Rhetoric and Composition

Survival Guide for Course Tutors and Professors

Survival Guide for Course Tutors and Professors

compiled by Lily Rosenman and Lydia Lunning

Dear Course Tutors and Professors,

We have just completed Rhetoric and Composition 481, Teaching and Tutoring Writing Across the Disciplines, and have completed one semester each as course tutors. With the growing First-Year Seminar Program, many professors are beginning to use individual course tutors for the first time while RHET 481 continues to produce first-time writing associates every semester. All first-time course tutors will feel nervous, even under-prepared to be responsible for tutoring a whole class for an entire semester; we thought it would make things easier if there were some kind of basic resource that filled in some gaps other course tutors have felt in the past. We hope to provide a few helpful hints about writing associate/professor communication, integrating the writing associate into a course, and introducing students to the tutoring options Oberlin has to offer. Our guide is divided into two parts: the first focuses on questions a professor might have about what writing associates have been trained to do and how to best fit them into their plans for the course, and the second focuses on questions a writing associate might have about how to be most effective (and happy) as writing associates. We hope you find our guide helpful, but it is by no means exhaustive. The nature of course tutoring is necessarily class specific, so every situation cannot be covered. Enjoy.

Section I: Tips for Professors

Some Background Information:

Where do course tutors come from?

The Oberlin Rhetoric and Composition Department teaches a course each semester that produces 12 trained writing associatess employed by the College. Some of the writing associates work at the drop-in Writing Center in Mudd 201, while others are assigned to work extensively with a single course (usually one that is writing intensive or for writing certification). While both groups are trained in the same manner, there are important differences between the job of a desk tutor and the job of a course tutor.

What is RHET 481?

Students are invited to apply for RHET 481: Teaching and Tutoring Writing Across the Disciplines during registration. This course is the prerequisite for becoming an Oberlin College writing associate, and students are accepted based on a writing sample, and occasionally recommendations by other professors.
The course focuses on a variety of tutoring concerns, ranging from practical questions about how to hold a successful tutoring session to theoretical questions about writing instruction and the implications of a writing associate’s role. Through exploration of theoretical articles on tutoring and writing pedagogy, new writing associates are asked to consider issues of written comments on essays, grammar, style, and audience, as well as techniques for working with ESL students. There is considerable discussion of what it means to write and teach writing in higher education.

What are writing associates trained for?

TutorsStudents are initially trained as desk tutors since fewer new writing associates are expected to work with a course right away. There is a basic formula that desk tutors use when going over a paper because they will probably only work with a single student once. In a typical session, a tutee brings in a paper at some stage of completion to a writing associate, usually with specific questions or concerns, and reads the draft aloud to the writing associate. Rather than simply editing or proofreading, the writing associate asks questions to help students clarify their thoughts; the writing associate merely guides the tutee toward a plan for action rather than telling them the “right answer.”

What's special about a course tutor?

Course tutors give students the opportunity to work with one writing associate on a regular basis for a whole semester, not just for one assignment. Since course tutors work with students over a period of time, they are better able to get to know the students and the students’ writing style and are then better able to make suggestions for improvement. Writing skills are developed gradually; what might be a consistent problem in the first paper can be worked out over subsequent assignments. The course tutor is also directly aware of what is going on in the course and is therefore better able to answer any questions a tutee might have about specific assignments. Many course tutors see themselves as intermediaries between the students and the professors, facilitating communication; often times tutees feel more comfortable voicing writing concerns to the writing associate, who is not responsible for any final grades.

