Disinterest vs. The Tutor Who Cares

I’m working on developing my pedagogy for the final portfolio and have stalled. There is a certain notion I have about the tutor/writing relationship that runs contrary to the consensus of most other tutors: I think a tutor must distance himself from the writer. In workshop, I heard many classmates say that intrinsic to their pedagogy is developing a relationship with the writer. Scott Russell, in his essay “Clients Who Frequent Madame Barnett’s Emporium,” writes that “Tutors learn to distance themselves from emotional elements of the work” and that defenses we develop are “blanking out, retaining physical boundaries, keeping time down, hiding the self,” etc. Russell sees these maneuvers as negative qualities since it inhibits the tutor and prevents any sort of relationship from developing.

I can understand that sentiments behind wanting to develop a trusting relationship with a writer. Writing is, by its nature, an intimate and personal activity that few people wish to share with others. To discuss writing demands a level of trust to exist between the writer and tutor. It also demands that the writer feels equal to the tutor so that he is not embarrassed to share his thoughts. Such trust and equality, I have found, leads to the most successful consultations.

But I think the relationship should end there; it should end when the writer is comfortable engaging with the tutor about his writing. It should not develop into a deep, personal trust in which the tutor finds himself emotionally connected to the piece. I’m sure there are buckets full of critical theory arguing about the proper relationship between an audience and a work. But I am set in my critical approach and am only uncertain about how it applies to the writing center.

It seems that by involving himself emotionally with a piece of writing the tutor is divorcing himself from judiciousness. This can happen when he reads a personal narrative about a death in someone’s family; it can happen when he reads an argumentative essay that agrees with his opinions; it can even happen when he reads an argument opposed to his essay. Any time a tutor invests emotion into a piece he is necessarily affecting his ability as a disinterested critic. And a critic he must be if the writer is to be helped. If the tutor is sympathetic he will allow certain errors to pass; if he is livid he will be extraordinarily and irrationally harsh to the point of detriment to the writer.

I am wondering if it is possible to be emotionally withdrawn from a piece and, if not, if it is necessarily detrimental to the writer and his piece of writing.


  1. Joey,

    Thanks for bringing this up, it is interesting to contemplate. Do you employ any strategies to distance yourself from the writing?

    I semi-agree with you, I think. In response to David's post, I asked, "Is the distance sometimes necessary?" And sometimes, it is.
    But, I was thinking more along the lines of trying your best to teach someone to fish, and then not fretting overmuch about whether or not he's going to starve.

    In terms of distancing yourself from the writing, it's something I rarely want to do. I think that the overall feel you get from a paper can be a global issue. Although, if a topic disturbs me, I ask myself, "is this good writing?" and I focus on that. (I think that only happened once this semester.) Additionally, the places where the writing moves you are going to be at crucial points. They draw your attention for a reason, and that reader response/feedback is going to be useful to the writer. I have yet to say, "this kind of makes me want to cry" --actually, I'm pretty sure I have said that (weird)-- but you could just as easily say "I think this part is really powerful," or "do you mean this to be so strongly worded?" or "is this how you anticipated a reader might feel?" or even "perhaps adding another comma here would change the impact this statement has on a reader."

  2. You bring up some salient points, Joey. I think you're right in that there does need to be some sort of boundary between you (as a consultant) and the writer. I do think that there are degrees of comfort that each consultant will have...what works for me might not work for you. There is room, I believe, for various pedagogies and approaches and that you should definitely not try to form any connections with a writer that you are not comfortable with. It wouldn't be your style and it probably wouldn't lead to a good consultation if you tried to force it. I think in the end if you follow your own instincts, you'll be able to have the types of rewarding consultations that work with your own individual style.

  3. I've been thinking about this topic since we discussed it in workshop on Thursday, Joey.

    If someone asked me "Do you think distance in a session is good or bad" I would answer it can be both. If someone asked me "Is getting too close to a writer dangerous" I would answer yes. These answers seem a little contradictory, so I've been thinking about it further and here's what I've come up with.

    I allow myself to get involved with a writer to the point that I sincerely care that I help them learn to write better. This does not require me to get overly involved or attached to their work or the particular piece they are working on. It also does not seem to inhibit whether I can be honest with them about their work. But, my job is not to evaluate or criticize, so maybe that is why it doesn't get in the way.


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