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Monday, January 28, 2013

Changing Perceptions of Consultations – Challenge or Opportunity?


A group from the Texas A&M University Writing Center presented research at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing back in early November entitled “Exploring Professional and Personal Benefits of Tutor Identity.” Following our Chicago group’s study concerning tutor identity and how difficult consultants mold a tutor both in the present and his/her future professional endeavors, I’ve thought a bit more about the way my perceptions of a “difficult consultation” have changed.

During our focus group, we asked our colleagues specifically how their most memorably difficult consultations have helped shape their tutor and/or personal identity. Our respondents, it turns out, have learned all kinds of virtues through their tutoring – patience, the value of saying “no,” compassion, etc. I realized after this discussion with my coworkers that I don’t see difficult consultations the same way I did a year and a half ago when I first started tutoring.

Then, I fully expected every session with an international student to be taxing and frustrating, and I assumed that sessions with native English speakers would be a cakewalk. I had a similar attitude about online submissions. There is no doubt that in-person sessions with nonnative speakers are likely to present unique challenges that you wouldn’t otherwise experience – simple communication barriers due to the language disconnect, misinterpretations of facial expressions and nonverbal behavior (for both tutor and student), and perhaps the fact that the student will walk away having learned nothing substantial because of these potential obstacles.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I can (and should) walk into a session with an international student hoping for the best. The truth is, my most rewarding consultations have been with nonnative speakers. In order to make them productive for both parties, we, the consultants, must try to seek common ground with the student. I must find a way to encourage the student and assert his ability so that the student knows he is in good hands. Often, international students walk in to sessions with low morale and will often say, “This isn’t going to be good” or “I’m terrible at writing and/or grammar.” When I hear these things, I make it my goal to send the student off smiling and confident 45 minutes later.

Here’s an example of how this method worked with my DATA student (a doctoral candidate going through our dissertation and thesis program): the first day we met, he was relatively standoffish. He asked me what year I was in school and what I was studying. (I think he wanted me to be a graduate student studying English, or something.) But, I’m neither, so he seemed concerned. I accepted this challenge. Throughout our ten sessions, I identified opportunities with this student to assert my knowledge in a subtle way and to find common ground with him. When he’s getting the computer booted up, we talk politics, what’s going on that weekend, the weather, etc. (He even asked me to be his Facebook friend!) My DATA student taught me that half of every good consultation is building rapport (and if you can, relationships). In turn, you build trust.

This trust-building exercise, and thus, its role in establishing our credibility as tutors, is absolutely imperative for us to implement. We are in the business of helping and teaching, and if we are not fostering a positive, relationally-motivated learning environment, then what are we really doing?

All of us should take the time to assess how we respond to our most challenging sessions, no matter how long we’ve been tutoring. The best thing we can do for ourselves and our students is humbly accept that no, we never “arrive” as tutors, and there is always something new to learn. Here’s to taking the bad with the good in consulting – and to viewing tricky sessions as another chance to learn.  

4 comments:

  1. Dear Angela,

    I am glad you discovered the way of breaking the barrier between you and that(those) student(s). That's a great example and a good recipe.

    However, I would like to give a somewhat different possible interpretation of what you describe. That barrier is not just a communication barrier, but also a psychological one. Arguably, the psychological barrier is even higher, and that's what you actually describe in your example.
    That barrier has two sides, and sometimes it is not clear on whose side the barrier is higher.

    The system "student-tutor" has a internal feedback: very often the student feels the barrier from the tutor, and creates his/her own psychological defense in various forms (including what you call "low morale" - preemptive self-criticism).


    There is one important factor in your example that may increase the initial barrier from the tutor: you mention the preconceived notion about non-native speakers that you had.
    Texas, and Texas A&M in particular, is different from many other (especially coastal) parts of the country (and other large universities). Due to various geo-cultural factors, many Texans at A&M tend to be much less exposed to foreigners, and are not used much to hearing somebody speaking with a foreign accent. In comparison, people in California or New York City, Boston, DC (on average) are dealing with foreign accents much easier, because they have been exposed to various accents.

    I would bet that it was not just the student's barrier that you managed to overcome, but, first of all, you were able to lower your own. Which is great and important. And that, in turn, caused to lower his/her.

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  2. Dear Angela,

    I agree with your blog so much because it sounds like in negotiating to find common ground with the student that you are looking for a win-win in meditation/negotiation language. Truthfulness
    is also a great impetus to learning for the student
    and the consultant also.

    I cannot agree with you more,
    Deborah Y. Eberhardt

    ReplyDelete
  3. Angela,

    Today I realized that I am open, honest and usually rather direct with students when I tutor because I would want the same treatment. I completely agree with Deborah that looking for a "win-win in mediation/negotation" is the best practice. StR's comment about the psychological aspects of the student-tutor relationship is key. Many times I find myself observing the student's body language from the moment they enter the writing center, as it helps me to gain a bit of psychological perception. If I sense the student is apprehensive, I try harder to establish rapport and a sense of trust between us. It seems that students are much more likely to return if they trust me to help them.

    Your comments are appreciated,
    Vicki Nelson

    ReplyDelete
  4. Angela,

    Today I realized that I am open, honest and direct with students when I tutor because I would want the same treatment. I agree with Deborah that looking for a "win-win in mediation/negotation" is the best practice. StR's comment about the psychological aspect of the student-tutor relationship is key. Many times I find myself observing the student's body language from the moment they enter the writing center, as it helps me to gain a bit of psychological perception. If I sense the student is apprehensive, I try harder to establish rapport and a sense of trust between us. It seems that students are much more likely to return if they trust me to help them.

    Your comments are appreciated,
    Vicki Nelson

    ReplyDelete