Gilmartin's Introduction to Drop-in Tutoring

    Overall, I thought Katie Gilmartin's short article was the most useful distillation of tutoring tips I've seen.  Whole books have been written about the topic without saying much more that would tell a new tutor what to expect and how to handle the session.  Her style isn't everyone's cup of tea, of course, but the basic assumptions she outlines are the fruit of decades of peer tutoring thought and her own extensive experience.  Here's what seemed like her hottest tips:

1)  The three great things the tutor can do for a writer that s/he can't do for her/himself are to have a real conversation about the writing, to help initiate and understand the results of a freewriting episode, and to validate the writer's feelings about the project, most importantly her/his sense of authority, the power to say what's what.

2)  Her patterned questions for setting up the session are excellent though we often forget one of more of them in practice.  Until you know the course, assignment, length, and due date of the paper, you have no idea whether the paper's author knows those things either!   Frequently writers arrive in a state of confusion about what teachers expect, trying to channel old strategies and previously successful paper formats into a new and different assignment.  Finally, unless you very quickly ask what the writer's concerns are, you have no idea what kind of writer you're dealing with: experienced but worried, inexperienced and panic-stricken, reactive/reflective (Graves 1975), or dazed and confused, etc.  Let the writer try to set the session's agenda, and add guidance from your own intuitions only when the writer appears to need it.  Remember who owns that paper and whose writing process we're trying to make stronger.

3)  The list of priorities identified the two ways papers grow: expansion of their focus to include a wider range of issues or evidence, or specification in depth of one or a few parts of the original concept.  The former sometimes helps a paper to grow, but it's not so often used unless the writer is very inexperienced or fearful.  The latter is the most common single tool for making papers better because few early college writers can define terms carefully, explore illustrative examples of those definitions, or differentiate similar but different things from the term in question.  That takes the to-and-fro of conversation with an interested reader asking "can you explain what X means--I don't understand it." 

4)  Reading the student's paper aloud is the most important single "business" of most tutoring sessions.   You don't have to read all of it--perhaps the writer will direct you to the part that's got her/him bothered--but you have to read some of it to feel whether it's working as well (or as poorly) as the writer believes.  Asking the author to read it aloud (full voice, no mumbling!) emphasizes who's the "star" of this show, the one whose authority we are trying to construct.  But if your writer will read for you, watch the paper carefully for "silent correction" of errors (17).  It's a common unconscious or semi-conscious habit, and you're there to catch it.  That also leads to Gilmartin's excellent list of pseudo-errors, stylistic quirks that drive some teachers crazy though linguists will tell you they're part of the mother tongue (too many uses of "I" or "It is," having the paper refer to itself ["this paper will show"], sentences starting with "And" or "But" (or "However"!), and clichés.  The writers should learn that, if they can discover the reader has a pet peeve, it's unreasonable to poke the reader in the eye with it, even though we can all agree the reader sometimes is nuts

5)  The best tutors master the skill of listening carefully to writers.  Restrain your voice; hear theirs.  Listen to what is said, what is not said but strongly implied, and what you'd expect to be said but is not said or implied.  Listen to the writer.

6)  Everybody worries about connecting with a writer whose paper is on a topic that's completely baffling to the tutor.  My favorite was Teddy Zartler's English 201 paper on his senior genetic engineering project with Leleng To in Biology.  I was his "tutor" and I knew from nothing about gene splicing.  However, comma splices I know.  When I suspected the prose was getting too thick to be clear, I asked him to explain it to me in more simple words.  If he could, it's OK, and if he couldn't, there may be trouble unless he could claim it was an unique term of art in the profession that can't be said any other way. 

7)  Bring the session to a positive, coherent close.  Don't let the writer leave without a sense of what needs to be done next, and what you have discovered together about the writer's composing process that can help her/him next time.  Ask her/him to return with the next paper, sooner in the process, and you can start reinforcing those lessons before they're forgotten.  That's the way it works unless writers get visited by the muses in their sleep.