Why does this matter?
I frequently pose this question to my tutees after reading their papers, not as a means to question a perceived arbitrary assignment, but to invite elaboration and to dig beyond the surface of their assertions. I have tutored students from a variety of disciplines, and this issue is one I encounter most frequently—succinct points with little explanation. Fortunately, it is an easily fixable issue, one that can be answered with the aid of two simple questions: “Who is my audience?” and “So what?” Both questions help the tutee establish credibility, create rapport, and write a concise paper.
Often, I read tutees’ papers and find myself impressed with the conclusions they make. However, reasons as to why their conclusions are valid or plausible are sometimes missing. When I ask why their assertions are valid, the tutees are frequently able to articulate their reasons. Often, though, they do not convey their support in their papers due to a major misconception, specifically that their professor already understands their conclusions, therefore making further elaboration unnecessary.
As an English undergraduate student, I understand the struggle of juggling multiple writing assignments. I know what it is like to decide which paper takes precedence over the others, which means some papers receive better explanations, thus sometimes sacrificing the rhetorical soundness of my work. I once believed that a few of my similarly-minded professors simply understood what I meant, especially as I wrote about theories and social issues relevant to our mutual interests. I was wrong. I took my audience for granted, especially as I did not take the time analyze and elaborate my own statements. I simply assumed my audience knew what I meant.
Don’t ever assume.
When I ask a tutee for their paper’s audience, they often act as if it is a trick question, as if a question so simple has a more involved answer. Usually, the answer is easy—their professor. As the professor is the educated figure, they already know the topic at hand. They want to see if the student understands the concepts taught through lectures and readings. To prove this understanding, I tell my tutees to think of themselves as experts. As such, I tell the tutees to assume that their professors, the audience members, know nothing about their topics, which in turn encourages them to be as thorough in their explanations as possible. It is an exercise in understanding and comprehension. This push for explanation creates a tutoring mantra of sorts: Give them the facts. Make those assertions. Add support. Keep at it.
When in that mantra mindset, I remind tutees to ask themselves a key question: “So what?” This serves as a continuation of Keep at it. I worked with a tutee who wrote a poetry explication. The tutee made an interesting point about the usage of color in a rather minute detail and promptly noted this significance in their paper. However, they did not say why the color was significant. Rather, they stated it as fact, like what item featured the color, and moved on. Reading such an interesting statement, I wanted to know more. I asked why the color was significant, which led to a brainstorming session about the color’s higher meaning. Asking “So what?” creates a conversation, one where the tutee’s thoughts mingle with the both the text and their own thoughts. It kept the tutee working on the tasks at hand—dismantling the poem’s higher meanings and exhibiting their expertise.
As a tutor, this is the process I enjoy most—challenging tutees to think deeply about their assertions. I want them to think of their texts in a deeper context and to articulate their conclusions in nuanced and rhetorically sound ways. By pushing tutees to keep their audience in mind and to further elaborate, my intention is to make tutees go above and beyond. It is all about challenging them to do their very best.
For those interested, I find this site useful in helping my tutees with this elaboration endeavor: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/few/685.