Playing the Tutor: An Adaptable Approach for Writing Tutors
Steve Sherwood, in his “Portrait of the Tutor as an Artist: Lessons No One Can Teach,” describes tutors as mix between artisans, who focus on mastering a certain repeatable skill (grammar for instance), and artists, who see how far they push the boundaries of that skill” (Sherwood 99-100). He compares the role of a tutor to that of a beat poet or jazz musician, where being ready for the unexpected is a valuable aptitude. As any writing tutor (or beat poet) will tell you, one cannot judge a tutor simply by his ability to articulate the rules of grammar and standard academic English. An accomplished tutor adapts quickly to an ever changing and largely unpredictable academic environment. The only constant variable in a tutor’s work is the tutor himself, and the very nature of his work requires him to tune and retune himself with every student that sits next to him. A tutor is indefinable, immeasurable, unpredictable, and subject to the haphazard nature of free will. A masterful tutor embraces such ambiguous terms as strengths, and applies them to his doctrine. Malleability becomes the tutor’s weapon of choice as he tackles, biochemistry labs, book reports, résumés, argumentative essays, and the occasional good old-fashion literary analysis of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
While the previous definitions of a tutor may seem inspirational, one can’t simply jump into a tutoring session blindly. I believe the best way to prepare for a healthy tutoring session is to be prepared to “play.” I don’t mean “play” in the sense that we take our students outside for a game of freeze tag. This notion of play is better described as a readiness to think in new and original ways, similar to how a jazz musician “plays” his instrument during rehearsals. The jazz musician is playing, but he is at his job. This concept of play focuses on phrases like, “what if,” “how would it change the meaning,” or “lets pretend.” Former Monty Python member, John Cleese, in a lecture on creativity, calls this the open mode, “where you are more relaxed, expansive, more contemplative and (of course) more inclined to humor.” I believe that establishing this mindset of play early on in the tutoring process is absolutely essential to the learning process.
Often, students enter the writing center for the first time under the impression that they are in some way defective or incapable of succeeding. As a tutor, we must try to guide these writers from such ways of thinking. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Einstein poses what I believe to be a central dilemma in every tutoring session. Unfortunately, the anxiety of a writing assignment or a difficult professor can completely immobilize a student’s creative abilities. Our job is to figure out what “language” the student speaks, and help them into a mindset of play. Once we arrived in this open mode, we can look at a piece of writing with a proper blend of objectivity and subjectivity. Getting to mode of play can be as simple as an ear-to-ear smile combined with a sympathetic gesture of good will, but most importantly we must truly believe that the student is capable of good writing.
While the open state of play is absolutely essential to a creative and productive tutoring environment, there is a second ingredient that I strongly believe all good tutors must posses: a willingness to learn. To quote a second perhaps less famous physicist, Frank Oppenheimer once said, “The best way to learn is to teach.” Therefore, the act of tutoring is not only a vehicle for improving the writing of others, but also for improving the abilities of the tutor as well. While our first goal is to help each student that walks through our doors, I would argue that a successful tutoring session is just as much a learning experience for the tutor as it is for the writer. A certain level of excitement and enthusiasm brought to the learning process can be infectious as it translates into an interest in the student as well, which, in turn, bolsters their confidence and gives them positive energy to refocus into their writing.
These concepts of play and learning through the act of teaching are the backbone of my tutoring philosophy. Both focus on openness to new ideas, optimism, and adaptability. By incorporating these concepts into my tutoring sessions I can be prepared to be unprepared. While formal knowledge of the language I am teaching is crucial, my attitude is even more so. Demonstrating both willingness to help and a willingness to play, creates a warm and productive learning environment not only for the students I teach, but for myself as well. I firmly believe that when the tutor plays, teaches, and learns in a symbiotic way the positive results quickly compound upon one another as each encourages the growth of the other ultimately producing a passion for writing that is both highly effective and dangerously contagious.