The Writing Center as a Site of Transfer for Consultants
by Julia Bleakney
For researchers seeking to understand more about the transfer of learning about writing beyond the university, former writing center consultants are important alumni to study. In their work in the writing center, undergraduate peer consultants have opportunities not just to practice but also to facilitate – teach even – rhetorical strategies and practices, and confront some of the rhetorical challenges, that previous research suggests can enable transfer. For instance, in their conversations with student writers, consultants:
- explain writing concepts and their reader-oriented responses to help the writer understand how their writing may be received (Mackiewicz and Thompson, 2015);
- ask questions to help the writer understand different expectations and conventions across the disciplines (Harris, 1995; Savini, 2011);
- facilitate low-road and high-road transfer (Perkins & Solomon, 1988) when they ask writers to make connections between prior knowledge or experiences that might prepare them for a new writing task (Devet, 2015; Zimmerelli, 2015); and
- help foster motivation (Mackiewicz and Thompson, 2013, 2014; DeCheck, 2012).
As staff members who participate in ongoing education, writing center consultants are encouraged to intentionally reflect on their own strengths and areas for improvement, and they receive feedback from peers or their supervisor on their consulting techniques. In other words, a writing center consultant who graduates with several semesters of consulting experience under their belts should have developed into a knowledgeable and reflective writer and communicator who can, to draw on some of the “Working principles about writing transfer,” transform rhetorical knowledge and rhetorical awareness into performance in their own writing and help other writers do the same, attend to and respect individual dispositions and identities, and use reflective techniques to prepare for new writing contexts and foster awareness and improvement for self and for others (Elon Statement on Writing Transfer, p. 4).
Previous studies have sought to examine transfer of learning in the writing center context. Devet (2015) and Farrell & Tighe-Mooney (2015) focus on the writing center as a space that can facilitate transfer for students: Devet reviews the literature on transfer, making a case for the need for writing center directors to be informed about this body of scholarship but also suggesting that writing centers already teach for transfer every day; Farrell & Tighe-Mooney discuss specific strategies used in their writing center to promote transfer for students. In contrast, Zimmerelli (2015) and Driscoll (2015) examine contexts in which writing center consultants transfer learning. Zimmerelli examines how her consultants transfer learning from a service-learning context back to their writing center practice; Driscoll studies, in part, consultants’ sense of preparation for future professional contexts.
None of these studies look specifically at how the consultants’ writing center experience might transfer to writing beyond the university, but another study looks at their experiences beyond the university—yet without using the lens of transfer. This study, The Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project, reports on the results of surveys of writing center consultant alumni from three institutions; these consultants describe how writing center work has been valuable to them in their personal and professional lives. PTWARP invites other researchers to replicate their study in their own contexts, making it ripe for further and more in-depth study, especially with a transfer lens. For example, the study is based on an assumption of the value of collaborative learning as the foundation for the development of tutors’ skills and capacities; further research could interrogate this assumption, examining how collaborative learning provides this foundation and if other enabling practices—such as instruction in the consultant education course, ongoing education, certain experiences as consultants, or reflective practices—also contribute to this development. In addition, because the results of PWTARP are all self-reported by alumni writing center consultants tracing their current skills back to their writing center work for the purposes of a writing center study, new research might seek to triangulate these findings with other direct study of their writing in the workplace or other contexts.
If one of the goals of research focused on writing center work is to identify the writing center as a special site of learning about and for transfer, then new studies can look for enabling practices in writing center work that help students succeed in new writing cultures by bringing together data from different institutions and by comparing the stories and experience of students who were and were not writing center consultants. Finally, since writing center work itself requires consultants to balance writing knowledge with an understanding of motivation and interpersonal communication, research on the transfer of learning of writing center work to future contexts must look beyond their specific writing practices and to the relationship of their writing to other capacities, such as active listening, emotional intelligence, flexible verbal communication, or metacognition. With these research foci, new scholarship can test and confirm what many writing centers already believe is the long-term value of writing center work for its student-staff. Writing Center administrators and researchers interested in these topics are invited to apply to Elon’s Writing Beyond the University research seminar in order to explore the writing center-transfer connection.
- DeCheck, Natalie (2012). The power of common interest for motivating writers: A case study. Writing Center Journal, 32(1), pp. 28-38.
- Devet, Bonnie. (2015). The writing center and transfer of learning: A primer for directors. Writing Center Journal, 35(1), pp.119-151.
- Driscoll, Dana L. (2015). Building connections and transferring knowledge: The benefits of a peer tutoring course beyond the writing center. The Writing Center Journal, 35 (1), pp. 153-181.
- Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. 29 July 2013. Web. 28 Aug, 2018. <https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/elon-statement-on-writing-transfer/>.
- Farrell, Allison, & Sharon Tighe-Mooney (2015). Recall, recognise, re-invent: The value of facilitating writing transfer in the writing centre setting. Journal of Academic Writing, 5 (2), pp. 29-42. doi:10.18552/joaw.v5i2.186
- Harris, Muriel. (1995). Talking in the middle: Why writers need writing tutors. College English. 57(1), pp. 27-42.
- Mackiewicz, Jo, & Isabel Kramer Thompson, I. (2015). Talk about writing: The tutoring strategies of experienced writing center tutors. New York: Routledge.
- —. (2014). Instruction, cognitive scaffolding, and motivational scaffolding in writing center tutoring. Composition Studies, 42 (1). pp: 54-78.
- —. (2013). Motivational scaffolding, politeness, and writing center tutoring. Writing Center Journal, 33 (1), pp: 38-73.
- Perkins, David N. and Gavriel Salomon. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): pp. 22- 32.
- Savini, Catherine (2011). An alternative approach to bridging disciplinary divides. The Writing Lab Newsletter 35 (7-8), pp. 1-5.
- Zimmerelli, Lisa. (2015). A place to begin: Service-learning tutor education and writing center social justice, The Writing Center Journal, 35 (1), pp. 57-84.
Julia Bleakney is director of The Writing Center in the Center for Writing Excellence and assistant professor of English at Elon University. She is co-leading the 2019-2021 research seminar on Writing Beyond the University: Fostering Writers’ Lifelong Learning and Agency.