sustainable learning spaces

A Space Defined: Four Years in the Life of the FSU Digital Studios

Stephen J. McElroy, Jennifer Wells, Andrew Burgess, Jeff Naftzinger, Rory Lee, Josh Mehler, Jason Custer, Aimee Jones, and Joe Cirio, Florida State University

Williams Building
Johnston Building

Initial Tutor Training Practices
Designing a WC/DS Tutor Course
Prior Experience
The Future



Tutor training, whether in Writing Centers or Digital Studios, is not only central to a tutoring space’s success, but also and most often is a director’s most complicated task, especially in terms of sustainability. Educating tutors, whether they are professional tutors, graduate student tutors, or undergraduate student tutors, is an ongoing process, one that is often complicated by tutors’ other academic schedules and commitments.

In this section, we explore the challenge of educating or “training” graduate student tutors from the English Department to work in the Digital Studio at FSU. As every institution has a unique culture and every tutoring space is housed and funded in its own way, the opportunities that the FSU Digital Studio has benefited from as well as some difficulties the Digital Studio has had to work through may be unique to FSU. However, we will use this section to raise and explore critical questions like:

Figure 21: Interviews with former graduate student directors and tutors.
(Video Transcript)

In this video, former graduate student directors and tutors begin by reflecting on how they trained the tutors who would be tutoring in what was then a brand new space and a new concept to FSU. They discuss some of the challenges of being a graduate student and training/supervising their peers. They also describe a model of collaborative tutor education, elements of which are present in the current tutor education program. Halfway through the video, a second set of tutors, those who participated in the inaugural six-week combined Reading Writing Center/Digital Studio tutor education “bootcamp” course, reflect on the benefits and limitations of that experience.

In the sections below, we share some of the initial tutor-training practices we developed to help orient both new and experienced tutors staffing the Digital Studio. Here, we discuss the strategies we employed to help tutors understand the philosophical as well as the technological sides of the Digital Studio. Then, we provide a glimpse of “The Real World: Digital Studio,” featuring a back-and-forth conversation, which focuses on the current tutor staffing and education program, between three people: Dr. Wells, who directs the Digital Studios as well as the Reading Writing Centers and who teaches the bootcamp course; Jeff, who majored in Editing, Writing, and Media as an undergraduate at FSU and came to the MA program in rhetoric and composition and to the Digital Studio with extensive experience with the technological programs and software most students use in the Digital Studio; and Joe, who came to the MA program in rhetoric and composition without much knowledge of the programs and software used in the Digital Studio but who chose to tutor in the Digital Studio as a result of the summer bootcamp course. Together, the three discuss what happens when a group of new graduate students take a summer course to prepare them for their required TA-ship in the RWC and an optional TA-ship in the DS, what the theoretical connections are between Writing Center pedagogy and Digital Studio pedagogy, and whether a Digital Studio tutor with limited technical knowledge can learn enough in six weeks to tutor in the Digital Studio.

Initial Practices

When we first started to develop tutor-training practices for the Digital Studio, we decided that, while we were in many ways starting from scratch, we wanted our practices to be both instructive and sustainable. Because we were staffing the Digital Studio with TAs, ones who may work in the DS for only a semester due to changing schedules and responsibilities (not to mention the expectation of graduation), we knew that the prospect of training new tutors would be a recurring issue. To help us navigate this, we devised various staff meetings and implemented various tutor-training practices, most of which relied on the expertise of experienced tutors and/or the rhetorical and technological knowledge tutors were bringing with them to the Digital Studio.

Between the fall of 2009 and 2011, when Rory was directing the original Digital Studio location, he would begin each semester with a meeting for all of the Digital Studio tutors. Here, Rory would provide tutors with an overview of the Digital Studio by explaining the purpose of and services provided by the Digital Studio; the logistics for how to approach a given tutoring session, including strategies for difficult sessions and for ones that fall outside of the tutor’s comfort zone rhetorically and/or technologically; and the technology available within the Digital Studio. During this time, the tutors were afforded the opportunity to voice any questions or concerns they had, and throughout, the tutors were given the chance get to know one another a bit better (if they didn’t know each other already). If the questions asked could be answered in the moment, Rory and/or other tutors would do so, but if there were questions that didn’t have readily available answers (e.g., how do we market ourselves to teachers and departments outside of English?), they became exigencies for us to address in future staff meetings.

Every other week, we would hold staff meetings for the Digital Studio tutors. Sometimes, these meetings had a specific agenda, such as a one-day workshop on Photoshop or the opportunity to share and think about the tutoring and usage data collected thus far in the semester. Other times, these meetings were intended to be conversational. Such meetings provided moments for the tutors to share their respective experiences working in the Digital Studio and to ask questions pertaining to prior tutoring consultations (e.g., what have other tutors done when the Digital Studio is full and you’re the only tutor working at the moment?). In short, these conversational meetings functioned as debriefing sessions that fostered critical reflection and instructive dialogue.

