Monday, July 31, 2017

Is it just me or has anyone else been accused of being racist?

Okay, to be fair, her feedback survey only mentioned that I was biased against the argument of her paper, black civil rights, and while I don’t think I am racist--and I’m definitely not opposed to addressing police brutality in African American communities--her comments made me stop and wonder: am I racist? As a white male, when I enter a consultation with a minority, say a woman of color, can what I do, how I present myself, and how I help be racist?
She wanted a grammar check, that infamous check for grammar, the insatiable wailing toddler in the backseat of consultations, the archnemesis to the tutor’s goodwill. I explained that I’d do my best to “help you become a better reviser of your own work” as I usually do, and then we got under way. As we grazed over the introduction and crossed into her claim, comma splices, standalone demonstrative articles, and FANBOYS felt like distractions to the ambiguity that was trying to be her thesis. In order to address the higher order concern, I suggested that she specify her claim, posing neutral questions like “how specifically do police treat African American communities differently?” and “in what ways is this a problem?” Without explicit permission, I trailed from her initial request to what I considered a more relevant prescription.
Even worse than straying from her initial request, my neutral questions were too specific. Nick, an admin at our writing center, later explained how oftentimes clients don’t distinguish themselves from their writing and take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves. My questions de-validated her argument, challenging the legitimacy of police brutality instead of prompting her to think critically about the development of her argument and specifying her thesis. Both my decision to address an unwanted higher order concern and how I posed my questions obstructed the flow: because she thought I disagreed with her, she may have assumed me less able to help and been more reluctant to receive it.
So, I have already conceded that my tutoring tactics failed me, but what if there’s more to the story? What if our subconscious recognition of the fact that I’m a white man and she’s a black woman further exacerbated the issue? We each bring identity constructions to the literal table; however as strangers, we both can only recognize those identities apparent to us. I failed to see beyond that which was apparent in her, that she’s female and black. She recognized that I’m a white male, but failed to see that I’m gay, liberal, Houstonian, etc--some of which are identities that, had she known, might have reduced the chances of her drawing the conclusion that I was biased against her topic.
    As tutors, we must be vigilant of identity constructions. We are members of a profession that demands we transgress into insecure spaces, especially when a client’s identity plays a role in the topic of their work. The questions I asked delegitimized her argument and its relation to her identity. In precarious consultations like this one, we should use our acknowledgement of the potential for misconstruction to ask questions that situate the client as the authority over content. More general statements like “what is it that you argue in this paragraph?” and “okay, so summarize that and include it in your thesis” keep the conversation grounded in the essay and remove potential interference from identity constructions.
The answer to my question is yes and no: I may not be racist for blundering as a tutor, but I offended my client’s identity, thereby disrupting our rapport, which in turn inhibited her learning process.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Putty People

It's good to be a flexible consultant, but not too flexible.

Those that are flexible can change consulting styles from session to session or even within a session, depending on the situation. Yet, it’s still important to have that stiff backbone. A good consultant reminds me of those bendy rulers we all had in elementary school: they’re flexible and can be used for a multitude of other things, but when it comes down to doing their job, being a tool for measurement, they’re stick straight. On the other hand, I, the over-compliant, people-pleaser consultant, am like putty. For a time, putty can be molded into anything, but if enough time passes, it’ll morph back into the useless glob it used to be.

Okay, to compare myself to a “useless glob” seems a little harsh, but I think there is some insightful understanding in the analogy. Within a session, a people-pleaser consultant will let the client mold them in any way they see fit, often in a way that holds their writing style together. Maybe for a short while, long enough to turn in an assignment, that mold holds true. But now we wait. Soon, there’s another essay that needs to be written, and the client looks back in his toolbox for the handy dandy putty that worked so well for him last time, but it’s not that same anymore. It can’t be used like it was. Sure, it can be molded again, but it will never stick. If we focus too much on giving our clients what they want in the moment, if we are too flexible, we don’t end up giving them anything at all. They don’t learn.

I came to realize this when I had a client come in for a required session. He told me he needed his paper edited, and as always, I let it slide. I didn’t have the intentions of editing his paper, but to keep everyone happy, there was no need to mention this foreign phenomenon of “collaboration”. But that was exactly what I ended up doing: editing his entire paper. I felt useless; he sat on his phone as I awkwardly vocalized the corrections I was making. It was the first time I hadn’t been satisfied with the help I had given, and it was obviously because I hadn’t asserted myself as a consultant. If I had, the session could have gone so many different ways and ended as a satisfying experience for both of us. It was hard place that I found myself in: the tug-of-war between loyalty to my peers and loyalty to the academic system. A lot of the time, I let myself be pulled toward my peers, but I found that if I could meet them with just enough resistance, I could create a perfect balance.   

So, to all my putty people out there, practice taking some authority. Assert yourself as a tutor, but conduct yourself as a peer.

Find your perfect balance. 😊