Jeff Brooks. Minimalist Tutoring Making the Student Do All the Work. Writing Lab Newsletter 15 (Feb 1991), 1-4.

“…the goal of each tutoring session is learning, not a perfect paper.”

Jeff Brooks of Seattle Pacific University presents this axiom early in his article. Taking this idea as his starting point, Brooks presents his philosophy of proper tutoring and some best practices for sessions with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students. Throughout, he shows how applying this first principle can effectively aid the tutor in finding solutions that serve the needs of all, especially the student.

Brooks takes great care defining the role of the writing center tutor. First, he reminds tutors to avoid falling into the twin traps of “muscling in” on papers and trying to reshape them entirely, or becoming simple line editors. The needs of the student – who often comes in because their professor told them to, or because they fear a failing grade – many times simply boil down to “I have to get an A, help me fix this,” a plea that may be hard to ignore. Also, a tutor may feel compelled to let no piece of sub-standard writing pass their eyes without improvement; this can work in concert with the “fix it” request from the student, and soon the bulk of the work is being done by the tutor and no the student. To avoid this scenario, Brooks stresses the importance of keeping “ownership” of the paper firmly with the student. He states that tutors must take a “secondary role, serving mainly to keep the student focused on his own writing.” Brooks reframes his axiom (the very first quote at the beginning of this post), stating that “a writing teacher or tutor cannot and should not expect to make student papers ‘better’; that is neither our obligation, nor is it a realistic goal.”

The role, then, of the writing center tutor should be primarily one of a patient, helpful listener that can give undivided attention to both the student’s writing generally as well as the specific paper being evaluated. Brooks gives two assumptions that should help the tutor avoid being too heavy-handed with editing. One: rarely will students critically reread their own writing even once, as often it is a last-minute little-loved task to write a paper. But if the tutor can get the student to regard her own paper as a text “that deserve[s] the same kind of close attention we usually reserve for literary texts,” then the value of improvements to the paper is clear to the student. Two, he stresses a main difference between a student and professional piece of writing: while real world writing is driven by an attempt at perfection, student writing is about the process of writing, and most writing teachers know this. “Students write to learn, not to make perfect papers,” says Brooks. Thus, the student’s need to ‘fix’ their paper is often misguided. If the goal is actually the process, fixating on the end-product is counterproductive and the student should refocus on learning all the tools necessary to improve the process.

Brooks offers some advice on body language that should help reinforce to the student that the tutor is not an editor, or hired gun ready to rewrite the paper for them. He advises sitting next to, not across from, the student; keep the paper closer to the student than ones self, perhaps even sitting with your dominant writing hand away from the paper; and he, like most other writing center experts, advises that the paper should be read aloud by the student. Often students will find their own errors, large and small, simply by reading and hearing their paper. He also offers three advanced techniques: the tutor should focus on the positives of the paper, both as encouragement as well as to subtly reinforce that the paper is “a ‘text’ to be analyzed, with strengths as well as weaknesses”; the tutor must get the student to talk about their paper. He suggests (positively phrased and encouraging) ‘leading’ questions that get the student engaged and thinking about their own processes; treat them as the expert on the paper. And finally, he suggests assigning a small writing task during the session. As an example, he suggests that for the paper without a clear thesis statement, to have the student spend a few minutes on their own writing this out. Lastly, Brooks offers two insights into dealing with difficult or defensive students: mirroring their (often disinterested or demanding) body language, and learning how to be effective with brutal honesty, such as a response like “I don’t know – it’s your paper.”

Through all this detailed and helpful advice, Brooks wonderfully supports his main thesis, and shows how dilemmas or difficult situations with a student can be resolved by remembering his central idea, “…the goal of each tutoring session is learning, not a perfect paper.”