Less Than Helpful Consultation?

A while ago, I had a consultation with a nontradition (older) student, who needed advice on how to write an essay. Last week, I had a similar student, but the outcome wasn't nearly the same. And I'd have to say, it was probably the most difficult consultation I've ever faced.

She wanted help organizing her essay into an outline. Sounds easy enough (she knew the basics of writing an essay). But it seemed like she was struggling with the content and didn't realize it. The problem was, I tried helping her revolve her outline around a thesis--but she didn't have one. She was supposed to write an analysis, but what she had was a summary. She needed a point, and I didn't see how she could outline anything without a main point to it all -- a way to connect everything together.

Well, we kept going around in circles and not getting anywhere. There was just something blocking our communication. She wasn't understanding me, and she didn't think I was understanding her. But then I thought, well, if she doesn't have a thesis, and won't listen to me, then there's nothing I can do about it. So, I tried to help her form an outline, but without a thesis, that was pretty challenging. So, I kept wanting to go back, and kept pointing to her assignment, asking her what her thesis was. It was pointless and very frustrating. The consultation ended up lasting longer than an hour (I didn't have an appointment after her, so I think we went over like 15 minutes), and I really don't know if I helped her at all.

She said I did help (but I really don't know how). But we also made her another appointment with someone else--(so she could meet with someone after writing an actual draft). But, I just felt bad. I didn't know if I helped a lot. She could've said I was helpful, just to be nice. I don't really know.

So, out of the whole time I've been working at the Writing Center, I think this was my only "bad" consultation. Has anyone reading this, ever had an experience like this? I guess it's impossible to have every consultation be perfect. But for some reason, it's those imperfect ones I seem to remember the most. Maybe it's because I always wonder what the outcome was: Did she finish her paper? Was it good? I'll just pretend I was helpful. :)


  1. Don't worry, Cassie! You're not alone. I would suggest if there are other consultants in the WC without appointments maybe you could team up and introduce the ideas and feedback from another person. Whenever I get frustrated in a situation like this sometimes I find it helpful to just throw the pens down sit back and chat for a while, very informally, spending time discussing the client's frustrations and general thoughts about the class, topic, the assignment, etc.

    Unfortunately I don't think there is any "answer" that will work every time and every consultation is unique.

    You do sound very passionate, motivated and that you truly care about those that come in and work with you and that gives me faith in our work!

    I am happy to see these kinds of experiences written about. I find that sometimes current scholarship misses the realities like the one you have pointed out and the others presented in this blog.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. I agree with halldor, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only peer tutor to admit that this is a common situation. Not every stuedent is ready to admit what they are most concerned with re: an assignment or writing in general.

    Some student's, like the one Cassie worked with, may not even know what it is that they don't know. THe hardest part of that kind of dilemma is that you wind up faced with a decision that you really can't make alone:
    Do you steer the student toward the root cause of their struggle, avoiding the assignment that they came in to work on, or the aspect of the assignment they expected to get help with?
    or do you just go with the expectations and continue with the "outline"?

    SOmetimes I ask the student, point-blank, "which do you want to do?" THey often have a specific answer and that is how I navigate where to go in a session.I can't really decide for them, so I give it up to them to decide. However, sometimes they don't understand what i'm asking them to think about and then they seem to sense that they have done something wrong. That makes me feel horrible because I never meant to make them feel that way- it seems really hard to undo that type of akwardness.

    I like the thought of being able to set the assignment aside for a moment, as halldor suggested. sometimes there are ways to connect the laid back conversation to the issue the student is having with their assignment, but if nothing else, it probably lets a little pressure off the tutor and the student for a moment.
    I have to remind myself often, that i don't have all the answers, sometimes I have toruble reminding the students that its ok of they don't either. That's why we are all in school and in the writing center in the first place.

    The idea of looking for a way to have a good or typical session is probably one that we have all considered. I think the real learning, for us tutors, really comes from the "atypical" session, though. How many students have we worked with who went with the flow of the session smoothly,maybe even following the peer tutors concerns, but they didn't really understand why, or how to do that again in their next paper.

    Having the hard conversation about what is missing in the writers understanding of the assignment, at the speed that the writer can process and keep up with is sometimes like learning a new language all in less than an hour.

    IT seems excruciatingly "bad", as cassie felt her session had gone, but who knows whether the student went home, looked at their paper, reflected on the words "main idea" and maybe improved the paper- on their own. Whether or not that happened, cassie accepted the challenge- she reflected on the difficulty, asked for suggestions. Our opportunity for learning as tutors really evolves whe we engage in the difficult discussions and push ourselves to see what is out there for us to learn more about.

    I'd go as far as saying the easy, or typical sessions are probably more like the icing on the cake- a way of comforting ourselves with the everday practice of talking about writing with students. The hard sessions may be what it's really all about.
    Kudos to Cassie for not ignoring the fact that she was faced with an opportunity to learn!

  3. I wonder if you could have asked her for the assignment sheet/notes from her instructor's talk/lecture about the assignment..

    Having the instructor's direction has helped me in tutoring situations when the writer and I aren't communicating well. Once the instructor "steps" into the space, I have been able to get the writer to see (and I've had the analysis as a summary tutorial) that the summary doesn't work as an analysis. And, because analysis is such a daunting word/assignment (it requires skills many writers don't have, and that's why they revert to summary), could you have spent time explaining and giving examples of analysis?

    For example, I like to use the sports analysis that goes on before,during, and after sport shows. No matter the sport, commentators analyze what will happen and what has happened. This kind of example has helped writers I've worked with to understand how analysis isn't summary. Do you think that could have helped?

    I was observing a session the other day, and the assignment called for analysis of ritual and symbol as part of a larger ethnography. The student's site for her ethnography was a comic book store. The tutor spent a great deal of time giving examples of analysis of comic book characters, asking the writer to think outside the box in order to answer the "so what?" question that analysis asks us to answer. The tutor was minimally successful (the writer's voice changed dramatically, indicating her lack of understanding) during the tutorial, but the tutor was at least able to get the writer to see that summary wasn't analysis, even if the writer didn't understand how to write the analysis. I thought it was a successful tutorial because it was the beginning of a learning process, and I saw progress.

    Sometimes, even a glimpse of understanding is all we can hope for...



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