Promoting the exchange of voices and ideas in
one-to-one teaching of writing.

The Writing Lab Newsletter is a forum for exchanging ideas and information about writing centers in high schools, colleges, and universities.

Articles focus on challenges in tutoring theory and methodology, handling ESL issues, directing a writing center, training tutors, adding computers, designing and expanding centers, and using tutorial theory and pedagogy.

In addition to articles, issues contain conference announcements, book reviews, professional news, and a column by and for tutors. The newsletter is published bi-monthly from September to June.

CURRENT ISSUE: March & April 2015

"This issue of WLN focuses on the work of tutors--both their tutoring abilities and their scholarship." - Muriel Harris, editor

"Student Perceptions of Intellectual Engagement in the Writing Center: Cognitive Challenge, Tutor Involvement, and Productive Sessions" - Pamela Bromley, Kara Northway, and Eliana Schonberg

"Undergraduate Writing Fellows and Archival Research: Answering the 'So What' Questions" - Claire Lutkewitte and Kamila Albert

Tutor's Column: "Gymnastics in the Writing Center: How to Give a Good Spot" - Kelly Elmore

Tutor's Column: "Beyond Better Writing" - Mahala Lettvin [ CLICK TO READ ]

39: 7-8: MARCH/APRIL 2015:
Tutor's Column: "Beyond Better Writing"

Mahala Lettvin
University of Washington Bothell
Bothell, WA


When I first began training as a consultant for the University of Washington Bothell Writing and Communication Center, I had hoped to find some formulaic method for my new role as a writing tutor. Initially, my understanding was that I was to help students become more aware of their own writing styles-- implementing a non-directive approach by asking questions that encouraged self-reflection and self-correction. The focus, I reminded myself repeatedly, was to allow students to take ownership of their work: to develop the confidence and skills to become better writers. This focus aligns with the widely used writing center motto, we make better writers, not better papers. However, this motto and the accompanying philosophy, unfortunately, tend to oversimplify and negate the complexities inherent in the experiences and outcomes associated with both the writing consultant and the student. Tutoring at the writing center need not be reduced to merely making students better writers. Instead, tutoring can foster an awareness of our own development as writers, and expand beyond this narrow idea of "better writers" to include better students, better mothers, better wives, and in general--better individuals.

I first realized that I was internalizing this motto very narrowly during my second quarter working at the writing center. "Mary" invaded my life ridiculously early one morning during the depressing first weeks of winter quarter. When she arrived, her annoyingly chipper personality and glowing appearance were in sharp contrast to the gloomy silence I had found solace in. This was Mary's first time visiting the center, so after I attempted a semi-coherent introduction of the writing center's missions and practices, I asked her about her assignment. Pulling a labeled, color-coded, and extraordinarily organized binder, she handed me the assignment guidelines and explained she was required to narrate her personal experiences through the lens of academic theory and scholarship derived from her course learning. When asked, she indicated she was more comfortable if I read her paper aloud so she could mark her paper and catch any mistakes as she listened.

"Is that okay with you?" She asked timidly, as if she was doing something wrong or in some way offending me. Of course it was okay. It had to be absolutely, positively okay. As a tutor, I was to ensure she was as comfortable as possible. And despite my aversion to reading aloud, her assignment actually intrigued me.

"Yes, that's fine!" I responded, fumbling with a pen I had planned on handing her but awkwardly left dangling in the air between us after realizing she had a dozen lined up and ready to go.

It turns out I lied to her. It wasn't fine. Nothing about her writing was fine. Nothing about me reading her words aloud was fine. Her introduction was everything we as consultants dream introductions to be. The remainder of the paper followed the assignment guidelines impeccably. The words were beautifully constructed: strung together artistically, creatively, and professionally. The vocabulary was impressive without being condescending. The transitions from academic to personal language were smooth, and all ideas in-between flowed logically from one to the next. All elements categorized under "higher order concerns" were not concerns at all. So I looked for the "lower order concerns:" grammatical mishaps, spelling errors, run-on sentences. I looked for margin inconsistencies, for anything--at least she could have written it in Comic Sans so I could enlighten her on the appropriate font selection and usage (never, ever, use Comic Sans!). I searched the pages for something. Anything. There was nothing.

My voice shaking, I struggled with reading her words in my voice. Her acknowledgment of her various positions in society as a woman, mother, wife, and student--and therefore both as invisible and privileged--were extremely painful to read. Her words represented my loneliness, my frustration, and my own struggles as a woman, mother, (ex)wife, and student. Not only was I envious of how awake Mary was at 8 AM, I was also envious of her beauty, the way she did her hair, her makeup, her outfit. I was envious of her academic achievements and her neatly organized binders. And most of all I was envious of her courage in writing words that represented my own struggles that I, for too long, avoided even acknowledging. And thus, I hated that she had asked me to use my own voice to read her words. We were approaching the final page of her paper as I fumbled on one word--the only word throughout the pages that made me pause. In truth I was delighted I had found something.

"What did you mean here, when you wrote that your husband 'stalls' you?"

"Oh, well, like, he, you know, he doesn't want me to--he doesn't want me to be myself I guess."

"Oh? Hmm . . . can you tell me a bit more? I am just curious about why you chose this particular word, 'stall'?"

She proceeded to tell me stories of her husband's demands on her to keep quiet in social settings. The stories continued as she discussed parenting concerns, particularly in balancing demands as both a mother and a student. The message she internalized from her husband --and from others--was to be more invisible than she already was. The conversation that followed may as well have been decorated with martinis and Virginia Slims, heels up on the table, filing our nails. The words coming out of our mouths likely mirrored a scene from some reality TV show on the entertaining, yet shallow housewives. "He said what?"--"

I would have slapped him!"--"When did we ever decide it was a good idea to get married?"--comments of that nature. You know, language academics and tutors aren't often allowed to say, but language that women, wives, and mothers are not only allowed to say, but also expected and often encouraged to say.

As it turns out, regardless of how unprofessional this conversation was, it was in fact highly productive not only because it was apparent we both needed a healthy venting session but also because we were becoming better writers and stronger women. We delved back into the paper with a keener sense of "self" --a self that represented not merely the lonely struggles of a mother attempting to finish her paper, but the collective self. I read her words more confidently, and she listened more intently, perhaps realizing they represented more than just her words. She began scratching out words like "maybe" and "possibly" and replacing them with definitive, bold statements about her identity and the position she has claimed, as well as the one she has been violently or otherwise forced into by her husband, her professors, her son, and society.

I realized then that my role as a tutor isn't reduced to a simple motto, "we make better writers not better papers." I am sure, without a doubt, our meeting made two better writers, and perhaps made two better women, two better friends, two better students, activists, wives.