Vocation in the Writing Center

As the director of a Writing Center that is staffed entirely by undergraduate tutors, I believe my first priority is to mentor and support my tutors. While every student on campus can benefit from the Writing Center, the students whose undergraduate experiences are most transformed are the tutors themselves. I have a unique relationship with tutors as both a professor and supervisor, at the intersection of their academic growth and their working lives. Hiring them as first- or second-year students, spending a semester together in training, and then mentoring their work as tutors for two or three years, I have the privilege to form meaningful relationships with tutors that contribute deeply to my own sense of meaning and purpose in life.

This tutors-first philosophy shapes the way I approach training my tutors, and the ways in which I integrate themes of vocation into that training. Students’ work study can be a meaningful part of their vocation in multiple ways: a calling for them right now; a means to develop professional skills, habits, and confidence; and a part of their reflective process of vocational discernment. When designing curriculum for our weekly training meetings, I try to balance these three goals.

First, working as a writing tutor can be a calling for students right now. One of the core ways that I frame our work at the Writing Center is as a way to promote social justice on our campus. Students at my institution are eager to make a difference in our community and nation, and I work hard to help them see their labor as tutors as contributing to a more just world. For instance, tutors helped write our Writing Desk Inclusivity Statement, and we have a team project (more on that below) dedicated to anti-racist tutoring. Whether it’s learning to listen to students whose beliefs differ from their own, affirming a student’s voice even when that writing style doesn’t fit Standard Written English, or cultivating a growth mindset in students who come to a writing task with stereotype threat (all topics that we cover in training), tutors learn to see their life’s work as not something that do after college, but something they can be doing right now. 

Group of St. Olaf tutors who presented at the 2017 Iowa Writing Center Consortium Conference in Pella, IA.

Second, writing tutoring gives students skills, habits, and confidence for their future professional lives. Of course, writing tutoring helps students develop their own writing and interpersonal skills. They learn to work with students from a variety of educational backgrounds, learning styles, and disciplines. They learn to manage their time, set goals, and work in a team. But by making these and other concretely transferable skills explicit in our training, and giving them choices about their own professional development, tutors are able to more consciously recognize the ways in which they are developing these skills and seek opportunities for growth. 

For example, tutors participate in team projects, where they can gain leadership experience mentoring new tutors, get marketing experience helping to advertise the Writing Center, or develop assessment experience analyzing usage data and student surveys. In assigning them to groups, I ask them to think about not only their interests and skills, but also their future goals, and how the team project they choose can help prepare them to reach those goals. For tutors who are graduate school bound, they can choose to conduct original research on Writing Center studies, and present it at academic conferences or publish it in undergraduate journals. For tutors who are future educators, they can work as embedded course tutors in addition to doing individual tutoring sessions. For tutors who want to focus on disciplinary writing, they can create special events or satellite tutoring opportunities for their home departments. For tutors who seek careers in advocacy and human rights, they can design training curriculum on best practices for inclusive, feminist, or anti-racist tutoring. Making explicit the professional skills, habits, and confidence they will develop in each of these groups infuses these tasks with direction and purpose. 

I also guide tutors to reflectively consider how they can best “market” their tutoring experience for their future professional goals. For example, with help from our campus Piper Center for Vocation and Career, we learn how to effectively tutor professional documents such as resumes, cover letters, and personal statements, and I ask tutors to bring a draft of their own application documents to this session. After learning some general advice about effectively crafting these documents, we talk explicitly about how tutors will frame their tutoring experiences on their resumes differently based on their professional goals. I share sample resume language for how they may choose to emphasize their technical skills, experience working collaboratively, problem-solving skills, or training certifications through the College Reading and Learning Association, tailoring the way they describe their tutoring experience based on their chosen field. I share the example of a tutor applying to medical school, who framed her tutoring experience as preparing her bedside manner, particularly in delivering unwelcome news. 

Tutors also write their own personal statements (after drafting preparatory literacy narratives and tutoring philosophies) that connect their work as a tutor with their long-term professional goals, giving them both guidance on tutoring students who are writing in this genre and a space to reflect on the professional preparation they are receiving as tutors. By learning how to effectively write professional documents, they become more effective tutors, while also benefiting their own professional development—and gaining a renewed sense of purpose in their work as tutors.

Two tutors (Emilia Galchutt ’21 and Brianna Doyle ’20) beside their poster for the MWCA conference this spring; they conducted research on science writing in the Writing Center.

In terms of contributing to tutors’ process of vocational discernment, I have developed over the past ten years (with wisdom from colleagues at Monmouth College) a training series on Vocation and the Writing Center.* During the first week, tutors learn about the history and context of the term “vocation,” identify the gifts and talents that they bring to their tutoring work, pinpoint pivotal tutoring sessions that gave them feelings of fulfillment and purpose, create maps of their communities and values, and set goals for their processes of vocational discernment that take into account the people, opportunities, time, and space they need to do this work. I give students vocation journals, which include both prompts related to identity, obstacles, and their ways of making meaning, and also quotes on vocation from Parker Palmer, Edward Hahnenberg, Martin Luther, May Sarton, and others. 

I always include individual conferences with tutors in this process. More recently, I have adapted these conversations to more closely follow the Iowa GROW (Guided Reflection on Work) model, which was developed at the University of Iowa under the belief that “Employment during college helps contribute to student success when meaningful connections between learning in the classroom and learning on the job are made evident.” These conversations are guided by four questions:

  1. How is this job fitting in with your academics?
  2. What are you learning here that’s helping you in school?
  3. What are you learning in class that you can apply here at work?
  4. Can you give me a couple of examples of things you’ve learned heretudy that you think you’ll use in your chosen profession?

Inevitably, I use the notes from our GROW conversations, the drafts of their personal statements, and the work from their team projects to craft the recommendation letters I write for them. As I think about my own vocation as a Writing Center director, writing these letters is one of my favorite parts of my job, as I see their years of work as tutors preparing them for public service careers, Fulbrights, law schools… preparing them for teaching, mentoring, advocating… preparing them for lives of meaning and purpose. 

* I invite you to use/adapt/share this resource, and others linked here, with your own students. One of the reasons I knew that Writing Center work is a good vocational fit for me is because of the incredible intellectual generosity in our community. We are good at sharing. I want to thank colleagues at Monmouth College who inspired and supported the development of these materials. I hope these resources may be of value to your campus community.

Bridget Draxler teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Originally trained in eighteenth-century British literature, Bridget’s current teaching and research focus on public humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Bridget co-authored, with Danielle Spratt, Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Humanities in Practice (University of Iowa Press, 2018), which includes an essay on Jane Austen reading groups. For more posts by Bridget, click here.

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