(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)
In English 260 (Intro to Writing Center Theory and Practice), new tutors write a tutor philosophy at the end of the semester, expressing their ideas about tutoring and writing centers in any format they choose. Tutors have created everything from poems to skits to songs/raps to paintings, as well as a range of texts. A few years ago, I decided it was time for me to tackle this task along with my tutors and here’s the latest version of my “tutor philosophy.”
Lesson #1. Writers need to be active participants in their own learning
My writing center work has taught me that Stephen North didn’t get the quote quite right when he said, “our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.” The grammatical problem with this sentence is that the subject doing the “producing” is still the tutor and/or the writing center. For a tutoring session to work and learning to happen, both tutor and writer have to be involved. In order to improve, a writer has to write and think and write some more. A tutor can be involved in this process, but they cannot be the sole actor in it. We all have had sessions like this—where the student pushes the paper across the table at us or demands, “Tell me what to write,” and the fundamental problem with those moments is that if one gives in, nothing changes.
It’s no different in the classroom. If a student wants to learn, she has to do. There is no shortcut, no magic wand I can wave, no scintillating PowerPoint presentation I can show that will do the job instead . . . no matter how much a student or I might wish there were. As teacher, my job is to help students “write” as much as possible—to set up conditions where writing is less scary, to come up with projects that will push students to write in different ways, and to offer lots of advice and strategies about how to navigate the process. However, writing center work reminds me that in order for learning to happen, both parties have to be involved. A student will get as much out of my class as they are willing to put in and there is no way around that, any more than it is possible to have a successful tutoring session when the writer refuses to play a role in the process. The classroom and the writing center are sites for dialogues, not monologues.
Lesson #2. Questions are powerful tools
As a tutor, one of the most useful questions I can ask is, “What is your essay about?” As a teacher, one of the most useful questions I can ask is, “What is your essay about?” Over twenty years ago at the University of Iowa, I learned to ask “tell me more” questions and I’ve never stopped asking them. Tell me more about the assignment. What do you think the teacher is asking you to do? Tell me more about the day you found out you were pregnant. What details stand out? Tell me more about why you don’t have a draft of your essay. What can I do to get you writing? I think questions are important in the writing center and in the classroom for two reasons—one, is that if framed effectively, they encourage dialogue, and the other is that they assume that all there is to know does not lie on the surface or on the page.
However, the best question in the world is useless if you don’t pay attention to the answer. As a tutor, I have learned to listen both to what a writer says and what they don’t say and this has served me well in the classroom. By encouraging writers to talk, I learn about their lives, about why they make the writing decisions they do, and about how I can help them more effectively. The best advice I can offer to new tutors and teachers is this, “Talk less and listen more.” Questions might be powerful tools but listening to the answers can be even more powerful.
Lesson #3. The relationships I establish with writers are vital
The success of a tutoring session often hangs on the relationship you are able to build with the writer in front of you. The more you know about the writer as a student and a person, the more you can help them navigate the writing process. If a writer believes you are genuinely interested in them and their writing, they will have greater trust in you and often in themselves. This is also true in the classroom. One of my favorite writing scholars, Mike Rose, talks about inviting students to join the “academic conversation” and I think about the importance of that invitation every time I sit down with a student one-on-one or stand in front of the classroom. Though I can’t always build a writing-center-like relationship with every student in my composition or developmental English class, I try. I know their names, I ask them about their past experiences as writers, and their future goals as students. Both directly and indirectly, I encourage students to join the academic community of college. There are new rules to follow, conventions to learn, but in my classroom, as in the writing center, all are welcome to join.
