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But it is rocket science! E-mail tutoring outside your comfort zone.

Imagine opening up your e-mail tutoring inbox and seeing a student essay about particle physics. Or experimental psychology. Or the intricacies of Sanskrit grammar. You face an opponent--not the student, but your own ignorance of the subject matter. What's more, you are all too aware of that ignorance, and this may lead to a sense of powerlessness as a tutor. How on earth can you respond productively to a paper that is, as far as content goes, way over your head?

The temptation here is to fall back on the safety net that writing tutors can rely on: focusing on specific elements of style, word choice, and grammar that are constant in any academic writing--the one area where we feel confident of our mastery. And that can be helpful to students. But are we serving these authors to the best of our ability? Is feedback on these hyper-tactical issues all an e-mail tutor can provide? I think not. While receiving an essay that is out of our tutoring "comfort zone" is a challenge of our ability (and to our self-conception as a source of authority), this very lack of comfort, this apparent weakness, can be a strength.

In the course of attempting to respond productively to papers well beyond my ken (and often feeling I've failed miserably), I gradually developed some ideas about how to approach doing e-mail tutoring outside my areas of expertise. The techniques I outline below do not replace a deep familiarity with the subject matter, but they offer a way to use a lack of familiarity with a subject to respond practically to content issues and also to offer some types of insight that a master of the discipline might not give.


When receiving a paper from a student, I do not to want to disappoint him by saying I don't have a clue what he's talking about. After all, I'm the tutor. I'm there to provide assistance and wisdom. Acknowledging ignorance is counterintuitive given my desire to meet student expectations, my (perceived) role as a source of information, and my own ego as an intellectual.

Despite these instincts, I've found it best to openly acknowledge my unfamiliarity with the subject matter. Many writing teachers know that it's easy to spot the telltale signs of students faking their way through an essay. This identification works both ways. A chemistry student is almost certainly going to detect my efforts to drop in random scraps of knowledge about inert gases or electron shells as either factually wrong or irrelevant--obvious details that don't help her in creating a paper that might be accepted at a conference. I'll build more credibility by writing something like the following:
   Hi Trish! I'll be honest with you: I just got though high school
   chemistry by the skin of my teeth, so your research report on
   radioactive isotopes is probably a little over my head in terms of
   the specific topic, but as an interested reader, here are some
   things I'd suggest to make the writing itself stronger. Let's start
   with the thesis. The thesis is the cornerstone of any research
   writing, no matter what the subject is. You need to make a clear
   claim and explain why this claim is important (or should be) to
   your readers. As I read your essay, I wasn't quite sure I could
   pick out what the central claim of the essay was. That might be
   just my own lack of familiarity with your topic, but it could also
   be that you can make your claim clearer. My general feeling was
   that your main point was what you say at the end of the second

Don't be shy about telling students what you offer. Acknowledging unfamiliarity with a subject or with the discursive practices of a particular discipline doesn't mean that I need to apologize for having the temerity to offer advice. I am, after all, an expert in writing, and this is ultimately what the student is asking for help with. An essay analyzing the symbolic motif of locked doors in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and a report on a laboratory experiment on laser refraction differ in many ways, but they are both designed to organize complex information in a way that communicates it clearly to an academic audience. There are many rules that apply to both texts that we as tutors are able to share with the authors, regardless of the differing levels of familiarity with the specific subjects.


A bit of oft-repeated Zen wisdom is that in the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, while in the expert's mind, there are few. While a bit esoteric, this saying has its roots in a practical reality of tutoring outside of one's disciplinary comfort zone. As a tutor who is less than an expert in the specific field, I am in a position to pose questions that may well open up the author's mind to new ways of explaining insights. As a teacher, I often learn most about a subject when attempting to explain it to an audience that is unfamiliar with it and asks questions that prompt me to think about it anew. As a tutor, I have a chance to be such an audience for authors.

