Observation #2


“I’d go gonzo for this,” I thought to myself after my second tutoring observation in the writing center.

It had taken quite a lot of effort to finally score a session with a tutor.  The classmate I originally  partnered with was as flaky as layered biscuits, which didn’t jive with my busy schedule.  Instead of observing Miss Pillsbury do–n’t-have-the-time-even-if-I-said-I-did Girl, I observed a random student named Nicole.*

Nicole graciously allowed me to look on as tutor Tyler reviewed a draft of her paper on obesity. She flipped open a pink-covered laptop (which matched her pink nails and sorority bag!) and got started.   They first brought up the prompt: a 1.5-page long, 10-pt font, single-spaced checklist on what to write for physiological psychology.

If Nicole and Tyler had glanced at their observer sitting behind them, they’d surely hear the loud “Oh, goodie!” of my face expression.

“What is the topic?” asked Tyler.

“Any physiological issue.  I chose obesity,” replied Nicole.

“What do you think about your paper? Why’d you bring it to me?” Tyler asked Nicole.

For her 14-page draft, Nicole wanted to make transitions flow and improve clarity, organization, and coherence.  This initial exchange of question and answer between Tyler and Nicole would be the most I’d hear of Nicole’s voice throughout the session.  It was short and sweet, like a cordial bank transaction or a fast food order.

Pink laptop then switched laps as Tyler took control.  He read the paper out loud.  He suggested revisions.  He typed in corrections. Her pink fingertips never touched the pink keyboard throughout the entire session.  Instead they stayed on her arms, which were crossed and motionless.

Pink lips were relatively motionless as well.  It seemed as if our tutee had a very limited vocabulary.  So limited, in fact, that Nicole only knew six or seven different words.  Lulled by Tyler’s droning, flat reading voice, I resorted to the engaging task of tallying Nicole’s words for the rest of the hour. photo   These were the ONLY words Nicole would say in response to:

“Is that your thesis?”

“Sounds like its describing the paper rather than making a strong argument.”

“‘An individual’ is singular and ‘them’ is plural.” “Do you want to make this a quote?”

“I’m going to add a subject to your clause.”

“Is ‘over eating’ hyphenated?”

I get more communication from my infant cousin with down syndrome in a minute than Tyler got from Nicole in an hour.  And that brings me to the conclusions I drew from applying theoretical knowledge to this tutoring session.

Muriel Harris says in Collaboration is Not Collaboration if Not Collaboration, that a tutor’s role is to provide needed support, offer reader response, diagnose underlying problems, and lead the student to discover his or her own answers.  Most importantly, the tutor is there to listen.  

Jeff Brooks emphasizes the importance of the student’s ownership of their writing in Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.

In The Idea of a Writing Center, Stephen North advocates producing better writers, not better writing.

I wouldn’t say Tyler failed to do these things.  He did the best job he could to help Nicole, but by employing techniques that focused on lower-order concerns.  Higher-order concerns, the less shallow issues Tyler addressed might include Nicole’s lack of engagement with her paper, her tutor, or her subject, awareness of audience, or expertise on the topic.  The lower-order concerns that were addressed included punctuation and grammar.

Brooks would disapprove of how Tyler revised the paper on his own, on Nicole’s laptop.  The positioning of his hands on the keyboard completely transferred ownership from Nicole to him.  It may have been a move towards collaboration, but there was no contributing effort on Nicole’s part.  She sat back in submission as Tyler polished her paper for her.

If ever Nicole would come back to Tyler, I believe the same issues would arise.  Tyler would make the same grammar and punctuation corrections and Nicole would respond with the same vocabulary.  The writing may have been improved this time, but the writer… not so much.



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