Listening as Discovery

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn any given day, the writing center where I work exudes a cacophony of smells: there is curry–both African and Indian, the honey-musk of perfume, chalky talcum, roasted coffee, rain-steeped leather, and–on occasion–the rank sweat, aged and thick, of students who have not yet learned to wear deodorant in the U.S. To imagine I know anything about their thoughts, coming from experiences so different from my own, is hubris.

But I try.

And this is a mistake.

In my first week as a tutor thirteen years ago, I pulled up a chair beside a student much older than me. He had immigrated from East Africa, and he had survived civil war and then refugee camps. I folded my hands politely and smiled. I pretended to understand or, at least, to care.

At 19, I imagined this was listening.

But it isn’t.

He left our session with nothing useful, nothing to improve upon or practice. And no clearer idea of what he meant to say in his college paper for English 101.

Now, at 33, I tend toward the other extreme. Today I read a paper with a student, and I saw exactly how she could improve it. Which paragraphs to cut. Which to slide into a different order. What sentences to add.

But it would become my paper, not hers.

There’s a difference between an editor and an educator.

I realized, first off, that I thought the paper was about media. She might think it was about something else entirely. So I asked. What’s the main point here?

Turned out it was a good thing I asked. My interpretation of it had been very wrong. And we ended up adding, not cutting.

It was a good reminder. That listening isn’t all that different from the creative process. Or life itself. That I have no way of knowing where things really lead. Unless I ask. In a way that is curious and open and that says, I’m here. I’m listening.

Surprise me.

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