Editor’s note: The recent movie, Arrival, provoked many strong reactions from me–and lots of thought! I’m delighted that someone else from the writing center world saw connections to the work that we do. Today’s post comes courtesy of Andrew Rihn, who started working in writing centers as an undergrad at Kent State University – Stark Campus. Today, he works as a professional tutor at Stark State College.
Arrival is a 2016 science-fiction movie about humanity’s first contact with an alien species, so it’s appeal to writing center people may not be immediately obvious. While much science fiction focuses on domination or conflict, Arrival is unique in its focus on the problems and promises of linguistics. The plot hinges on the work of pursuing communication and avoiding miscommunication, familiar work to anyone who has spent time in a writing center.
In Arrival, the aliens simply arrive with no warning or explanation. Twelve large, mysterious ships hover twenty feet about the ground at seemingly random points across the globe, including one in Montana. The Army is mobilized for defense, but cannot make headway when it comes to communication. They enlist the help of two professors, Louise Banks, a linguist (played by Amy Adams), and Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist (played by Jeremy Renner). This interdisciplinary duo sets out to meet the aliens, find a way communicate, and at the behest of the Army, find the answer to the question “What is your purpose on Earth?”
We follow Dr. Banks’ first fumbling attempts to communicate with the aliens, called “heptapods” in the movie (so-named for their seven tentacle-like limbs). The language-learning process is of course very slow. The Army is increasingly frustrated with their progress, so we are treated to several scenes of explanation from Dr. Banks about the hows and whys of language acquisition.
For example, she warns them about the far-reaching dangers of misunderstanding seemingly minor and innocuous shades of meaning: the difference between argument and war, say, or between tool and weapon. Such a misunderstanding early on will have repercussions down the line, affecting or even impeding any kind of meaningful relationship.
In Arrival, Dr. Banks works hard to avoid such misunderstandings, and through her eventual linguistic understanding of the heptapods, she comes to understand something about the way their minds work. She invokes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that language can have serious impact on how we understand, approach, and interact with the world around us. In fact, the climax of the movie centers on Sapir-Whorf, although they push the hypothesis into an entirely fictional – but entertaining – realm.
For writing center workers, the idea of sitting down with a complete stranger for the very first time and consciously working to head-off misunderstandings with and through language is a very familiar idea. Obviously, we aren’t bridging a chasm as deep as that between humans and heptapods like in Arrival, yet there is something rewarding in seeing a version of our work reflected back up on the big screen. I nodded with recognition when Dr. Banks has moments of cross-disciplinary insight with the physicist Donnelly, and I felt total empathy with her when she has to constantly explain and re-explain her work to those who know nothing of it and are impatient, skeptical, or both.
Readers may also be interested in this article by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. He writes about his experiences adapting the original story into a full-fledged screenplay. Not only does he describe his passion for the project, but he also breaks down some of his writing process in detail (including photos of his actual notes).
One anecdote from Heisserer struck me in particular. He was wary of having too much exposition in the movie, afraid audiences wouldn’t want to hear too much about the process of linguistics. He begins explaining to his producers, “ranting” about what he’s trying to accomplish, and why there should be so much process in the movie. When he finishes talking, they simply tell him “All that needs to be in the script.” Sure enough, he wrote his own “rant” into a monologue for Dr. Banks in the movie, and it made the cut!
I’m certain nearly every writing tutor has been in a similar situation – a student who can talk eloquently and at length about their topic, but when they sit down in front of the computer cannot seem to write it down. A seemingly confident student will lose their voice, doubt themselves, and question their own knowledge. Writing centers are places where tutors listen, where we help students tap into that confident voice. I’m sure most of us have said to a student the same thing Heisserer’s producers said to him: “There – what you just said: write that down!”
Stories like Heisserer’s, and a movie like Arrival, reminds us that our work is not necessarily unique to writing centers. The skills tutors learn while tutoring can in fact better prepare them for careers outside of academia. Whether we are helping a first-year student stay focused in her essay or making first contact with an alien species, the ability to navigate between communication and miscommunication is a valuable and necessary skill.