Zen Teaching on an Institution's Fringe


Shortly after leaving scientific research, at a time when I was feeling particularly underemployed--my struggling freelance career and role as man-about-the-house were failing to satisfy--I applied for, was offered, and accepted a job as a "writing tutor" at the Writing Workshop of Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Maine.

At Bates, writing tutors teach students in hourlong, one-on-one sessions. These sessions are completely voluntary and free to all students--exclusively undergraduates at the institution I worked in--but perhaps only 5% choose to participate. The most motivated students have standing appointments--once a week is common--and are expected to bring along their latest writing assignments, at whatever stage of development, from studying the assignment to fine-tuning the prose. A few students bring creative writing work, but most come to work on academic papers. If my experience was typical, those who do participate benefit greatly from the experience.

The tutors where I worked are trained to be nondirective, to lead students along in subtle ways, using silence as a tool along with indirect, almost passive, questioning. I received two days of on-site training from the workshop's director, but most of the training was on-the-job. Tutoring sessions are private and confidential, so the actual training has to occur elsewhere. Tutors are reminded constantly--by the director, in conversations with colleagues, and in weekly meetings--to stick closely to the methodology. And although each tutor develops his or her own personal style, most tutors come to appreciate the value of the nondirective method and do adopt its principles.

The goal of this pedagogy is to encourage not only revision, but re-vision--with apologies for the pretentious postmodern hyphenation--and re-vision is not limited to writing assignments. Tutoring sessions often begin with a casual conversation--about life experiences, personal problems, homework, exams, and so on--and only gradually turn to writing. Writing tutors are, in effect, writing therapists, psychological counselors who focus on the writing part of the human character, whatever that might mean. It sounds a little kooky, but it works. The goal is to cultivate a spirit of questioning and self-examination, working mainly with the assignment at hand but leaving plenty of scope for the discussion of other issues. As a writing tutor I led students as they examined the structure of their written work, and in the process discovered fundamentals of writing and the deeper motivations for those principles.

Many students are reluctant, at first, to examine closely their own ideas and their own constructions, precisely as they find it difficult to examine themselves. Yet there is great value in both, and students who establish a habit of constructive self-criticism--especially in work as personal as writing--often find themselves approaching their other work with a more critical eye. The work becomes more personal, and, hence, more interesting. Grades--even lives--improve.

This kind of tutoring isn't easy. In order to avoid being too directive, tutors must be ever alert, always on guard. An hour of this can be tiring; a day of it, exhausting. The methodology rests on the refusal of the tutor to answer students' questions directly. Questions must be refocused and reflected back; the students themselves must find the answers. A typical session is full of uncomfortable pauses, and inexperienced tutors are tempted by a powerful urge to say something--anything--just break the silence and keep the session moving along. Some students simply don't get it; they leave shaking their heads, never to return. But those who do return often profit greatly from the experience.

In the U.S., almost every academic institution has some kind of writing center, although not all practice such a strict methodology. Many, in fact, are staffed by students. I do not know for certain, but I believe that professionally staffed writing centers are fairly rare.

Are these jobs for scientists? Of course they are not limited to scientists, but it is an opportunity available to them--to those, anyway, who are skilled writers, with strong listening skills. Scientists are often chosen for their ability to work with more technical papers, but students bring in all sorts of assignments, including those from the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Scientists--and others--who choose this work must be satisfied with meager financial rewards. The hourly wage isn't bad--when I quit 4 years ago tutors were earning about $22 an hour--but the hours were limited, by design, to about 20 per week. Tutors were employed and paid only during regular sessions; there is no work in the summer. Consequently, the annual income just barely rose to five figures. Hence, a degree of financial independence must be listed as a credential for jobs like this, be it through a well-employed partner--preferably with health insurance--a second source of income, or independent wealth.

One of the more interesting aspects of this job is the people who choose to do it. At the institution where I worked for 3 years as a writing tutor, the work was often done by intellectual folks within the community or on the periphery of the institution. There were six of us in all, a motley mixture of scientists with advanced degrees, creative writers, former schoolteachers, and freelance journalists. More than any other group I've worked among, these people managed to combine rich intellectual lives and a lack of intellectual pretension. They did not seek stature and recognition for their work, and they were relatively happy existing quietly on the fringes of the institution. Hopefully they still are.

Apart from me--a former physicist and, at the time, an aspiring writer--our ranks included a Ph.D.-level zoologist who spent her summers growing organic cilantro for market. There was also a low-profile but talented novelist and short-story writer begat by Long Island upper-crusters, and a blueberry farmer with an undergraduate biology degree from a top institution and six or seven unpublished book manuscripts sitting in boxes in his self-built house--which, despite the harsh New England winters, lacked indoor plumbing. One of the great pleasures of the job was talking to these interesting people during our free hours. The group shared--although I had rather less of this than most of the others--a self-assurance that was critical to the work. Although we all took our work very seriously, the focus of our lives was elsewhere--on family, an avocation, or some other personal passion.

The short hours left plenty of time for such pursuits. My son was born while I was working there, so I was able to spend lots of time with him during his first 2 years (although during the colicky months I would gladly have spent more time at work). I did a good bit of writing--fiction and journalism--and this experience was crucial to my eventual modest success as a writer and editor. (The tutoring, itself, was also wonderful training for my future work as an editor; tutors must learn to identify the "bones" of a written work almost instantly, even when they are obscured by poor and meandering prose. This skill has served me well in recent years.) I did lots of projects around the house. I got in a lot of firewood.

In the end I realized that I didn't share my colleague's deep self-assurance. I needed more than what this job could offer. Despite my best attempts, I was unable to shed that last shred of ambition. I still sought attainment, accomplishment of something that others would recognize. If I had been more contented, I might still be doing that job. But I needed more, so I left.

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