The Would-be Strategist and the Tutor

Two for Dinner at the Multilingual Writing Center

Picture of Pedro Vazquez de Prada with Tutor

Pedro Vázquez de Prada is a lieutenant colonel in Spanish Army and a member of class of 2012, U.S. Army War College.

by Lt. Col. Pedro Vázquez de Prada
July 2, 2012

[Image Caption: Pedro Vázquez de Prada is a lieutenant colonel in Spanish Army and a member of class of 2012, U.S. Army War College.]

The plot unfolds in Carlisle, a friendly and scholarly town in the midst of Pennsylvania. Two historical and distinguished institutions shape the life of its population: Dickinson College, founded in 1773, where young people pursue their education, and the U.S. Army War College, founded in 1901, where the Army develops its strategic leaders. What do the officers have in common with the young people? Let’s find out by following an analogy between a session at the college’s writing center and a dinner.

The dinner guests: the tutor and the International Fellow 

Tutors are enthusiastic young people with special skills for English writing and training to help other people develop their language. International Fellows (IFs) are about 70 generals and colonels from foreign countries who attend the War College. As IFs we are meant to contribute to the education of our U.S. colleagues. We pursue a master’s degree in strategic studies, which requires several writing tasks throughout the year. Those who are not native speakers have to take the TOEFL and need to convert their English writing skills into something resembling scholarly English. And that is where Dickinson’s Norman M. Eberly Writing Center and the War College interact. Both colleges coincide when IFs coming from all over the world, and tutors, usually from very different cultures, meet at the center—and that meeting is like a dinner.

Having someone unknown at home for dinner is a challenge with many possible outcomes, from having a great time to experiencing culture shock. We—the IFs—are busy adapting to the culture, adjusting to the language challenge and working with family needs. Our family could be at the level of what I call “Gymnastic English.” As Maria, my wife, would say, “My hands hurt from the amount of English I’ve spoken today.” We are like “Rubber International Fellows” pulled from several points, and we are always near the breaking point. Finding time to meet with a tutor in July is unthinkable.

The venue: Pietate or Prudens 

For our dinner we have two options: Dickinson College or the Army War College. The motto for Dickinson College is Pietate et doctrina tua libertate (Freedom is made safe through character and learning) and for the War College Prudens future (Wisdom and strength for the future). Both focus on the importance of education through hard work, like the work we do at the Writing Center. Both could be applicable to either institution and therefore the location for our dinner is not that important … in principle. But we benefit from going to Dickinson, enjoying the gorgeous facilities and interacting with the students there, as part of our cultural immersion.

In the midst of our personal chaos, we need to write something called “a paper.” The name itself is deceiving: Instead of calling it writing work, a writing assignment or even “strategic homework” (everything at the Army War College has to be “strategic”) the War College calls it a paper, which seems cleaner and less demanding. It certainly is clean, and that is the cause of the problem—the emptiness of the paper and, hence, the need for it to be filled. The first thing that stresses us out is that we need to have four pages filled with coherent and “strategic” words in English. We never would have thought that 1,500 words were that many! Our first instinct is just to fill the blank space. No matter how articulate we are in our native languages, we have a tendency to finish the paper as soon as we can … once our hectic lives allow us to start it.

The ingredients for the dinner are the “critical readings” for our paper. To complete the daily readings, we need four to six hours of reading a day, if we want to have all of them done. Like menus in restaurants, they are full of special terminology and acronyms—lots of acronyms—that take much time to get used to. Once we have completed the research and the readings for the paper, the next step is to write the first draft.

At that moment we, the 40-some-year-old general or colonel, goes to the Writing Center looking for someone called a “tutor.” We would likely have English either as our second or—very often—our third language. Therefore, no matter how much we are used to ordering off of menus in our first language, we will need assistance ordering dinner for a long time, especially those of us who are used to different alphabets.  

The restaurant: Norman M. Eberly Writing Center 
The first thing I find at my arrival is a group of young—very young—people and no “adults” in the group. I babble something like “I am …” and the student at the counter pronounces something that resembles my name in a way difficult to understand. After a while, we agree to a less-than-worse pronunciation of my last name, and the student at the counter introduces me to my tutor, who is usually on a sofa listening to music or chatting. My tutor salutes me, tries to pronounce my name and invites me to go into the “chopping block” where other tutors are doing their jobs. And then the session starts.

Our dinner, the session, is pretty simple; it is what we call an incremental process of improvement. We are not going to solve all our nutrition problems in a single dinner, so a session usually is not enough to fix a paper. The tutor looks for nutrition, for long-term improvement. We look for the opposite: we need our paper to be “cooked,” and our work load does not always allow us to think in long-term issues, especially if the paper is due soon. The session at the Writing Center is a kind of tug of war, where the more the tutor pulls, the more effort we have to make to pull it to our side. What is important in this dinner is the effort, not the result.

The chef—the tutor—starts by asking the innocent question, “What is your paper about?” After watching our reaction of incredibility, he or she says it another way, “What message do you want to convey with your paper?” In reply, we babble something that surely includes the word “strategic” a couple of times. And then the tuor asks whether we want him to read the paper aloud or if we prefer doing it by ourselves. After more babbling, the answer is so obvious that the tutor starts reading it. And the process starts, like a dinner with a three-course menu.

