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.