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.