Communication is Vital

CommunicationIt is important to have a strong idea about exactly what you want a course tutor to accomplish and how you expect the writing associate to fit into the course. The better able you are to communicate your expectations to the writing associate, the better able the writing associate is to fulfill that role and provide the most help to your students. It is also important that professors meet with their assigned course tutor at some point before classes begin, or at least during the first week of the semester. It’s best to get the writing associate and the professor on the same page as soon as possible. Some topics that you may want to cover are:

  • Class Attendance: Going to classes helps writing associates understand what’s going on in the course and also keeps tutees aware of their presence in the class, but most writing associates are taking full schedules in addition to their tutoring duties. It’s a good idea to find out how often your writing associate is available.
  • Class Readings: Obviously, it is important for writing associates to be familiar with the material covered in class, but the amount that is necessary for them to read is dependant on the course. Because writing associates are not taking the class for credit (and have schedules of their own) it is difficult to find a writing associate who can do every stitch of reading for the course. Most professors who require the writing associate to keep up with a significant amount of the readings make books and articles available to the writing associates instead of requiring them to purchase their own copies.
  • Class Participation: While a writing associate is by no means a teaching assistant, a writing associate is still not only another student enrolled in the course, so many first-time course tutors are uneasy about what their role in the classroom should be. Decide with your writing associate how their presence in the classroom can be used to its best advantage (writing associates shouldn’t just give answers, but can help guide discussion and give opinions/advice or can simply observe class silently).
  • Writing for Your Class: You should make it clear to the writing associate what you expect from your students in their writing assignments. Writing for different disciplines calls for a student to conform to different conventions. It is helpful for the writing associate to know what you expect in order for them to answer any questions as well as know what problems to focus on in individual meetings with the students. This can range from the style of citation you prefer to the number of sentence-level errors you find unacceptable to the way students structure their arguments.
  • Meeting Together: Decide how often you and your writing associate will meet to go over course concerns during the semester. Frequency of meetings can vary from twice a semester to twice a week, and this usually depends on your writing associate’s level of involvement. We suggest meeting at least once or twice a month to keep each other up to date.
  • Meetings with the Students: This is the most important role of a course tutor, so it should be made clear what is expected. There are two schools of thought on this; some professors make meetings between their students and the writing associate optional, while others make them mandatory. Talk with your writing associate about which is most appropriate for your class. We go into more detail on this subject in a later section.

Ways to Incorporate a writing associate into Your Course

Making a Syllabus with a writing associate in Mind

FacultySometimes having a writing associate for your course ends up being more work for the professor. The writing associate ought to make life easier for you as well as your students, so one way to ensure this is to carefully consider the role of your writing associate as you design your syllabus. Taking care of nuts and bolts before the semester takes off prevents many logistical difficulties from having to be worked out when time has become more precious. Keeping a writing associate in mind from the beginning makes it possible for the writing associate’s contribution to grow along with the class instead of implanting a writing associate’s function into an existing syllabus.

Deciding writing associate Involvement

There is not one right way to do this. However, there are a number of strategies that make a writing associate most effective in a course. Just because a writing associate is assigned to work with a course does not mean that students know how or when to approach them. The professor should decide how involved they want the writing associate to be, and incorporate them accordingly. This should be decided on the basis of your expectations for the course alongside the amount of time and energy the writing associate is available to supply. Here are some models professors have used in the past.

Minimal writing associate Involvement

Meeting with the writing associate is encouraged, but not required. The writing associate holds weekly office hours that are announced in class, or students can arrange individual appointments though email. The writing associate attends at least two-thirds of the classes, participates occasionally if it’s appropriate, meets with the professor once a month to touch base, and is not required to keep up with all the readings.


  • as incentive for students to visit the writing associate, a small extension (of a day or so) is given on any assignments that students discuss with the writing associate.
  • a student may meet with a writing associate to go over an assignment after it has been handed back and re-write the paper to be turned in again.
  • the professor highly encourages students to meet with the writing associate by regularly announcing office hours and mentioning the writing associate as a resource, both in class and in individual meetings with students.
  • a sign-up sheet is passed around in class near paper deadlines so students can reserve times during the writing associate's office hours as another reminder.

Mid-range writing associate Involvement

Students are required to meet with the writing associate for at least one assignment. The writing associate may still hold weekly office hours and is available through email, or students can sign up individually during the week. The writing associate attends 90% of classes and does some select readings, meets with the professor every two weeks or so to discuss student progress, and helps facilitate some class discussions, e.g. activates small group discussions, asks leading questions in the large group.


