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  • The Teacher as Hostess: Celebrating the Ordinary in Creative Nonfiction Workshops
  • Mary Elizabeth Pope (bio)

In the writing center I direct, you'll find two general species of tutors operating. Call them Praeceptor taciturnus and Praeceptor rhetoricus.

P. taciturnus isn't completely silent, although she often is. She sits with a hand on her chin, listening as the tutee reads his essay or as he talks his way through a stuck place. When she talks, she tends to ask questions more than offer suggestions or advice: "What do you think your teacher means by the term 'critical response'?" "What do you really like about this draft?" "Is this your thesis?" "Why are you in college, anyway?" P. taciturnus embodies faith and trust, trust that the tutee is smart enough to work it out for himself, ultimately if not today. Her role, she believes, is to goad and to probe, but mostly to support. When asked why she refrains from offering more overt suggestions, she'll say something like, "Hey, that's his job. I don't know what he wants to say; I don't know what's going on in this class and what the teacher is interested in. Am I going to write his paper for him? Hell, no. I have my own papers to write."

P. rhetoricus talks more than the tutee: "OK," he'll say; "what your teacher is looking for here is less summary of the book and more analysis from you." Or "Your intro paragraph lacks a certain zing. There are three great ways to write zinger introductions. . . ." Or "Say it like this: 'Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, in which he . . .'" P. rhetoricus treasures information and loves to dispense it. What's more, he treasures his ability to "talk the talk," to say things as he knows his professors like them said. When asked about his method, he'll say, "School's a game. What you do is get interested in your field, pay attention to the way people use words here, and do like they do."

I imagine that all writing center directors get used to meeting both species of tutors in their centers. Both variations work for different students at different times, you find. And you get used to hearing both of them screw up regularly. (P. taciturnus can get a little silly: "How do you feel about MLA style?" And P. rhetoricus can simply be wrong: "Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.") More troubling, you and the tutors find yourselves asking fundamental questions arising from the differing methods used by the two kinds of tutors: [End Page 102]

  • • Should the tutor write on the student's paper? P. taciturnus would say "Never!" In fact, P. taciturnus backs away from the student's text, or pushes it away whenever the tutee places it in front of her (in a dance that can get a little comical). By contrast, P. rhetoricus has no trouble making notes on the text. Aware that the paper must fundamentally be the product of the student's labor, he knows not to rewrite large portions of text. But this knowledge often fails to prevent him from scribbling on the pages quite liberally.

  • • Should the tutor suggest wording and phrasing? "God, no," says P. taciturnus, following the "it's his paper" mantra. Suggesting wording or phrasing would be a violation, a usurpation of the student's ownership and authorship of the text. But P. rhetoricus says flatly, "Of course I suggest wording and phrasing. That's what the student is here for."

  • • Should the tutor evaluate the student's text overtly? When asked, "Is my paper OK?" P. taciturnus asks, "Do you think it's OK?" Or at most she says, "I think you've done great work here." P. rhetoricus says, "It rocks." Or he'll say, "The parts we worked on are much better." (Some, to the director's great consternation, go as far as to hypothetically grade the paper.)

Can two dramatically different tutors doing dramatically different kinds of tutoring coexist? And what exactly am I doing as director, training the staff toward such contradictory visions and goals?

I support both visions of the tutor...


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