Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit 2014: Interview with Keynote Speaker, Raul Palma

The Outreach Team is excited to start talking about DePaul University’s fifth Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit, which will be taking place on Friday, October 31, 2014  in Cortelyou Commons! We hope that even more DePaul tutors and mentors will be joining us at this event, and our theme (“Mentor Mash, It Was a Tutoring Smash!”) is sure to be a lot of fun! Below is an interview with this year’s keynote speaker, Raul Palma. If you’d like to learn more about the Summit,  please check out our Digication page for how to complete your RSVP, submit a proposal for a Round Robin, and more.


Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to interview Raul via email. I wanted to ask him a few questions, not only about his experiences tutoring and mentoring, but also about attending the Summit in the past as a peer tutor and mentor at DePaul. My own friendship with Raul came about initially through the MA in Writing and Publishing program, so I know firsthand the sort of effective feedback that he provides in a variety of contexts. I am so very pleased that he will be joining Summit 2014 as the keynote speaker and that I was able to interview him here. 

Jen Finstrom: What was your experience of attending the Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit in the past? In what capacity did you attend and on how many occasions?

Raul Palma: I attended DePaul University from 2012-2013, and I had the opportunity to attend the Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit twice. These were my favorite events and not just because the food was great. These Summits reinforced the notion that as a tutor and mentor on campus, I was not alone. This was important for me. Sometimes, the daily ins and outs of tutoring and mentoring can seem rather solitary but having an opportunity to meet and mingle with tutors and mentors across departments welcomed me into a living, breathing community. In fact, it’s quite amazing how large DePaul’s tutor and mentor body is; these opportunities to get out and share experiences, strategies, and contact information are not just essential, but fun.  I’m seriously looking forward to the Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit this Halloween.

Jen: What sort of work have you done as a tutor and mentor?

Raul: Before working as a tutor and mentor, I worked in marketing and publishing. Though I had rather important sounding titles—Senior Account Manager, Senior Business Development Manager, Major Accounts Manager—I was essentially a sales rep, driving from one client to the next with a very specific agenda.  I succeeded in this role because I learned to ask thoughtful questions and listen to my clients.  Only by taking an interest in my clients and becoming invested in their ambitions, could I begin to ask the kinds of questions that help clients problem-solve.  I learned that tutoring and mentoring were not so different.

At TRiO SSS, I worked as a writing tutor with what is perhaps one of the most dynamic and earnest communities on DePaul’s campus; these were ambitious students, seriously invested in their scholarly pursuits. First-year writing students, unaccustomed to my method, often slid their papers to me, hoping I’d mark them up and offer prescriptive feedback.  But I’d just slide the paper back to them and start a dialogue, sometimes unrelated to the assignment.  It was a wonderful way to position myself as both a tutor and mentor, while essentially teaching students to take ownership of their projects and ambitions.  In addition to working as a writing tutor, I also helped students write resumes, cover letters, conduct mock interviews, and problematize job-hunt anxieties or myths.

I also worked as a Graduate Assistant in the College of Education’s Academic Success Center.  Primarily, I worked with students who were preparing for the Language Arts and Reading sections of the TAP certification exam—a step education students must take in order to teach in the state of Illinois. It’s a troubling test, which seems to prepare future teachers for the demands of teaching standardized tests in classrooms. Most troubling, perhaps, is that the exam, like many of the standardized tests young students are taking today, emphasize notions of proper English or standard English versus non-standard English, and so preparing education students for this exam was a delicate negotiation between what would be on the test and the notion that standard English privileges some students over others. Speaking of privilege, access to test preparation materials were expensive and hard to come by, so at the Academic Success Center, we worked diligently in order to prepare resources, which we could offer for free. In addition to helping students prepare for the TAP exam, I worked as a writing tutor, reviewing thesis papers and dissertations.

Jen: How do you see the extensive writing that you have done as having an impact on your work as a peer tutor? For example, your experiences writing a novel?

Raul: It’s hard to ignore my own personal biases as a writer.  For instance, I’m fascinated by stylistics, in particular assonance and the sounds of words. I often have students read aloud, just to see what kind of relationship they have to their language. I’m also interested in the way that form and structure interact with content. However, these can be complicated moves, and I have learned to shelve these prescriptive conversations, unless this is something the student is interested in.

More relevant to tutoring are the demands of invention: structure, discipline, revision strategies. Because I revised my first novel on and on for about five years, I learned a thing or two about taking very large and complicated projects and whittling them down to their basic essentials. Sometimes it’s the only way to understand what structural moves are being made and for what purpose.

I also learned how important it is to wound a first draft (“kill your darlings”). With my novel, revision became a challenge when I began falling in love with the sound and rhythm of my language.  There were problems that needed to be addressed, but within the metaphysics of my draft, there was no entryway, so I had to wound these drafts: rearrange entire paragraphs, delete entire sections, problematize abstraction. This applies to student writing too. Often, students take on complicated projects only to find out in the writing process that they’re actually well-suited and talented at approaching these projects.  In tutoring, they might become defensive when elements of the essay are questioned or reduced to their structural frame. Rather than discussing the essay, I’ve learned to wound the essay by pulling out an excerpt and having the student respond to it on a separate sheet of paper. It’s a subtle move that promotes invention and offers the student an alternate entryway for the assignment.

Most importantly, however, I’ve learned that writing is hard, but really rewarding too.  I personally see tutors or trusted peers, even in my PhD program.  I want my writing to be effective, of course, but I also want to share my work, discuss it, talk about, think about it.  I approach tutoring sessions knowing that I might be offering the student a chance to celebrate their work, which is important.  Students sometimes write wonderful essays, and I want them to know they’ve succeeded when they have. More than offering praise, I want to engage with the students’ work, let them know exactly what is fascinating or worth continuing to explore. The sad true fact is that most of these papers end up in old binders, stashed away, or at the bottom of cabinets, forgotten. Tutors have a unique opportunity to engage with these texts and celebrate the work. It’s such an important experience for any writer.

Raul Palma will be at the 2014 DePaul University Peer Tutor and Mentor Summit.