Climbing 1500 Foot Vertical Rock Walls: Mentoring, Trust, and the Relationship Between Writing Center Tutors and their Mentors

Matt Artz, 'Joshua Tree National Park, 2014'

Matt Artz, 'Joshua Tree National Park, 2014'


My husband is a rock climber. I almost said “was” a rock climber, but that would be a fallacy of the greatest order. Maybe you aren’t intimately familiar with a rock climber, but the adage is true: once a climber always a climber. My husband gave up climbing big mountains after our daughter was born, but the look in his eyes every time he reads a book about climbing, or sees a climbing movie, lets me know he is on sabbatical, not retired. I provide this information as an explanation for why I, terrified of heights, spent Saturday afternoon watching Meru, a documentary film about the attempt of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chen, and Renan Ozturk to be the first to climb Meru—a 1,500 foot rock wall in the Himalayan mountains. I expected to enjoy the movie—for the music if not the cinematography, but I left with more than a sense of enjoyment. I left with a metaphor for the risky activities that take place in writing centers every day. 

At this point, I’ll guess you’re about to scroll down to the next, hopefully more insightful article. Before you do that, give me some slack (see those climbing metaphors come in the handy). How is running a writing center like high-risk climbing? It’s like high-risk climbing because it’s all about the mentoring relationship and the skill set required.

The best high-risk climbers became the best because they had good mentors. According to Chin, “Mentorship is an incredibly huge responsibility. And you need to choose your mentors carefully, just like mentees choose their apprentices carefully. There has to be trust there, on a very deep level (Chin).” The best writing lab tutors also had the best mentors—in most cases (I hope) their writing center director. Will your mentoring decisions as a writing center director place your tutors in physical peril? Of course not. However, your decisions can place them in moral and intellectual peril. As we all know, working with students on their writing is a process that is rife with potential missteps and falls. As your tutors’ mentor, it is your job to lead them until they are able to take the lead themselves. It takes equal trust to lead or follow. Your tutors must trust you enough to emulate your methods, and you must trust your tutors enough to give them the freedom to break their own ground with the students who place their trust in their abilities. If you are an effective mentor, you will find that your reputation as a mentor will bring worthy mentees to your center for the privilege of learning from you. Be honored by their trust, but also be afraid. As Chin said of his mentor, Conrad Anker, “. . . he has made hundreds of thousands of good decisions in order to be alive right now. I’m incredibly fortunate to have him as a mentor. Does it feel scary sometimes? Yes. But there’s deep devotion and a lot of attention to detail” (Chin). Respect your tutors and their devotion to you. They are the future of our writing centers as we once were. 

Rock climbing in the Himalayas requires a complex set of skills: “It requires a high level of competency in every type of climbing: mixed climbing, ice climbing, snow climbing, rock climbing, and aid climbing. It requires you to have a very solid quiver” (Chin). Does this sound familiar? How many skills do writing center directors need to have in their quivers? Administrative skills, teaching skills, management skills, writing skills, even math skills for dealing with those pesky budgets. I’m sure you can all add to the list (and please do). And what about the skills we must master and provide to our tutors so they can place them in their own quivers? They need the skills to work with developmental writers, non-native speakers, novices, experts, students writing about literature, and students writing about technical subjects. Again (please) I’m sure you can add to the list.

So what is my point? First, it is easy to respect and admire big wall climbers because they seem to epitomize the epic hero battling to tame the forces of nature. When I picture myself (all five-foot one of me) waging an epic battle in the writing center, I want to laugh—or maybe cry. But we are admirable. We do take epic risks every day as we do our best to mentor our tutors and protect both them and our centers from the elements—budget cuts, unappreciative faculty, and poor equipment. Go see Meru. It’s a great film. And take away more than an understanding of how the risks climbers take together forge a mentor/mentee relationship that helps each half of that dichotomy to achieve more than either could attain alone. Remember the trust your tutors place in you each day. Remember your own mentors and the role they played in your success as writing center director. 

Ferry, David. “Conquering Meru, the ‘Anti-Everest.’” Outside Magazine, 29 January. 2015. Web. 7 September 2015.