Middle Order Concerns: Between Directive and Non-Directive Methodologies

Like the podcast bearing the same name, this blog post will examine the ways in which writing centers must move fluidly and reside comfortably in a middle space between two contrasting tutoring methodologies.

Since their inception roughly half a century ago, writing centers, and the ensuing theories and manuals writing center practitioners created, have drawn a clear line in the sand between non-directive and directive tutoring methodologies. Non-directive tutoring, as the name suggests, calls for a hands-off approach where the tutor serves as a friendly and knowledgeable guide through the writing process. Directive tutoring, in contrast, is more informative and hands-on, with the tutor explaining concepts and taking a more active role in guiding the conversation to particular issues.

For decades, non-directive techniques have been preferred in writing center theory and practice. In "The Idea of a Writing Center," Stephen North, whose name reverberates through the halls of writing center scholarship, famously declares that the role of a writing center can be summarized quite succinctly: "Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing" (438). Students who leave sessions with a better understanding of their own individual processes, as well as the writing process in general, will indeed be better equipped to write within and across textual genres. In his influential essay "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do the Work," Jeff Brooks echoes North's view, claiming that a writer who simply receives information from a tutor "may leave with an improved paper, but he will not have learned much" (220). Brooks rightly asserts student writers must be engaged in the session and actively involved in any writerly decision; however, can minimalist tutoring address all student needs?

In recent years, the line separating the two approaches has grown increasingly blurry. In "A Critique of Pure Tutoring," Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns argue that directive tutoring can be just as empowering as its non-directive counterpart. According to the authors, directive tutoring can show "rhetorical processes in action," "improve the connection [of the piece of writing] to current conversation in the discipline," and, perhaps most importantly, offer "interpretive options for students when none seem available" (237).

Building off the work of Shamoon and Burns, Tom Truesdell suggests that writing center practitioners are not stuck in a methodological binary. In "Not Choosing Sides: Using Directive and Non-Directive Methodology in a Writing Session," he argues that "instead of conducting either a directive or non-directive session, tutors should feel comfortable conducting a session that uses both in a complimentary manner" (8). Truesdell provides a transcript of an actual session he conducted with a student, whom he refers to as Jackie, where employing only non-directive techniques would have failed to address key issues in the student's work. According to Truesdell, the student wanted to focus on lower-order concerns while he recognized there were larger global issues that should be addressed first. Instead of allowing Jackie to guide the entire session, Truesdell deftly guided her towards these global issues. Truesdell's rationale for taking a more directive approach is the true highlight of his piece: "As a member of a knowledge community, I knew the global issues of the paper were more significant and pressing. In other words, if I had adhered to a non-directive approach, Jackie and I would have ignored the main obstacle preventing her from communicating effectively in a particular discourse community" (9). Truesdell recognized that he had to help Jackie deepen her understanding of the conventions in which she was writing.

Helping students master the conventions of writing in particular disciplines and genres is essential in my center and, as I learned at AUM, a key tool when working with multilingual learners. I dedicate time during training, staff meetings, and tutor tune ups to mastering genre and disciplinary conventions. Like Truesdell, my team and I are, or must become, "members of a knowledge community" in order to help students "communicate effectively" within a given "discourse community."

I tell my team that in order to take the temperature of tutoring sessions, we must slide up and down a figurative non-directive/directive thermometer, and not sweat when the directive heat turns on high for a moment or two. Furthermore, while Truesdell's article discusses how he guided a student away from surface errors or lower-order concerns to global issues of structure, argumentation, and convention, I believe that the opposite directive action is also sometimes necessary. In other words, my team and I also guide students away from global issues in order to focus on surface errors. Some students want to focus on argumentations and structure when more fundamental and local issues are more pressing (please see my past post on lower/later order concerns). 

I look forward to discussing Truesdell's article with my team during our staff meeting tomorrow.


Works Cited:

Brooks, Jeff. "Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work." The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory, edited by Robert W. Barnett and Jacob S. Blummer, Allyn and Bacon, 2001, pp. 219-224.

North, Stephen M. "The Idea of a Writing Center." College English, vol. 46, no. 5, 1984, pp. 433-446.

Shamoon, Linda K., and Deborah H. Burns. "A Critique of Pure Tutoring." The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory, edited by Robert W. Barnett and Jacob S. Blummer, Allyn and Bacon, 2001, pp. 225-241.

Truesdell, Tom. "Not Choosing sides: Using Directive and Non-Directive Methodology in a Writing Session." The Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 36, no. 1, 2007, pp. 7-11.