It Ain’t ‘Bout You: Putting the Writer First

A frantic writer sat in front of me with an assignment due two hours following his appointment. This writer, an ESL student, wanted to fix the grammar in the draft before the conference ended. After we read the draft, it became clear that the argument needed help. He reaffirmed that he only wanted to fix the grammar, but the argument was begging me, a peer writing tutor, to spend at list a few minutes talking about that high level concern. By the end of the session, only about 5% of the time had actually been devoted to the writer’s concern. Luckily, he was pleased with the service, but I still felt as if I had somewhat failed him.

Obviously, I had goals that differed from the writer’s. Sadly, this is not an isolated occurrence. A 2012 study conducted by Laurel Raymond and Zara Quinn, two peer writing tutors at the University of Rochester, sought to assess whether writer needs were fulfilled in a session and what writers and tutors rank as their main concerns (65). As with my aforementioned session, many tutors spend more time discussing issues other than the writers’ concerns. Most notably, tutors tackle argument rather than grammar, which is the priority concern for most writers. Although intriguing, the findings don’t tell us why writers mostly seek grammar help. We know the hierarchy of concerns. We know argument is at the top. However, writers didn’t slave over stacks of articles to review and discuss their writing in the ways we do.

We were hired because we knew how to talk about writing and we were given more tools in our training. Over one quarter, we absorbed Stephen North, Muriel Harris, Kenneth Bruffee, and other scholars like insatiable space blobs. Our training taught us everything about making better, independent writers (64). Sadly, this means we try to regurgitate all of that knowledge into writers within the time of the appointment while proving that these things are more important than grammar.

Empathy is the only solution here. We have to think about how the writers views their work without all the equations and techniques. If we’ve been turned into space blobs, they’re sponges within the session time; less absorbent. That hour or half hour is not enough time to give them our vast knowledge; especially when we use big fancy words.

Peer writing tutors love to toss jargon around. We know words writers haven’t heard of or don’t remember like focus, argument, and clarity as well as anything that goes under those terms (67-71). Writers don’t know, use, and/or properly use these terms but we bombard them with these words. They don’t know what it means. However, as stated in Blades of Glory, it sounds provocative. Coming into the session, they may have only known about grammar, but they trust our gobbledy goo and listen passively while forgetting their own goals for the session. By the end, they’re satisfied with the help they received without even realizing that they didn’t even get as much help as they wanted on the concern they brought to us.

So what did I do about my frantic ESL writer? Cutting down on the fancy pants tutor lingo and focusing on the writer’s needs is the first thing any tutor needs to do to be empathetic; even with level concerns. They might be voided by higher level revisions, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be discussed as long term goals. Keep jargon and theories to a minimum and talk with the writers in terms they understand. Model Bell Hooks and lay down the informal speech, yo.