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“Welcome to the studio! You’re still working on the research project, right? What can I help you with today?”
“I don’t really know. I just feel like I have too much to do and no time to do it. Can you look at what I have so far?”
“I can, but I’d rather you tell me what’s making you uncomfortable about the assignment first.”
“But, I don’t know what it is.”
What is one to do when a session begins this way? How do you handle it? Do you silently agree and take a look at the student’s paper, or are you persistent in getting some sort of answer out of them? When is it time to stop asking and turn to something else? Do you really want to read and judge their paper without setting some sort of goal for the session? These all seem like unanswerable questions, even though all of my fellow tutors reading them are silently answering them in their heads yet avoiding the “comment” button.
Some of us may treat this student the way we would treat an unresponsive writer. Being told the student doesn’t know what he/she wants to do is almost as nerve-racking as no response at all sometimes. If this is how you decide to perceive the situation, Muriel Harris suggests that you try empathizing with the writer, or ask him/her engaging questions, or even ask him/her if he wants to reschedule for a better time. While rescheduling may help with reluctant, unresponsive writers, does rescheduling work for an unsure writer who is seeking out help, but doesn’t know how to express his concerns? I don’t think so.
I believe positive engagement is the best starting point for every session. In my experience, an unsure writer can turn into an all-out boisterous idea machine if you only smile and ask questions. I pretend that any subject is a subject I’ve heard nothing about before and that I want to know more. Rescheduling makes me sound uninterested and I don’t think students will come back to see me or feel helped if I seem uninterested. So, I break the ice, instead.
“Well, tell me about your research project again. I’ve always found biology interesting, but I don’t understand it very well. Would you mind explaining the biology part of your paper to me?”
… “Wow. I didn’t know that! What have you learned about it since beginning your research?”
… “That’s interesting, too. Where did you write about that?”
Once I start asking questions, I notice the writer usually becomes increasingly confident in his/her project. When I talk to the writers like this, I understand the information they’re trying to present and I can help them find where they’re uncomfortable, or they discover it themselves when I ask a question they don’t know the answer to. I often choose this method because it’s a way of starting from the prewriting stage, but with increased knowledge and confidence.
According to Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli (2010), “the interaction between tutor and writer as questions, answers, and ideas… largely determines the content and direction of any tutoring session”. I agree wholeheartedly. When I don’t know what direction to take, I talk and talk and talk. Questions receive answers, and answers formulate ideas. Taking things back to the prewriting stage when things are directionless is something every tutor should try. But, maybe you should discover your own pre-writing methods. My favorite way to help students pre-write is by asking them to talk to me as a friend, not a tutor.
“Tell me about your paper as if you were talking to your best friend. What important parts are you going to tell her? What’s most important here?”
My experiences have taught me to innovate and make myself comfortable with the student and the student comfortable with me. Atmosphere is everything. Step away from the computer. Step away from the pencil. And communicate. You can always open a document or find a piece of paper, after you know what you want to say.
Reference: Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. "The Writers You Tutor." The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print.
Refer to The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors for more recommendations on tutoring styles and tips.