  • everyone in the class is required to meet with the writing associate to work on the first paper assignment, and after that meetings are optional.
  • the writing associate reads and makes comments on student work. Students get comments from both professor and writing associate, and meet with either the professor or the writing associate about the comments.
  • for classes that have students from different years, only first-year students have a writing associate requirement.
  • drafts are required instead of meetings with the writing associate. The draft-writing process often gives students a reason to seek out writing associate assistance.

Significant writing associate Involvement

The writing associate meets with students on a regular basis. Appointments are made in class or through email. The writing associate is expected to attend all classes and keep up with the reading assignments. The writing associate and the professor meet once a week or so to discuss class dynamics, student writing, and any other concerns that might come up. The writing associate is an active presence in class discussions.


  • the class is divided into two groups, and one group meets with the professor to discuss drafts one week and the writing associate the next, so every two weeks the writing associate and professor will have had meetings with the whole class.
  • a meeting with the course tutor is required at least once before each assignment is due if a paper is not due every week.
  • the writing associate leads writing workshops during the semester that address concerns specific to the writing process.
  • the writing associate leads small discussion groups concerning writing assignments (e.g. peer revision) outside of class.

Things to Avoid

The professor is in a unique position to influence the experience of a course tutor for both writing associates and tutees. Most missteps are easily avoided through communication. Some problems that may be encountered in a semester are specific to a course and/or the students in it. However, there are some things everyone should be on the lookout for to be avoided if possible.

The number one problem course tutors face is misconceptions of the writing associate's role on the part of the students. Either students feel that writing associates are only for "remedial"writing and therefore don’t go to meetings, or students view the writing associate as a teaching assistant who can and will answer questions better left to the professor. Sometimes students think a writing associate only fulfills an editing function, or sometimes they think of a writing associate as someone who can give away all the answers. In some extreme cases, students think a writing associate is there to counsel them through any and all troubles they might have (hating the professor, hating other students, hating themselves…), or they just have unrealistic expectations for the help a writing associate has time to give. The professor can avoid or counteract these situations by constantly supporting the writing associate and explaining the role of the writing associate to the class early on (even in the syllabus).

Occasionally, writing associates run into trouble with the expectations of the professor. Again, the best cure is communication. Make sure your writing associate feels comfortable bringing up any concerns they might have, and be clear with each other about what is and is not possible for a writing associate to accomplish.

Section II: Tips for Course Tutors

Words of Wisdom from Previous Course Tutors

If this is the first time you’ve ever tutored for a course, you are undoubtedly feeling a little overwhelmed and uncertain of what your position in the course you are working with should be. This is only natural, and of course things will get easier as the semester progresses. In general, it is good to remind yourself why you are there. A survey of experienced course tutors provided us with some quick sketches of what a course tutor is and is not.

Course Tutors See Themselves As:

  • a peer
  • an advisor
  • an advocate
  • familiar with the assignments, expectations, and writing process
  • friendly
  • responsible
  • courteous
  • attentive
  • empathetic
  • approachable
  • a bridge between the professor and the students in the class

Course Tutors Do Not Think They Should Be:

  • an ultimate authority figure
  • a know-it-all
  • a bad-ass (perfect)
  • an expert on the course material just because she is in the class and works with the
  • hurried
  • distant
  • a TA or another instructor
  • grammarians
  • just editors
  • able to answer every question

Communication is Vital

Meeting the Professor:

Sometime before or during the first week of classes, you should expect to meet with the professor you will be working with. You should be sure to discuss practical matters, such as how often you should attend class, how much of the reading you will be responsible for, whether or not books/materials will be provided for you (which is very likely if a significant amount of reading is expected of you), when and how you should participate in the classroom, when and how often you will meet with the professor outside of class, and, most importantly, how the professor envisions your actual tutoring duties (mandatory drafts, required meetings, small group discussion/revision, written comments, etc.).

