Reading Stephen North’s essay “The Idea of the
While I don’t want to say I have all the answers—I don’t—I want to offer one of my personal experiences as an example. I’d like to think I handled the situation well, but I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions for the next time this happens.
Working with a frustrated or confused writer is difficult, but working with a writer that has been given too little, too vague, or too degrading comments by their teacher can be torture. A few semesters ago I ran into this exact problem. A young lady came into the center with an essay, her assignment sheet, her teacher’s comments, and an aggressive attitude towards everything writing related, me included.
It was a tense first few minutes. She explained that her teacher refused to comment on her paper until she revised the essay. She said that when she did revise it, he only commented on the first few pages. She showed me a note he had scrawled in the margin, “I refuse to read any more of this essay. You aren’t doing what I want.” She was on an emotional edge, ready to scream, cry, give up, or attack.
Between tears and gritted teeth, she explained that she had no idea what he wanted and therefore had no idea of how to revise the essay. We went over the assignment sheet and the few comments that teacher had made. I had no idea what the teacher wanted.
This created a problem: I had a writer with a valid problem with her teacher. As a writer and consultant, I knew the teacher wasn’t doing his job, but—according to Stephen North—I had “a responsibility to respect [my] fellow professionals,” no matter how un-professional and lazy they are. While I wanted to find the teacher and give him a good thrashing—at least verbally—I knew it wouldn’t help. And, I was getting everything second-hand and tinted through obvious rage and frustration, so while the comments on the essay were lacking and rude, and the assignment was vague, I didn’t know what the teacher had said in class or to the writer.
To offer her some encouragement, and provide her frustration with some much needed validation, I acknowledged that the teacher's comments and assignment weren't much to go off, but if we read the essay together, maybe we could find some awkward or confusing places. Then we could work on those areas and hopefully that would demonstrate enough revision for the teacher to make more comments. I was walking a fine line, yes, but it was the only line that connected all the points I needed to cover: address the writer’s concerns, give her encouragement, acknowledge her frustration without demeaning the teacher, and get her looking at the essay, not her issues with the teacher.
She grudgingly agreed to the plan and we spent the remaining time reading and discussing her essay. We found a number of awkward sentences and a few areas that confused us both. We discussed a few revision ideas. I gave her my notes, and helped her plan the next draft. When she left, she was still upset, but the anger and threat of violence was gone.
I was bit shocked when she returned; I’d written her off as a one-visit-writer, but she returned, having carefully and diligently followed the ideas and suggestions we’d developed. Her distress gone, we were able to discuss the essay in exquisite detail, moving beyond simple structure into fine polishing.
She returned many times over the semester, bringing new and old essays each time. On her last visit, she proudly displayed the original essay—complete with full, in-depth teacher comments.