None of Us Are Herrings

Student Voices, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011
Wriiting Center TA David Aitchison
Wriiting Center TA David Aitchison

By David Aitchison. Hear David read this blog post with his wonderful accent. A few weeks ago, I had an appointment in our Main Writing Center with a sophomore, Amanda, who was working on her application essays for the Business School. With just a thirty-minute slot to look at three 250-word essays we had little time to waste. I remember three things in particular. First, it was fun – one of those sessions that gallop by because it’s late in the day and the two of you have the sillies, though that doesn’t stop you from thinking sensibly and strategically. Second, it was easy – Amanda was the kind of student who, even if she didn’t know it herself at first, was bursting with all the right ideas that, as I saw it, were exactly what her essays needed. Third, as we were wrapping up, she confessed that, much to her relief, coming to the Writing Center was nothing like she’d expected. “You know,” she said, with a bit of a blush, “how everyone’s ALWAYS nervous about coming to the Writing Center for the first time. It’s daunting.”

Since I’m now near the end of my second semester of working in the Writing Center, I guess I’m used to meeting students who are a tad nervous when they first show up. Who out there, after all, wouldn’t feel at least a little trepidation in having a complete stranger look at your writing and getting a glimpse of the way your mind works – seeing what rouses your curiosity, what perplexes you, or what gets lost in translation in the journey from headspace to paper? Whether a first semester undergrad or a visiting post-doc, sharing writing in progress is not something to be taken for granted – a fact I’ve learned for myself as both a student writer and an instructor. But knowing all this hadn’t prepared me for Amanda telling me that “everyone” is nervous: as if there’s a culture of nervous anticipation out there on campus, something anthropologists or sociologists could pinpoint, explain, and give a structural analysis of; as if a first visit to the Writing Center is only the latest in a long line of potentially humiliating but ultimately rewarding rites of passage – like, say, adolescence, only thankfully swifter and without the mood swings.

Needless to say, ever since, I’ve been thinking about what it could mean to be daunted by the Writing Center. Seeing as I’m a PhD student in Literary Studies (dissertating on “Radical Politics and the Novel in the U.S.A.”), I decided it wouldn’t hurt to define my terms: so I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary to get a better grip on what it means to be daunted, period. To daunt, in its current sense, means “to abate the courage of, discourage, dispirit; to put in awe, abash; to overcome with fear, intimidate, cause to quail.” Not quite the vocabulary that comes to mind when we imagine campus roomies confessing they’re contemplating a first visit to the Writing Center. Apart from one brief moment in the 14th century, when it meant “to dandle, fondle, caress,” and another in the 16th when it meant “to toy,” daunting has more or less consistently denoted acts of subduing, vanquishing, taming, breaking in, bringing into subjection, casting down, putting down, quelling, and (as noted) causing to quail. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that as useful a skill set as this might be, it’s not quite what we go in for in the Writing Center. Indeed, far from it.

In fact, it needs said that, as Writing Center instructors, we go out of our way to not be daunting – as students and scholars in Literary Studies, Composition and Rhetoric, Linguistics, Creative Writing, Writing Across the Curriculum, and so on, we understand exactly how hard it is to share any writing that’s not quite resolved – writing that’s still messy, raw, or simply not representative of what we think we can actually accomplish. But we’re also conscious that we’re here as experts in our field – as expert readers and writers – which in itself can be intimidating. It’s with this in mind that I deliberately ham up my being Scottish: apart from the fact it makes me far more glamorous than all my American colleagues (sorry, gang), for some reason it makes me more approachable. It’s as if there’s some sort of affinity to be found in coming as a foreign national to the U.S.A. and making that first trek to the Writing Center – as if we’re both curiosities and neither quite “at home” – an analogy I won’t stretch any further since I’m completely at home, thank you very much, in the U.S.A. Unless you count those moments when I’m in the sandwich shop and no-one knows what I mean by tomAHto until I say tomAYto.

But it’s also important to remember that we instructors, as instructors, are often just as anxious, though for different reasons. In a typical 3 hour shift, for example, I’ll see up to six students, where my ongoing task is not to ‘fix’ or ‘correct’ but to try to pass on skills that students can use to tackle their own fixing and correcting. But with sometimes only half an hour to get to know my students, find out what they need help with, read their work, make some sort of diagnosis, and finally offer strategies for revision – it can seem, dare I say, daunting. Add the fact that students are usually writing about highly specialized topics – from force sensors in bone-adjusting technologies to nutrient filtration processes in the dairy industry, from Buddhist prescriptions on vegetarianism to shock factors in commercial marketing after 9/11 – and you’ll appreciate that the playoff between being an expert and feeling a little out of one’s depth, goes both ways in the Writing Center.

fishSo does this mean I’m suggesting that we instructors are all quailing – that (to deploy a few synonyms from the OED’s historical thesaurus) we’re “bashed,” “blue,” and “over-faced”? Well, no. Because I don’t think any of us, whether students or instructors, are truly daunted. To say we find the writing and tutoring process daunting seems tantamount to acknowledging that the stakes, along with our mental energies, are high – both potentially good signs, provided we know how to channel those energies and think practically and realistically about our expectations. My real objection to the word is that it suggests an insurmountable power differential: as an action verb, it needs a subject who daunts and an object to be daunted. This fatally passive condition of what it means to be daunted is perhaps best illustrated by a practice in the herring fishery, in which salted herrings are pressed into a barrel with a “daunt” (OED). My point, then, and I think you’ll find it hard to disagree, is that none of us are herrings.

If there is a culture of anticipation here on campus, in which students talk about mustering the courage to make their first appointments to the Writing Center, our ultimate task must be to make sure that culture soaks up a vocabulary truer to what actually happens once students and instructors come face to face – in what’s more often than not a mutual exchange of inspiration, invigoration, and encouragement. Indeed, this has to be the last word: never daunting, always encouraging.

5 Replies to “None of Us Are Herrings”

  1. You are right. Being a writing tutor can be bit daunting, but it is encouraging and also inspiring experience. When I wrote my firstfiction I taught I would never be a journalist again, later I said I would never write for kids because it semed too easy, later I discovered joy of writing essays in the filed of natural sciences … And I was a writing tutor too. I think I learned more then my students:)

    Versatility, different points of view, it just adds up!

  2. Being an unpublished writer admittedly is daunting. To approach writing coaches for the first time propels feelings inside your tummy you thought were not possible. But having someone give you the assurance and proper guidance can really multiply your confidence a thousand fold.

  3. David, I think your post is right on. Having been to the Writing Center as both tutor and tutee, I have felt equally nervous in both roles. In both cases, there’s an anxiety about not stacking up in the estimation of the person sharing the appointment with us. As writers we want to already excel and impress. As tutors we want to be infallible experts. I like your push to revise our vocabulary, and, I would add, our attitudes. If both student and tutor approach the meeting hoping to learn from the other person (in other words, embracing the position of *not* being an expert), the chemistry is often just right for some great revision.

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