Reflecting a Case Study in Tutoring

Today I tutored someone (we'll call them Ishmael) who was writing a Rhetorical Analysis of an argument. Right off the bat I knew there was trouble with Ishmael's situation. His final draft was due tomorrow, and he only had the first half of his introduction written. My first inclination was to go over his introduction with him to make sure it looked good. I thought about it though. I asked what I could help him with. He was concerned about the second half of his introduction, and he was lost. We looked at the rubric together and I found that he needed to briefly state why the author's writing was clear and persuasive. I asked him what his answer to that question was: he really didn't know. I tried to make my questions more specific and direct, to try and extract his comprehension of the article's rhetorical strategies and unleash his confidence, but to no avail. It turns out the article he was analyzing was like five single-spaced pages long, so I decided to see if we could get anywhere faster by asking different questions and then reading if we needed to.

I asked Ishmael to tell me what the article was about. He told me he was reading about Elderly people and how they don't text message because they didn't grow up with text-messaging, they don't seem to need it, and the cell phone companies don't market or cater to their needs, who might need big keys on their phone's keyboard and may not be interested in all the trendy apps that are out there that I am totally not aware of. I asked Ishmael what the argument was. He couldn't seem to formulate anything, he was lost again. Ishmael talked to me about how he's read the article over and over again but when he gets to the next page, he can't remember what's on the page he just read anymore. I talked to him about the possibility of writing a very brief and informal summary in his notebook of each paragraph or page that he reads, to help him solidify and think about his understanding of the article while it's still fresh in his mind. He liked that and thought he'd try that.

We continued on and decided to read the article, starting of course, at the beginning. We read the introductory paragraph, and I had him verbally summarize what we had read. He kind of quoted back to me elements of the paragraph and I decided to visually break the paragraph down for him, showing him that this part introduces the issue and that this part identifies two separate sides to the argument. I asked him what he thought the article was arguing: which side was the author taking, or was the author taking their own separate side? We came to a conclusion, but before I bore you all to death, I have to say that before long he asked me what the definition of an argument is. I finally realized why he was stuck. Ishmael was lacking the foundation of necessary understanding that he needed to conduct a rhetorical analysis of an argument: knowledge about the process and conventions of argument in American academic writing. I turned to a respected, knowledgeable friend for his definition of an argument, knowing I could learn from his expertise. He defined an argument in simple, bare terms, clearly showing the elements of an argument through example from a rudimentary level. He provided the raw process of argument, it was great.

With that knowledge, we continued by discussing Ishmael's understanding of rhetorical strategies. His Professor had called them "Tools of Persuasion", I liked that. We differentiated between reasons or points that an author gives to defend his argument and the tools of persuasion the author uses when delivering those points. Since Ishmael was having trouble identifying some of the strategies that the author used, I made the suggestion that he might try splitting a piece of paper with a line, and the next time he read the article, reading it with direction. I suggested writing all the reasons or main points the author gave supporting his argument on one side of the paper, and then stopping. I then suggested to Ishmael that he might try thinking about each of the reasons or points he had identified, and ask himself the question: Why do I believe that statement? Why is it persuasive? Then, after he had identified the rhetorical tools used, he could write those in the right-hand column of his paper. He seemed excited about this idea too, which made my heart sing. At this point we had been going for fifty minutes and so decided to stop there, thanking one another and wishing each other well.

After this session, I felt good about how things had gone. I felt like I had tried to focus on helping Ishmael develop the tools and knowledge he required to be able to complete his assignments in a satisfactory and punctual manner, time and time again, with or without me. I think it's so fascinating that he didn't know what an argument was, and that we needed to get to that question before we could really get anywhere with his comprehension of the context he was supposed to be taking when reading his article. Also, having been raised in another culture, Ishmael was not aware of some of the traditional American styles of composition and idea representation that we commonly use in the U.S. I was impressed by his patience and acceptance when confronted with the knowledge that he would have to work harder and take more time than other students to write his papers.

I have to ask myself: What do I take away from this experience? All I can say now at the end of the day is that tutoring is rewarding and challenging. It is stimulating and even exciting, each session is unique. I know there's a lot that I don't know and so I'm grateful to be able to talk to and work with and under some of the best. I feel that I'm in good company at the Writing Center and in my Mentoring Writers class. Coming from the Food Service Industry, I am amazed at how rich the reflection process of meta-cognitive thinking is, IT'S GREAT! Every time I discuss tutoring with one of the masters, I feel like I could almost be on the steps of the Parthenon, or in one of the halls of the Library of Alexandria (sans the toga, well not sans the toga, you want to be wearing clothes, but you get the idea). Anyways I just think it's great trying to help people learn tools for academic and compositional success while getting to feel like you're drinking in rich, deep thoughts of cognitive dispute and collaboration.


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