Why WriteLab Won't Replace Tutors

I’ve demonstrated how WriteLab works to dozens of writing center directors, and they all express different sentiments towards the program. Some are ecstatic to finally have a tool designed to support writing centers, while others worry that WriteLab will replace tutors. I always explain that we’re not in the tutor replacement business, nor are we attempting to disrupt the student-tutor relationship. And we don’t “fix” student writing. Our users and our students aren’t broken. We offer neutral comments about specific features of writing so the writer can practice making decisions about what she wants to say and how she wants to say it.

We want to support writing centers by helping tutors facilitate their workflow and by contributing to a dialogue about how writing centers are effective forms of writing support.

My experience as a tutor

I worked as an English tutor at my community college for two years. Given budget constraints, the director could staff the writing center with only one or two tutors at a given time despite the vast number of students lining up to meet with a tutor for twenty minute drop-in sessions. I remember one student who waited for over an hour to meet with me. She walked over to the table where I was working with another student, and said “you know, there are a lot of people who have been waiting here for an hour.” I apologized to her and told her that every session is twenty minutes, and I would work with her as soon as I could. She left the center hiding her tears because she didn’t receive the help she needed. I counted the number of students still waiting for a session, glanced at the clock, and calculated how I could work with the remaining twelve students. I knew I couldn’t help everyone unless I reduced the duration of the sessions to five minutes. Everyone wanted help with their writing, but most of them left before I could help them.

When my shift ended, the next tutor would arrive along with another wave of students seeking help. We never sacrificed quality to assist more students. We committed ourselves to providing the best service we could, to work with the writer not the essay, but when so many students lined up to receive help with their essays, I couldn’t help but feel like the conductor of a conveyor belt.

Writing centers are resource-constrained environments. We’ve heard administrators discuss reduced funding for student support services. We’ve listened to writing center directors who can't provide hard evidence illustrating how they have effective services, and we’ve listened to tutors express their concerns about the lack of resources.

Using WriteLab in writing centers

We’ve spoken to tutors and writing center directors who have implemented WriteLab in their centers. They have all found WriteLab helpful for different reasons, but they all agree that WriteLab improves tutor workflow and provides professional development in sentence-level features of writing.

Many of the tutors who have piloted WriteLab have found it helpful in the drop-in center because it enables students to receive comments on their writing while waiting to meet with a tutor. This benefits everyone. Tutees can receive immediate suggestions, observations, and questions and make decisions about their writing before they meet with a tutor, and tutors can devote adequate time to each student knowing they won’t leave the center without receiving help.

Tutors who have used WriteLab report that they experience anxiety when they have to tutor sentence-level features of writing. They say they can identify when a sentence sounds “off,” but they don’t always know how to explain why or demonstrate how to revise it. Over 70% of the tutors who have used WriteLab claim that WriteLab provides professional development in sentence-level features of writing, and as a result, they feel less apprehensive about tutoring sentence-level features of writing.

By using WriteLab, tutors learn about specific features of writing and how to offer neutral, non-imperative comments, which helps the student decide what they want to say and how they want to say it.

After experimenting with WriteLab, none of the tutors felt as though it would replace them. Their students still scheduled appointments and waited to see them in the drop-in center.

After experimenting with WriteLab, none of the tutors felt as though it would replace them. Their students still scheduled appointments and waited to see them in the drop-in center. WriteLab will never replace tutors because we don’t intend for it to do so.

But you don’t have to take my word for it

Here’s what one tutor said after using WriteLab: “I was honestly very hesitant to use the program at first because I assumed once it's integrated into tutoring sessions and classrooms, there would be no need for tutors anymore and that students' writing may actually get worse because they would have the option to revise their writing based on every suggestion WriteLab gives rather than deliberating upon themselves what makes for the best ideas or not. However, after trying it myself and having a few students take a look at the program, I've seen that WriteLab has the potential to make good writers into great writers and not good writers into lazy ones. The program makes you look harder at your own writing in ways you usually don't since it's very specific--with tools looking specifically for clarity and grammar for instance--and I praise it for helping tutors save time during tutoring sessions as well as helping tutees long after the tutoring session has ended.”