Getting Existential with Writers

By February 5, 2018Peer Writing Tutoring


What comes to mind?

Nothing exists, nothing matters

These are depressing stereotypes. Maybe you think of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above A Sea of Fog.

Yes, existentialism is about a crisis that would make someone stand on a stormy cliff. A crisis of absolutes. We can’t come to know the absolute truth. Either it doesn’t exist or we just can’t come to discover it. Yet, there is hope. Even though we have this terrible crisis, we can find authenticity.

Martin Buber, a lifelong lover of Nietzsche and Judaism, presents a unique form of authenticity. In his famous 1923 work I and You, Martin Buber says:

“I require You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter”(62).

To be authentic, I need You. Life is dialectic, a conversation between two. We cannot know ourselves individually, isolated from humans around us. Instead, we only come to know the world through these encounters.

This is broken by hierarchies and institutions that seek to objectify people, to make these real, breathing people into an “it.”

Maybe you’ve experienced this before. Feedback from a teacher that contained two sentences of criticism, showing that they’ve barely read your carefully crafted essay. This is dehumanizing. This is an I-It relationship.

An I-You relationship is where neither persons believe they are somehow more superior. It’s not “having a tutor” or “having a writer.” There is no form of possession because humans are not things to be had. The relationship is fully equal.

Which is why Martin Buber’s I and You can serve as a theoretical basis for peer writing tutoring.



At The Writing Center, our theories are based on research. But the relationship between I and You is not researchable. It’s a moment when I’m staring into someone’s eyes and experiencing myself in relation to their You. Put that into words. Ask someone to explain it in a survey.

Steven A. Katz, a scholar of religion asks “Why does this matter?” He asks why we trust Buber, who offers us something non-empirical. We cannot come to know it through science.

Can we even build a writing center on this idea of connection? Can we expect writers to always enter into ecstatic, I-You experiences every time they enter the center? That would be hard to manage.

Yet Buber does not necessarily say that I-it and I-You are “either/or.” Indeed, in our current society, we oscillate between I-It and I-You. There are situations where we may objectify writers. We may be too directive or we may not consider their perspective because of circumstances. We may “slip” out of an I-You relationship into an I-It by an accidental comment. Humans are not consistently in relation, they wrestle between objectifying and relating with others.


Personalized Rapport = Personalized Feedback

Julian Stern and Anita Backhouse use I and You as an educational basis. As they explain in their article, there are serious problems with teachers and feedback. By providing more You based feedback, there is more successful learning.

W.J. Morgan and Alexandre Guilherme offer an analysis of Buber’s educational thought as both relevant and socially applicable. During Buber’s writing of I and You (1919-1921), he strongly disagreed with the current models of education. A teacher-focused education believed that educators would “funnel”(12) information into students, while a student-focused education believed that the knowledge was entirely within the student.

Both of these, to Buber, were far too individualistic. There is no room for an I-You relationship to be formed. In considering this, Guilherme and Morgan argue for dialogic education. 

Although Buber would not explicitly argue for a certain educational philosophy or ideology, Guilherme and Morgan argue that Buber’s thought is inherently non-individualistic and non-collectivist.

I, You, and The Writing Center

“Relation is reciprocity. My You acts as I act on it. Our students teach us, our work forms us…Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity”(Buber 67).

We will always have hierarchies, rules, and differences. Yet, we can try to always make this point of recognition.

If rapport is between I and You, all feedback can be built and cultivated from it. If there is no inclusion or acceptance, this is not possible.

Rapport is our chance to meet the You of every writer and cultivate our experiences. But it is easy to make a mistake, to view them as a client to be dealt with.

Ultimately, if a writing center is built on reciprocity, then both writers and tutors would be seen as mutual collaborators. Even if we cannot know this absolutely, even if we have to rely on this relationship alone to make our reality.

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