Odds and Ends
I have settled into a steady rhythm of tutoring this year. I have become familiar with a large enough variety of appointment types that I feel comfortable initializing any session; although, my preferential allegiance still lies with those sessions that allow me to brainstorm rhetorical strategies and outlines. These appointments privilege both the imagination and the experiences of a writer over technical algorithms and heuristic ideas about “good writing”.
For example, I have garnered a wealth of experience with application letters for such programs as the DePaul STARS mentor program, Teach for America program, and the JET program. The writer generally enters these appointments with rough drafts of application letters that they are not too proud of—letters they have professed little ownership to, almost as if they were visiting the center for a friend, and have never read the letter themselves. A quick round of questioning reveals that the writer has painfully attempted to recreate the voice and structure of what they assume to be the “standard application letter”. In more cases than not, they have asked for advice in all the wrong places, and taken it too seriously, resulting in a document that is dry, vague, and unrecognizable. So we begin by disregarding the draft in front of us, because I believe that the outline is the most important part of the writing process. It is like a blueprint to a house. If you draw it up with care, then you will leave room to rearrange the house within that structure afterwards. But if the outline has been overlooked, the house must be destroyed and preplanned anew. To feel obliged to an un-outlined paper is to weigh yourself down with the burden of something inferior. Simply let it go, and any idea is open to you.
Then I set the stage for the writer. Imagine your readers, and the stack of application letters before them. Imagine how many they have read, and how many they are still yet to read. Understand that they are people just like you. They are not robots designed to scan your paper with an internal checklist, making sure you awkwardly worked in all the vocabulary from the application assignment. They are not simple machines that are incapable of understanding any sentences more complicated than the basic construction of turning a question on its head. In other words, if the assignment prompt asks you, “Why do you want to teach for Teach for America,” you don’t have to begin your sentence, “I want to Teach for America because…” And you don’t have to restate your resume. Let it speak for itself.
Rather, your readers are people just like you. At their core, they are powered by an energy that all people share. And if anything is true of people, they are storytellers, lovers of stories, and seekers of knowledge. So take them on a journey. Use the little allotment of space you have, five-hundred words or less, to show them a window into your world. Take them beyond a vague vocabulary of “economic disparities” and “underprivileged youth” to a world with a specific face—a world that they might not otherwise have been a part of. Because everyone has their own experiences, and vague, multi-interpretable phrases like “economic disparities” belong in mission statements, not in the story of your life.
Answer the application’s prompts as a bi-product of this story. Allow the reader to pick these answers up like luggage along the way. Use your story as a humanizing metaphor for why you want to be part of the program in question, an engaging microcosm that wraps the answers up within itself. Figure out your angle and begin with a hook. A hook is an engaging line that raises more questions than it answers. Remember, your reader wants to make their decision as quickly as possible and put down your essay. Make it hard for them. If you open your essay with the line, “I want to be a STARS mentor because,” then you have betrayed yourself by pawning away the one valuable piece of information you have offer. Having their primary question answered, the reader can now stop reading. In truth, every line in an application essay should be a hook for the line following it. You want to drag the reader through the entire piece like a fish on a reel, so they find themselves at the last sentence, after having been swept away by a dynamic story, with all their questions answered.
These are some of my favorite tutorials because there is something competitive at stake. Writing has never been more purpose orientated. Getting an A is easy by comparison. For this reason, the letter grade should never be used as a unit of measurement for academic work. The quality of argument, something much harder to gauge, should be its replacement. My appointment Christiania Raymond is a good demonstration of this point.
Christiania came to our session with a paper on title IX, an anti-discrimination act designed to improve the situation of Women’s sports in high-school and college educational environments. The paper was well-written, without much need to discuss grammar, syntax, or punctuation. For the first twenty minutes of the session, we rearranged paragraphs according to pathos, logos, and ethos. The paper was pathos-heavy in its arguments so we worked on eliminating a few of these, because logic tends to take a backseat to anecdotal appeals in these instances. Testimonial arguments for Title IX dominated Christiana’s argument, but the thesis indicated that Title IX’s success was not the focus of the paper; rather, the focus was on a misconception over Title IX’s influence on male athletics programs—a misconception prompted by the school’s illicit distribution of funds to high grossing sports, such as men’s basketball and football, at the sacrifice of less-revenue-making male sports. In simple terms, Title IX forced the school’s to divide its funding evenly among female and male sports, but the school’s funneled the majority of those funds allotted to male sports into only two programs—football and basketball—because they were the highest grossing. When other male sports suffered, the schools blamed Title IX as opposed to their own mismanagement of the funds.
With this background in mind, we began to discuss different arguments for different audiences, because you cannot just keep screaming ‘gender equality’ to the capitalist mentality. The money-minded capitalist views the world in dollar signs rather than social/humanitarian conceptions of equanimity. Why would an economically-vested bureaucrat want to remove money from high-grossing sports, such as men’s basketball and football, to fairly re-invest it in low or non-revenue making sports? Equitable financial distribution does not appeal to such a person because there is no return rate involved. Once again, I invited our imaginations to come into the equation, and we did a little role playing. I asked her to imagine I was the bureaucrat and she was lobbying me for equitable distribution.
