Our theme for February is actually a challenge: write a piece without using first person pronouns (I, me, we, etc.)
When students come in to Stokes 418, they are often hesitant. “Who are you looking for?” a tutor asks. They say a name; the tutor rises or gestures or tells them to “have a seat. How was your morning?” (The tutors have been taught that building rapport is central to effective writing development.)
The students sit.
Invariably, they apologize for something. “I forgot my laptop,” they say, or, “I didn’t have time to revise my draft,” or they just cringe when the tutor notes a grammatical inconsistency or a typographical error. “I’m sorry,” they say.
“Don’t be. We all make mistakes,” the tutor replies. “We’re just looking for ways to make your paper even stronger.
Some students take criticism better than others.
“I’m not gonna cry if you tell me I need to change my thesis,” one jokes. The tutor laughs. Someone else might, she thinks. The next student validates this concern. When the tutor suggests that she rearrange her paragraphs, she begins to panic.
“Are you sure?” She fidgets with her bracelet. “I just–then it’s not chronological, and it might not make sense, and–“
The tutor listens quietly. The anxious student is her seventh of the day. It’s a decent paper already, and convincing the student to restructure might be more trouble than it’s worth.
But for half an hour, they discuss possible arrangements. The tutor proposes strategies to determine the most important ideas in the students’ jumbled paragraphs. (She does not let on that she thinks the paragraphs are jumbled.) She asks questions about the student’s writing: “how did you decide on this topic? What would you say is the most important point you’re making in this section? Who’s this guy? I’d love to know more about him.” She points out a particularly well-turned phrase and praises correct APA formatting. When the student leaves, the tutor uploads her comments to the course website: a great start, Katrina. Remember, making an outline will help you to clarify your points. Let me know if you have questions.
The tutor writes this on most of the papers.
In isolation, the papers show little promise. They sprawl; they stop abruptly. They have incorrect headings, they have no headings, they are riddled with slang, they read like a thesaurus, they tuck big ideas in forgotten corners, they have no main idea at all. When the tutor reads them, she rubs her forehead. When she trudges up a slushy hill en route to meet with the students, she reminds herself that in a few days, the meetings will be done. When she arrives on campus, she hopes her first student will be late. And when the students sit down in room 418, hesitant or chirpy or dry or unimpressed, she forgives their mechanical errors and illogical structures. They are, without fail, better people than their writing might suggest.
The tutor reminds herself that she oughtn’t be surprised. But week after week, she is.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.