Learning while tutoring in writing
Chloe’ Skye Weiser, QC ’13 and Jim Stellar
Chloe’ is a double major in English and Environmental Studies, a Macaulay Honors College student, and a frequent partner in conversation about undergraduate education at Queens College. She has a broad range of experiences and is pursuing undergraduate research, but what really grabbed me was that this term, she took a job in the Writing Center tutoring students. We have yet to write in this blog about tutoring experiences and it can be a powerful on-campus experience. To start, I will ask Chloe’ to tell us something about the Writing Center and what she does there.
The Writing Center poses a great opportunity for students to get help with the College’s rigorous writing requirements. The way it works is that struggling students can come by appointment or during drop-in hours to utilize a tutor as an audience for their writing and to get personalized feedback.
So far, my experience has been incredible. I tutor one particular international student who is just gaining familiarity with the English language. This student is special because in addition to bringing in occasional short anecdotal essays, he brings in grammar and vocabulary exercises. During our first meeting, we went over some relatively advanced English vocabulary and spoke about how these words are used properly in a sentence. This was a novel and illuminating experience for me; it forced me, as a native, lifelong English speaker, to reevaluate how I employ and order words I use every day without thinking about it, to consider the intuitive way I structure words and sentences in my language on a daily basis. (And this is coming from an English major, to whom the language is already fundamentally regarded as a close friend.) In this way, I feel I am breaking down what would have otherwise been deemed a language barrier by using it to every possible advantage: to create a symbiotic relationship from which both tutor and student benefits and learns from each other.
That is great and it is always useful to see students helping students, maybe reaching them in a way that only peers can do. Do your experiences at the Writing Center have any implications in regards to emotional intelligence?
My experiences at the Writing Center have been very beneficial in terms of emotional intelligence. All tutors have bi-monthly group meetings with our bosses at which we discuss assigned chapters of a book called Tutoring Writing. Recently we read a passage that resonated with me, about how the tutor-student relationship is a particularly unique one. Meaning, it is not a friend-friend or professor-student relationship, and it is especially not, as the book is careful to note, the type of relationship that exists between an editor and journalist. Instead, we strive to give the writer full ownership over the work, to equip the writer with an outside perspective and encouragement with which he or she can work to continually improve not just the day’s piece of writing, but his or her overall writing ability.
The tutor-student relationship is unique because the student gets to hear from someone more technically skilled than a peer and perhaps less threatening than a professor. This is because we do not grade or judge students but provide support in whatever way necessary, and is especially important because a student coming to the Center is inherently harboring a vulnerability. He or she is recognizing personal struggle, and therefore comes to talk to – not a friend or professor – no one else but a tutor. A tutor can talk to the student on a level neither of the aforementioned can. We know there is no pretense: the student is here to work on writing, and therefore we can skip formalities to an extent and get down to the nitty-gritty. We want the student to feel comfortable so he or she can view a piece of writing in an objective light, to recognize both its weaknesses and strengths, and to learn to refine one while enhancing the other. As a tutor, working with one student lends insight as to how to work with any student; I too am constantly improving in my approach, because all students are different, and like a chameleon I sense and adapt to every situation.
Very compelling. I notice you use personal language here about student vulnerability or your eagerness to adapt to situations. I also know you went abroad for the summer. Can you triangulate for us how these two experiences similarly impacted (or are impacting) your growth as a student.
This summer I took a Birthright trip to Israel with two of my best friends. My favorite part was interacting with the land. We hiked in the Ramata Golan (the Golan Heights), floated in the Yam Hamelach (Dead Sea), took a cruise on the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), spent a night in the Negev Desert, visited the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, and explored and learned the rich cultures of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem. The three weeks I spent there felt like a lifetime, and I returned with jet lag and a new perspective. As a result I want to learn to speak Hebrew, which I can read but not understand.
Going abroad has the potential to enrich one’s experience as a student and a human being. In particular, being exposed to new languages only adds to my understanding of my own. Language is not just social, it is cultural, and can say a lot about a person’s inherent world-view. This knowledge comes in handy at the Writing Center, where a lot of people have a hard time transitioning. My love of and desire to learn about language helps me find common ground where two strangers, united by writing, can communicate.
What is most striking to us in this exchange is the way the gut-level connection keeps coming through in terms of the enrichment, connection with the land (in study abroad), discussion of the human trait of vulnerability, etc. Content is clearly important: one comes to a writing center to learn or to teach writing (or both at once perhaps). But in the process, something else happens. It is contingent upon being there, present within the experience, and being face-to-face, where nonverbal cues are flying around enriching the content conversation and manifesting within one’s psyche. Or it happens when the land and culture of a place you have never seen before somehow seeps into your framework for thinking. You can even learn foundationally about a people or culture through the way they use language to communicate; as through an ESL student’s own striving to harness the English language. This is, of course, the experiential part of Experiential Education. It is empty without academic content, or at least not as potent for self/career-development. But inherent within it are more than facts and theories. Experiential education develops an individual’s capacity for judgment and perspective and can help when it comes to using academic content knowledge with maturity. It is what students seek to possess, what professors like in a student, what companies want in an employee; furthermore, it can even improve institutions of higher learning. So our question is, why is it not much more widespread in American colleges and universities, and how can we work to expose more students to these deeply personal, deeply individual learning encounters?