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Istock/Steve Debenport

Every syllabus day, I tell my first-year writing students that they’ll have to visit the writing center at least once during the semester. It’s a department requirement at my college for freshman. I make suggestions about when to go (early) and what to bring (my assignment and their draft). I also give them time to make appointments in the writing center on days when their drafts have been turned.

So eventually they start going to tutoring, they prove that they went, and we never really talk about it again. It’s a mysterious process. You never know who they’re going to get or what they’re experience will be like. Some more extroverted students might tell me that they really liked their tutor, or that it wasn’t a good match at all and they’ll never go back. Of course, I say generally encouraging things like, “That’s great, remember their name.” Or, “That’s too bad. You might have better luck with someone else. Don’t give up on tutoring.”

Those kinds of reports have caused me to think more seriously about tutoring sessions. Do the students know what they’re supposed to be doing there? Or after? Do they know what and who they’re getting before they get there? As I am a tutor myself in the same writing center, I know that people come in with different goals. (Usually they had to come for a class or they need help with grammar.) But what is a tutee supposed to do -- and how can we best guide them?

Teaching students how to be tutored and thinking of the tutoring session as a lesson in revision would make tutoring not just a requirement but rather a part of the academic writing process. That is especially true for new college students who are just beginning to learn what it means to be a good college student.

Most know basically what it means: listen to the professor, add to the discussion, do well on assignments. But good college students will also carry over information from one course to another to build and rebuild ideas. Great students will also find ways to also use their encounters with people to develop those same ideas. They will shamelessly absorb as much as they can from everyone they encounter -- from professor to roommate to tutor.

But what does it mean to be a good at getting tutored? How can we better justify any requirements and suggestions to get tutored?

Worthwhile Intellectual Labor

For me, working in the tutoring department at county college made me a better student. I came out of high school almost a complete slacker, getting decent without ever applying myself. I pursued a vo-tec degree just to avoid being in high school. There was an abrupt turn-around when I got to college. I was interested in school work again out of nowhere.

I had a high enough GPA to walk right into a campus tutoring position after my original work-study fell through loss of funding. Ironically, it was a college bound program helping high school students prepare for a college workload.

At that school, every tutor had their own table. We each had name cards with a list of courses we could tutor. There were no time limits, requirements or monitored tutor-student ratios. Sometimes tutees would be there for hours. Others would pop in and out. And in between tutoring students, the tutors also worked with each other. I was regularly tutored in math back then and was getting A’s with no problem.

I was there every spare moment, even while working other part-time jobs. At one point, I was working for an after-school program. I would leave there at 6 p.m. to tutor for two hours just for, what, $14 more? That’s how I was.

Then I transferred to a university, couldn’t find their tutoring department, and my GPA dropped. By that point, I felt like someone who worked and went to school instead of the other way around. I just did without tutoring.

At my current institution, my students (and tutees) are lucky to be pushed into 45 minute appointments with a writing tutor. But I’ve seen some raised eyebrows this semester when I’ve mentioned that the meetings go for that long. Some students are visibly annoyed at the idea of spending almost an hour with a tutor. I’ve been rather surprised and have instinctively started explaining why how fast it goes. But some students simply don’t see revision as worth 45 minutes of their time.

Thinking of being a tutee shouldn’t feel like menial work. It should feel like worthwhile intellectual labor.

Finding Good in the Work

The work needs to be turned back on students. Tutees can, and should, be a lot more introspective about what it’s like to get help on a paper from a reader who is completely outside of their class. That’s kind of who they should be writing for -- how would a well-read person understand the point of their essay?

If they were asked to write about their expectations before their tutoring appointment and a reflection afterwards, they would have a chance to consider the bigger picture. It could be a free-writing exercise required by professors, or it could answer specific questions like: Did you walk out of the appointment feeling better about your project? What ideas or comments stood out to you? What did you do with your essay after the session? How did your paper turn out?

Like all writers, students must write what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” in order to develop a good paper. They need drafts and time to revise. So then they really need to learn how to use their revision time to improve the whole project.

Instead, some students come into tutoring sessions only willing to admit that they’re not good at finding an argument. Can you help? I’ll read what they have, but I usually highlight it and tell them that we’ll come back to it later. I’m not wasting time in the introduction of the paper in the beginning. I’m thinking: Okay this is what you think you’re writing about. Let’s see what the rest of the paper does.

My biggest question for tutees is the same that I have when I’m rolling through a million drafts during grading sessions: Is this a cohesive project? Every question after that depends upon it: Does the intro match the body? Are your paragraphs precise? I’m also talking through these thoughts out loud. I’m not just deleting or adding. I’m saying flat out that this isn’t a strong sentence. Or half this paragraph is about one thing; half is about another.

I spend most of the time inside of the body paragraphs because they’re the most important part of any paper. They are the evidence, the substance, the flow. Everyone loves a clever opening, but readers are more likely to abandon the text in the body.

Sometimes there’s just one sentence in an essay that stands out as their own. It can feel like finding ideas in someone’s work that they seem to really not know were ever there. They’ve been surprised to hear me say, “Here’s something.” It’s then that I take over for a minute to go through each paragraph: be clear about this topic, then you use the body paragraphs to show the development of that idea.

There are some papers, of course, that I’m not sure can be fixed. Ten minutes go by (sometimes more than that), and I’m still asking, “So, tell me again what you’re writing about?” But I always find something. Many times, writers just need people to find the good in their work.

All writing assignments are formal requests for people to slow down and think. And revising is mostly a variation of rethinking, double-checking, condensing, expanding and condensing again. Students don’t always know what to do with revisions from professors; they also might not know how to revise after a tutoring session. Teaching tutees how to revise their work in a comprehensive way allows them use certain strategies (for example: read out loud, check that the body matches the intro, have a good title and so on) when they’re alone.

All this said, I often have no idea what my tutees end up turning in. I don’t come back around to make sure that any given tutee made the changes I suggested. If all they get from me is 45 minutes of seeing what I do with a draft like that, sometimes that has to be enough.

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