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"If someone bumped
into you in a pub and you said, 'I've just written an essay,'
and he said, 'what's it about?' what would you say?"
"I liked the conclusion
a lot. I thought the way you explained the conflicting feelings
the reader might have was really interesting. So when you go
back and think through what you're going to argue the reader
thinks, go back to this paragraph, because you say it well here."
"So what I'm getting
at is, where does that interpretation of the text lead? What
does it do? What difference does it make?"
"Maybe you could
rephrase it in terms of something visual, like, something that
the reader can picture? Like, um . . . "
"This is the part
I really want to talk about, because you seem to make a point
but then you go back on it."
These are the voices of Writing Center tutors
drawn from transcripts of conferences with graduate and undergraduate
students last fall. Speaking as knowledgeable peers rather than
expert authorities, tutors can often reach students who seem
deaf to professors' precepts.
The voices are casual and encouraging, offering generous praise
and savvy criticism. An anxious freshman is likelier to respond
to a hypothetical pub-crawler's off-hand "What's it about?"
than to the more formidable "What is your thesis?"
encountered in faculty offices. Professors' efforts to get students
to draw conclusions or to enliven their essays with vivid details
may lead to head-banging and hand-wringing, whereas the tutor's
"What difference does it make?" or strategic pause,
"Like, um . . . ," will often unlock the writer's imagination,
tapping ideas and images that were there all along. While a professor's
hint-however gentle-that an argument is inconsistent can send
a student into paroxysms of doubt and defensiveness, criticism
from a peer is somehow easier to bear and thus easier to confront.
The theory behind this approach is best explained by Kenneth
Bruffee, the guru of collaborative learning. In an often-reprinted
article, "Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind,'"
Bruffee asserts that peer tutoring fulfills the central aim of
education: enabling students to join the "social conversation"
that has gone on for centuries. Serving as "a community
of knowledgeable peers," tutors initiate fellow students
into the codes of values and assumptions particular to academic
disciplines. Their collaboration leads to the discovery of new
paradigms of thought, feeling, perception, and expression.
Writing tutors occupy a unique position: selected from among
Emory's most outstanding students, they can work with faculty
almost as junior colleagues, and they can talk to students in
their own language. Thus, they serve as bridges, translating
a way of understanding the course material and writing assignments
into concrete steps for students to follow. A tutor may ask questions,
act as a sounding board, suggest an alternative perspective,
or point out ambiguous phrases. By helping students work through
their ideas, tutors guide them to higher levels of thinking and
A common misconception about the Writing Center is that we "fix"
papers for students, correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation
errors, and producing a clean copy to be handed in. Every semester,
students want to know why they can't just drop off the paper
to be edited, and we patiently explain that we will teach them
how to edit but will not edit for them. For example, in this
conference with an international student, the tutor models a
method of editing:
One way to address different
editing issues is to read through your paper and just look at
one or two things. We're going to practice this right now. In
this pass let's do both articles and prepositions. Okay, here's
a preposition: I'm going to read this out, and then I want you
to make the change, based on the way it sounds.
By walking the writer through
the process, step-by-step, the tutor is teaching a valuable skill
rather than fixing a paper. Our primary aim is to make better
writers, not just a better paper.
Another common misconception is that the Writing Center is patronized
by "problem students," poor writers needing remedial
help. We do see a number of weak writers, but we also help students
with honors theses, personal statements for professional schools,
and essays for graduate seminars. That our tutors sign up for
conferences with other tutors suggests that even the best writer
has something to learn from us.
At the Writing Center, Emory students learn to think for themselves
and to trust their instincts, as well as to structure a compelling
argument and to polish their prose. They also discover what constitutes
a interesting idea, valid supporting evidence, or honest and
accurate documentation, as the following excerpt shows:
Do you know anything about
citation? Maybe it wasn't so important in high school, but it
sure is in college. In fact, if something isn't cited or cited
properly, that can bring you before the honor council, and if
you get a mark on your transcript, you can pretty much forget
grad school, if you don't get kicked out of undergrad.
How to avoid plagiarism is
one of many lessons made more palatable because preached by a
respected peer. Students' evaluations of their writing conferences
attest to their worth:
"She asked me all
the right guiding questions."
"In fifteen minutes,
he helped me find a clear thesis--sophisticated
"She made me feel
like a writer!"
In nearly eight hundred writing
conferences conducted last semester, Writing Center tutors helped
give fellow students a voice in the "conversation"
that shapes our world.