It's here that we encounter a difference between online tutoring and face-to-face tutoring. Sitting across the table from a student, I can ask her a series of questions, get immediate responses, and follow up with new questions. It's also easy for me to point to a section of the text that is escaping me and ask the student to explain it to me in her own words--a technique that often helps students find clearer ways of expressing themselves in writing.

When interacting in an online environment, this sort of give and take is more difficult or at least more time consuming. What's often helpful is to formulate a few specific questions prompted by parts of the text that seem particularly important. To be effective, these questions should go beyond the elemental issues (e.g., "What's a quark, anyway?"), focusing queries that combine what you feel you understand from the paper with a request for clarification (e.g., "As I read the paper, it's clear that one thing you're assuming is that research into quarks is incredibly important to the field of physics. Why do you feel this way? As a reader, I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.")

The larger issue here is that being less than an authority in the subject matter can actually help me to identify exactly those issues that might go "under the radar" of an expert, allowing me to remind the author that the main purpose of writing is not to impress a faculty member or journal review board with the number of citations included in the paper or the breezy use of technical jargon, but to clearly and effectively communicate ideas to an audience who seeks a better understanding of the subject.


A technique that goes hand-in-hand with asking questions is reframing an idea in one's own words. As with asking questions, this is something that becomes a bit more formal in an online environment than when the tutoring is done "live." When sitting with a student, I can stop and put an idea into my own words to test my understanding of it, get feedback from the writer, and use this exchange as a way of figuring out if a topic needs to be explained more clearly

Even given the more static interaction of online tutoring, reframing is a technique that can still help. If I'm faced with an essay on the effects of radiation on DNA, much of the terminology will be above my head. Still, I should be able to pick up the gist of the main points. To test my understanding, I could use reflective writing, phrasing what I understand to be the central idea in my own words. Perhaps at a specific spot in the essay that seems both pivotal and a bit unclear (at least to me), I might simply write, "The main idea of this section seems to be that radiation changes the physical structure of DNA, and your experiment examines one particular way (among many) that this process happens. Is this an accurate summary of what you want your readers to take away from this part of the paper?" I'd likely place this sort of question at the end of a paragraph, set off by brackets and in a different color, or use the comment feature available in most word processing programs, rather than insert it in the middle of a paragraph (which would have the typographical effect of "interrupting" the author). On the other hand, putting such tactical questions at the very end of the essay might lose the sense of connection between my question and the specific part of the essay that inspired it.

On a larger scale, I might include a lengthier comment at the end of the essay, addressing what I see as the main idea of the paper itself, summarizing the concepts as a layperson. For example, I might write something like the following:
   The point of the essay seems to be that the interaction between
   radiation and DNA is more complex than has often been thought, and
   that this is important to understand because it might affect the
   way radiation is used in medical treatment and how we might treat
   those who have been accidentally exposed to radiation. Is that an
   accurate summary of what you want your audience to come away from
   the paper with?

This reflective reading does two things. First, it tells the author what I, as a stand-in for the audience, take away from the essay. Perhaps I don't understand the details, but it will help the author to know if my understanding of the main idea of the sentence, paragraph, or paper corresponds with her conception of the main idea. Second, it suggests to the author that there are multiple ways of phrasing the main idea. In reframing an idea in my own words, I might (intentionally or not) give the author an idea for explaining the topic more clearly or succinctly. Think about the ways in which a question during a class discussion--even a seemingly simple one asking for clarification--can open up a line of thought about a topic that you wouldn't have considered before.


When responding to a paper that seems over my head, I remind myself that while I don't know everything there is to know about, say, the specifics of an experiment in molecular physics, neither does the implied audience of the student's paper. True, a paper on molecular physics is likely to be written with an audience in mind that is versed in that general subject, but that doesn't mean that the student doesn't need to clearly explain the specifics of the experiment in detail. I might not be a member of this implied audience, but as an intelligent reader, I should get a feel for what's being said. Specific jargon and facts aside, if the general thrust of a particular point is beyond me, it might be beyond the intended reader's grasp as well. At the very least, it is likely not being expressed as clearly as it could be.

