I have always been relatively successful when writing essays, yet I must admit that I very much dislike conforming to the one size fits all essay outline we have injected into our skulls at early ages. At some point in high school I decided to garnish an essay concerning what I am sure was an extremely important topic, with some creative writing and inserted observations of a philosophic nature. The results where astounding. Well the factual portion of the essay was rather weak and the whole thing was quite fluffy, my teacher awarded me top marks. Being a young and lazy writer I immediately adapted the Michael Bay approach to writing. WIth enough explosions, special effects and possibly some models who can’t act, I decided I could take a terrible piece of work and pass it off as A level work. Some where along the way I forgot that writing in this way was a gimmick, and it slowly became my go to style. During my fist year of college I read a lot of writing from fellow freshman who had picked up the same technique. It makes me sad to say that up until my second year, writing in this way earned me top marks. Only rarely did a Professor chide me on my weakened and fatty writing. Eventually I fell in love with writing and my perspective on my work changed dramatically. My aim with a paper was no longer to just get a good great, but to improve as well as do the best work I could. Unfortunately I had picked up a filthy habit. It wasn’t until I had a lengthy discusion with a professor in which we discussed the possible value of taking the academic format outside to get it some sun and fresh air, that he said something to me that has since transformed my writing. He said to me something close to this, “So you love creative writing? Me to! But this isn’t creative writing. Maybe to some people adding a splash of color to the correct style is nice but when it comes to academic essays it will ALWAYS be graffiti. So, write creatively, but think of your self as two writers. There is Kyle the creative writer and there is Kyle the academic writer. DO NOT LET THEM HANG OUT!” When Kyle the academic writer is writing for me you need to lock Kyle the creative writer in a closet.”
It has taken some time, yet I have come to truly appreciate this advice and try my best to no longer water down, or try and disguise a scrawny paper with a fancy clothing. I think that this idea is something that I would have benefited from greatly in the earlier days of my college experince.
A lot of writers look at themselves as one person, one guy or girl with a toolbox full of tools. As they work on different things they acquire new tools, and because they keep all these tools in one box sometimes they pull out the wrong one for the job. If we instead separate ourselves into the different writers that we are, each with a toolbox full of only those tools related to that type of writing, then it becomes much easier to specialize and improve in each type of writing we do.
Throughout my entire career as a student, I have always managed to get good grades without really trying. However, when the time finally did come for me to need a cultural informant, it wasn’t recent, but awhile back ago. Let me take you back to freshman year of high school. I just recently moved back to Colorado from living in Texas, and not only was I entering a different level of education, I was also going to bump into people I knew back in elementary school. I was nervous to say the least, but I wasn’t too worried about the curriculum and even enrolled in an English AP class. The summer book list I got a month before should have warned me that it was going to be difficult. The bindings alone were two inches thick, but I was stubborn (still am) and tried to read them. It turns out that I didn’t have trouble with the content, rather it was my writing that needed work. When I received my paper back for the first time I saw only a river of red tears streak across my paper as well as the “see me after class” note at the end. I felt like someone pulled the world right underneath my feet for the first time. I never even had a real interest in English back then.
My cultural informant turned out to be the same English teacher who marked up my paper so brutally. Despite the initial shock that made me question myself as good student, I met up with him and he tutored me during lunch periods every other day. He would ask questions and go over what I found most frustrating with my writing. I didn’t think his questions would help me out at all, in fact if anything, it made me question myself even more because he was easily picking out the flaws in my writing even I couldn’t see at second glance. However, as I continued to go to him, I noticed that my writing had indeed improved and while I wrote my papers, I would ask myself the same questions he would ask me. What was my evidence? My thesis? Did I make a clear transition at this point? By December, I was able to write better than I had before and I would only have one or two green marks (he ran out of red ink pens) on my paper.
I think everyone has had a teacher who completely shredded their papers to pieces, but there are also some people who haven’t had the encouraging teacher-tutor as I did. I want to share a similar experience with others who had felt that they were doing right until they didn’t feel that solid ground beneath their feet. The articles that we have been reading in class highlighted some of the best learning techniques that my teacher did for me. Asking questions, listening to concerns, providing advice here and there, and letting the student learn on their own rather than telling them what to do to get a better grade makes tutoring about writing a lasting experience.
For me, I’ve always been told I was a strong writer. I never really agreed with that, but it’s what I was told. In fact, for the most part, I don’t particularly enjoy writing. I can never think of what to say, I second-guess myself constantly, and I never feel like my writing conveys what it is I’m trying to say very well. Naturally, I never once thought throughout High School that I’d wind up as a writing major. However, one person in particular sparked my interest, and while I in no way consider myself a “writer” writer (I plan on being an editor), this individual managed to inspire me to give writing a shot: Hunter S. Thompson. I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the start of my sophomore (at the time I was a psychology major), and within two weeks I had changed my major to writing. I read Thompson’s articles, his stories, I even watched a documentary on the man, just to try and pinpoint every little nuance in his writing style. I threw myself into writing for a semester, trying to emulate Thompson in every way I could. I eventually grew out of that phase, opting instead to edit people’s work, instead of trying to create my own. But were it not for discovering Hunter Thompson, who I will absolutely call my cultural informant, I wouldn’t have found my love for editing.
