Opinion

The MAX Center, from the tutors

In light of the recent article “MAX Center tutors revise mission statement; administration disputes changes,” and the various responses to it, we tutors at the MAX Center would like to discuss with the rest of the Macalester community exactly what it is that we do. It is important to us that the Macalester community understand our priorities and goals as tutors, and we believe that this context is essential in addressing the conversations that have resulted from last week’s article. This editorial is written by eight MAX Center tutors, but should not be read as an official statement from the organization. Rather, this is a collective testimonial from students in the MAX Center, who are not just peer tutors, but also students who live and study in the Macalester community. We would like to raise awareness about our practices as tutors and initiate conversation as to how we can make the MAX Center a welcoming place for all students.

Although science and math tutors have different job titles, their work is very similar. Students may choose to schedule appointments with tutors ahead of time, but most math and science appointments come on a “drop-in” basis. Most students come looking for help on how to approach a particular problem on homework, but others come in looking for help with understanding specific concepts from lectures. The tutors then work with the students to devise strategies that best serve their needs. Strategies differ from tutor to tutor and from situation to situation. Sometimes tutors find it most effective to review concepts covered in lectures from the tutor’s own point of view. Other times, tutors find it best to teach the student by demonstrating a thinking process on an example problem. Regardless of how the tutor chooses to address the needs of the student, it is always their needs that remain central.

There are some common misconceptions that students have when first coming to meet with math and science tutors at the MAX Center. One common question we get is, “I finished my homework, can you check if my answers are correct?” It is not the goal of the tutors to check if the student’s answers are correct. But if a student has completed their homework and is unsure if they have done it correctly, tutors will be happy to listen to how the student arrived at those answers, and provide feedback on whether the method is correct or not. Another issue that we occasionally run into is with take-home exams. Although some professors are happy to have students use the MAX Center for take-home exams, we cannot tutor take-home exams unless we see a written statement from the professor stating that the students can use the MAX Center as a resource.

The math and science tutors meet semiweekly. These meetings consist of brief discussions about recent challenges that tutors were faced with, and then in-depth discussion about improving one aspect of our tutoring. For example, one week we discussed how we can apply Bloom’s taxonomy, a classification of different learning processes used in educational psychology, to tutoring situations. The goal of these meetings is to give us skills that we will use as tutors at the MAX Center and in other avenues of education and vocation.

Writing tutors, as the name suggests, help students with their writing. This process is more complicated than it sounds, since the help we give is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Before each appointment, students specify the writing concerns they’d like to address, including questions and difficulties with particular assignments or with the writing process in general. Writing tutors review these concerns via appointment sheets as well as the client’s work before the appointment, and brainstorm strategies to work through the client’s needs. Though tutors can provide suggestions and guidance, the client controls how the hour is spent. Our priority is always to help students develop a sustainable writing process that they can apply to later writing projects. Sustainable writing practices include general skills to structure and organize an essay, strengthen thesis statements and ensure that the paper is clear to the reader. While we help students with practical concerns, such as grammar, we aim to do so in a way that gives students the concrete tools they need to work independently on future projects.

Writing tutors work together and with supervisors to better their work and that of the MAX Center. Every week, writing tutors meet as a group with Jake Mohan and Becky Graham, the MAX Center writing faculty and counselors, as well as faculty/staff from the DML, Mellon Postdoctoral Writing Fellow Jacqueline Schiappa and others. With these different faculty members we take on projects that clarify and spread our message, such as revising the MAX Center tutor-training manual and mission statement. During these meetings, we discuss how we can be more helpful to students during appointments. We often read, reflect on and discuss articles about the ethics of tutoring writing, particularly with students who are non-native English speakers or who hold other marginalized positions in the higher education system in the United States.

Our discussions revolve around how we as writing tutors can support students in meeting their goals without perpetuating a hierarchy of English writing styles that privileges certain backgrounds over others. In other words, we aim to dismantle the idea that there is a single, “correct,” style of writing in English. We then do our best to live out these ethics in our interactions with our peers who come to the MAX Center. We recognize that many professors and future employers expect Standard Academic English, and thus our aim is not to withhold tools from students that allow them to work within these standards. Rather, we attempt to deliver these tools in a way that interrogates these expectations. One example of the ways we attempt to turn these conversations into sustainable changes is the MAX Pairs program, in which writing tutors provide weekly support and mentoring to those who struggle with a lack of confidence, proficiency or experience with written academic English. The consistent meetings develop trust between the student and their tutor and allow for continuous discussion as they navigate Macalester.

As MAX Center tutors, we acknowledge that academic centers, just like the institutions in which they are embedded, are not free of the oppressive hierarchies and prejudices that shape the rest of the world. Race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic standing, cultural background and nationality are all identities that we take with us into our academic work just as we take them elsewhere. Academic center personnel have not always involved themselves in conversations about positionality—how our identities influence our behaviors—and social justice. This distance affects underrepresented students the most, whose writing is reductively treated as a “problem” to be “fixed.” This op-ed is an example of the ways we are continuing to grapple with complex questions, from what it means to write in “Standard English” to what it means to “fix” or “check” someone’s work. In each meeting with our fellow students, we continue to develop our own skills and understanding in the subjects we tutor. We are committed to celebrating Macalester’s diversity, both within the wider community and on the assignment page.

As a peer-tutoring service intertwined with the needs of other groups on campus, we hope to start a dialogue with members of the campus community, and we would welcome feedback and discussion of our policies, practices and aims. If you have questions about any of what we said, please reach out to us. We’d like to hear from any member of the community, not just students, but faculty and staff as well. The contact information for the MAX Center professional staff is on our website, and we peer tutors are in and around campus, part of your community.

February 17, 2017

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