Tutoring in the Purdue Writing Lab: Empathy & Expertise
March 21, 2019 Sarah E Merryman
Interested in helping students improve their writing while simultaneously sharpening your own? Working as an undergraduate tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab might be the perfect job for you.
Portrait photograph of Harry Denny, Director of the Purdue Writing Lab.Harry Denny, Director of the Purdue Writing Lab
Prof. Harry Denny, Director of the Writing Lab, describes it as “a space where we work with writers from across the university…on any aspect of their writing, from getting started, to revising, to editing. You name it, we do it.” Tutors work with undergraduate and graduate Purdue students from all disciplines on every form of writing. From essays and research reports to resumes and graduate school applications, no genre is off limits.
The Writing Lab offers one-on-one, in-person writing consultations or e-tutoring sessions, while its world-famous OWL provides a treasure trove of online resources. In 2017-18, the Writing Lab saw approx. 6,000 visits from Purdue students. The OWL had 515M page views from around the world.
Perks of being a tutor
All employment with the Writing Lab, whether in the form of tutoring or research, is compensated; however, according to Prof. Denny, the biggest perk is the “opportunity to work in an environment that truly values learning and collaboration.” The Writing Lab promotes an atmosphere of innovation and strongly encourages tutors to explore the impact writing has in real life settings.
Companies like employees who can write clearly, but they especially like those who can help other people to write better too. Tutoring with the Writing Lab gives you a chance to practice both. Interacting with Purdue students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds also provides experience with intercultural collaboration. In survey after survey, employers list writing and collaborating as their most desired skills, ahead of technical expertise.
Writing Lab tutors and staff also write all of the material found on the OWL. A section of the site is even devoted specifically to research conducted by lab personnel. Undergraduate tutors are welcome to add to this growing body of writing center research.
What professional qualities does tutoring cultivate?
Want to become a Writing Lab tutor but afraid that your writing skills aren’t good enough? No worries. While having a grasp of basic writing techniques is essential, no one expects you to be an expert. Part of being a tutor is learning with your client. Prof. Denny says that a good tutor isn’t someone who knows everything about writing, but rather a “person who is willing to say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s figure that out together’.”
While knowledge of composition and grammar is an asset, the most important quality for a tutor is strong people skills. For this reason, the Writing Lab looks for applicants who demonstrate empathy for students from all backgrounds and writing abilities.“We can teach you how to respond to student writing, [and] we can teach you the mechanics. The hard part is meeting such a wide variety of writers, meeting them…where they are, and being respectful of them,” says Prof. Denny. “The thing that I really care about when I am looking at undergraduates, is making sure…that we work with a whole, wide range of writing.”
It can be easy to forget that sharing one’s writing is a very personal experience; when someone judges our writing, it can feel like a judgement of us. Being respectful and connecting with writers on a human level creates a safe environment where students are free to be vulnerable. Only with trust can writers learn and improve. In this way, the role of a tutor is less like an instructor and more like that of a peer counselor.
“I think alot of times students struggle with writing because they have been shut down at some point,” says Prof. Denny. “I think people [should be] allowed to have a voice, and to cultivate their voice and their prose in an environment that’s not going to make them feel bad about themselves.” To demonstrate his point, he cites Steven North, an important writing center scholar: “We are about making better writers, not necessarily better writing.” Prof. Denny echoes this sentiment in his own words, “If you make someone feel more confident as a writer, effective writing will come along.”
Another important part of becoming a tutor is understanding how to help students within the parameters of the Lab. Like most college writing centers, the Purdue Writing Lab is not an editing service. A tutor’s job isn’t to “fix” students’ papers, but rather to give them the skills to revise their own writing, and to help them apply these skills to future assignments.
Tutors also learn to balance student needs with time restrictions. “We try and respectfully negotiate with a client, ‘What is realistically possible in 25 or 50 minutes?’” says Prof. Denny.
If a writing lab client has a 50-page research paper, it will be impossible for the tutor to read and give feedback on every page. Therefore, helping the client prioritize their needs and set a goal for what can be accomplished in one session is an important skill tutors learn.
How to apply to be an undergraduate tutor?
Until this year, the application process involved submitting a writing sample, a resume, and a letter of recommendation. To make the process less daunting, the application is now simpler. Students email the firstname.lastname@example.org with a notice of interest. From there, they meet with Prof. Denny to discuss why they want to become a tutor and the skills and experiences they feel make them a good candidate.
The last step is enrolling in ENGL 390: Tutoring Practicum, a required internship course that teaches students how to work in the Writing Lab. Students learn writing center theory and gain hands-on experience with strategies for tutoring writing. If, at the end of the class, they seem like a good fit for working at the Lab, students become paid tutors. If students turn out to not be good fits, they still get course credit.
Some final advice
Prof. Denny’s advice for tutor applicants? “Be open to working with your peers. Be open to being challenged about how you learn and how your peers learn…. [I]f you want a really exciting environment where collaboration…reflection, and pedagogical research is valued, we are a cool place.”
The bottom line? Whether you are a tutor or a client, writers of all skill levels and backgrounds are welcome at the Purdue Writing Lab. No Pulitzer required.