The Online Tutor as Cross-Curricular Double Agent

by Patricia Ericsson and Tim McGee


Tutors occupy a complex pedagogical space in which they are often asked to serve two masters: teacher and student. The knowledge/power relationships within academe, (often vaguely defined but usually clearest between student and teacher), get especially muddy around so-called peer tutoring, even under ideal circumstances. When the tutoring goes online, a new level of complexity is added to the web of power relationships.

When the client's primary goal is learning, the tutor can serve both masters simultaneously. When the client's goal conflicts with the teacher's, the tutor may have to choose between masters. Tutors who have been trained well will not readily abandon the institutional goal of student learning. But even well trained tutors can end up working against, rather than for, the goals of the teachers whenever the tutors and the teachers operate under substantially different epistemologies. Such a condition, understandable enough across the curricula of different departments can also occur within a single department (e.g., English) or even within a program (e.g., Composition).

Although the body of research dealing with peer tutoring in writing is quite extensive, the advent of online tutoring has opened new avenues for additional research. Admittedly, some of the precepts of good face-to-face tutoring can be transferred to the online situation, but the electronic interface significantly changes the student-tutor relationship. Our interest in defining the role and determining the effectiveness of our online tutors led us to examine one seemingly proficient tutor and her practices.

This is a tale of accidental discovery, of contradiction, and, in the end, a cautionary tale. The accidental discovery is of a sort common to much research: we examined a phenomenon, (in this case, a "successful online tutor") expecting to identify certain things, namely, the attributes of her success. We found something quite unexpected; the irony was that our findings were not only the opposite of what we expected, but they may pose a challenge to conventional wisdom regarding technology as an aid to the reform of writing pedagogy.

Although some current scholarship discounts sweeping statements about the use of computers for effecting change, even a recent book recounting the history of computers and writing clings to the notion that computers can serve as "harbingers, emissaries, even agents of change" (Hawisher et al 7). What follows is the story of our research and findings, and though narrative in form, it may be an argument on that topic--an argument in the guise of a story.

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