The Would-Be Mentor as Writing Instructor

Downs, Doug

Four years ago Becki strolled into my office, two weeks into the first course I ever taught. I wasn’t surprised to see her; she was driven, self-confident, and engaged in the course, a person who would naturally take advantage of office hours.

“Would you read this?” she plunked down a draft on my desk. “I need some feedback.”

Ah, yes, I exulted inwardly, this is the life. This is what teaching writing is all about. Even better, Becki was already something of a wordsmith, so we spent half an hour basically playing with the narrative piece. She seemed to find my reading helpful, and her revision showed the effects of our work. But Becki never came to my office again that semester, and neither did any of my other students—at least, not unbidden.

In my short and thus far undistinguished career teaching first-year composition, it is a persistent scantness of defining moments that stands out more than those moments themselves. Instead of recalling, for instance, how successful a mentor I’ve been, I am struck by the sparsity of my mentoring moments. In my rather romantic fantasies of teaching writing—based on my student experiences as a frequent visitor to my professors’ offices—students would fill my office day after day, eager to chat with me and, yes, hanging on my every word of advice. So far, it seems I was playing with a deep misunderstanding of the game. My experience with Becki has been much more representative. I can count on one hand the number of students who have really engaged me outside the classroom, and even then, this “mentoring” has only been extended conferences. I expected many things when I began teaching, but I did not expect to be irrelevant.

Not that I’ve been irrelevant to everyone. I was relevant to Lila. One of the brightest and most involved students I’ve yet known, Lila wrote in one of her pieces that she always felt like no one understood her—not that they didn’t understand her as a person, but that they didn’t understand what she wrote. With her tendency not to mince words, Lila overstated the truth a bit; I could almost always work out her meaning without real trouble. But her syntax did usually tumble onto paper with a rambunctiousness that stymied casual attempts at reading, and we spent much of last summer semester reading her drafts aloud and finding different ways to speak ideas. Her improvement was slow, but Lila did gradually become more skilled at hearing her writing the way others would hear it when they read it aloud. At the same time, the work she was doing was so smart that I never lacked for compliments to pay and encouragements to give. Lila was the first student I’d been able to work with successfully on this level, but more than anything, it was her willingness to engage and help me work with her that made the summer a success for us.

I hear echoes of Donald Murray’s “The Listening Eye” here. Though I don’t make my classes into all-conferences-all-the-time, as Murray describes, I see in his account of conferences with students the same mentoring relationships I try to establish with mine. “Mentoring,” it turns out, is less active than I had imagined; I’m more sounding board than sage. At most, I—like Murray—am making explicit for students ideas and processes that they were already using anyway. More often, they learn by saying for themselves the same things I would say. Last semester I invited someone else’s student into my office to give her some extended assistance with research. Angie fidgeted a lot and looked worried—as well she might, given that three weeks of a five-week research project had elapsed and she barely had a topic. She could not make herself care about the topic she had chosen, she told me, and as we talked, I learned that Angie had convinced herself that she really didn’t much care about anything. We explored databases as we talked, using the wealth of journals and articles they revealed as invention tools, but nearly an hour had elapsed and Angie still didn’t care. I asked her to tell me more about herself and, listening hard, heard a faint change of tone as she told me about her dad’s bike shop and having a stay-at-home mom. Within a few minutes, I ventured to put some words in her mouth. “Do you think moms like yours get a bad rap for staying at home instead of working?” I offered. And there it was: a deeply felt conflict whose exploration would make for a great paper. Before she left (to get half the library’s volumes of the journal Sex Roles), I asked Angie to stop and reflect. “How did we do this?” The fidgeting gone, she beamed a smile and answered, “I get it.” I think she did. So did I: people like Lila and Angie have shown me that even when I do get to mentor, it isn’t as the wise (perhaps curmudgeonly) man I once envisioned.