In addition to offering an initial orientation meeting and by-weekly staff meetings, we also relied on experienced tutors to help train new tutors in both the philosophical and technological sides of working within the Digital Studio. Toward that end, we attempted as much as possible to schedule inexperienced tutors during the same time as experienced ones. That way, we could acclimate new tutors to working in the Digital Studio by having them observe and learn from experienced tutors. However, as Stephen notes in the video here, this strategy became less sustainable with the arrival of the second Digital Studio location. We doubled our space and the number of hours we were open, but we did so with relatively little growth in the number of tutors on staff. As a result, we no longer had the luxury of staffing multiple tutors at the same time; in most instances, tutors were working in the Digital Studio by themselves. However, as Stephen also mentions, what we perceived as a scheduling and training constraint unexpectedly became a training benefit. While we still believe that shadowing experienced tutors is an edifying practice, we also witnessed new tutors display more initiative to acquaint themselves with the Digital Studio, its practices, and its technology when they knew they would be staffing the space by themselves rather than with an experienced tutor. Without the safety and security of the experienced, the inexperienced were more motivated and took more conspicuous steps to familiarize themselves with the Digital Studio.

Another way in which we tapped into the expertise of our experienced tutors in developing tutor-training practices was to offer programmatic workshops for the tutors. Here, tutors with a given technological expertise (e.g., Photoshop, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Prezi) would develop and conduct a workshop for tutors who wanted to learn how to use a given program better. And because these workshops were offered at first to only those tutoring in the Digital Studio, they would often include discussions of not only how to use the given program, but also how to teach students how to use the program. The emphasis was both technological and pedagogical. Although we were well aware that it was unreasonable to assume that every tutor working in the Digital Studio would be proficient with every program, we realized that we could still learn from one another as best as possible in an attempt to mitigate technological blind spots.

In addition to relying on experienced tutors, we also trained inexperienced tutors by having them take advantage of the inevitable downtime during shifts near the start of each semester. While those staffing the Digital Studio might encounter a select few sessions during the first couple of weeks, the Digital Studio was usually quiet early on, as many teachers had yet to assign digital projects. Rather than allow tutors to use this downtime to focus on the work for classes they were taking or teaching, we instead required the tutors to use this time to increase their own functional literacy. To this end, we often asked tutors to create programmatic handouts. This strategy had a dual purpose: on the one hand, it required tutors to become proficient with a given technology, as they would not be able to create effective handouts without knowing the appropriate program, but on the other hand, it provided other tutors and our clientele with an online resource that we archived and made available on our website and that offered additional assistance beyond the Digital Studio’s traditional hours of operation.

Another way we had tutors, both experienced and inexperienced, utilize their downtime was to seek out and compile a list of helpful online tutorials. These proved quite advantageous in future tutoring sessions, for tutors who encountered technological impasses had an archive of instructive tutorials on hand. We also believed that displaying an honest amount of inexperience in a tutoring session, rather than projecting a façade of experience, was helpful in fostering productive tutor-tutee relationships. When tutees realized that the tutor was not a purveyor of knowledge and expertise, the tone of the sessions and the interactions between the tutor and tutee would often change: rather than the tutees seeing their session as space where they are taught how to do something, they instead started to see their sessions as opportunities to learn collaboratively with a tutor who also had a rhetorical and critical background.

A final way in which we attempted to prepare our new and experienced tutors was to anticipate the types of texts and project prompts they may encounter. To help with this, Rory contacted the teachers who were staffing the Editing, Writing, and Media (EWM) major track and select FYC teachers, asking them to provide samples of assignment prompts they would be using during the semester. During their downtime, tutors were encouraged to peruse these assignment prompts, which were available along with other resources and documents in the Digital Studio’s online Google Docs. In looking across these assignment prompts, tutors were asked to think about how they might respond to tutoring sessions wherein tutees were attempting to complete such assignments.

