Perspectives from a Beginning Tutor

This is a paper I wrote for the class which trained me to be a writing fellow. I include it because it is the "real-life" experience of my growth as a tutor and it shows some of the dilemmas that face beginning tutors.

As a writing tutor in a university setting, I have found that effective conferencing skills center around my ability to questions students in a way that allows them to freely express their thoughts about a paper. Even though I have only worked with three students, I can already look back and trace this development of skill in myself. In addition, I can see more clearly how talking to students is often far more effective than writing commentary on their work, particularly when I compare my conferencing sessions with commentary assignments from class in which a conference was not possible.

My first tutoring experience involved reviewing a Core student's paper before the tutoring session and meeting her at a later time to discuss it. I felt that I was at an automatic disadvantage for several reasons. Since I had her paper for a week and a half prior to our meeting, I knew that she probably had not worked on the paper during that time and was no longer as familiar with it as I was. My suspicions were confirmed during the session: she seemed to have forgotten much of what she had written. Combining this fact with the realization that this paper was a last minute late-night draft, I felt that my commentary was some sort of bizarre lesson plan: it should have stimulated a questioning discussion between the student and the tutor resulting in the improvement of the student's writing skills. Asking the student questions was to little or no avail because of her lack of familiarity with the paper as well as the small amount of time she admitted to putting into it. The fault was also mine: since this was my first tutoring experience, I had difficulty formulating effective questions.

Another problem I found in this session was that I completely disagreed with the student's thesis statement because of my religious beliefs. Because of this conflict, I found myself apologizing for much of what I said in the conference because I was afraid that I would encourage her to express my point of view rather than strengthen her own. Perhaps it could be said that I was overly zealous: I could not effectively analyze this student's writing because I was too worried busy trying to be unbiased. In this situation, I found myself agreeing with Susan Hubbuch, who states that a knowledgeable tutor presents more disadvantages than advantages to a student. Hubbuch likens a knowledgeable tutor to a professor: someone who evaluates the paper rather than helping the student express his/her ideas.

When a student is working with an ignorant tutor, the tutor is not playing the role of expert/evaluator, but of fellow inquirer. In such sessions it is the student who is really the expert on the subject matter...the tutor can encourage the student to explore all sorts of potential approaches to the topic.

Because I was being so careful not to express my own biases, I could not help this student as much as someone less familiar with the material. Even though I sensed something wasn't "quite right" about the paper, I decided to ignore that feeling, and attributed it to my own prejudices. In reality, there was a problem with the paper that I had overlooked because I thought my prejudice was the problem instead. From this experience, I learned that I needed to have more confidence in my skills and intuition and that I needed to learn a better way to get these "last minute draft haven't looked at it for a week" students to talk to me about their papers.

This opportunity presented itself with the second student I encountered (another Core student). I was supposed to co-tutor him with a student from Dr. Hickey's class; she realized she had forgotten to bring the student's paper and ran home to get it, leaving the student and me to talk. Keeping in mind that this was a time set aside to help him with his paper, I started to ask him questions about the assignment and his progress. To make him expand on the one-word answers I was getting, I found myself drawing on Brooks' advanced minimalist tutoring skills: "Get the student to talk" (1995). When I started asking leading questions instead of questions he could answer in less than a sentence, he started to open up. He revealed that he wasn't sure if he was completing the assignment as directed and worried that he could not support his thesis. Ironically, I found my knowledge to helpful in this situation, a point Hubbuch makes in her article: "The major advantage... that the knowledgeable tutor has is that he or she knows the appropriate questions to ask." By the time the other tutor returned with the paper, the student was beginning to work toward an outline of arguments to support his thesis statement. My confidence soared when my co-tutor told me that she had never seen the student talk as much before as he did that evening. That night, I began to realize how frequently students are ready to throw away what they have until they have someone to talk to, someone who can help them learn how to shape awkward arguments into a cohesive paper.