And of course, not all those whom I mentor necessarily “get it.” Jessie was a student of mine last spring. In high school she was undoubtedly labeled “gifted” for her combination of intellect, energy, and social competence. She was a tennis player, and every assignment I served she took as an opportunity to charge the net. She was always eager to talk—about papers, about group work, about college life, and above all about how most people are stupid. I remembered similar feelings from my own college experience, and how much I learned talking over papers and projects in my professors’ offices. But it took more than one semester for me to see my narrow-mindedness for what it was, and so it did for Jessie too. Most of my energies in our conferences went to demonstrating to Jessie that even she relied on emotion in her arguments. Emotion, she believed, or pathos, as I kept trying to get her to think of it, was for people too dumb to be rational. Let them have their sympathy and their fear appeals; only cold, hard logic for Jessie. “But look at what your loaded language does here,” I would show her. “You’re exercising your vocabulary to the point of hysteria.” But Jessie would have none of it. Then, during our last conference, working over a draft of her last paper, she stopped cold at her first point in support of a claim about population control. “This is totally an emotional argument,” she realized, sagging a little. “But it’s my entire case.” She gave me that now-what-do-I-do look. “Sometimes that happens,” I told her. “It’s still a convincing argument.” She never did believe me, though. Every now and then I imagine Jessie wandering around out there, trying to be emotionless.

My limited mentoring has made me aware of conflicts of interest, which I had never considered as a student. How does one mentor without playing favorites? How does one become socially involved with students and maintain an appearance of objectivity when grading? As a student, my first tenet for earning A’s was that the instructor had to be able to put a face—an engaged, interested, and smart face—next to that name on the roster. But for me that truism was always incidental to the real benefit, face-time with mature experts. From the other side of the mirror, I’ve learned the difference between students who are sucking up and students who are trying to learn. And while I’ve had no problems so far, singling students out for special attention—no matter how deserved or necessary—obviously opens the door to unpleasant questions at semester’s end. Not only is lack of student interest a roadblock to mentoring, but so are the realities created by the institutional roles my students and I adopt.

No doubt learning to be a mentor, like learning to be a teacher, takes time—and, to some extent, may require a different institutional position than the one I occupy as a four-year-old writing instructor and graduate student. Jack and Trevor, for instance, were a two students about my age, in their last semester of coursework, who were married, starting families and working full time in great jobs. Between their jobs and their previous four years of college, there wasn’t a lot they needed to learn about writing by the time they joined my first-year-composition course as seniors. We were essentially equals in nearly every respect that I am usually unequal with most students. We had some great conversations and learned a lot about what each others’ lives were like, but it was hardly a classical mentoring relationship in the same way that these men could have found with a more experienced instructor.

At the same time, however, the institutional position of graduate teaching assistants can make us the best of mentors. The fact that I remain a student allows me to connect with my own students in ways that I will not be able to when I’m part of the tenured establishment. One of the best mentoring relationships I’ve had was based on this similarity of predicaments. I’d been teaching a year and a half when Ann took one of my classes. Ann’s demon was organization: she had composed one of the loopiest essays I’ve read. We sorted out all the lines of thought and tried to represent them graphically, me taking notes while Ann explained the various moves she’d made in the draft. After she read my notes and imagined her revisions, our conversation turned to broader student issues. The afternoon passed as Ann and I talked about fitting school and family into one life, the joys and trials of graduate school and what she needed to do to get there. As in all such encounters, I learned as much from Ann as she might have learned from me—another hallmark of mentoring.

It is experiences like the ones I’ve related here that I imagined as some of the best parts of teaching, and they have been that. Even the partial successes and the failures are rewarding in their own ways. It is only their scarcity that disappoints me. That’s why I wish fewer students would see me as irrelevant. I understand now, though I did not that first semester when Becki disappeared, that it’s not personal—students who let their instructors be mentors are fairly rare. Certainly I’ve learned that limited time gets in the way of such relationships. There’s simply not time in the week to be the kind of mentor to forty students that I can be to five, and as I rediscover each semester, my students very much have lives of their own. Not only do they not have time for me, but as Charles Moran has said in critique of all-conferences-all-the-time, “students might have quite a bit to say to each other” (175) and they do not need me nearly as much as I think they do—or wish they did. In any event, there is no doubt that they need me much less than I need them. Perhaps because of that need, I still hope that the reality of mentoring will sometimes more closely resemble my romanticized imaginings.

Works Cited

Moran, Charles. “A Life in the Profession.” An Introduction to Composition Studies. Ed. Erika Lindemann and Gary Tate. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 160-82.

Murray, Donald M. “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference.” College English 41 (1979): 13-18.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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