A blog for tutors to share their ideas, experiences, and insights.

Author Archives: Katie Howard

I’ve decided to make my final project a deliverable about verbal and nonverbal “best practices” for UWTs when tutoring. In my research I came across quite a few studies that talked about “politeness theory” and its effectiveness in tutoring relationships. Politeness Theory, coined by social psychologists Brown and Levinson, suggests two types of politeness that can be employed to “save face” (the “face” being someone’s self-perception and self-confidence) and build strong, positive relationships quickly. These two types are positive politeness and negative politeness… **Negative politeness, you say? How can that be? Isn’t that contradictory? ** by positive and negative, Brown and Levinson denote the type of situation that is being mediated. For example, positive politeness techniques would be used when meeting the tutor for the first time, etc…. Something that wouldn’t potentially “threaten face” of the tutee. Negative politeness techniques are used to mediate potential threat in tutoring situations like revising a paper, suggesting a change, etc. (anything that could make the tutee feel self conscious about their writing or writing skills). 

So… what are examples of these positive and negative techniques, and how can they help me as a UWT??

POSITIVE techniques include light laughter/joking, smiling, eye contact, agreement, avoiding disagreement, and attending to the tutee. These are often considered “common sense” when meeting someone new. 

NEGATIVE techniques include minimizing imposition (I was hoping that… ), being indirect, using modals (would, could, should), forgiveness (Sorry but can I please..), and vagueness. These take effort “above and beyond” normal interactions between two strangers, but do a great deal of good when approaching sticky topics like poor paper content, lack of organization, lack of clarity, etc. 

The studies I researched suggested utilizing negative politeness strategies most when first working with a tutee, as it is important to establish a relationship where the tutor feels comfortable expressing weakness and vulnerability as a writer. By minimizing hurtful imposition on the tutee’s skills, they will be more willing to take risks and make changes as a writer (and therefore make the session successful). 

At your next session, try being extra aware and careful with the way you phrase recommendations, comments, and suggestions to your tutee. Your kindness could make all the difference in how the tutee things about tutoring, the writing center, and themselves as a writer in general! 

I think that it is crucial for a university community to value the work of a writing center and its tutors because it places importance on the development of writers within the school. If the greater mission of Duke and other universities is to educate its students in an environment of higher learning, a studio that promotes the growth and exploration of writing skills for its students is invaluable.Writing plays a cornerstone role in almost every academic field as well as “real-world” interactions– it is a primary way in which we express ourselves as scholars and as individuals.

To promote a writing-center-positive environment, we need to move away from the idea of a tutor as a remedial aid (ie. only for those who need help and are producing bad academic work) towards the idea of a tutor as a tool for personal enhancement (ie. for those who seek help enhancing their academic work and writing process). We need a general “glass half full” attitude surrounding the writing studio reminding students and patrons that it is helping them improve upon their work instead of tearing it apart and destroying it (under the notion that it must be bad in the first place).

Perhaps a PR campaign is in order… something playing off this “natural enhancement” ad?

Because NOTHING is sexier than writing confidence.


Hey– I’m Katie and I’m a Junior (eek!) at Duke University. My twin sister and I have had a long standing passion for reading each other’s work and helping each other improve upon them… now that she’s all the way in California I figured I’d share my passion with you guys instead! I can’t wait to hear about your different experiences and insights throughout the semester. 

-k how