Lesson #4. I need to be a student of my students
In the writing center, I learned to move from my initial inner outburst of frustration, “Why does Yuka keep pushing me to edit her paper?” to a more measured and qualitative research-like stance, “So, why does Yuka keep pushing me to edit her paper?” My tutoring experiences and the writing center scholarship I’ve read have helped me to see that there is usually a logic behind a student’s actions—whether the student is misusing a verb tense or misunderstanding an assignment. As a teacher and tutor, I am also a researcher and the questions I continually research involve the word, “Why?” If I don’t attempt to learn why students do what they do—procrastinate, resist assignments, feel alienated from school—I can’t improve what I do. As this lesson and the ones above suggest, the more I learn about my students, the more I learn how to teach and tutor them effectively
Lesson #5. Patience, Patience, Patience
As a tutor, I learned I have a great deal of patience—more than I ever thought possible. I might kick inanimate objects when they break down and curse like a sailor when someone cuts me off on my commute, but one-on-one with a student writer, I am able to channel my inner Buddha. It isn’t that I don’t get frustrated, but that working in the writing center has taught me the importance of not showing it. Losing my temper might make me feel better, briefly, but it will do nothing for the situation at hand. In the classroom, I dip into this well of patience quite a bit, whether it’s asking the class a question and waiting, waiting, waiting for the answer or explaining for the seventeenth time, “Yes, the essay needs to be at least three pages long,” while thinking, “which it says on the assignment sheet that you holding in your hand right there.”
Lesson #6. Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
A tutoring session is all about setting boundaries—making it clear what you can and can’t do for a student writer and negotiating the middle ground. If a student comes in at the last minute and wants me to look at a paper, I’ll often put it back to him, “So, we have about twenty minutes to work on this before you have to go to class. What do you want to do with that time?” If a student refuses to participate in a session and pushes me to do the work for her, I’ll push back . . . nicely, but firmly. Though I feel bad for students who are panicked or in over their heads, I refuse to play a tutoring role I shouldn’t out of pity . . . because the problems that led to this scenario continue. These same sorts of issues play out in the classroom. My first semester as a full-time instructor, I passed some students in my developmental English class on to Composition 1. I knew they were on the edge and deep down I knew they weren’t ready but I felt bad that they would have to take another developmental class. Basically, I didn’t want to be the bad guy. The next semester, several of those students took me for Comp 1 and all of them failed. This experience reminded me of what I had learned in the writing center—that the road to hell is definitely paved with good intentions. I do students no favors (and a great deal of harm) by passing them when they haven’t done passing work or by doing too much for them in the writing center.
Lesson #7. Coaching is a good metaphor for the role I want to play as an educator
As a competitive swimmer from sixth grade through college, I have had my share of coaches. The best made coaching a multi-faceted role; they knew when to encourage, when to push, when to give the honest truth about a performance and when to hold back. Though effective coaches know a lot about their sport, they base their decisions on how to work with athletes on the athletes themselves and not solely on some abstract set of rules or principles. This coaching metaphor encompasses many of the roles I currently play with writers in both the writing center and in the classroom. I encourage, push, assist, focus on strengths, focus on areas of improvement, joke, and occasionally confront—all with an eye to what I think, sense, or simply hope will help an individual student or the entire class at a given time.
Lesson #8: I’m just a brief stop on my student’s literacy journey
As a tutor, this lesson is often bruisingly clear. For example, a young man comes in, you have a great session, and then you never see him again. You wonder many things. Did the session help? What did he end up doing with his essay? Did he get a good grade? But you never find out. Or, a slightly different scenario . . a student comes in with a two-page draft and enough emotional and mental baggage about writing to fill a cargo plane. There aren’t just two people sitting down at the table to go over her essay; there are at least ten including every single teacher that told her she couldn’t write or that there was no way she was going to college. It’s awfully crowded. Student writers come to us with complex histories—as writers, as students, as people—and their lives as students and writers do continue after they leave us—that day or that semester. Some days this feels like a good thing and other days . . . not so much. Either way, I’ve decided to think of it in writing center drop-in terms . . . I might just be a brief stop on my student’s literacy journey, but I want to make that moment, be it thirty minutes or sixteen weeks, as interactive, as helpful, as empowering, and dare I say . . . as educational as possible.
Jenny Staben is an English Instructor at the College of Lake County and has been Faculty Coordinator of CLC’s Writing Center since 2001.