What Do I Do If ?
When in doubt, ask a mentor! Select students, along with Renata Fitzpatrick and Kathy Evertz, serve as mentors to new writing consultants.
Being a WA is not always easy. There will be times when you are frustrated with a particular situation, a particular student, or maybe even your job. But take heart. There is a way to work through almost every tutoring situation, and there is a staff of helpful people behind you. If you are faced with a situation that is too stressful to handle on your own, don’t hesitate to contact Kathy, Renata, your mentor, or fellow WAs and ask for advice.
What to do if…
… the student doesn’t show
This is the most common problem that a WA will have to face. You can minimize this by use of reminder e-mails and announcements in class. Especially if you passed around a sign up sheet in class, it’s important to remind the students of their scheduled times, given that they may not have written down when they wanted to meet with you.
Call the student five minutes after the meeting time to confirm. If he or she asks to reschedule, be reasonable. Find a time that is convenient for both of you, but don’t feel obligated to wake up at 7:30 a.m. to make an emergency appointment. If the student stands you up more than once, it might be time for a talk about just how important WA meetings are. Also, don’t hesitate to let the prof know. It’s possible that you are being treated in a way that matches the student’s engagement with the course, and the prof may want to confront the situation.
If a no-show begs for a make-up appointment and you don’t have time, don’t hesitate to say no and recommend that the student visit the Writing Center. Consultants are well trained and happy to work with any writer who walks through the door.
… the student has not written a draft or begin revising
Many students convince themselves that it is physically impossible to write a draft more than 24 hours before the deadline. It might be more helpful for some students to talk through ideas with the WA before diving in. However, failure to get started could be a sign that: 1) the student has serious troubles starting a paper independently, 2) the student does not see the WA meeting as part of the revision process, or 3) the student is not revising at all.
Talk to the student and try to figure out what’s holding back the process. If it’s a serious case of writer’s block, the student might need more help than you can offer, and you should consider referring the student to another campus resource. If it’s one of the other two reasons, then by all means try to work revision into the student’s writing process. Say, “The more work you’ve done, the more help I can give you.” Don’t accept an excuse like “I just can’t get papers done early.” Of course they can. They’re just working to the wrong deadline.
One WA recalls working with a very crafty prof who understood the psychology of deadlines. She assigned the paper to be due Tuesday, and when she received all the completed drafts, she asked the students to spend another week revising. This included meetings with the WA. Working with papers that students considered “done” brought revision to a whole new level.
… the student becomes defensive
Some students are not accustomed to the individual attention of a WA session. Others are just very sensitive about their writing. Either way, it’s common for a student to feel like the session is putting their paper on trial, and their knee-jerk reaction is to defend it. It’s hard not to take this kind of response personally—it can sound like the student is dismissive of your opinions and disrespectful of you.
The best way to handle the situation is to make the student feel at ease. Take an easy-going tone and use your posture and body language to communicate openness and comfort. Are you taking an authoritative stance? Are your statements definitive and professorial (“This thesis needs work”) or open-ended (“I was a little confused by your thesis. Can you explain this part...?”) Let the student know that you’re there to facilitate his or her writing and thinking processes, and not to evaluate the text.
Sometimes the defensiveness will get personal. Not petty name calling, but you might get that weird vibe that says, “And who do you think you are, my professor?” If you get that sense from the student, try to de-emphasize yourself and ask more questions of the student. For example, get the student talking about possible counterarguments to his or her own thesis. Talk about potential problems that some readers might have, and see if that puts him or her at ease. Share stories of times when you assumed too much about a reader (ideally, a college professor) and the consequences of that assumption.
… the student asks you to guess what grade the paper might receive
Sometimes a student will assume that because you are the WA, and you have personal contact with the professor, you can look at a paper and know what grade it will receive. Please, don’t try this, not matter how tempting it may be. The professor does all evaluating, and you shouldn’t undermine his or her authority.
… the student’s paper contains many spelling or grammatical errors
As noted earlier, there are times when you could spend an entire session working on spelling and syntactic issues alone—a punctuation mark here, a grammatical error there—without even noticing the argument underneath. Sometimes, however, the technical errors will be so glaring that they muddle the argument as well. Your strategy here is to look for patterns of error. Is the student overusing (and misusing) semicolons? Passive voice? Do the sentences run on and on without going anywhere?
