Higher Altitudes and Higher-Order Concerns: A Writing Tutor in Utah

What is a “higher-order concern?” For a writer and a writing tutor like myself, the “HOC” term has become an infamous description of what is considered truly important during a tutoring session – organization, content, and style. On the other hand, grammar, sentence structure, and spelling are grouped together as “lower-order concerns:” things to be dealt with as quickly as possible in order to move on to the really meaty stuff.

But it’s all subjective, right? For many people coming in to the SJU Writing Center, especially for those whose first language is not English, grammar does qualify as their higher-order concern. It’s the first thing on their mind – perhaps because their professor has told them specifically to work on grammar or sentence structure, or perhaps because they are tired of being misunderstood due to language differences. A writer cannot even begin to focus on the content and style of their paper if their grammar is so lacking as to confuse their meaning.

“Nicole…is this really the kind of stuff you think about?” All this hypothetical talk about tutoring – boring, right?

Wrong. Hundreds of people absolutely love talking about it. I didn’t realize how committed of a community writing tutor-dom has become, until very recently. Through St. Joe’s, I attended the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing, held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Wait, hold on! A conference about writing tutors? Surely, Nicole, you meant that it was only partially focused on writing tutors. After all, how can there be that much to say?”

Trust me. It was. Literally. All. About. Writing. Tutors.

Jokes aside, tutoring work is taken very seriously. People write books on tutoring pedagogy, and writing center directors devote endless time and energy to creating better spaces for appreciating writing on campus. (For a perfect example of a hard-working director, look no further than SJU’s own Dr. Jenny Spinner, bless her!) We argue about the best tutoring practices, and implement research studies to analyze these methods. The conference was a wonderful world where all these areas of interest came together. I learned so much, and brought everything that I could back with me to share with our Writing Center here at SJU. I was so proud of our  team for bringing our own research projects to Salt Lake City – we got great positive feedback, not to mention new Twitter followers! (@sjuwrites on Twitter and Instagram, if you’re interested.)

Obviously, I’m not a total nerd – I did spend a lot of time exploring Salt Lake City, while I was there. I really appreciated the times when I was able to take a break from the conference and wander around the city. And, despite being a usually solitary person, I thoroughly enjoyed the company of Dr. Spinner and of my fellow writing tutors. They exhibited the same enthusiasm towards life and new experiences that I value so much in myself. Here’s a picture that Dr. Spinner took of us before we all went on a hike:

From left to right – SJU tutors Lindsay, Darby, Theresa, (me), Sarah, and Genevieve!


Unfortunately, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog if it was all sunshine and butterflies and pretty pictures in front of the Rockies.

The night before we left the city, I stepped outside of our hotel for a cigarette or two. It was one in the morning, and no sooner had I taken my first few drags than did a woman approach me, obviously distraught. She asked me for a smoke. I wasn’t surprised – Salt Lake seemed to have its fair share of poverty and trouble. I gave this woman (her name was Elly) a few cigarettes and some change, and ended up talking to her for close to an hour.

I learned a few things: Elly never thought she would be homeless. In her own words, she “never learned to walk away” from bad relationships. Elly hadn’t slept for days at the time I saw her. When Elly was 17, she saw the Liberty Bell. Elly just turned 39.

It really left an impression on me. The nature of our interaction was extremely telling – almost every word out of her mouth was “sorry.” Sorry for her crying, sorry for talking about her abusive boyfriend, sorry for talking about being homeless. Sorry for existing. She felt she had to justify her choices to me: “I swear this isn’t a Dr. Pepper; it’s just full of water.” Come on, now…I’m the one wasting my money on cigarettes!

It hurts me that we live in a world that places that mentality on people. Enforces that mentality, really. People that don’t have money are not valuable, even in their own heads. Elly and I were unequal, purely based on our economic status. That’s why she was so apologetic. Somehow, I was better than her. Somehow, I was her superior.

There’s something so wrong about a system where we are defined by a numeric value, instead of by our whole person. Even being valued by the name of the college we go to is a reflection of that – we all know how much a college education costs, and how much that can vary based on what college you go to. It’s all part of a world where we are our intrinsic being takes second place. 

I can’t do too much to change that, but I can explain to you what I valued about Elly. Before we went our separate ways, Elly said something that really stuck with me. She said: “I appreciate you.”

I told Elly: “I appreciate you, too.”

And I did. I appreciated her just for existing. This woman was walking away to go sleep on the 40°F streets somewhere, and I was walking back into my hotel to sleep in a heated room underneath cozy, warm blankets. I didn’t feel guilty about this, just sad.

Here were the real higher-order concerns.

And honestly, I don’t have much more to say about them. They’re huge, systematic, seemingly insurmountable.

But, like the hike we went on: the peak of the mountain always seems far away. But you plug on slowly and to the best of your ability. I, along with many of the students at St. Joe’s, find either in religious values or just in basic humanitarian beliefs, a compulsion to fight for social justice. We know that no one deserves to live like that in this messed-up world, and no one deserves to spend their life as a victim. I hope that I can live my life, to the best of my ability, in a way that might make the Liberty Bell that Elly saw at 17 not quite so broken of a symbol.

I wanted to write this blog earlier, as soon as I left the conference. But now I’m glad that I’ve waited, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, look at the timing now! It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and everyone is happily going to their homes and to their families for well-deserved rest. And then along comes Nicole with a sprinkle of sadness and desperation. But that’s not a bad thing – it’s always good to interject some reality into our delusions of peace, especially at times like this when we just want everything to be perfect. It made me think: If I was visiting Philadelphia for the first time, would I see even more desperation than I already do? I think the sad answer is yes. As much as I like to think that I’m aware of what is going on around me, there’s a certain level of “blocking out” that we all do, just to get through a day. What if I started counting the people I see on the streets who need help? If I let myself be open to the feeling, the nature of Philadelphia, would it reflect that sense of melancholy Salt Lake left with me? There’s a a positive side of it, too – the most thankful person in this story is Elly – and I think we’d all do well to tell as many people as we can that we appreciate them, too.

Secondly, it’s had time to settle with me. Every day since the conference, I’ve been adding and deleting sentences here and there to this blog. I’ve been trying to tell Elly’s story in the most accurate way, without assuming I know everything about her. I’ve written poems in her name, I’ve probably become much more obsessed than I should be. Even still, I’m worried that the tone of this narrative is not quite right, but I have to let it go sometime.

Why does it matter that I keep writing about this person, this one out of many of the unfortunate in our country? This blog isn’t going to save any lives or fund any homeless shelters. But I was compelled to write it; I had to write it. The more you write about something, the more it becomes part of you. I want to write about everything I see – this is why I keep journals, write blogs…even when I write academic papers for class, I always try to include a level of personal reflection, whether it’s actually a story about a personal experience or it’s just the insertion of a relevant topic that I care about.

Writing about Elly has made me realize something else. It’s not experiences that become part of you when you write them down. It’s writing about people. The more I think about Elly, the more I want to write about her. The more I want to share her story. The less I want to forget about her. What if I wrote about every person I’ve ever interacted with? They’d all become part of me. In some small way, I could solidify the connecting bond between us, the humanity we share, just by writing a few words.

And that’s part of the reason why I want to help other people to write, part of the reason I want to help other people understand the importance of writing. Even if it’s just for class, a part of you is going into those APA-formatted pages…make them count.

Posted in: Community Service & Social Justice, Internships & Experiential Learning, Magis & Jesuit Identity, Student Life