the program, but I quickly realized how great of an opportunity it was. I had a lot of related internships as an undergraduate at Bennington College that helped me choose this path.

2. How has working at the Writing Center informed or added to your experience as a graduate student at Columbia?

Ryan: In a number of ways, really. Often the graduate student experience can feel a little bit lonely—we’re on campus at odd, late hours, we spend all our time in a handful of small rooms in a single building, and we forget to do things like interact with other students outside of our programs. The Writing Center, though, employs graduate (and undergraduate) students from essentially all disciplines and really encourages its employees to make friends and connections. So, it’s been nice to meet other people from other programs.

Tatiana: Definitely by connecting me with other members of the Columbia Community (as I had hoped), but also helping me understand better how all of Columbia works.  I’ve met a lot of administrators through the Learning Studio, and it helps me figure out what kinds of things are possible for my education and the terrifying beast that is my life after I graduate.

Naomi: Three things I feel really strongly about have been met in my position at the Writing Center: community, student services, and the importance of writing for every student regardless of their major. I came from a very tiny undergraduate community, so a huge school like Columbia was a bit daunting for me. It has been really good to establish a community with the Writing Center, made up of graduate and undergraduate students across disciplines. I’ve also been able to serve as an ambassador of sorts to the rest of the English Department, sharing the benefits of the Writing Center with other Graduate Student Instructors, adjuncts, and full-time faculty. Making a connection with the Learning Studio has given me a stake in Columbia as an institution.

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3. What are the benefits of working at the Writing Center for your own career goals and writing pursuits?

Ryan: I started tutoring here a semester before I started teaching First Year Writing—so I had time to familiarize myself with the different sorts of assignments instructors at Columbia require their students to do and with the kind of writing I could expect from the students I would have in my class. I’ve also had the benefit of taking on a position as a junior administrator in the Writing Center, working directly with the Director as Coordinator of Graduate Writing Consultants—that’s a nice CV booster. I’ve been able to present on a few panels on Writing Center theory and praxis, too.

Tatiana: I often say that my life is just like Ryan’s life, except that he is younger, and cooler, and male, and not from Rhode Island, and. . . well, just a few differences.  So, a big “what he said” about panels, CVs, and junior administrator roles.  One of the most exciting bits of my grad student career has been bringing undergraduates to conferences with me and helping them plan presentations.  Also, the other day I was able to co-interview Muriel Harris (founder of Purdue’s Writing and Online Writing Center—yes, the OWL!—and Writing Lab Newsletter).  My name was drawn out of a hat (of which, I am extremely proud), and three us sat on stage for over two hours discussing current topics in writing centers and how truly amazing she is (a la Inside the Actors’ Studio).  This was an event held by the Chicagoland Writing Center Association, a larger writing tutor community with high school and college members, so the connection with them is wonderful, as well.

Naomi: Like Ryan and Tatiana, I started tutoring the semester before I started teaching. I was studying Composition Theory in preparation to teach, but tutoring brought a whole new practical layer to that preparation. You can read and read and read the theories, but ultimately, you’re going to be up there in a room full of students and you have to be able to respond to what they’re giving you. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach until I started tutoring. I think it’s incredibly important to gain practical experience of your career while still in school. Working in the Writing Center has given me that opportunity. I also hope to get more involved with conferences and panels in the future, to see how I can fit into this theory and praxis world post-MFA program.

4. As a Graduate Student Instructor for the First-Year Writing Program, can you speak to the experience of working as a tutor versus teaching Writing and Rhetoric? How do you balance what you know about writing as a writing tutor and as a writing teacher? Are your approaches to student writing different? Similar? Are there any skills or practices that are transferable? Challenging? Preferred?

Ryan: They’re very similar but also fundamentally different. (I’m sure Tatiana and Naomi can attest to this.) As a teacher, you have the ability (luxury?) of telling your students precisely what you’d like them to do and expecting them to (hopefully) do it. Teaching allows you the leeway to set benchmarks and learning goals, and you have an entire semester to work toward them. Tutoring is different—often the most you have is 50 minutes to work with a student. And, as a sort of third-party adviser, the student doesn’t really need to listen to you at all. As a tutor, you embrace that, though, and often act more as a sounding board for ideas or an interested, curious reader capable of giving suggestions for revision or simply asking questions—or sympathizing as a fellow student. Still, sometimes I find myself slipping into teacher-mode when I’m tutoring. Luckily, though, my teaching pedagogy is heavily, heavily, influenced by my experience as a tutor—so I’m never too far from where I need to be.

Tatiana:can attest to that.  Like Ryan, my tutoring comes into the classroom with me on a pedagogical level (i.e., Can a person really teach good writing, or am I just here to nurture, provoke, and assist it?  Since they pay me to be a teacher, what do I do?), and my teacher mode occasionally creeps up on me in the Learning Studio (something I have to immediately dial back, while respecting whatever insight caused me to slide towards teacher mode).  Ryan and I were lucky enough to be on a larger Columbia tutoring panel this year about the idea of shifting identities.  We decided that there are transferable skills between teaching and tutoring, and that we do a lot of code-switching—believing numerous, diverse, and sometimes conflicting ideas about education all at once, while growing our understanding of the many roles there are to be played in any learning system.  For example: I know that I can’t be two different things to the same student (tutor and teacher), but I don’t lose my mind or need to take a potion in order to be a tutor to one student and a teacher to another.  What I’m trying to say is that it’s less a clash of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde than it is Tatiana in blue jeans vs. Tatiana in Teacher Pants—tutor and teacher are complimentary roles, at least for me.  I would encourage people who are interested in teaching and tutoring to consider doing both, at least for a little while.  The perspective is useful.

Naomi: There’s an insider perspective on students you get as a tutor that is really valuable to keep in the back of your mind as a teacher. When tutoring, I always look at the teacher’s assignment sheets or Moodle setups and observe how the student is responding to the instructions they’ve been given. I can see what’s working and what isn’t, and that is enormously beneficial when preparing my own materials and assignments. I can hear their possible reactions in my head and know if what I’m designing will work. For these reasons and more, I’m really glad to have started tutoring at Columbia prior to teaching. It’s a constant balancing act to juggle the two roles, but one thing I take from tutoring into my teaching is this idea of being a sounding board. Brainstorming with students can happen in both roles, though it manifests differently, and it ultimately leads to them taking more responsibility for their learning process.

Thanks to Ryan, Tatiana, and Naomi for this wonderful interview! For more information about the Writing Center, visit the Learning Studio’s website.

I also wrote an article about Thomas Noble, an undergraduate Audio, Arts, and Acoustics student, who had the brilliant idea for one of the Learning Studio’s many programs, After-Hours and Weekend Tutoring. Read the article here.