Exploring a Writing Tutor’s Magic

This article appeared in the National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Summer 2014 newsletter under the section, The Tutor’s Voice.

*  *  *

The lobby of our campus tutoring center resembles a doctor’s office. Students occupy moderately comfortable chairs, waiting to hear their names from the friendly voice from the writing room. A writing tutor steps forward, calls the student’s name, and leads her into our small space. I am the only tutor who performs this ritual with a white cane in hand.

I imagine that some students are perplexed to see that their tutor is blind. My questioned competence hangs in the air, but “Will she be able to read my paper?” changes quickly to “How will she read my paper?” Students want to know how I will judge them – their ability to write. Their competence, not mine, becomes the central question.

I begin with brisk instructions: “I’m Emily and I’ll be helping you today. What are you working on?” The student offers a nursing paper, a teaching portfolio, a literature essay. Whether a student brings a digital or paper copy of her assignment, I ask her to read it aloud. My request inspires several insecurities; students are self-conscious about their voices, affected by accent or infrequent practice. I insist that they won’t be the worst reader I’ve ever heard; everyone feels awkward when reading aloud.

As we read, I get used to the students’ voices. Some are slow and meticulous, correcting every slip of the tongue, while others read so quickly I can barely catch each word. I ask them to slow down, helping them laugh at their occasional spoken errors. The moment of pure triumph comes when they recognize that the out-loud process catches issues glossed over in silent reading. When the student becomes adept at hearing her mistakes, I’m an audience the student needs because she can’t imagine reading to an empty room. I am her writer’s training wheels.

To bridge diffidence and triumph, I emphasize the inherent power of writing: I shamelessly craft a persona of grammar mystic and blind magician. I love the revelation of audible punctuation.

A student reads a sentence aloud, and I ask her to stop: “Do you have a comma there?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

I meet this question with a silent smile.

“You heard it?”

“Of course.”
Other grammar magicians and linguistic wizards will not be surprised by this apparent talent of mine; punctuation wants to be heard. But students unfamiliar with descriptive grammar are dazzled. My ability to hear punctuation initiates them into the craft of writing. Using examples from their work, I transfer the gift – making them aware that they, too, can hear the place of punctuation. Though I use the rhetoric of revelation, I am only helping students discover what they already know. So much of writing is remembering – pulling disparate pieces of experience and knowledge together – and it is not a student’s voice that matters: it is her willingness to search for that voice. Schools frame this search as standardized obligation, but writers know the working truth. We find linguistic power from a place of dreams and fantasy.

Author bio: Emily K. Michael is a writing instructor and tutor at the University of North Florida. Her work has been published in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, and Artemis Journal.

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