by Hannah Matuszak ||
I grew up on fantasy novels thick enough for Olympic athletes to bench-press, series like Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time that all told the same stories about heroism, packaged in exciting new settings and plots. While I was learning that the unlikely protagonist always saved the day and lived happily ever after, I was also unconsciously absorbing the rules of grammar as I waded through flowery sentences liberally seasoned with semicolons. By the time I reached middle school, my reading was occasionally disrupted by classmates’ requests to “Edit my essay real quick, please? I’m afraid I’ll get points off for grammar.”
I loved editing. My fragile teenage self-esteem thrived on coaxing my peers’ sometimes nonsensical, knotted sentences into orderly rows of words. Looking back, it wasn’t exactly a role to be proud of, since adding my own stylistic touch to others’ assignments was morally dubious, but that isn’t the moral of this particular story. I became the kind of person who swoops in to correct others’ grammar on internet message boards and gleefully points out typos in textbooks. . .
As a reader, I typically stayed away from cliché fantasy novels, preferring more unique tales. But in the language of stereotypical fantasy novels, I was the hero. The kind of hero who probably needed to have their level of confidence adjusted by a hard-to-slay dragon, too. The classmate presenting me with a paper to cover in red marks and scribbled suggestions was the damsel in distress, swooning prettily at the English assignment that menaced her from the shadows. I rode in heroically, waved my magic sword to chop up awkward sentences, and saved the day. The End. The hero gets the glory, and no one really cares what happens to the cardboard cut-out damsel after the final page is turned.
My journey through the monster-infested wilderness of the educational system eventually took me to college, where I decided I wanted to do this whole editing gig professionally. I declared an English major and dreamed of working as a copyeditor in a publishing house, a far-off castle where I could spend all day thinking about proper grammar without ever really coming into contact with the writers themselves. It was on this quest to achieve my degree that I discovered the writing center pedagogy class and reexamined everything I’ve ever believed about helping others to improve their writing.
Entering the class, I knew that I would be learning to do much more than fiddle around with students’ comma placement. Still, hearing on the first day that we wouldn’t be focused on line-editing at all felt like falling through a magical portal and ending up in a strange new land where I didn’t know any of the rules. I had spent my entire life as a writer and editor in a space where I felt like the master of proper conduct and quality output. This is similar to the feeling Brooke Baker discusses in her article, “I [had] become comfortable in this space” and “also, to an extent, complacent. This complacency manifests itself, at times, as both rigidity and authority—in the sense that…I am, therefore, the one who knows all about tutoring” (64). This transformation of my idea of what constituted the “space” of correct writing led me to step away from my inhibiting complacency. More importantly, it led me to focus on a character in the story I had never given much consideration before: the tutee.
One of my assignments involved spending an hour sitting in my university’s writing center. I’d never entered the center before—a choice motivated partly by a busy schedule and partly by the delusion, “I’m good at this, I don’t need anyone else’s help!” that many competent writers suffer from. I settled into a chair in one corner of the room and pulled out my notebook. During that hour, I proceeded to understand just how fanciful many popular myths about tutoring really are. The tutors, with all their sage wisdom, spoke perhaps one-fifth of the time. They watched the tutees carefully, their bodies turned towards the students and the tilts of their heads revealing quiet interest. In this story, the tutees got most of the dialogue—they were the real main characters.
Not all sessions in the writing center can follow this tutee-centered model, of course. These conversations should, ideally, flow from favoring one participant to another depending on each writer’s unique needs. However, this specific type of session was an important revelation for me because before entering the writing center, I had never seriously considered how a tutee could drastically improve their writing by being listened to rather than lectured at.
This revelation was reinforced by our class discussions and readings, which caused me to question the value of “correct” writing weighed against the value of good ideas that may be cloaked in awkward language. Grammatically perfect writing might still be a priority in some sessions, but in other cases I should be looking beneath the commas and periods to the complex thoughts within. As a tutor, I realized, it would be my job to foster ideas in my tutees rather than expecting them to show up with these concepts neatly lined up in a paper that I had to mark up with red pen. It should have been obvious, but it was astonishing to learn that in one-hour sessions, I should teach students strategies that they could utilize for the rest of their educational lives, focusing “on promoting intellectual growth in students rather than helping them produce prepackaged and predictable assignments” (Fallon 357).
So, as a writing tutor, I’m not going to be the hero. I need to be the tutee’s mentor, a kindly wizard who might be more experienced than the young protagonist, but whose main goal is to arm the hero with the magic tricks and inspirational speeches that they need to succeed on their own when the time comes. The hero might not be able to complete the quest without my advice, but they’re the one who will slay the menacing writing assignment in the end. Playing the wise mentor has its perks, though. I’ll get to go on many different quests as I travel alongside all sorts of different writers. And I’ll still have the opportunity to occasionally unleash my love of grammar when it fits one of these quest’s specific needs, but it will be one useful tool in my tutoring repertoire rather than the enchanted sword I used to brandish at each and every writing piece.
Since I had this realization, I’ve spent some time thinking about exactly what kind of mentor, or tutor, I want to be. First and foremost, I want to make the writers I come into contact with feel comfortable and confident. I want to show them that writing is something everyone can succeed at, not just us stuffy English majors who spend every free moment scribbling in notebooks. To make good writing (a category that has become much more fluid for me) achievable for everyone, I want to focus strongly on content and structure. By helping tutees to consider the logical strength of their arguments and present ideas clearly, I’ll focus on the true cores of pieces rather than only looking at often-superficial surface issues. I won’t be the perfect tutor, but I’ll be a constant work in progress as I continuously learn better ways to help other writers.
Instead of teaching me ways to fix a run-on sentence, this writing tutor class has ended up teaching me about myself, revealing preconceptions about writing and teaching that aren’t always correct. This lines up perfectly with Fallon’s vision for writing centers: to “produce better tutors, not just better tutoring” (357). I hope that my future in the writing center will involve even more rewriting of simplified fairytales into rich, nuanced stories that tell truths about the tutoring experience. In fact, my future experiences might look a lot like my favorite kinds of fantasy novels, the ones I’ve read and reread until the covers are worn and the spines falling apart. Just as these tales sidestep the worn archetypes of hero, damsel, and dragon to create truly unique adventures, I’ll break out of commonplace ideas of what a tutor is and treat each tutee like the protagonist of their own distinct story. This process might not be a clichéd happily ever after, but it will be an educational journey.
Baker, Brooke. “Safe Houses and Contact Zones: Reconsidering the Basic Writing Tutorial.”
Young Scholars in Writing. 4.1 (2006): 64-72. Print.
Fallon, Brian. “Why My Best Teachers Are Peer Tutors.” The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors.
Fitzgerald, Lauren and Melissa Ianetta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Print.
Hannah Matuszak is a freshman at Hofstra University studying English and Computer Science. Currently, she is completing Hofstra’s Writing Center Pedagogy class and hopes to begin tutoring next semester. She uses her love of creative writing and computer programming to take a simultaneously imaginative and logic-based approach to writing.