Working in the University Writing Center: Techniques and Strategies for Effective Tutoring
VIII. Tutoring Problems (Section 1) Problems with Students and Instructors
Problems with the Student
The Stubborn Student
The Shy Student/The "Yes" Student
Problems of Authority
Tutoring Scenario: Problems with Authority
Difficult or Unhappy People
Problems with the Instructor
Sometimes the most difficult problems are external to the text. The student's life may be full of turmoil and crises that have nothing to do with the assignment or the writing. If emotional problems seem more serious than you can deal with, it may be appropriate to recommend an appointment with a counselor. Talk to the director if you are unsure.
Some students adopt coping strategies that do not lead to learning or improvement, such as over-using a bilingual dictionary or a thesaurus, and may cling stubbornly to these strategies. Occasionally a student will put a tremendous amount of energy into an unproductive strategy. Again, if you don't know how to proceed, talk to the director.
If the student seems recalcitrant and unreceptive to your suggestions and appeals, consider the following approaches:
- Try to find out why the student came to the Writing Center. If the instructor required the student to come, this may be the source of the problem.
- The problems may very well have to do with cultural differences that prevent the student from seeing things the way you do. It may be that the student has misunderstandings about the goal of the assignment, the goal of the instructor or program, or is uncomfortable with the American educational system.
- The student's rhetorical patterns may be different from yours. A student wrote on a writing test: "My friend and I read an article. Although my English-speaking friend thought it was very good convincing article, I, on the other hand, did not agree with him. What I thought was that it was very pushing one way argument . . . . Most of native-speaker agreed with him. Some foreigner agreed with him, some agreed with me . . . all Asian who have strong Asian background agreed with me." Tell your student that he/she is writing for an American audience and needs to take this into account.
If the student agrees to absolutely everything you say:
- Keep asking questions that will verify that the student will be able to incorporate that upon which you have mutually agreed.
- Remind the student that the paper belongs to the writer and not to the tutor. Let students solve writing problems in their own ways with their own words.
As an authority figure, the tutor's ideas and opinions are important to the student. You may find that the student not only wants to know how to write, but also what to think.
- It is important to help the student establish her own authority over her text. Many students consider their tutor to be an authority on all matters pertaining to writing including arguments, opinions, and concepts, in addition to grammar, syntax, and style. It is important not to let this authority overwhelm the student.
- Although the writing conference is unavoidably collaborative, it is best to get the student to talk about problem sentences until she says something that is rhetorically appropriate, rather than supplying language, or arguments, yourself. Many of these students have such respect for the authority of the teacher or tutor that they will accept changes that do not mean what they intend.
- In discussing arguments and the evidence to support them, tutors may find that students are adopting the tutor's own positions and arguments. For this reason, it is best to be careful about revealing your own beliefs. You can say, "Some people argue that . . ." or "Some readers might say . . ."
The following scenario illustrates point three above.
: Hi, how are you today?
: What do you want to work on?
: This is an essay about the Clinton health plan. I want to show that it would be a disaster for small businesses.
: Do you really think it would be? I thought it was a good plan.
: Maybe I should change my idea.
: I think that if we don't have health reform, the country will go bankrupt.
: Well, let's see your paper.
: I think it's all wrong.
: Well, first we have to change your thesis statement.
: Now we have to change all of the evidence.
This student appears to be happy to have a new perspective and some new ideas. What is going wrong in this situation? What are the ethical and pedagogical issues?
Some of the people who come to a writing center may have had very unhappy experiences with other offices and other people on campus. Sometimes, for whatever reasons, individuals demonstrate that unhappiness in the center. We may be at fault or it may have nothing to do with us, but whatever the case is, do the best you can to find out what the problem is and help that person feel better about themselves and about the Writing Center. If the individual remains angry at us, have them make an appointment to see the Director, or the Associate Director, as soon as possible. Sometimes encouraging them to write down the nature of their complaint is also helpful.
Often these problems are worsened by cross-cultural misunderstandings. The Writing Center is a multi-cultural environment, and this makes for a certain amount of complexity in dealing with people. In most of our interactions here, a relaxed informality is the best way to make people comfortable. However, an angry person can interpret informality in dress, language or behavior as insensitivity or arrogance. At the first hint of a problem, it is best to shift to a more formal attitude indicating respect and attention.
Remember, the instructor is always right, even when he or she is wrong. If faculty thought that Writing Center tutors would criticize their assignments, question their grades, or side with the student against them, they would not allow their students to come to the Center. To avoid problems with instructors, consider the following points:
- We don't grade papers. Don't answer questions like "What grade do you think this paper will get?" or "What grade would you give this paper?"
- We have had cases where the student told the instructor that a Writing Center tutor had told her that a paper that the instructor had marked "NC" should have gotten a "CR." It is inappropriate and not productive to try to second-guess instructors.
- The instructor is part of the rhetorical situation in which the student operates, and the instructor has the right to define the standards. Our job is to help the student understand what the instructor may have responded to in evaluating the paper, even if you personally disagree with the evaluation.
- If a student comes in with an assignment that is particularly difficult or confusing, do not criticize the instructor or the assignment. Instructors sometimes misjudge the capabilities of their students, and do not realize that students may misunderstand or misinterpret their assignments. Help the student as best as you can. In the case of bad assignments, if possible, we would like to see a copy of the assignment sheet, which may be useful in a faculty workshop.
When a student comes into the center with a paper that has been very harshly judged, it puts the tutor in a delicate situation. We want to build the writer's confidence, and show them what they can do to improve their writing ability. The instructor's response to the writing may have had the opposite effect, and the instructor may or may not be aware of this. However, even in cases like this the proper role of a Writing Center tutor is to help the student understand the comments and marks the instructor has made on the paper, and what sorts of concerns or standards lie behind those marks.
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