A problem we encounter too often as writing consultants comes up whenever we find ourselves trying to get passive students to become more engaged during our sessions. I am sure we are all familiar with the reclusive kind of students, the kind that would, once greeted into a session, promptly slide a draft across the table, hand you a pen, and give you full rein to go buck wild on their paper while they wait for you to finish, sometimes with a phone in their hands. Not only does students being unengaged during sessions make it difficult for us to gauge the problems they are facing in their papers so that we can quickly address them, but it also discourages them from learning how to independently address these problems in the future, without having to rely on the Writing Center as a form of a pit stop.
There are many techniques that can be utilized to prevent this, and the best ones usually involve body and oral communication. Exemplary peer tutor Alexandria Janney discusses some of the most effective techniques of this kind in her article, and while the benefits of many of them seem obvious when you think about it (leaning in to communicate interest, refraining from glancing at clocks so that students do not feel unwelcome, etc), one highly peculiar method that grabbed my interest is something that I had always taken for granted. It may be something many of you already know, but in case you don’t, allow yourself to be indulged in a little exercise during your next consulting sessions.
When you greet your next student, make sure (for the sake of this exercise only) that you are seated before they are, and that there are multiple chairs surrounding the table for the student to choose from. Take note on where the student decides to sit down. More often than not, you will realize that they will, be it consciously or unconsciously, opt for the chair that is right across from yours, rather than the ones right next to it. This interesting pattern could be the result of these students having gone through 10+ years of academia, where staff, teachers, principals, nurses, and advisors had always sat at the opposite side of the desk. So why, in their minds, should tutors and consultants be considered any differently in order for these students to break away from this habit? There is very likely a plethora of other, more miniscule, factors that all play a role in whatever it is that causes this behaviour, and I can talk about them at great lengths like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would talk about his favourite spot on his couch, but what is truly important here is not the cause of this behaviour, but the significant effect it has on consulting sessions.
As Janney eloquently puts it, to those students, you are seen as an authoritarian figure, and are expected to always take over and carry the entire session without any form of input from the student. Sometimes, they can even feel too intimidated or too embarrassed to explain what their issues are. Put yourself in their shoes. Sitting right across from you is a master of the written english language, scrutinizing a draft that you have clumsily written only a few days prior, and holding you in tremorous anticipation before they pass their judgement. I exaggerate, but you probably see my point.
Having realised this, I have taken upon myself a few weeks ago to practice sitting next to my consultees rather than directly opposite them, indirectly showing them that I am literally on their side, and that I am here to help, not to judge. To my complete surprise, this has produced some remarkable results.
Ever since I began to apply this method to my consulting sessions, students have all of a sudden become more engaged. From my observations, students immediately communicate their problems on the get-go, openly discuss their ideas, from the sensible to the absurd, on how they wish to change parts of their paper, and challenge (with good spirits) criticism, eager to learn the whys, rather than the whats. In one extreme case, I have had a student who has become so relaxed during a session that they had casually admitted to having heavily plagiarised their paper, right before talking at great lengths about the many different places they've copied their paragraphs from and the many techniques they've used. It was apparent that they were not completely aware of the general repercussions of plagiarism, but some guilt was still evident in their confession, the kind of guilt that would have never come through had they been talking to someone they were intimidated by. Who knows what they would have went through if that had been the case.
It is truly fascinating how such a tiny, easily applicable gesture can enforce such a large paradigm shift within my students. Ever since I’ve begun to employ this method, I started to realize that the reason they become more eager to engage themselves in productive rapport, and the reason that they open themselves more quickly to me (realizing that I am what my job title literally entails: a consultant), is that they become relaxed in the empathy that I outwardly exert towards them, and that I am there to first and foremost understand their problems and help them better themselves as writers. They understand all this purely, and simply, from observing where I choose to sit.