The introduction: other dinner guests 

With any good dinner, there are a lot of guests—family and new acquaintances. We hope to get along with all of them. The session at the Writing Center is like a big dinner in which we are introduced to new grammatical acquaintances with the hope that some of them will become our friends. There are very interesting people at our dinner, but we find that most of them have psychological problems.

The friends we are introduced to at the first table are the verbs. They are not our favorite because they are as rigid as bad leaders: They want to be all in the same tense throughout the paper, and no matter how many times you review your work, there are always some of these new acquaintances that are not properly “tensed.”

At the next table, we are introduced to the article “the.” Our new dear friend will accompany us all the year long. “The” has a psychological problem of placement. “The” likes to be where it should not and is absent from where it should be located, and the effort of searching for the right place keeps us busy for some time—a lot of time.

Sitting at the same table is our new friend, a sister of the article “the.” It is the article “a,” which has the same inherited illness. Both are like small children at a large formal dinner. You know how many of them you have but never know where they are. In fact, you often discover that they hardly are in the place they should be.

At the third table, we discover that the articles “the” and “a” are members of a broader family that I call the “disturbing particles.” Their last name can be prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and more. They are “in,” “on,” “at,” “over,” and many more, which will also become our friends soon. They are like a group of nephews: You like them to visit you, but they make a lot of noise when they arrive and have a bad effect on your digestion. From that moment on, you want only to get rid of them. 
The tutor is of great help in the process: He or she introduces us to one or two of the people that we don’t know at a time. It would be impossible for us to meet all of them at the same dinner, and during the first sessions the tutor only points to them in the restaurant, telling us that in the following sessions he will introduce us to new and friendly dinner guests.

The main course: humility 

The dinner is also a process of humility. The meal is never perfect because something is always burnt or over salted. We must accept that no matter how hard we try, there will always be room for improvement. 

During the session the tutor asks us, “What do you what to review?” And we say, “My English, indeed.” As the days go by we discover that “English” also includes the structure, the colloquial or scholarly approach and the selection of contents. Moreover, we have to look at how to produce an exciting introduction, a compelling conclusion and an interesting paper. Suddenly we discover that the process is the same as in our own language. It seems like an endless process; the prospect of properly knowing the new acquaintances is uncomfortable, and so tutors help again with the process, introducing us to one issue at a time.

Once we start spotting what we want to achieve in each session, we discover that the worst is still to come. Humility is again brought to the table when we listen to the worst question that a tutor may ask us: “What did you want to say in this sentence?” And then the tutor introduces us to another ocean of knowledge when we discover that we should also address the structure, the flow of ideas and the linking of paragraphs. We also have to consider that all sentences need to have a meaning. Although at first every word seems to be important, we need to find the useless words—to cut the fat—from the sentences in order to improve the paper.
In this process we are invited to pass to the next level once we know the former tiers well enough as to be able to introduce more friends to our mental structures. It is a personal issue. Each IF has his own language skills, and the grammar problems that we face are not easy to handle in one year.

The dessert: revision process 

There is no good dinner without an appropriate dessert. At the Writing Center the dessert takes as much time as the other two courses together. Our tutor stresses the need to review our paper many times and to ask other IFs to read it. When we think that we are almost done, we discover that a good revision process takes much more time and effort than expected. We also find out that the revision will greatly improve the quality of our paper and hence is a worthy process.
During the session the tutor usually emphasizes at least two or three rules of grammar. These are your take-aways. We should review them because we discover that we tend to make the same mistakes all the time. Therefore, the sooner we master them—the sooner we become friends with them—and the more rules the tutor will be able to introduce to us in future sessions. In “strategic” English writing we mark the rhythm of our own progress.

The nutrition: our writing improvement 

The meal is satisfying because it is nutritional. Our writing skills, the way we structure our papers, the way we compose sentences and the way we review our papers are improved.  And as a dinner is not all about eating, tutoring is not only about our skills. It is much more than that: it is about cultural exchange, and the tutors foster that process through their professionalism, enthusiasm and know-how.
For tutors, working professionally with people the same age as their parents helps their future endeavors. I do not foresee a worse scenario for a 20-year-old student than sitting at a table dealing with a topic that can be absolutely unknown—Strategy in Thucydides, Strategic Leadership Virtues and Competences, Policy about Western Sahara or Spanish Strategic Culture and the Philippines—to mention but a few of the topics I brought to the table. Being able to help make the paper understandable, structured and coherent in sessions of 45 minutes is a real challenge. The miracle is not done in just one session, and often it takes several to complete the review, as in the case of my strategic-research paper of about 11,100 words. Once we discover a tutor with whom we get along, we want to work with him or her again. Finally, no matter how many times you have gone to the Writing Center, your faculty at the War College will give your paper back to you filled with red ink, with lots of comments. Do not take it personally. There is always room for improvement. 

Thanks, tutors, for an awesome job. To the future tutors, good luck with the War College class of ’13. Make them suffer!

Pedro Vázquez de Prada is a lieutenant colonel in Spanish Army and a member of class of 2012, U.S. Army War College. He received the Commandant’s Award for Distinction in Research at the War College, where he completed his master of strategic studies in June.

Published July 2, 2012