Dialogue and Tutoring Sessions
Phil Brocato   Ed.D.student, University of Southern California
In individual tutoring sessions, dialogue is generated when the tutor
and tutee problem-solve together-a process whereby both individuals
are involved in a positive learning experience. But how do students,
especially those whose first language is not English, respond to
language during a tutoring session? Mikhail Bakhtin's work provides
a way to better understand this interaction. Bakhtin says that
interpretation is a constant struggle between internally persuasive
discourse (one's own word) and the authoritative discourse (transmitted
word). Although, according to Bakhtin, during this struggle there is
a turning point where the authoritative discourse becomes internally
persuasive discourse. That is, individuals interpret words of others
as half their own, and eventually form ideas in the context of the
said words. Similarly, during a tutoring session, a tutee will
"appropriate" and "assimilate" the words of a tutor within the context
of a paper or assignment.
Mikhail Bakhtin's experiences with different cultures and languages
began as he grew up in the small towns of Vilnius and Odessa, both
south of Moscow in Russia. Bakhtin studied philosophy and the classics,
and later developed an interest in physics, which lead to his curiosity
in the problem of unity amid differences (language and culture). Albert
Einstein revealed a complex unity of differences through "one body's
motion has meaning only in relation to another body," and may have
influenced Bakhtin's idea that meaning is relational via dialogue.
(Holquist 20-21) In the year of his death (1975), essays from The
Dialogical Imagination were published, and include Bakhtin's assimilation
and appropriation concepts that are central to his analysis of language
as ideologies or "dialogic rhetoric." Bakhtin believes "the word in
language is half someone else's, [and] becomes 'one's own' only when
the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when
he appropriates the word, adapting to his own semantic and expressive
intention." (Dialogic Imagination 293) According to Bakhtin, individuals
assimilate words through their "own conceptual systems filled with
specific objects and emotional expressions" that either agree or disagree
with the words. (Dialogic Imagination 282) John Edlund, Director of the
CSULA Writing Center, in 1988 as a Ph.D. student at the University of
Southern California used Bakhtin's appropriation and assimilation concepts
to analyze "student texts, where evidence of an ongoing process of
assimilation, frozen in time by writing, is clearly visible." (Edlund 57)
In tutoring sessions, "the word becomes merged with that conceptual system,
altering if forever" when the tutor communicates information that is
understood by the tutee. (Edlund 57) Words are naturally communicated
and understood by individuals, but how are the words selected from other's
discourse? Bakhtin's appropriation and assimilation concepts and a global
tutoring session (a focus on structure and development) rather than a
grammar-based session will help to explain this process.
Generally, students visit university writing centers to get tutoring with
their assignments and papers. Could it be that "dialogic rhetoric" exists
in tutoring sessions? For Bakhtin, dialogue has three elements: a speaker,
listener and a relationship between the two. Furthermore, Bakhtin believes
that dialogue is a communicative interaction between the speaker and
listener or "dialogic rhetoric." So, as the differences (language and
culture) between the tutor and tutee are connected by dialogue in an
individual tutoring session, the dialogue becomes rhetorical or "dialogic
rhetoric." A combination of this process and the global approach to
tutoring may engage the tutor and tutee in dialogue different from that
used in a grammar-based approach. In other words, the global tutoring
session focuses on structure and development, and communicative discussion
of ideas that constitute this development and structure to involve the
tutor and tutee in "dialogic rhetoric." However, prior to "dialogic
rhetoric," according to Bakhtin, language is monologic.
"Monologic" occurs when one party is unable to respond to the discourse.
In tutoring sessions where the tutor role is authoritative in language
and culture, the discourse may be interpreted as "monologic" by the tutee.
If this happens, he/she may not be unable to "appropriate" or "assimilate"
the discourse. According to Bakhtin, discourse is "dialogic" when both
parties mutually respond. So, as words are communicated "dialogically"
in tutoring sessions, the chances for "appropriation" and "assimilation"
of those words is greater. Over time, considering the words are not
rejected, tutees will "appropriate" and "assimilate" the words, and
form ideas from this information that develop immediate and long-term
abilities for improving their writing. Whereas, if the information
(words) were "thick with techniques and technical solutions," the tutee
may see this as a "quick fix" to the problem, never taking the time to
generate solutions that push him/her to think beyond a grammar-based
tutoring session (Klancher 23). Specifically, when spoken words are
received by tutees, there may be a conflict in language; therefore, it
is essential that the spoken words do not concentrate on mechanics, but
rather students learn from a global approach where ideas are elicited
from both parties in the context of the paper or assignment. In addition,
as these ideas are communicated in a global tutoring session, they may
include social, political and cultural dialogue that may not otherwise be
used in a grammar-based tutoring session. In short, the global tutoring
session, where ideologies are communicated and understood between the tutor
and tutee, is dialogue that may help the tutor and tutee problem-solve
together. Bakhtin's "dialogic rhetoric," is inclusive of complex human
activity and discourse unified by differences, and can be used to explain
what goes in a tutoring session.
In speaking with John Edlund (CSULA Writing Center Director), he asked if
I thought writing centers were a tool of empowerment or instrument of
oppression? I explained how they could be both, but my definition was
not connected to language. According to Edlund, students are empowered
by mainstream English, but when students assimilate language different
from their native tongue, they are culturally oppressed. Nevertheless,
when "dialogic rhetoric" occurs in the context of a global tutoring
session, students are not altogether forced to forget about culture and
language, but instead, understand how language used in a tutoring session
is grounded in both cultures to make the language acquisition process a
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by
Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas, 1981.
Edlund, John. Bakhtin and the Social Reality of Language Acquistion.
The Writing Instructor, Volume 7, No. 2, Winter 1988.
Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. New Accents, London:
Klancher, Jon. Bakhtin's Rhetoric in Donahue, Patricia and Quandahl,
Ellen, eds. Reclaiming Pedagogy: The Rhetoric of the Classroom.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989, pg. 23-32