Electrical Tape Was Our Bond
My name is Angie, I'm a English Writing Major at Montana State University, where I also tutor in our Writing Center. I'm new to the tutoring community, but I've fallen in love with it already and am trying to get more familiar with writing center research, culture, jargon, conferences--ya know, everything! This blog has been really helpful for me just to hear the kinds of conversations peer tutors in other places are having. Thanks!
My last day of tutoring for the semester made me think about things I'm not sure I've thought this deeply about before. Like how easy it is to profile a writer by the appearance of their paper and how this can jade our opinions of the paper and the writer before we even read, causing us to miss out on powerful teaching/learning moments. And also how there are many ways we can connect with a writer; some of them so obvious that I, for one, didn't even see them until my interaction with this student opened my eyes. Like identification, for instance.
My last student didn't stand out in any particular way, until he got out his paper. It seemed to be held together by electrical tape. He embarrassingly hid it and pulled out a clean copy, but it was too late, "Is that electrical tape?" I asked with half a smile. He lowered his eyes, seeming for all the world to me like one who was expecting a chiding, and muttering something about how he had gotten to class, realized he'd forgotten to staple his paper but always carried electrical tape, so he used that. Though I'm not the chiding sort, I am conscious that many times the appearance of a paper says much about the amount of care that was put into it--or not. I usually flip through a paper's pages right away, just to get a feel for what levels a writer is at: interest-level, thinking-level and writing-ability. This helps me get a feel for where to start with them. With this particular paper, it would have been easy to shrug him off as unprepared and sloppy, and I might have, except for the fact that I come from a discourse community where carrying electrical tape means one is very prepared, and always ready to improvise; to my eyes, electrical tape symbolizes a thinker, not a slacker.
My writer seemed uneasy--still waiting for that lecture on stapling-not-taping. I needed to put him at ease: no matter what his paper held, some trust had to be built for the session to be beneficial, so I searched for something to say that would calm him. I hadn't read his paper yet so I couldn't speak to his writing abilities--I could only speak to his taping abilities. That's when I realized that he had no idea that his tape made me expect a thoughtful paper from him. Sitting there is my better-than-jeans-and-T-shirt-attire, a feminine woman in her 30's, it occurred to me that he had no way of knowing that I spent years as an aircraft technician in the U.S. Navy, where tape and safety wire in the hands of a youth with determination often worked more magic than manuals and expensive tools. I don't normally talk much about myself when I tutor--this time I ventured in that direction, knowing that to be comfortable, electrical-tape guy needed to know he was in the company of one who spoke his language (note the connection between discourse community and values here: our similar tech backgrounds cause us to both see something as simple as electrical tape as a symbol for skill, preparedness and thoughtfulness).
I smiled and motioned to his paper, and mentioned how I understood the need for tape, and wire, and pocket knives too, for that matter, due to my history of working on jets. I'm pretty sure the guy almost passed out from shock. When he recovered, he smiled. And started talking freely; he was at ease.
We started reading and I wasn't at all disappointed: his was the best paper I had tutored all year--not because it was perfect by any means, but because it was thoughtful and showed he had actually learned something. It helped that he was taking a required writing class that is Writing-About-Writing based. The assignment asked him to take what he had learned over the semester and research how writing works in his field: Electrical Engineering. Throughout the year I see a lot of jargon thrown around in papers to make them sound smart--I've done it too. This wasn't that. It was a smart, thoughtful use of what the writer had been taught, used to investigate how writing works other places outside his classroom. He used the concepts and vocabulary from his class well, in ways that could only be transferred to such a different field by one who had some grasp of them. And he was invested and paid attention: he had two copies of his paper and while I read one aloud, he took notes on the other one--always noting where I stumbled with his wording, even if I re-read it and found the stumble to be my end-of-semester fog, not his writing.
Something else amazing happened too: because I had started out by admitting to being part of a discourse community that writes very differently from any college writing I've done, and because I saw this as a reason he trusted me, I was already expecting his writing to be along the lines of this tech experience we shared. I know that I understood his writing better because of this. His paper touched on the difference in title content between articles that he had researched for writing class vs. those he found when he looked up something in his field. He noted that the titles of articles for his field almost always said what information the paper contained: if it was a certain procedure he was looking for, he'd know had found the article he was looking for when he found it because it would be titled "How to_____________". Conversely, my tutee noted that when searching Writing/English-type journals, he never knew what might be in an article because the title didn't seem to reflect the content. I had never thought about that as being the reason I used to get so frustrated with research in my major, but he was right: I was accustomed to aircraft manuals having a procedure written into the title--something I hadn't often noted in my major's writings. This writer's paper was refreshingly thoughtful and smart--and I might have missed all of this had I judged him as sloppy or uncaring due to the electrical tape.
While we read and interacted around his paper, we laughed a lot. We talked much, from personal experience, about how writing differs between our two majors. I caught on to tiny things in his paper that I wouldn't have, had I not made the technician connection, and when I needed to explain anything to him, all I had to do was put it in terms he was familiar with, and he not only grasped them, but got excited about their clarity. At one point when we had stopped laughing over something writing-related that was particularly unique to our shared techy exoeriences, he looked at me and said with sincerity in his voice, "I would have never, ever guessed you would get the electrical tape thing. This [that we're doing] is the way working with writing is supposed to be." I had to agree. We were able to think together from at least two different writing backgrounds (discourse communities), and it made the tutoring experience rich with learning for both of us.
But what would have happened if I hadn't used my own experiences to identify myself with him and so seek his trust? He might have never trusted me with the concepts that made the experience great, because he would have assumed that I would never understand them, just like someone else might have assumed the taped paper meant he didn't care about his paper. You just never know what thoughtfulness might be disguised within the ordinary--unless of course, an electrical-taped paper gives you the first clue. In a tutoring session we have so many points at which to choose to identify with a writer or not; I'd venture that a great many of these pass us by completely unnoticed, especially when we assume things that experience has more often than not "proved" to us.