If there are several errors that show up consistently throughout the paper, focus on one or two and discuss why the error is an error, and what the writer ought to do instead. Model good writing behavior: look up the rule in a handbook (e.g., Diana Hacker) and show the student what’s wrong about the error and how to fix it. The important thing to remember is that you are not revising the paper, the student is. Your task is to make writers into better proofreaders such that they are more able to catch their own mistakes and use resources like style guides. Follow the “teach ’em to fish, feed ’em for a lifetime” mantra by discussing why particular grammatical principles apply. That way, the student will have a basis for recognizing the error the next time he or she proofreads a paper. And while you can’t change someone’s grammar in thirty minutes, if you teach the student just one editing strategy, you have accomplished something very important.
Keep in mind that ESL students may need more grammatical help than others. In many cases, they are better prepared to accept technical explanations than native writers of English, so don’t hesitate to haul out a writing handbook and work together on a question of grammar, usage, or style. The writing center has a whole host of books and resource as its disposal: use them!
… the student’s paper appears spotless
One WA for English 111 several years ago recalls a situation in which a first-year student had a paper so well-crafted that it made the WA feel inadequate in her own writing. Remember, though, our goal is not to stamp “good” or “bad” ratings onto papers. All writing can be improved; all writers can learn from revision. If you think the paper is phenomenal, but there is that one thing that could make it just a little better, focus on that. Or try to locate the strongest parts of the paper and see if those strategies can be used to improve other sections.
Sometimes, however, a paper will just look perfect to you. If this happens, ask the student which areas he or she had the most difficulty with, and what he or she would like to work on with you. Focus the conversation on the things that the student struggled within the course of writing the paper. This will give you something more specific to look at, and you will either find problems that you didn’t notice on the first reading, or you will find an example of a strategy that really worked.
Let the student know how much you enjoyed the paper, and savor the pleasure of reading good writing. You may even want to recommend that s/he apply to be a writing consultant next year!
… the student’s paper doesn’t follow the assignment
Some professors love it when a student departs from the suggested topic or format and tries something unconventional. Others have no tolerance for it. Most professors decide these things on a case-by-case basis.
A former WA remembers one student who wrote a fifteen-page paper, cut out each word and put the scraps in a hat, then presented it to a professor. The topic, of course, was Dadaism. The professor was amused but demanded a real essay. Thankfully, the student had saved the uncut paper on her computer.
If a student comes to you with an English essay structured as a parody of a chemistry lab report (this happened to me, no joke), don’t ignore the fact that the structure is unusual. Ask the student if he or she cleared this strategy with the professor in advance. If not, send him or her back to the prof to make sure it’s acceptable.
If the professor gave the go-ahead, or if there is no time for a meeting, go ahead and begin working by asking the writer, “What are your major concerns with this paper?” or “What questions do you have of me at this point?” Remember that no matter what the format, a paper needs to make an argument and support it. It needs cohesion and clarity, and it needs to make sense.
… the student’s writing style is abstruse
In college, we want our writing to be sophisticated, but some students will use unnecessarily esoteric words and complex sentences because they feel that they should. This often comes at the expense of clarity.
Stuffy, pompous-sounding writing is most common among first-year students and others who are unclear about the definition of “college” writing. With most, all they need is simple reassurance that being in college means writing for clarity and impact, not poetic waxing.
One of the best ways to get the student to recognize this sort of problem is to ask the writer to read the paper aloud. That way, the student will probably see that what might look impressive on paper sounds awkward and haughty when spoken. This will in turn orient the student toward taking an approach that emphasizes clarity of thought.
What else can you do or say? Remember that, as is the case with writers who spin out gross generalizations, it’s possible that the student was rewarded in high school for writing affected sentences and using pretentious words. Give the writer your feedback as an interested reader and try asking, “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t know what this means. I’ve read it (or listened to you read it) three times, but I’m still a little unclear. Could you tell me out loud what you’re trying to express?” Usually, the oral explanation is much clearer than the written version; if that’s true, tell the writer to try using the new words in the paper. If the oral explanation is still unfathomable, gently tell the writer that you know, or you’ve heard, that the prof likes papers to be very clear and precise.
If the writer gets flustered, defensive, or seems to feel outed as a snob, you can explain that most of us do write for ourselves when we write drafts (this is often called “writer-centered prose”). Tell the writer that you know from experience that one of the most difficult parts of the revision process is considering the reader’s needs (“reader-centered prose”), which include clarity.