Outpost and Short Tutorials: Challenges, Strategies, and Pitfalls

By February 13, 2012Peer Writing Tutoring

While it’s nice to finish a conference in under thirty minutes and return to meebo until the next student arrives at the outpost, short tutorials take a certain degree of skill to lead effectively. I’ve been working at the Loop campus outpost this quarter and while business is slow at times, the short conferences that do happen can be challenging. 

Kathryn Terzano from Ohio State University discusses some important aspects of this type of writing center work in “Short-Time Tutorial Strategies.”

It is important for any tutor to understand what can feasibly be accomplished in a short tutorial. Fifteen to twenty minutes may not be enough time to read through an entire draft and provide feedback, so setting the agenda is imperative.

However, as Terzano points out, it is equally important not to “sacrifice pleasantries for the sake of time” and rush into the student’s project. Beginning the conference with a friendly conversation is the best way for the tutor to set the writer at ease and identify his or her primary concerns. I make a point to ask every writer I meet about his or her classes, the project itself, and the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the draft (if there is one). In my experience, these questions help to reveal the writer’s concerns in a short amount of time.

Another piece of information that plays an integral role in short tutorials is the assignment due date. Knowing how much time the writer has to make revisions will help to establish a narrow focus for the tutorial. As Terzano notes, short tutorials should focus on the writer’s immediate needs with the due date in mind; we want to make sure that “a first-year student isn’t advised to start from scratch on his nine-page paper that’s due tomorrow.”

After the writer has identified what areas of the project he or she wants to work on, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of the session. For example, my first outpost writer brought in a draft of her research study analysis for an ELA class. After ‘breaking the ice,’ it was clear that the writer’s main concern was grammar, but the draft was several pages long, so I asked her to point to specific paragraphs that she wanted feedback on. In the little time that we had, I was able to read over a few paragraphs of the essay, identify recurring errors, and explain some basic rules for use of commas, articles, and pronouns. After about twenty minutes, the writer was in a hurry to get to her next class, but very thankful for the suggestions I gave her.

As with any tutorial, time management is a must. However I’ve noticed that it can be difficult to wrap things up at the outpost, as students often have a final urgent question related to their project. In this case one must be polite and emphasize outstanding commitments.

Terzano stresses the need for tutors to use their own discretion during slow shifts when a writer may benefit from just a few extra minutes of discussion. If the tutor does not have another walk-in or appointment to attend to, it may be worthwhile to spend a bit more time with the writer. However if the writer needs more than ten extra minutes, the tutor should reccomend a follow-up appointment.

Even if the writer is in a hurry towards the end of the conference, it is always helpful to provide some final words of encouragement, or quickly summarize the ‘next steps’ for the project.

With these considerations in mind, we can lead our short conferences in a manner that is both thorough and timely.