My big “cultural informant” moment was actually in high school. I’m a math major now, but back then I hated the subject. I could do computations and power through it, but it was never anything but an obstacle for me to overcome and move past. One of my friends changed that. This guy was on another level from everyone around him. He ended up getting two full rides to Duke (yeah, he won a second scholarship in a math competition) and turning them down to study at Stanford. But at the time, he was just that guy who was really, really good at math. We would talk in the back of history class, and one day he mentions this kid at a math competition who had “crazy awesome style”. It was news to me that there was more to these competitions than being right or wrong, but as my friend explained how this guy had written “the Free Bird of proofs”, I realized that there was a lot of creativity and communication that was going on behind all that math jargon.
We started talking about why he loves what he does, and he started explaining how he saw the world. He showed me things that were simultaneously completely mind-blowing and incredibly intuitive. And what really got me was that he didn’t need complex equations or greek letters or huge chalk boards. That’s just the stuffy language used to describe math. The real math is stuff so inherently true and self-demonstrating that it’s hard not to get it when you see it. He taught me how to speak the lingo soon enough, but he eased me into it with beautiful, enthusiastic explanations like this.
As tutors we may not be equipped to completely change the way someone looks at the world, but we are the perfect people to help new writers see the deeper, human component that underlies the deliberate precision of academic writing. Entering into the discourse of a field can be intimidating when you’ve never seen things framed that way before and don’t know where to begin. We, as fellow students, can often present things from a more relatable perspective. I, for one, was happy to discover that there was a reason people devoted their lives to studying mathematics. I’m sure many young undergrads have similar passions waiting to be unearthed.
Résumés are not the first thought that comes to mind when considering tutorship in writing. But writing resumes (I’ll go a little wild and write “résumés” without the accents) demands a very particular style and vocabulary; more so than most writing tasks, you need someone to “show you the ropes” when writing a resume. My cultural informant for this particular style was an RA down the hall who became a good friend. She showed all the best attitudes of a writing tutor, whether working on a job application document or an analytic essay. She did what Muriel Harris in “Talking in the Middle” calls “assisting with affective concerns”—addressing the stress and self-doubt that are often at the root of problems with writing. In addition to discussing issues of verb choice, organization, and formatting, her “tutorial assistance [gave me] confidence about [myself] and [my] writing” and her “encouragement result[ed] in increased motivation to continue expending effort on a paper” (35).
My RA and friend set a good example for how to ease affective concerns while working with a writer on any type of assignment. We can look to reassure writers that, yes, their points come across clearly and that, no, they do not sound stupid. I think this cheerleader function can indeed increase the writer’s commitment to their work and inspire them to revise and edit with less stress and more interest. This attitude of encouragement aids in our project of improving writers rather than merely polishing papers; we empower them to improve the paper at hand, and to write with more confidence and comfort in the future.
I would consider my English 004 teacher to be my cultural informant. She wasn’t anything like the high school English teachers I was used to. Instead of taking our hands and guiding us to a perfect paper, she had us work by ourselves and ask our peers for help.
Signing up for my first semester of college, I wasn’t sure how challenging the work was going to be. I assumed the worst, and scheduled myself for English 004 to be on the safe side. Although it didn’t count for anything towards my major the teacher helped immensely with preparing me for all the writing that college would entail. Entering the college life in the Professional Writing major, I considered myself an expert. The grade on my first paper was quick to inform me that I was wrong. I wasn’t a fan of rewriting or of someone marking up my paper. However, that was what we did majority of the class. If we had any questions about grammar, format, spelling, whatever, we could not rely on the teacher. We were forced to ask our fellow students or use the references available. She showed us the beauty that was Purdue Owl. The site has everything a writer could ever need. Having us rely more on ourselves and to have as many people as we can find to read our drafts made me the writer I am today. Her motto was, “Never fall in love at first draft.” I used to hand in my first drafts as my final drafts, now I even edit the school paper and I’m striving for an editing job after graduation.
As a tutor, I want to help people in a similar manner. I want them to feel like they’ve done majority of the work on their own, with just a little shove from me. I won’t be as strict with how much I help them, but I don’t want to hold their hand through it all either. They have what it takes to become a great writer, they just need someone to point them in the right direction. Letting go of my first draft and being able to accept criticism was a major step for me. Some may just need a boost of confidence about their writing, others may need just the opposite. I want to help these students reach their personal goals in writing. I always start them off with Purdue Owl as a guide, just as my teacher did.
I would have to say that my cultural informant was my one English teacher (for the purpose of this post, we’ll call him Professor Smith). Smith was the teacher that never really taught what most people would call a traditional English professor. Instead of being worried about Greek rhetoricians and classic literature that one would most likely study in high school, he was concerned with teaching the complexities of the off-track English genres, like Watchmen and Flowers for Algernon.
After taking basic English that was required of all freshman (which I breezed through), when I got to his class and got my first paper back with a giant “D” written at the top, I was distraught. I went to his office to ask him why, when I had done so well in English introduction, I got such a bad grade on this paper? He replied that the central idea of the paper was optimal, I chose a good topic to work with, but I was not quite understanding how to organize the paper and develop my thoughts completely. We spent an hour going through just the introduction to my paper and I was floored by what I had learned in just that hour. I realized that my main problem was from the get-go. I knew where I wanted the paper to go, but the introduction (which I had based the content of my paper off of) was a jumbled mess, and the paper had followed suit.
I really do think that one of my goals as a tutor is to use the experience that Smith had taught me about not being afraid to relearn how to do something. I think that one of the biggest challenges that novice writers have is taking something that they have been taught and learning how to morph it to suit each individual situation. If I can convince just one person this semester that they have a solid idea and teach them a new creative way, that makes sense, to bring that point across, I will feel really accomplished this semester. I feel as if teaching people to write so their papers feel like theirs and not a machines will be the most important thing that will come of this.