You should also not be afraid to ask your professor what they see as your role in the class, and how involved they expect you to be. You should be clear about the time and energy you are able to commit to the course (don’t say you can go to every class if you can’t, be up front about how much of the readings you are going to be able to complete). It might also be useful to find out about the professor’s past experiences with writing associates, and share any of your own experiences that seem relevant. Since this is your first meeting, of course it is a chance to get to know one another. During the semester, you will be working with this professor instead of for this professor, so it’s different than meeting with one of your other professors about a course in which you’re enrolled. Some professors actually encourage feedback from their writing associates, either about individual students or the course as a whole, and your input helps them craft the course and might benefit students in the future.

Meeting the Class:

Not to be trite, but first impressions are very important, and this case is no different. You will most likely be given the opportunity to introduce yourself on the first day you attend class, and as with your professor, it is good to be up front about your role as a writing associate. You should, of course, mention your name, and have contact information (email, phone, office hours, where to meet you—the Writing Center, Wilder, lounges, etc.). Hopefully you will have already met with the professor and will have a good idea of the tasks you will be performing during the semester, so you can talk a little about how meetings with you will work, and emphasize that you are there as a writing associate for every student in the class, not just papers that “need it.” Your introduction might need to be brief, but if you have time, go over all the stages of the writing process that you are there to help with—brainstorming, researching, outlining, drafting, polishing, and so on. Some people make handouts with all of the above information included to go along with the initial verbal introduction.

"Being"in Class:

ClassroomIn RHET 481, you learn about successful ways to conduct yourself in individual meetings with tutees, but when you’re a course tutor, your behavior in class matters, too. Many writing associates have questions about class participation, and while some things can be worked out in discussions with the professor, a lot just has to do with your own comfort level. Some writing associates are very active and should remain conscious of not dominating class discussion, while other writing associates are more reserved and should make an effort in other ways so as to not seem disengaged (you shouldn’t fall asleep or do other homework during class meetings, just as you shouldn’t raise your hand all the time or talk over students). The way you present yourself in class affects the way your tutees will interact with you in individual meetings, so be aware of any behavior that might decrease your credibility or make students uncomfortable approaching you.

Just because you introduce yourself on the first day, some students might need reminding that you are an available resource. If your services are not built in as part of the course (i.e. mandatory meetings), it can be useful to make periodic announcements about your availability, especially before paper deadlines. It is a good idea to get an email list for the class from your professor early on so you can communicate with students outside of class.

Things for writing associates to Avoid

Being open with your professor will usually prevent you from being overworked or ignored, but it is also important to communicate with the students that you work with. writing associates in the past have been most frustrated with students’ misconceptions of a writing associate’s purpose and availability. Remember that you have work for your other classes, too, and you are not responsible for opening up your entire schedule for last minute meetings. As with desk tutors, keeping meetings to 30-45 minutes can help with this, as well as making it clear when you are absolutely unavailable (some writing associates don’t feel comfortable being contacted at home and limit communication with tutees to email or scheduled conferences, and you should always let the professor and the students know when you need to make time for your own work, like during midterms or reading period).

Some students who are unfamiliar with the writing associateing program at Oberlin might think you are a resource for more than just writing. Don’t feel obligated to answer questions about the class material that are better left to the professor, don’t feel the need to act as a peer counselor, and if a student would like to work with you on a paper for another class, make sure that you schedule a separate meeting or direct the student to the Writing Center drop-in hours. Your level of involvement with students is almost entirely up to you, so set your own boundaries and don’t be afraid to communicate them to everyone involved.

Section III: Conclusion

Every tutoring situation is unique, and different disciplines and course levels require different things from a writing associate. A lot of decisions will be determined by the particular situation, and things can change over the course of a semester, so keep meeting together to ensure that a course continues to run smoothly. These suggestions are just a starting point. Thanks for reading our survival guide. We hope you found some of it useful. Good luck, and have a great semester!