"Oh, So You Do Have a Strict Bone"

               I am a first-year Writing Fellow at Nova Southeastern University. In our writing center, each writing fellow works with a specific professor and composition class, assisting first-year composition students. As fellows, we are required to meet regularly with the professor and with students in and out of class.
During my first week as a writing fellow, I met with the professor I would be working with in order to discuss my role as a tutor and what to expect on my first day. She gave me advice on how to talk with the students and how I should present myself to the class; she told me to “Make sure you establish your authority.” At the time, I thought that was an odd suggestion, so I pushed it aside and ignored it until this week’s sessions gave me insight as to why my professor gave me that advice.
                During my sixth week as a tutor, I had multiple students miss our scheduled sessions together, without warning or legitimate excuses. As many tutors may know, it can be very frustrating to plan for a group session—a session including two or more students—and have only one person show up; it altars the plan of action. For example:
My student, who we can call Benjamin, was supposed to meet with his group members from 11am-12pm, however he missed. At Noon, as I was supposed to begin another session with the three group members Vanessa, Elizabeth, and Sebastian only two students appeared—Elizabeth and Sebastian. Great—I thought—students are skipping because they’re afraid of melting from the rain. Keeping my thoughts to myself, I continued the session as best as I had planned.
Halfway through the 12pm session, Benjamin appeared asking if he could join us in order to make up for the meeting he missed. I told him, “Since you missed your session by an hour and a half and you just interrupted this group, you must reschedule your appointment for an available time next week.” Annoyed and understanding, he walked away. Shortly after Benjamin left, Vanessa waltzed in and joined us. She claimed she was late due to the “persistent downpour”. Since I had just turned her classmate away, I told her, “Being late because of rain is not a valid excuse, so this session won’t count and you will have to reschedule for next week.”
As the session came to an end, the two students who saw me turn their classmates away said in a shocked and sarcastic tone, “Oh, so you do have a strict bone.” I quickly attempted to lighten the mood before they left, but they were quiet and wanted to leave.
                Up until this week, I hadn’t really thought of my student’s perception of me. I automatically assumed they understood my role as a fellow. However, after their comment I noticed that they considered me as a fellow peer, not someone with authority. Was this a bad thing?
My students confided in me and talked with me as if I was a fellow classmate, but now that they have seen me be authoritative, their perception of me has changed. Hearing them state that I was strict worried me; I wasn’t sure if I was too strict or if I sounded rude towards the other students. This situation made me recall the advice my professor gave me on “establishing my authority.” Maybe I was being too “friendly” when first meeting my students that I didn’t establish the role clearly to them.
To better understand the role I’m supposed to have as a tutor, I read “Transgressive Hybridity: Reflections on the Authority of the Peer Writing Tutor,” by Jason Palmeri. The article illustrated that the line of authority for tutors is blurred and complicated since the “peer tutors’ position is as a teacher-student hybrid” (11). He discusses as long as the peer tutors’ assist writers to “produce the type of writing expected of them in the university system” (11) then they will acquire authority.
Hopefully during my next week sessions my students will be fine, and they will understand that I can be both a ‘peer’ and someone with ‘authority’. However, I now wonder: does establishing authority create a rift within the dynamic between a tutor and student?


  1. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Hi Sophie.

    My name is Alex Maughan. I work at a Writing Center in Salt Lake City Utah. I read your post and thought about your question, and I don't have the answer. I have one answer to your question, "Does establishing authority create a rift within the dynamic between a tutor and student?" I served a mission in Southern Georgia, and my Mission President (main leader, sort of like a boss) often reminded us about how missionaries had authority to preach. The authority he talked about was never meant to put us above anyone (because we served people by doing yard work, for example, or teaching them); it was meant to serve as a reminder of our ability and responsibility, not our superiority. Authority is, by one definition, "power to influence thought, opinion, or behavior." In this sense, your authority is your ability to influence students thoughts and behavior in a better direction than they are able to on their own, and through your sound advice, they'll begin to trust you.

    Authority is gained by position like a President or Dictator or Tutor (in which case they have it whether they deserve it or not), but it can be earned and recognized through the trust people place in them, and in us.

    Authority doesn't make us better. It just means that we have the potential to help.


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