Advice for Tutoring Confrontational Tutees

By: Kevin Miller, Benjamin Freedman, and Jesse Bulson-Lewis

The synopsis of our tutoring presentation was how to effectively tutor an unwilling tutee. Specifically, a tutee went into the COWS seeking help on his first Encounters paper. The tutee and tutor had different ideas of what constituted a tutoring session, and thus the tutee was unwilling to receive the tutor’s constructive comments. In other words, instead of listening to the tutor’s suggestions, the tutee was offended by what he perceived as the tutor personally attacking his paper, and dismissed constructive criticism. Furthermore, the tutee was also dismissive of the tutoring session as a process, and instead thought that a tutoring session meant editing.

The tutoring session began with the tutor asking the tutee what the topic of the essay was, and then instructing the tutee to read the introductory paragraph out loud. By the time the tutee finished reading, it was evident that the thesis of the paper was not completely clear due to unclear terms such as “objective judging,”  and “practical perspective” being poorly defined. Unfortunately, the tutee was unable to define their own terms verbally when prompted by the tutor, so the thesis itself lacked clarity. In response, the tutee claimed that the arguments were in fact perfectly clear, and it was simply the tutor’s fault that they were unable to ascertain the intended meaning. This general theme of conflict carried on throughout the tutoring session, and the tutee continued to reject any and all advice as personal attacks on the writing. Finally, the confrontation came to its summit, at which point the tutor took a step back and explained that he was simply trying to help the tutee become a better writer, and was genuinely interested in what the paper was trying to say, that the tutee felt comfortable, and actually began to listen to advice. Once this basic level of trust was built, the tutor explained that a great place to start improving the paper would be to gain a better understanding of the terms used in the thesis, and then provide a precise definition for said terms. The tutor further explained that it is essential to ground definitions and examples in the text. The tutee finally accepted the advice, and the session ended optimistically.

While we have been talking in class about various tutoring techniques, actually working as a tutor, albeit in mock session, permitted us to implement those ideas as we would in an actual tutoring session. Since we were not actually following the script verbatim, we frequently had to ad-lib responses just as an actual tutor might have had to. This in turn required us to try and respond to social cues, and we think that this showed both us and the audience the difficulties of working with a tutee who really does not want anything beyond proofreading. A good tutor has to practice patience and self-control, finding the balance between reassuring the student that the paper is a good one well-worth developing, and pushing the student to develop his ideas clearly and accurately. This is a balance that is especially hard to find with such a resistant and combative student.

Hearing the feedback from our peers was also helpful, as they had some different ideas on our fictional scenario. One person suggested that maybe, when the student became too aggressive and rude, the tutor should have pushed back more and made it explicitly clear that that sort of conduct was not acceptable. Another theme that flowed through the post-skit discussion was the question of how to reconcile the peer-to-peer relationship that students at Whitman have with the slightly more unegalitarian power dynamic between tutor and tutee. While we as a class did not come to a firm resolution on any of the issues, the discussion served well to help us understand the complexities of tutoring in a much more concrete fashion.

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