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Friday, February 08, 2013

Management 101 for Writing Consultants


Recently, I had a consultation with a graduate student who had never been to the writing center before. He brought in a paper his advisor had refused to grade until he had “fixed” his overuse of prepositional phrases. He was clearly stressed.

Though a student and consultant sit down at the same desk and look at the same paper, they each bring their own goals and expectations to a consultation. I’ve realized that a big part of what I do as a peer-consultant is manage those goals. In the consultation I described earlier, this client’s head was probably full of different, competing goals: get through this entire paper during this session, cut out all prepositional phrases, make sure this paper is error-free, satisfy my advisor (or else), get an A in this class…the list goes on and on. On the other side of the desk, I’m thinking about how to improve this student’s writing skills, how to boost his confidence, and how to satisfy his expectations all in forty-five minutes.

I see this student for one session. It’s easy for me to forget that he has other things on his mind before and after the short time we’re in each other’s lives. But the more attuned I am to his full agenda, the more he will get out of the consultation. As consultants, it’s our job to see a whole person, not just a paper. Students are trying to meet competing objectives, some writing-specific and some pertaining to confidence and self-perception. It can, undoubtedly, cause a lot of inner tension. It’s our job to reconcile our goals with those of students and make them into ones we can share. I find a “now-and-later” strategy is helpful. If I am sympathetic to a student’s writing situation, I can provide the kind of directive help a student needs now, and the subtle writing advice that will help a student become a more confident writer later.

Back to the consultation I described earlier. I started by setting mutual priorities that address both the “now” and “later.” I asked this student what he thought his most pressing issue was in his paper. That’s when he told me about his advisor’s aversion to prepositions. On top of that, this wasn’t the first paper his advisor had sent back to him either. Considering all that, I defined a sort of roadmap for our consultation: 1) I would help him cut back on the prepositional phrases in this paper now, 2) I would try to give him tricks he could use himself to focus his writing later, and 3) I would explain why using too many prepositional phrases can de-focus a sentence. 

I went through the first paragraph myself and circled all the prepositions. Then I asked him to do the same thing in the next paragraph by himself. He smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m going to be honest with you, the only words I know are prepositions are the ones you just circled.” I thought teaching him a preposition song I learned in eighth grade to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” would be really helpful to him later. It worked out too because, apparently, he loved mnemonic things like that. Hopefully this would help him with his writing later. 

After we went through a few more paragraphs consolidating sentences, we looked at his average sentence length. Considering his love of prepositions, as you can bet, he had a lot of sentences that tended to string along. We took one sentence and isolated all of the ideas in it. There were about four. I explained how too many prepositions can lead to “overstuffed” sentences. Because there were four different ideas in this one sentence, it sort of downplayed all of them, whereas, if he had only one or two ideas in the sentence, they would seem like they were weighted heavier. This was my way of trying to get him to think rhetorically about his preposition problem. 

Management and compromise is key in every consultation. Though we only got through four pages of his paper, the student left the writing center happy. And he definitely had some tricks up his sleeve for later.  

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