Christiana argued that no matter how much money is put into basketball and football, the funds will never be enough to sustain the current costs of the sports; thus, either way, the capitalist is losing money. She said that a more equitable distribution of funds does not necessarily correlate to a loss in viewership, as the audience is captive by their long-standing cultural influence and interest towards these specific male-dominated sports. So, since the capitalist is actually losing money either way, they might as well improve their reputation and image in the public mind by redistributing funds evenly to every sport in the collegiate arena. Such a move would also fend off solicitors and agitators from these lesser-funded sports. This argument, which was previously only a footnote in Christiana’s paper, was flushed out and made into a substantial talking point.
Now that I have discussed some of the sessions that I do enjoy, I will take some time to discuss those aspects which bother me. Marketing, advertising, and focus towards ESL students have been on the rise this year, not only with the formation of the Collaborative, but in a general administrative attitude that seems to pervade all aspects of the job. ESL appointments are my least favorite appointments. Although they sometimes challenge my ability to articulate and transmit my thoughts, they don’t challenge my rhetorical and intellectual ability to the extent that non-ESL appointments do.
My focus in these sessions is preoccupied by lower-order concerns, many of which I have discussed ad nauseam in what seem to be doppelganger appointments. The collaborative seems to send out a dozen emails a week, and when I attend in-services, I see a preference towards using ESL papers as models because a discussion of them is easy. I have been to three in-services this year where ESL papers were used as models for discussion. In one of those in-services, we discussed cutting down prepositional phrases. In another, more recent in-service, a paper about how cheating in school transfers to cheating in the business atmosphere was used. The problem is that these papers are too often reduced to their lower-order concerns, because addressing articles, subject-object agreement, pluralities, and the like is easier and requires less intellectual debate than coming to a consensus about a paper’s argument and debating its validity and approach.
For example, at the root of the paper about cheating was an assumption that cheating is universally wrong, no matter the context or final result. I believe this to be a faulty assumption, especially considering the fact that not everyone is born into an equitable playing field, with a standard set of financial and historical tools. Aren’t their times where bending the rules is necessary, if only to provide time for one to focus on something more important? For example, how many writing-center tutors procrastinate on their portfolios, and then write them as quickly as possible to allow room for more personally-enticing endeavors? Are they to blame for prioritizing those things they want to do over something that is required of them? These are the questions that I ask myself—questions that lay at the root of a paper’s argument, questions that are overlooked by lower-order concerns.
This is not about condemning ESL. To be sure, I will state that I believe ESL tutoring is an important part of what we do here. This is about remembering that ESL tutoring is only one part of what we do, as well as about me announcing that it is my least favorite part. I don’t understand why so much time is dedicated to discussing ESL appointments, while almost no time is dedicated to discussing the greater assumptions on which our papers are based. To me, tutoring most ESL appointments is a matter of directly explaining something that is rule-based and, therefore, relatively un-changing. What is there to discuss? “How do we interact with our tutee, how do we engage our tutee, how do we walk the line between peer and tutor?” These are all distracter questions that are secondary to what knowledge we are actually going to give. If we know how to cover an argument, we can make that argument the language of our tutorial, and the rest will follow.
Lastly, I propose some sort of filter, or stop gap, on the email system. I propose some way of allowing the tutor to determine what projects they wish to be involved in, and preclude emails that don’t match those projects in advance. Email overload leads to unread emails. As I noted in my professional development activity, it seems that most people did not read my emails about The Box. As a tutor, inside the system, I know that people don’t read every email they receive. I don’t blame them, but the mass of emails I have when I turn on my computer can often be a source of anxiety.
I am proud of all my portfolio components this year. I feel that I took the necessary time to do them thoughtfully. I am most proud of my professional development activity because it was of my own creation, and it has provided me an outlet to begin analyzing the psychological factors that delimit the boundaries between writing tutors. Writing a tutoring philosophy is always difficult, because I don’t think of my approach in terms of a “philosophy” per se. But it is forming. From the development of a research question to an overview of a “final draft,” I have attempted to set forth my process by breaking down my priorities according to each step. But every scenario is different. I feel that it’s important to find a way to engage the writer and elicit a positive response and an eagerness to participate from them. If someone enters a session with a visible lack of pride in their writing, I make it my objective to excite them in some way, get them interested in their own work. Uncover those opinions about their topic and process—opinions that they often mask because they think no one will care about them.
My future goals pertain mostly to Scrawl Radio DePaul. After only one airing, I understood why so many people are attracted to the medium of radio hosting. Since one’s body is obscured from the audience, and their identity in largely anonymous, they can operate with a level of freedom from judgment and posture. Their voices contain within themselves all that is necessary for transmission, and the microphone is portal by which that voice can be manipulated and projected. The half-an-hour slot of Scrawl Radio begins the week as a tabula rasa, and somehow becomes a regimented time-table of exercises by Friday morning, after which, it is instantly erased and the process begins again. It is an art of producing an individual show each week, in many ways reminiscent of the theater world that I often long to return to.
Scrawl has rejuvenated my investments in the writing center. At the peer-tutoring summit, I spent half an hour trapped in a pedantic discussion about the title of a website that I feel no personal investment to. In an ocean of conversation cafés, tutor logs, mandatory reflections, and in-services, Scrawl has been an island of sanctuary for me. It suits my personality and, conversely, I feel that I am a good match for it.
Ending this portfolio is always a tad awkward for me. “Would I rehire myself for the writing center?” Of course. In addition to my love for exploring the capabilities of the English language through tutoring, Scrawl has given me a new reason to stay, and a new platform upon which to grow. I sense that Scrawl is on the verge of an expansion that will augment its time slot to an hour and, overall, the show is only beginning.
 One of many programs for teaching English in a foreign country. In this case, Japan.