Learning to Talk, Learning to Listen: The Building Blocks of the Tutorial

It doesn’t take much to see that many if not most writers who come into the writing center have a lot of pre-conceived notions about writing. Those ideas do not simply translate into what kind of help a writer can receive in the center, but also seem entrenched in some cultural stereotype that English majors are the best writers. Take for example this weeks writing center schedule where Student A has put down on the scheduling block that his paper is finished but that he needs a second set of eyes to make sure the paper flows because in his words, “I’m a science major.”

What academia is somehow telling students in other disciplines about their writing skills I don’t know, but what has to be dealt with in the writing center is not figuring out why this has happened or why it persists, but simply attempting to undo it: One student at a time. (This is not to say that answering those questions would not be helpful in the overall scheme of the tutorial.) With only the briefest contact with a writer who has an assumed set of fixed ideas about writing, the tutor must make sure that they are using the proven tools of the tutoring trade in order to help the student begin to redefine not only what happens in a tutoring session, but also what constitutes being a good writer.

In a tutoring session there are many variables and the tutor must have a way to deal with all of those potential situations when they arise. In a recent tutoring session Tutor A failed to explain to Student B her goals for the session. The student therefore did not even think to really try and explain her goals for the session. The student essentially gave up her power over the paper and put it into the hands of the “expert” failing to realize that since it was her paper, she ultimately was the final authority. Due to this lack of communication I was left wondering if the student had come in with specific questions and left with them being not only unanswered, but also perhaps even more down trodden over her lack of ability to not only talk about her paper, but also to take full ownership of the paper and thereby taking full ownership of her college experience. It is precisely due to this mistaken belief of what represents an “expert” that the tutor must be upfront and willing to negotiate what happens in a session so that both the writer and the tutor’s goals are met (Cooper 57) . If talking is the key to a session, then listening is the door through which both student and tutor will walk through, hopefully emerging in a place where they both feel comfortable.

Taking into account that the tutoring session is not about the writing, but about the writer, tutors are duty bound to at least try and convince a science major that he is capable of good writing. How do we do this, especially when there is so much resistance? Murphy suggests “unconditional positive regard” as the foundation for a good tutoring session (96) proposing that the willingness of one person to help another creates a bond of empathy that becomes the pervasive building block of the tutor and student relationship. In an observed tutoring session earlier in the semester I noted that Tutor B had yet to develop these empathetic abilities, or at least on that day was not able to fully connect with Student C. In this instance, Student C was a freshman, and this student also happened to be in her forties. Immediately upon meeting this woman I was aware of an imprecise yet all-encompassing insecurity on her part. She lacked the vocabulary to talk about her paper or her writing, she was unsure of everything from grammar to transition and did not know where to start. Tutor B dove right into the paper, acting like a tutor, but failing to act as the “therapist” which, according to Murphy since people come to a writing center “hurt” in some way, tutoring often “requires an empathetic bond” (97).

Fortunately writing tutors are not being asked to make the world over in a day, we’re simply charged with tilling the soil and maybe sowing a seed or two. We are asked to be a stepping stone in the process of changing these rigid notions that so many people have about writing and writing tutoring, into a more realistic view; one that encompasses the belief that the writer is an intrinsic part of this writing and tutoring process, not a causal and uninvolved observer.

The writing tutor has a hard task, but not an impossible one, because the tools of the trade come in handy if the tutor uses them. The one-on-one tutorial can be a most rewarding experience for a writer; it can change a writer’s life. How sad, and how frustrating it must be to go through a four year university program never feeling like you could write because you were not an English major! For someone like me who believes that a life and thereby the world can be enriched when someone finds their writing voice, I find this pervasive (unconsciously deliberate) stereotype to be utterly damaging and am looking forward to playing a part in destroying this insidious attitude towards writing; gently of course, with empathy, with talking, and most importantly with learning how to listen.


Works cited

Cooper, Marilyn. “Really Useful Knowledge: A Cultural Studies Agenda for Writing Centers.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 53-66.

Murphy, Christina. “Freud in the Writing Center: The Psychoanalytics of Tutoring Well.”

The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 95-100.

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