Listening to Learn: Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.

Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.

In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.

In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.

Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.

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