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How I Learned to Shut Up and Be a Tutor October 11, 2011

My first experiences with shadowing another tutor were understandably nerve-wracking.  Having never tutored in any context before, I wasn’t quite sure how an academic tutorial would go, or what part I’d play in it.  To make matters worse, I wasn’t even doing proper tutoring yet!  I was tasked with shadowing a tutorial, making my role in the situation even more muddled.  What was I supposed to do or say?  I was ready to observe but what if someone asked my opinion or expected me to participate?  Just to be safe, I looked over what the writer had said about their paper on MyWCOnline before the appointment.  I tried to give the tutorial a general outline in my head and guess what the writer would want to work on and how to respond.  Finally, I thought about how to strike a balance between observing and contributing to the tutorial, keeping in mind that there was a much more experienced tutor that should really be worrying about these things.

Then, the tutorial began and I remembered – as a tutor, I probably shouldn’t be saying much at all.

For me, the hardest part of tutoring has been to remember that when it comes down to it, I play a very small part in the interaction.  The writer is there to organize his or her thoughts, talk it out, and develop a solution that makes sense in their own head.  I’m something between a collaborator and a facilitator of this process.  I’m there to encourage and suggest but also to sit back and listen when need be.  In some cases I’ve observed that tutors were basically supportive and somewhat knowledgeable sounding boards – and that’s okay.  Lots of people need a sounding board at various times in the composition process.  I don’t feel comfortable moving forward with a thesis until I’ve explained it to my roommate to see if it “sounds right.”  A lot of writers don’t have other people to go to with their issues; they either don’t know anyone in the same major or classes as them, or feel uncomfortable discussing (gasp!) academics with their friends or parents.  That’s where the tutor comes in.

Of course, some writers need that extra push to get them going.  Being too minimalist in your approach might put the writer on edge, or they might not know where to start without a little prompting.  If the writer is stumped, I do the best I can to help them get their bearings; once they get going, I can work on reassuring them and asking the right questions.  Sometimes being a tutor is less about knowing how to help than it is knowing when to take a step back.  Simply listening attentively can give the tutorial a friendly, open atmosphere and encourage writers to be honest about their work.

I don’t mean to say that the tutor isn’t an active part of the writer’s learning process – far from it – but we as tutors do need to recognize the limitations of our role.  As a new tutor, I am especially prone to this because of my eagerness to get out there and be a tutor – and not just a tutor, but the BEST tutor possible.  At times, this means that the temptation is to take over and replace the writer’s voice with our own; we’re the trained professional here, so we know better, right?  It takes a great deal of self-control to know that the best thing you can do for a writer is to do very little.  We’re in this to provide the writer with support and help, not our own version of a perfect paper.  As has been said many times, the goal of a tutorial isn’t perfect writing.  It’s a confident and inspired writer.


One Response to “How I Learned to Shut Up and Be a Tutor”

  1. David S. Says:

    I really applaud your analysis of the role of the tutor in relation to the writer. Although I agree with you in large part, I must challenge you on one line in particular: “For me, the hardest part of tutoring has been to remember that when it comes down to it, I play a very small part in the interaction.” I am currently taking the class “Leadership Communication,” and I have come to realize that leadership does not necessarily mean calling all the shots or even dominating the conversation. My challenge to you is that I believe as tutors, we must always be the leader of the session. I believe as tutors, our relationship with the writer is always as a consulting professional. People come to UCWbL in a way not dissimilar in concept from going to a doctor, a tax advisor, financial planner, etc. They would like us to evaluate their situation and give recommendations. Good clients, clients who make the most of any consultation, know that they need to participate in the session, providing information, and actively questioning the tutor on any recommendation that they might not understand or agree with. But it is the tutor’s role to provide leadership to the session.

    Truly, some writers are more passive than others in tutorial situations. But I believe even the most assertive look to us to provide leadership for their session. Of course, I am not saying that leadership means being bullish. But we are always leaders, and that is playing a big part in the interaction!

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