On a more tactical level, a clunky sentence is a clunky sentence is a clunky sentence. A mixed metaphor is just as mixed in a paper on neurobiology as it is in an essay about Walt Whitman. As a tutor, I'm playing the role of the audience and am in a reasonably good position to do so. No, I might not have a doctorate in the subject being discussed, but I am an intelligent, intellectually curious person with good reading skills and a sensitivity to the way ideas are expressed. This makes me a fairly able stand-in for the intended audience of any academic work. If I can't make heads or tails of the essay, chances are good that it could use some revision. By telling a writer I'm having trouble following a section of a paper, I'm alerting him that this section needs extra attention. For example, I might write to a student who submitted an economics paper:
   When you make your main claim in the introduction that your paper
   "reveals a relationship" between the Laffer Curve and the dynamics
   of hedge funds, I'm not quite sure if you're saying that the Laffer
   Curve helps explain how hedge funds operate, or if you're saying
   that examining hedge funds tells us something about the concept of
   the Laffer curve. You might consider phrasing your thesis more
   clearly and strongly to let your reader know exactly what you're
   setting out to prove.

I don't need to know anything about economics to pick up on the fact that the thesis isn't as clear as it should be, or to explain to the author why it's not clear.


The previous four strategies share a common denominator: they each allow me the opportunity to model clear, coherent writing about the topic. Again we return to the idea that there is an advantage to being a bit naive in the ways of certain fields. All disciplines have their own jargon and discursive styles. Oddly enough, the humanities, and literary studies in particular, have been especially guilty of creating a whole specialized language that is often impenetrable to those beyond the discipline (and even to some of us within it). Any discipline needs its own shorthand and terminology, but, at the same time, academic discourse should exist for the dispersal of knowledge, not for the mystification of it.

What does this have to do with online tutoring? By engaging with the topic from a place outside of the discipline, you can model for a student another vocabulary, another voice, that might be used in discussing the topic. More generally, you are simply providing examples of clear, coherent sentences. Even if much of what you say is devoted to describing what a comma splice is and how to avoid it, you are modeling the skill of passing along information in an easy-to-understand manner.

Ultimately, as an e-mail tutor, I am participating in exactly the process that my student is practicing: communicating knowledge via the written word. Even if I'm unable to engage in the specifics of her knowledge on anything more than a superficial level, by modeling the skill of expressing what are often abstract and complex ideas in clear, easy-to-understand prose, I am at the very least offering an example to follow, which is often the most useful thing a teacher can do.

At a bare minimum, this modeling should include editing and proofreading comments to students. Even when pressed for time, I try to take a moment to read through what I've written to catch obvious grammar errors, typos, awkward phrasings, repetitive sentence structure . . . all those things we tell our students are so important in establishing their ethos as writers.


In an ideal world, there would be plenty of tutors who are versed both in specific subjects across the curriculum and in writing pedagogy. As things stand, most writing centers could use many more tutors than they have just to cover the fairly familiar ground of first-year composition and English classes. And there's no doubt that something is sacrificed when a tutor is asked to respond to submissions that fall well beyond his discipline.

What I suggest, however, is that this sacrifice need not make us feel embarrassed, guilty, or apprehensive about dealing with such work. It's simply one of the challenges writing tutors are asked to face, but one that's certainly manageable. As more and more emphasis is placed on inter- and multi-disciplinarity in the academy, the proper attitude for writing tutors, e-mail and otherwise, is not to wring our hands in anxiety over how we will manage as we are asked to tutor beyond our official subject areas, but to take pride in the fact that our own skills are being increasingly valued by those across the disciplines. We can and do provide service for those who see us not in terms of our lack of knowledge in their own field of expertise, but as the source of insights we are singularly able to give them.

Ted Remington

University of Saint Francis

Fort Wayne, IN
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Author:Remington, Ted
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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