I feel like I’ve been cheating. As I laid out in parts One and Two of “So I Went to a Tutoring Session,” the circumstances of my practical applications were way too ideal for any real learning to take place. Not that the experiences weren’t good exercises to apply the theories of “student-centered learning” and “teaching the writer not the writing” that our course reading assignments advocate. It’s just that everyone involved were over-anticipating the outcomes.
We had all read the same essays on tutoring and teaching writing—the tutor followed their advice to the letter and the tutees (myself and my classmate) could predict nearly every correction and suggestion she made. We discovered a few tidbits about ourselves as writers along the way and were able to correct some previously overlooked mistakes, but the lack of challenge led to a lack of satisfaction. It felt as if we’d found out that our friends were throwing us a surprise birthday party, but we had to play it off like we didn’t know—we were lacking a little Wow Factor.
I didn’t get any “I’m actually seeing this new knowledge play out right in front of me” feeling. I didn’t get the “I just learned something!” factor that I was expecting.
That is, not until a spontaneous, unofficial tutoring opportunity fell into my lap.
In the first class of the semester, during a discussion about personal tutoring experiences, I brought up a story about helping my brother with his senior thesis. All my other tutoring and group writing sessions fell in line with the common tutoring experience: we focused on lower order concerns both because we were too afraid of stepping on the writer’s toes to point anything else out, and because we didn’t trust in our own revision skills. My experience went a bit differently.
My brother has difficulty bringing his arguments straight to the page; he’s great at debating with other people, but as soon as he has to sit down at a computer and type, everything seems to leak out of his brain.
So, in order to keep my mom from yelling at him about idle hands and the sin of laziness, I decided to help him out. I sat down at his computer with his document open and asked him to explain to me what he was trying to say. He talked, I typed, and we got through a couple paragraphs pretty smoothly. Without having read any of Kenneth Bruffee’s theory on social construction, Lisa Ede’s essay on collaboration, or Donald A. McAndrew’s guide to tutoring writing, I’d managed to pull off a student-centered tutoring experience.
Now, after having officially studied techniques of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I think the best approach to tutoring is spending extensive time in the development stage of a paper talking it out with another human being…before even sitting down to the isolated act of writing.
My personal experiences working and studying in the film industry add fuel to that belief. Producing professors can’t emphasize enough the importance of the development stage of a project. The Producer’s Business Handbook spends a whole chapter on the funding and planning and strategies of development, marking it as one of the most crucial aspects to creating a solid story and successful motion picture.
The writing process is no different. By spending time discussing ideas, writers have the chance to formulate, in their primary mode of communication, what their argument will be and what points are most vital. This development stage should happen without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; it should allow for social construction to better shape the writer’s ideas and method of persuasion.
I would go so far as to say tutors should employ dictation as an important teaching tool for tutees that struggle with bringing their ideas into written form.
Both of the writers who I’ve helped via the dictation method find that hearing their words better helps them craft their arguments and organize their thoughts in a cohesive structure. Working with them in this manner brought my mind back to our first ENG 481 reading assignment of the semester by Walter J. Ong, which stressed the inextricable connection between our primary use of oral language and our dependent written language. For these writers, building with the written word confused the flow of their primary language to the point where a fluency of ideas and argument was nearly impossible.
Understanding the importance of the development stages of any writing process wouldn’t have been such a Wow Factor Moment for me if professors gave as much weight to the process as they did to the product. As aspiring tutors and teachers (and maybe story developers in film and TV), it is imperative that we continue to give development the attention it deserves, because there’s no doubt that products come out of the writing process more complex and well-crafted when the writer remains patient and uses his voice throughout the entire journey.