Two for Tutoring


My tutor Tyler described the hiring process he experienced in applying to the writing center.

“What do you know about rhetoric?” the interviewer had asked him.

“Not much,” Tyler replied.

“Okay. When can you start?”

Rhetoric, as defined by Plato, is “the art of ruling the minds of men.”  Anything that attempts to convince, educate, convert, or even reinforce the mental workings of a listener or reader’s mind is rhetoric.  The purposeful agenda of a student’s work is what tutors should focus on in their sessions.

Analyzing the theory and practice of tutoring brought me to a twofold conclusion.  First, there is a rhetorical purpose for every work of writing. Secondly, there is a rhetorical purpose to tutoring.

I believe Tyler’s interviewer asked about rhetoric upon hiring him into the writing center because understanding of rhetorical purpose is essential to writing.  Writing with purpose speaks from exigence, requires awareness of an intended audience, works within given constraints, and employs artistic proofs.

ExigenceAudienceConstraintsArtistic Proofs

In advising me, Tyler made initial moves to understand the rhetorical purpose of my work by asking what the paper was for, what the prompt said, and for which class I was writing it. An awareness of the intended audience how the message of a work affects that audience is crucial.    The who, what, and why you write for directly affect the content of your writing.  A tutor would not be able to give appropriate advice without knowing such constraints.

Taking note of a student’s rhetorical purpose in their work is looking at the “writer-reality-audience-language relationship” that underlies the composing process.  In The Major Pedagogical Theories James Berlin says this relationship exists in every stage of writing: prewriting, writing, and rewriting.

A writer attempts to alter the reality of his or her audience by their use of language.  This is almost Lloyd Bitzer’s definition for rhetoric word for word: “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action.”

A tutor who is aware of what is central to a writer’s work will have a greater sense of how to tutor them, despite whatever genre, subject, or ability level constrains them.  The tutor must know that the student is attempting to alter the reality of her peers or teacher by use of the language written down on her paper.  “To teach writing is to argue for a version of reality,” Berlin says.  This reality– how we, or our audiences perceive the world–is prone to change with a skillful use of language. Tutors guide writers as they communicate new realities to their audience.

To communicate an alternative reality to an audience through writing takes thought and mastery of language.  Walter Ong says in The Orality of Language, “Writing enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure,” and “restructures thought.”  Thought, language, and writing are intertwined.  Tutors should assess their students’ thought processes and language use when evaluating their writing.

I don’t think Tyler managed to find out more about rhetoric since the day of his hire.  Experience taught him that it was only common sense to find out the academic purpose of a student’s work by asking for the assignment’s prompt.  Unless his students mentioned it, I don’t think Tyler perceived an audience besides the teachers the writings were assigned by.  Tyler had a knack for observing the constraints of a paper by reading the prompt.  He was good at fitting a paper into the checklist rubric Nicole gave him, for example.  However, Tyler did not notice a writer’s use of artistic proofs, or their tools of persuasion.

As for the rhetorical purpose of his students’ work, Tyler missed out on a lot of it.  In regard to his rhetorical purpose as a tutor, I don’t think he realized an inkling of it.

The rhetorical purpose of a tutor has the same outline as the rhetorical purpose of a work of writing.





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