Confessions of an Antisocial Peer Tutor
This past semester, I worked eighteen hours a week at our writing center. However, I only consulted four of those hours and did administrative work the rest of the week. During this time, something happened that I never imagined possible.
I began to dread going to work.
After some introspection, I realized I sincerely missed working with people. Whatever it is that happens in those sessions, that was the reason I loved—and still love—coming to work. That, whatever that is, is why I do what I do. Although I may have a bit of an aversion to people in general (call me an introvert), I need that connection that comes from discussing, dissecting, reincarnating new ideas, old ideas, even emotions, all in that 45 minute session.
So what about peer tutoring makes it such a uniquely humanizing experience? And how can it be so powerful as to overcome the antisocial behavior of one as cynical as I? Sometimes I think grammar and mechanics monopolize our focus, and we lose sight of how extraordinary peer tutoring can be. It is, therefore, my hope that this catalyzes some introspection among my fellow tutors.
I am reminded of one session in particular. For forty tedious minutes, I had been working on grammar with yet another ESL engineering grad student. Abruptly, he asked if we could work on something else. Warily, I agreed. From his backpack, he produced a handwritten paragraph, scrawled on the back of scrap paper. I was expecting more fragmented sentences and absent articles; instead, I was staring at a copy of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. “Could we talk about this?” he asked. A little stunned, I agreed.
At the end of our consultation, my curiosity got the better of me. I hesitantly asked how he had come across the poem. Despite having known me for a total of 45 minutes, he genuinely replied, “My friend showed me. It made us think how different our lives would have been if we’d stayed in China; most of our friends did.”
Just like that, I was reminded that next to me sat not another engineer, or grad student drone, or even ESL student, but a human being. He, like all of us, was simply trying to find meaning in this multifarious phenomenon called life. I think what astounds me the most is these students’ willingness to open up to us—tutors, essentially complete strangers. During these consultations, I don’t feel like a tutor. I feel like a confidant, a peer, sometimes even a friend. Once we remember that there is a human being on the other side of that paper, that those ideas are coming not from somewhere but someone, then the true peer consulting begins.
James Hillman wrote that words are “independent carriers of soul between people” (Re-visioning Psychology). Stop and think about that. Words are independent carriers of soul between people.
We tutors work with words, more specifically with other people’s words. In a very metaphysical sense, Hillman might argue that, on a day-to-day basis, we work with souls—both others’ and our own—and not words. In every consultation, there is an essence of collaboration. Our ideas (Hillman: our souls) come together with and apart from our client’s ideas. Perhaps this is why consultations give us the opportunity for a human connection that is not normally available to us. While not every consultation is like this, I find that many are.
Perhaps these transfers of soul and intimate conversations with complete strangers are what make tutoring writing such a unique and fulfilling experience. It has nothing to do with liking people; it has everything to do with connecting to a fellow human being, appreciating where each of us has stood, now stands, and will stand. Tutoring writing is a window through which we can conceive the human condition. And we do all this in a 45 minute session.