When Non-directive Tutoring Fails

You’re likely familiar with the concept of non-directivity, even if you don’t know the word for it. A lot of writing center scholars call for tutors to be non-directive with their clients. This mainly means, avoiding telling the client what to say or specifically what to add or delete to a paper. Some ways to be non-directive might be avoiding ever holding the pen, making sure the student is the only one to write on the their paper, or when a client asks you how to do something, you might respond with “Well, what do you think?” These strategies sometimes work very well for clients and tutors. However, instead of thinking of non-directivity as one strategy of many, a great deal of writing centers in universities around the US teach and talk about non-directivity as the only way to be student-centered, another writing center buzzword that means being focused entirely on the needs and well-being of the client.

The trouble here is that almost every tutor has had a session where non-directive methods don’t work. Perhaps the student really needs to be told and shown a particular kind of writing move than she just doesn’t know. Or perhaps a student has come in asking only for help with grammar. Regardless of the reason, when a session isn’t working, and the only thing a tutor has been taught is that non-directive tutoring is the only way to tutor the “right way,” we run into trouble because they tutor is immobilized and the client doesn’t know what to do. That’s what my presentation was about. I presented, at least partially, on a study I performed at Ohio University, where I surveyed writing center consultants about when they felt guilt as tutors in the center. An overwhelming number said they felt guilt when they thought they were being too directive. This, to me, is a serious bummer, because non-directivity is but one strategy of many, and we as tutors should feel confident in our ability to shift our methods as needed in a session without worrying if we’re breaking the rules or ruining a client for life.

At this year’s IWCA conference, the keynote speaker, Ben Rafoth, the writing center director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discussed the importance of deviating away from Northian tradition in order to meet the needs of all students coming to the Writing Center. Rafoth’s suggestion is all at once revolutionary, and also part of a conversation that has been going on for years among writing center circles, a conversation that I added to in my presentation: “The (R)evolutionary Space Between: Considering the Conflation of Non-directivity and Student-Centeredness.” Thinking about these ideas at IWCA prompted me to share a little with other writing center consultants.

A little on Northian tradition. In 1984, Stephen North’s essay “The Idea of the Writing Center” was published in The English Journal, and in this essay, North coined the oft-cited (and likely at least a little familiar to most tutors) statement “Our job is to make better writers, not better writing.” This statement, along with the rest of his essay, has been highly revered and elevated to near holy-status by many writing center scholars as the main ethos of the writing center world. That ethos is, essentially, that the writing center is not a fix-it-shop but rather a place where tutors help clients with their papers through conversation, and guide clients to make their own writing choices, rather than telling the clients what to do. This facilitative, conversational philosophy, then, has also paved the way for non-directive tutoring to become the main strategy taught to tutors.

I was pleased to see that at IWCA, many others besides me and Dr. Rafoth discussed the importance of diversifying tutoring methods and reorienting ourselves to our relationship to key scholarship that informs those methods. Many of these sessions focused specifically on identity as well—for if we only have one tutoring method for all different kinds of people from all different subject positions, we are likely not serving quite a few student populations as well as we could. Seeing these presentations was refreshing because I was able to see a shift in thought about what the “rules” for tutoring are or should be—I hope next year’s IWCA conference can continue the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *