The Writing Observatory

by DeanneMarie Fallucca ||

Stepping into the writing center is much like walking into an animal observatory; one where the most unlikely creatures have managed to cross paths. Witnessing these interactions between radically different species, one may have their heart in their throat, expecting the worst. But, much like tutors and new writers in a writing center, these animals can pick up new tricks and habits from one another. Although apprehensive at first, each animal will be lucky enough to learn on this adventure.

Embarking on new territory can be difficult, especially for a mouse. As tutors in a writing center, some of the most difficult sessions happen when dealing with writers who are new to the space– inexperienced. For those meek and nervous students, a tutor’s push might make for an easier session. Picture a mouse moving in on a lioness’ sanctuary. Based on the larger animal’s reputation, the mouse is likely to stick inside a space of her own, hoping not to get in the lioness’ way. Mice are usually shy in front of others unlike themselves. The creature is comfortable when he is by himself, but the minute there are footsteps and looming shadows, the mouse will run and hide, giving an outsider no chance at spotting him; the mouse lives in fear of being caught. During tutoring sessions, “students’ reports of their ‘comfort’ in conferences has been shown to be important to their conference satisfaction.”  In the writing observatory, the mouse’s visit is more likely to be satisfying if the creature has found a level of comfort in her environment– he might even return (Mackiewicz and Thompson 41).

It is not atypical for a writer to embark on the uncharted territory of the mind and page when he is alone. Once he sits down with his tutor his ease turns into anxiety. He feels like he is being watched, like a mouse. Hoarding all of his knowledge in the back alleys of his mind, a writer’s anticipation of judgment threatens his free expression. He’d much rather collect information instead of putting it out into the world. Can the tutor get the writer to share his thoughts without scaring him away? How will the tutor encourage the writer to keep accessing that uncharted territory and perhaps go even further than he has gone before? The answer is peanut butter. Much like catching a mouse, providing the student with encouragement should allow for the tension in the air to slip away. In the writing center, tutors are trying to coerce their students and make them comfortable, similar to a creature who would not likely explore an unfamiliar place. This student needs a strong push, which gives him the motivation to reach a point of revelation and realization

In Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson’s piece entitled “Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring,” the authors refer to this encouragement as motivational scaffolding– a method which the feedback given to students by tutors is meant to “promote” students’ active participation in writing sessions:  “[Motivation] influences the time and effort that students are willing to invest in completing a task and to some extent the possibility of transferring learning from one environment to another” (43).  Just like the mouse is motivated by the peanut butter to find comfort in this new space, students are encouraged by the help their tutor offers. A tutor who presents herself with the same confidence and pride of the courageous feline will work to make a positive impression on a new arrival. This lioness is proud, just as the tutor is about her knowledge. The motivational scaffolding Mackiewicz and Thompson speak of highlights a collaborative learning environment– one that allows the mouse to leave the session happily, and want to come back for more.

Like the proud, yet maternal lioness, the tutor chooses her words carefully. Her actions are compelling and thoughtful. While the mouse fears the environment will swallow him whole, the lioness works to reassure him that all are welcomed here. She aims to lead, and the mouse quickly settles in. But, on the other side of the observatory lie a pair who do not find that same comfort in one another. In contrast to the tranquil environment big and small have created, stubbornness and repugnance are at odds. While the lioness crafts her advice based on politeness, a fox lays out the scaffolding in a different manner. What is “positive politeness” for one is offensive or inhibiting to another.

The erratic movements of a red clad matador are setting off a raging bull. This so-called superior has invaded the pen of an impulsive beast. When the matador enters, he is left to observe the bull’s reactions to various movements and passes. The beginning of writing sessions are simply for observing, yet, “This sentence is a run on,” hears the author, “and you’ve got a comma splice here.” The tutor is trying to understand the writer’s practices and habits, but the student is misinterpreting the help for control. Much like an unshakable bull, the writer is blind to particulars. The bull cannot see the red of the matador’s cape, but rather his erratic movements; a stubborn writer will only acknowledge the fast-paced movements of a red pen, rather than the suggestions and help it is offering. This bull is using his horns to hear, rather than his ears to listen. His defense mechanism is vigilant, ready to attack the first thing that sets him off.

A writer who is comfortable in his territory is unwelcoming to anyone who chooses to mark up his paper. He is distracted by stragglers and not focused on what is in front of him. The tutor’s job is to draw the student’s attention to his work, forcing him to digest the problem to be solved, the question to be answered. It takes the slickness of a cunning fox to overpower the bull’s anxious and charged disposition. She looks at the session as a challenge to be conquered, relying on her ability to manipulate as a proper teaching tactic. She means to outsmart the larger bull; the tutor, in some sense, is looking to manipulate the session. She wants for the student to learn subconsciously. She longs for him to leave the scene with a lesson, just as a fox may coyly subdue the bull.

Unlike the scaffolding set out for the small mouse, this fox must be cunning in her approach. Mackiewicz and Thompson compliment this scaffolding with what they refer to as tutor politeness. She must carefully choose her words. While she is still building a caring environment for her visitor, she consciously tries not to undermine his already existing success. This bull refuses to have his territory invaded. Her directive approach changes to one that is cognitive.

The fox looks at the bull, batting her eyelashes in order to distract him from his inherent anxiety. She offers alternatives, not suggestions (Mackiewicz and Thompson). This is her chance to change the animal’s thought process. The fox’s quiet nature is meant to throw off the loud bull. In sessions like these, a tutor takes a coy approach in hopes that her inconspicuous nature will force the student to listen. This psychological game should have the student listen to criticism and understand where he has an opportunity for improvement. It is not the tutor’s job to steal the student’s idea nor change his work, rather the tutor encourages growth. The fox is not meant to make a bull change his ways; instead she wants him to look at the pen from a different point of view. When the bull begins to listen, the fox considers her challenge conquered. With an organized approach, she has taught the bull.

To an outsider looking in, these interactions may seem uncomfortable, and these creatures may look like they’re at odds. How could a biology major find comfort in the help from an English major? How is it possible that a lioness could offer sound advice to a creature less than a hundredth her size?  And, how could a fox and bull find a common ground? But, on the inside of the glass, they are working out their differences and learning something new. The tutors—the lioness, the fox—are trying share and promote self-efficacy and self-confidence, which both “influence effort and persistence and willingness to persevere in difficult tasks” (Mackiewicz and Thompson 45).    They are hearing one another; they are listening for advice. Each discovering a new piece of land to be charted more often; each discovering a new level of comfort and a shred of confidence.


Works Cited

Mackiewicz, Jo, and Isabelle Thompson. “Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring.” The Writing Center Journal 33.01 (2013): 38-73. Web. 3 May 2017.



DianneMarie Fallucca is a graduating senior at the Hofstra University Writing Center. She is a Public Relations major with a double minor in Writing Studies and Graphic Design. She was born and raised in Staten Island, New York and lives for Sunday pasta. 

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