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Tutoring: What’s in It for the Tutor?

posted: 11.10.11 by Andrea Lunsford

During the second week of this term’s classes, I had my first tutoring appointment in Stanford’s Hume Writing Center. I don’t have to tutor—after all, I stepped down after 11 years of directing the writing program and am now teaching full-time while I move toward retirement. But I wouldn’t miss these appointments for the world!  Tutoring (or consulting or whatever label you may prefer) is in my blood.  Over the years, I have learned to value, even to cherish, these interactions with students that differ from but are so influential on my role as a classroom teacher.

So when I met my first tutee in October, I was excited:  who would I encounter?  What would the student’s interests and needs be?  Would I be able to help?  When I sat down next to a student near the completion of his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, my heart skipped a beat:  “fingers crossed” was all I could think.  And then this young man talked through his article—which he was writing in the hope that it would be accepted for publication in a prestigious general in his field—explaining  the series of experiments he and his adviser had conducted and what their significance was.  He was direct, providing me with a condensed version of his purpose.  Then he said, “I’ve come especially to talk about my introduction and conclusion, because they don’t do what I want.”  As I talked with him, I learned that he had studied articles published in his target journal and that he was completely dissatisfied with their introductions and conclusions as well as with his own.  He ended by saying that the conclusions in particular were “a complete waste of time.  They just say what the article already said.  Blah, blah, blah.”

Fifty minutes later, he left with a completely revised introduction and a sketch of a new conclusion.  What I did is what I always do:  listen very hard and then try to ask good questions, like  “Why did you put this sentence right here?”  and “What do you want readers to remember most?” When we worked on the conclusion, he unpacked his cursory summary, and I said “What would YOU think would be a good conclusion if a summary isn’t working?” Without  hesitation,  he said “A wish list of what can be done to make the experiments better in the future.”  With that, he was off on a sketch of the new conclusion, one he could show his adviser to find out if the adviser thinks that such an unusual conclusion (for the target journal) would be acceptable.  I am hoping it will be!

Listen. Question. Listen. Question. Hardly rocket science. But my experiences in tutoring have taught me to value the synergy that can build up between these acts. Of course, this simple method doesn’t always yield successful results. But more often than not, it does work and I am rewarded, as I was during this tutorial, with a broad smile and a “thank you.” And when I’m really lucky, a follow-up visit so that I can see the eventual results of that day’s work together.

I hope that my tutees feel that they’ve gained something from our sessions, but I am certain that I have. Tutoring his taught me to be a much better listener, a much better questioner, and (I hope!) a much better teacher.

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One Response to “Tutoring: What’s in It for the Tutor?”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    Have you seen the video of high school tutors talking about their writing centers? It’s here: I think they’re echoing everything you have to say, plus they talk about how it helps them as writers. Those students and their enthusiasm are great PR for being a tutor.