by Amy Blakemore'13
Students at F&M know Professor Nathan McGovern as exactly that: a professor. But before he started teaching, he was tutoring here at the Writing Center for two years. After graduating in 2003 with majors in physics and religious studies, he went on to graduate school for religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, where he just filed his doctoral dissertation.
Active Voice caught up with our Tutor Emeritus and asked him about teaching – and, of course, writing. We wanted to know, how much has his writing process changed since graduating?
“It hasn’t changed in the sense that I still tend to sit down and just write straight from beginning to end, usually loosely based on a hand-written outline. I sort of have a drafting process now, though, insofar as, when I go to write something new, I often recycle and rework parts of an old piece of writing in the new one. So, for example, my first published article was a reworked version of a chapter from my MA thesis, which in turn was a reworked version of a seminar paper.”
However, for McGovern, the discipline of writing for religious studies did require a shift in his thinking – and it continues to influence how he interacts with students and their writing.
“[S]cholars in religious studies tend not to offer clear declarations of the argument they will make at the beginning of a book or article, such as we could call a “thesis statement.” The more common pattern is to declare a theme at the beginning of the piece of writing, explore that theme through the body, and then state some (often tentative) conclusions at the end. Religious Studies these days, like many other fields in the Humanities, has been strongly influenced by postmodern thought, and so those of us in the business tend to think less in terms of solid truth claims, such as is suggested by strong thesis statements, and more in terms of more or less useful interpretations, and an ongoing process of knowledge-creation, such as is reflected in the thematic explorations and tentative conclusions of writing in our field.
"This actually accounts for one of the biggest difficulties I face now as a teacher. Undergraduate students tend to think in terms of solid facts and clear answers to questions, whereas I, as do others in my field, tend to think in terms of varieties of interpretations and the assumptions that inhere in a question, rather than its 'answer.' It can be a bit overwhelming when so many of the questions your students ask appear to you as unanswerable and problematic because they are based on hidden assumptions.”
Naturally, our current tutors wanted to hear from a graduated tutor not only about teaching, but tutoring. In terms of strategy, McGovern recommends tutoring with efficiency and depth.
“The most important thing to do with any tutee is quickly identify the main problem that he or she is having and work on that. The problem is, in my experience, often not a 'writing' problem per se—even one of the higher-level concerns such as thesis development or organization. Rather, it is usually a conceptual problem; that is, the student doesn’t know how to think about the assigned topic, or even how to think generally in a formal, academic way. The thought process is really more important than the writing process.”
This tactic works well for key problems that students continue to face: thesis, organization, clarity. And while tutoring is helpful for them, it also is helpful for the tutor – even long after graduating. Professor McGovern feels that working at the Writing Center honed his “empathy and patience”: “I don’t think I’m a ‘natural’ at tutoring or teaching writing, in part because writing always came so naturally to me. ... Having tutored students when I was in college has given me a better understanding of the struggles many students face in their writing.”
Of course, the Center affected McGovern in more unexpected ways as well. His most vivid memory of working in the Center had nothing to do with writing, but a stark moment in history, “coming in for my morning shift one day during my first year as a tutor, and Dan telling me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. I remember lots of details about that morning and that day; it’s like my parents’ generation on the day JFK was shot.”
McGovern misses the camaraderie. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such an awesome group of people before or since,” he notes. He continues that camaraderie by offering our current seniors some empathy – and advice:
“I’m in the same boat as many of them, I suspect! I too have been sending out job applications (I’m here as a one-year sabbatical replacement, so my contract ends in June) and don’t yet know what I will be doing next year. For those who are planning to go on to grad school, though, I do have some advice: Expect it to be a horrible, soul-crushing experience. But also expect it to be the most intellectually transformative experience of your life. Good luck!”