Although we realized we were developing ad hoc tutor-training practices, we knew that we could draw on our background in tutoring in writing centers (as revealed below) and, just as important, the experiences of our returning tutors. In addition, we put considerable thought into how we wanted the Digital Studio to function, how we wanted our tutors to act in such a tutoring space, what expertise we had available, and how we could take advantage of our collective experience and available time to develop sustainable best practices that could be retained and reemployed as we faced the continual need to train new tutors. Overall, we held multiple and diverse staff meetings, paired experienced tutors with inexperienced ones, offered programmatic workshops, required tutors to create programmatic handouts and to archive online tutorials during downtime, and collected assignment prompts that resulted in student-created digital texts. In some cases, as with the attempt to schedule experienced tutors with new tutors, our strategies weren’t sustainable, but even here, some unexpected and fortunate consequences resulted in our change in approach. Most often, however, our tutor-training practices provided us with a foundation on which to build. Nonetheless, we knew that, given the newness of this space and other next-gen multiliteracy centers, we needed to continue to develop our understanding of best practices. Shifting circumstances—including a second DS location, new administrative perspectives, and changing institutional constraints—brought about new approaches to sustainable training. One such approach was developing a six-week tutor education summer course that would help incoming TAs familiarize themselves with the theory about writing centers and digital studios and the way that theory informed the current spaces at FSU. In what follows, we share the attempts to design such a course, the issues we encountered in delivering the course, and the reflections from students who partook in it.

Designing the Course

Dr. Wells: In the spring of my first year at FSU, I learned that, due to a SACS accreditation requirement, all new MA and MFA students, as well as new PhD students without teaching experience, would be required to work in the RWC during their first semester at FSU, and that I would be teaching a 6-week intensive course over the summer to prepare them for this work. There would be very few TAships available in the RWC or the DS for experienced, returning tutors. While no director would be a fan of having no say in choosing who would be working in their center, most directors would jump at the chance to have the luxury of a six-week course to prepare their tutors.

I asked Josh Mehler and a team of Digital Studio tutors to create a Digital Tutor Training Manual which emphasized the rhetorical aspects of the studio tutoring, as well as give an overview of the programs available in the Studio. During the first year, I had observed that many Digital Studio tutoring sessions became very directive, with the tutor sometimes taking the mouse and doing the work for the student. There was often no conversation about whether or not whatever was being designed or created would fit the rhetorical situation for which it was to be used. So, I wanted the guide to balance the rhetorical aims of the studio with slightly less-directive tutor pedagogy and the technical knowledge the tutors would need.

With the summer course, I had to decide how to equip all 29 students to tutor in the RWC, while also introducing the students to the Digital Studio and hoping that 7 or 8 of them would want to work there as a part of their RWC appointment. When faced with limited time and a lot to do, my general philosophy is to make everything count for more than one thing. For example, during the first week, I introduced the new tutors to some of the work that has been done on the relationship between a student’s individual psychology and writing. We also studied the emerging literature on knowledge transfer. I felt that this background knowledge would be important regardless of where they would be tutoring. As an in-class activity, the students went into the Digital Studio where the Assistant Director, Stephen, led them in a crash course about the basics of Photoshop. They then created a visual image using Photoshop, to represent their understanding of the roles of student psychology, writing, and knowledge transfer. Was it an ideal way to teach 29 students everything they needed to know about how to use Photoshop? Of course not. Did it give the students a taste of what the Digital Studio was about? Yes. Did it ask them to apply their new knowledge in potentially new way? Yes. All told, the students had a workshop in Photoshop, a workshop in InDesign, and two full class periods to spend in the Digital Studio, working to create websites for their teaching e-portfolios.

Prior Experience

The Digital Studio tutors’ experiences of that summer course and their subsequent Digital Studio tutoring were directly impacted by the amount of previous experience they had with the programs in the Digital Studio.

Jeff: I already knew the programs that we spent the most time on (InDesign and Photoshop), so [during the summer course] I mostly took a backseat and let other people use the computers.

Joe: My initial—and continued—unfamiliarity with the programs became my biggest barrier toward establishing confidence in tutoring in the Digital Studio.
Those tutors who didn’t have the background knowledge but who were intrigued by what they received during the summer course wished there had been more attention paid to the technological aspects of what they would need to know, as opposed to the theoretical or philosophical.

Joe: During our training, there were some days dedicated to the introduction of some of what goes on in the studio as opposed to the writing center throughout the semester, but most importantly, the new TAs were introduced to some of the programs that the studio housed including Photoshop, Indesign, and sites like Wix and Weebly. There were maybe only a few of these sessions—one or possibly two—focused on giving the TAs a functional knowledge of the programs—mainly Photoshop; in other words, we were taught the basics that allowed us to get by.

Those tutors who did have the background knowledge they needed seemed to be able to focus more on the theoretical and philosophical.

Jeff: For me, the most beneficial parts of our training over the summer were getting introduced to the “idea” of the RWC and the DS, and also learning about how to effectively tutor students. I had heard of the RWC and the DS, but I had never visited, so I just assumed—like a lot of students, I think—that these places were for quick fixes and line editing. I actually thought that you dropped off your paper at the RWC and they edited the whole thing and then you came back and picked it up; looking back, I’m not really sure why I thought that’s what happened. I wasn’t totally sure what the DS did, but I assumed it was like the digital equivalent to the RWC, but more for tech problems. Obviously, I was way off base, so learning about the mission of the RWC and DS was huge. It totally changed the way that I thought about them.

