Place on the totem pole

I haven't posted before now, because frankly, I was trying to sort through the consultations I have had and figure out what I can do to become a better tutor. My first consultation was two weeks ago with a business student who was using the COBE style manual. I had never heard of it before this consultation, and because of my lack of knowledge, I let the whole consultation slip away from me. Instead of asking the student how he wanted to structure the session, I dove into the manual and started right away with citation (which took me nearly the entire session). In the last few minutes, I asked if there were other problems. He pointed out his last two paragraphs, which had no logical connection to each other. I gave him a few suggestions on transitions, but I kept thinking, if his whole paper was like this, I just did him a huge disservice. This consultation made me really question myself and whether I was ready to take on this responsibility. If I couldn't even help an English speaking business student, how would I be able to help someone with whom I didn't share a common language?
This week gave me the challenge, and as a result, the confidence I needed to keep going. On Monday, I came in to work and checked my appointments. I had a consultation for a science paper right off the bat. A few minutes later, a man probably in his forties walked through the door and in broken English asked about making an appointment. I approached him to ask when he wanted the appointment, and he pulled out a piece of paper with my name on it. Now I got it. He was my first appointment of the day. My heart was beating out of control as I got him started on the paperwork. I am not a strong science student, and though I was able to communicate with the student pretty well, I was terrified.
I looked over the paperwork and saw that the student was from China and the paper we were working on was on molecular pharmacology. Talk about intimidation!!! As we made our way into the consultation, I was pleasantly surprised. There was no way that I could begin to understand the content of the paper. The concepts were miles above my head. But the student simply wanted to look over sections of the paper his professor had commented on and have me tell him if they were written in proper English. It was helpful to have the comments in the margins because I was able to see what questions the Prof. had. As we went over the sections, I was able to point out the difference in certain terms, help the student break down his thoughts into smaller, more comprehensible pieces of information, and improve the flow of the paper. He was very grateful for the help he received, and I was incredibly grateful for his patience and openness. At the end of the session, he gave me his card which informed me that he was a professor of pharmacology in China, as well as a director of and doctor at a major hospital. Boy, am I glad that was known after the session. It really made me think about my position on the totem pole. I am nowhere near as smart as this student, but what a confidence booster to know that in a small way, I was able to help him out. That was a great day!!


  1. Umm...Sam, you are just as smart as the writer that you worked with--the two of you just look at things differently and have very different talents--as this post so nicely illustrates [insert cute smiley face here].

    I really like that you chose to post about the ELL student, and I think it's an experience that will probably happen to all consultants eventually--not the business card thing (that's just a really cool bonus. Lucky...geesh), but the fact that you participated in a consultation where the subject matter was a real challenge.

    I think that I'll be able to take some of the insight that you've written here and take it into a similar consultation. This post reinforces the fact that although we can't always see how consultations relate to the larger equation, what we say and what we do does greatly affect others.

    I also commend you for not giving up on the COBE consultation altogether. I still have issues with MLA and am terrified that my next consultation will be regarding APA. I don’t know anything (other than what’s been talked about in class) about citing that way, and don't think that I'm not just a tiny bit (a lot) glad I haven't had one yet...I just jinxed myself!

    You're doing well, Sam...keep it up!

  2. in re: to the original post, as well as Alisha's comment- I feel like this is a really important example for all peer tutors. Before my first sessions as a peer tutor I truly feared the prospect of a student who would call me out for not being an "expert". I have found that my non-expertise is actually a selling point for a lot of students. Students often fear faculty- with their notorious red pens, and I find that they are much more at ease with me, a fellow student. sometime this leads to them opening up alot more about insecurities in their writing that help me to better address what they really need to fe focusing on.

    The idea of a student like Sam's, who obviously has a real profficiency for academia (how much advanced Chem. do you think a pharmocolgist takes?!)is real and intimidationg. I think alot of peer tutors have a good feel for what profs. are looking for, at least in a fundamental sense& that is really helpful to the average student. I also think that sometimes the specific work on grammar and phrasing that ESL students of all ages request is just as important to them as more global issues in writing can be to native English speakers. A student like the one that Sam had obviously knows what he is talking about. He doesn't need the help with developing ideas or generating examples that some students need.

    I was happy to read this post, mainly because I often worry about the student who expects an expert, or the one who wants me to edit his or her paper. In the case of this example, however, some amount of help with editing and grammar is exactly what the student needs to be working on. what a relief to rememer that we can serve different purposes for different students! T

    THanks Sam and Alisha!


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