I'm Sorry, Did You Want to Hold That?

Hello, peers. I'm another new member of the Boise State Writing Center consulting team, which means I'm also a student in the fabulous tutoring class BSU offers its writing center newbies (yay, class!). For whatever it's worth, I think I’ve learned as much about myself these past few weeks as I have about the theory and practice of tutoring writing. Among the things I’ve learned about myself, sadly, is that I am no darn good at hearing writing. That problem will be the crux of this post. I’m hoping to get a sort of tally on consultation tactics that might guide me over and beyond my instincts in the coming weeks.

Here’s the thing: I’ve got to hold the paper. If there’s a paper, I’ve got to hold it. You’ve got a paper? Give it here. Your paper = Mine to hold. I’m betting the reasons behind this instinct are many and varied, but the foremost reason is obvious: If you’re reading the paper and I can’t see it, I’m not hearing a word you’re saying. Even if the paper’s on the table between us and you’re reading it aloud, I’m not hearing you, and I’m not following along—even if it looks like I am. I’ve got to read the paper myself—in my own voice (or head)—in order to process it, in order to be useful in any real way.

During my observation sessions, I’ve noticed that consultants generally take the professionally recommended course of action: they ask the writer if they’d like to read the paper themselves, or if they’d prefer that the consultant read it. As writers vary, so do preferences. Okay.

So when I had my first one-on-one consultation (a walk-in), I presented the student the option of reading the paper herself. I got lucky: she wanted me to read it. The session went well. I offered my next walk-in the same option. This one stared at me for a perplexed moment, puckered her lips, squinted a bit, then haphazardly started reading her paper aloud.

Despite that my pencil was poised to take notes and that I was all rarin’ to go, by the time the girl got to the end of her introduction, I couldn’t remember a word she’d said. I actually had to stop her and say, “You know what, I was wrong—I’m going to need to read the paper.” She handed it over and I placed it in front of me—not between us—and I read it aloud. It felt ugly, especially since I’d offered the poor girl an option then yanked it away, but it worked. For now, that’s what works for me.

So I’m wondering, is this a person-to-person phenomenon—like, I learn and process things visually where someone else might not? Or is it a generally acknowledged “newbie” phenomenon, one that will fade with experience? Or is it case-based—are there some writing pieces that are more easily internalized through the ear than others?

I imagine that as the weeks go by I’ll get better at inching the paper toward the writer, so that it rests between us, at least, if not in his or her hands. But I would really like to know how veteran consultants approach the situation, and whether there are others out there like me, who need to touch the page in order to understand it.


  1. Rachael,

    I think with more sessions this will fade. I had the same problem when I started tutoring at St. Thomas.

    What I did to help with this situation was to review the essay by paragraphs. I would have the student read a paragrpah and then ask them what they noticed, what they didn't like about it, and so on. I would do this for each paragraph and the student would notice some mistakes and I would point out others.

    While discussing the paragraph, I ask to see the paper if they hold on to it or ask them to move the monitor over a bit.

    I still use this technique occasionally in the high school session and in the college sessions.

    Hope it helps,

  2. Also an option: if you have a photocopier in your Writing Center, make a copy so that you are each (tutor and student) looking at your own copy. Either of you can then be reading the paper aloud, but you'll still be able to read it in your head. We've had pretty good luck with this at Beloit College, where I work.

    Be careful with this, though, because having your own draft can sometimes mean you'll fall prey to "fixing" everything yourself. I usually try to just circle things on the draft that I want to come back and discuss with the student. Try not to hand a student a draft that you've written on at the end of the session with comments on it you haven't discussed. Students are more likely (in my experience) to follow up on notes and changes that they've made themselves.

    Good luck!


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