I guess this is partly because of my ridiculous assumptions about the RWC and DS, but I had no idea how to be an effective tutor. I just assumed tutors would point out what errors in a paper were, and then send students on their way. I didn’t realize that the main goals were to actually help students learn how to identify their mistakes and fix them in the future. I had no idea what transfer was, or what self-efficacy and writing apprehension were (at least not the technical names and their long-term effects). After learning about them and reading material like North’s essays, I had a much clearer idea of what a tutor is supposed to do and how to be one. Even though tutoring in the RWC is different from tutoring in the DS, there is quite a bit of room to transfer those skills. In the DS, like the RWC, you don’t want to just give students the answer; you want to help them figure it out on their own. If I hadn’t learned about tutoring from the articles we read and what we discussed in class, it’s possible I would have just been giving students the answers and expecting them to leave.

Joe: The Digital Studio was something I’ve never encountered until I came to FSU. So, while I could draw upon my experiences from the Writing Center from my alma mater to compare to when discussing tutoring in the Florida State’s RWC, I had to invent what it meant to be a tutor in the Digital Studio. Was it similar to the RWC? If so, how? How are they different? What’s the difference between a studio and a center? My idea of the Digital Studio became framed by the theoretical material that was being provided and discussed based on Reading and Writing Centers. While there is a substantial amount of theoretical overlap, the key for me was applying this theoretical knowledge based off Writing Centers and adapting this knowledge to account for the difference in the nature of a Digital Studioif there is a difference.

Overall, the exposure to Digital Studio theory was based primarily on the Writing Center theorythis prompts me to wonder whether the Digital Studio is an extension of the Writing Center (which the training course seemed to imply) or an entity of itself. In my experiences as a Digital Studio tutor this semester, my conviction for either choice changes from day to day, tutee to tutee.


Neither group felt there was enough training for the Digital Studio, but they recognized that such a thing may not be possible in six weeks.

Jeff: But, I can see where it may have been helpful for students that had no idea what these programs were, and/or had no idea how to use them. Because all of the prospective tutors come in with varying levels of experience, it’s hard to find a middle ground, especially in 6 weeks. I think it might be more helpful to give us an overview of what the programs are used for and what they can do. Then, show us examples, and maybe break us into smaller groups to get help with individual programs.

Joe: Based on my experiences on both the summer training and the continued training on my own time, and in workshops throughout the semester, the summer training’s focus on theoretical knowledge—even if it was achieved through Writing Center theory—became the most helpful; on the other hand, I didn’t come to know how to practice being a Digital Studio tutor until I was actually tutoring, observing tutoring sessions, or utilizing free time with the programs during the semester. This free time alleviated the challenge that came when I would attempt to tutor a student yet was just getting to know the program myself.

After tutoring in the Digital Studio for a semester, all of those tutors who had the background knowledge before they began working in the DS chose to return for a second semester. There was attrition among the group who had not had that prior experience: three chose to teach two courses instead of working in the DS or the RWC, two chose to work in the RWC but not the DS, and four chose to continue working in the DS. The predictor seemed to favor tutors who were self-motivated and self-directed enough to take on self-assigned professional development tasks.

Jeff: I will say that after a semester of tutoring in the Digital Studio, I’m still willing to tutor the next semesterand all the while knowing that I still have a lot to learn about the programs. There’s something about Digital Studio tutoring that you can’t get training in, but which is probably the most important: the willingness to want to learn and knowing that it’ll be a challenge.

Joe: There needs to be a degree of willingness and dedication to learning how to become knowledgeable with the popular programs in the beginning of the semester. I learned Photoshop and InDesign by giving myself projects to accomplish in those programs during my time at the start of the semester. Because of the scarce amount of tutors in the DS, there were not many times when an experienced tutor would be available to tutor me in these programs, so Googling my solutions became a very important resource. These mini-projects allowed me to become more proficient to help students, but tutoring students themselves also became the largest help in discovering the different tools and uses of each program.

The Future

Dr. Wells: As a result of making this chapter, I now have a more clear sense of how the summer course failed to prepare all of the tutors who wanted to tutor in the Digital Studio to tutor in the Digital Studio. At the same time, I am still not sure what is reasonable to expect from a six week course, especially when that course also has to equip students to work in the Reading Writing Center. I think joint training can be achieved when the incoming tutors have a basic level of skill in using programs like Photoshop and InDesign, or whatever programs a specific center uses. I do believe that quite a bit of tutoring pedagogy developed through writing center studies can be applied to digital studio settings. Yes, there are differences, but the fundamental goals are similar. I’d like to say we have the tutor education challenge sorted out, but we don’t. Every year is better than the last, and in that, I have hope for the future.

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