It was also during that session that I began to truly appreciate the value of meaningful discussion in a conference. I felt this even more acutely when I was assigned an offensive paper in class for a commentary assignment. After all of the emphasis on writing effective commentary that left the power in the student's hands, I knew that I could not write anything on that paper without violating every principle I had been taught. Yet I knew that if I could talk to that student, I would be able to help him write an effective paper. Perhaps this is a reflection on my own communication skills; perhaps it reflects my strengths and weaknesses as a tutor. Reading The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors lent me more definitive insights into how to handle a situation of this nature, confirming the imaginary conference I was already conducting in my mind.

Remind students that they are writing for an academic community, and ask them to consider how their audience will react to the language or topic. Respond as a reader and suggest, for example, "Some people might be disturbed by what you say here. I know I am" (Ryan 1994).

After seeing how talking to students has let me communicate with them in ways I never could have with commentary, I am confident that conferring with this student would have been my best solution for this paper. Writing commentary is important -- I do not mean to take away from that fact. I do realize, however, that I tend to guard my speech to students more carefully than I do the commentary on their papers. Talking to students lets them see things from a point of view they would have probably never encountered otherwise.

Some experts in the field of collaborative writing advocate a more direct, controlling approach than that which I have discussed thus far. In "Collaboration and Ethics in Writing Center Pedagogy," Irene Clark states that it may be more beneficial for a tutor to initially take a more active role in the writing process, using imitation to improve students' writing skills (1995). I found myself using this technique in a conference with a high school student who came in for assistance with her college entrance essays. Since she had little or no experience with an environment like that of the Writing Center, she was somewhat uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the process of tutor questioning. To orient her to the focus and purpose of the Center, I explained that this experience was about making her a better writer, not about correcting her essays. As we continued the session, she became more and more comfortable with the dynamic of the Writing Center and recaptured the control of the session by asking questions and contributing opinions; I no longer had to make an effort for her contribute to the session. Since she was consistently making some of the same structural mistakes in her sentences, I showed her how to correct one and then worked with her on correcting others. By the end of the session, she was correcting mistakes without my help.

Another situation to which I apply Clark's article (1995) is that of the grammar commentary paper. Since these problems are of a more absolute nature than most of the situations I have encountered in my tutoring experiences, they need to be addressed in a more direct fashion. In this situation, the tutor has to step closer to the role of teacher. If a student has no knowledge of a given rule, s/he will not be able to respond to questions such as, "What do you see as the problem with this sentence?" -- the student may not recognize a problem. Collaborative learning does come into play again, however, when the tutor asks the student to correct other mistakes of the same nature: this puts the control back into the student's hands. This reminds me of a phrase often used by medical interns and residents: "Watch one, assist one, do one." Even though tutors need to take more control of the conference occasionally, they must remember to always pass it back to the student as I did when working with the high school student. Combining minimalist tutoring techniques and Clark's opinions about the role of the tutor gives the best of both worlds.

In the future, I see myself improving my conferencing techniques -- techniques I generally nickname questioning techniques simply because my conferences revolve around questioning. I hope that I can learn to better deal with situations where I feel that I have more familiarity with a paper than the student who wrote it: it is hard to resist the urge to take control of the conference in these situations. In short, it is far too simple to take the easy way out. It is easier for the student, it is easier for me -- but it helps neither of us. Overall, I have found that Brooks' (1995) theories of minimalist tutoring work well for me: they are easily incorporated into my tutoring repertoire and I have found them thoroughly effective. Asking students questions draws them out of their shells and reveals their feelings about their papers, helping me know which areas to address in the conference. This is a non-traditional method in comparison to those I have always been exposed to, but making the transition has been a smooth process for me, particularly since I have observed its success with the students I tutor. I look forward to seeing how I someday incorporate these methods into the high school classes I will someday teach: for me, that is the most fascinating aspect of this experience.


Works Cited


Brooks, Jeff. Minimalist tutoring: making the student do all the work. In Christina Murphy & Steve Sherwood (Eds. ), The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors (pp. 83-87). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Clark, Irene Lurkis. Collaboration and ethics in writing center pedagogy. In Christina Murphy & Steve Sherwood (Eds. ), The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors (pp. 88-96). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hubbuch, Susan M. ( ). A tutor needs to know the subject matter to help a student with a paper: _agree _disagree _not sure. The Writing Center Journal. N. Pag.

Ryan, Leigh (1994) . The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Boston: St. Martin's Press (pp. 59 - 66).

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