The Truth Hurts?

I read a very interesting and entertaining paper during one of my consultations today. It was about Seinfeld and some obsessive fans (not a huge Seinfeld watcher myself, I still found the paper hilarious). Not only was it interesting and intertaining, the paper was also pretty well written--organized well, flowed smoothly, had a clear focus, etc. For the most part all the components of a well written paper were there.

So what was difficult about this consultation?

At the end of the consultation he asked, "So, do you think this fits the assignment? Does it sound like an ethnography?"

I can't lie and tell him it does, because that certainly wouldn't help him, his paper, or his grade. But how do I nicely tell him that his wonderfully entertaining, well written paper probably doesn't quite work as an ethnography? I hate being the bearer of bad news. He had obviously spent some time on the paper, he seemed to really like the paper...and now I have to answer his question in the negative. It just kind of made me feel like the bad guy.

Anyway, I of course told him the truth. We looked over the assignment together, and fortunately his paper wasn't a total loss as an ethnography. Seinfeld fanatics can certainly serve as a group to write an ethnography about. In order to turn his essay into an ethnography, I suggested he include more scene in his paper. Instead of just telling the reader what his interviewees said, I suggested he show this to his audience by describing what this group looks like. How do they joke? What does their body language look like? How do they sound? Basically I suggested that he write some scenes that illustrate the five senses so that the reader can really start to see what this Seinfeld loving group looks and acts like as a sub-culture.

The consultation ended positively; in fact he never gave me the impression that he was upset with my remarks. Still, for a moment I felt like the bad guy. What do you do in a situation where you have real bad news? Like, what if the paper doesn't fit the assignment at all and you have tell the writer to more or less start all over? What's the best way to go about being the bearer of bad news? Sugar coated? Quick, honest, and to the point?


  1. It's hard to give consultees the truth like that, I'm sure! I haven't had the misfortune of having to tell someone to start over on their papers, thank God. It seems that you handled it in a good, professional way though.

    I have talked to people that definitely need to add things to their papers to fulfill their writing prompts, and that is a much smaller "version" of what you're asking about. I just love it when I am excited to help someone with their writing; just as I'm sure they like it when we as consultants are engaged. But how do you go about delicately pointing out that their paper isn't a good match for their assignment or writing prompt?

    I’ve just tried really, really hard to point out what they are lacking in the nicest, most constructive way possible. I try to say things like, “I like what you have with [this point here], but I don’t see exactly how it is answering the question in the assignment. Maybe you could explain it to me so we can figure out how to clarify how this answers the question?” This solution doesn’t seem to answer your question with this particular situation though.

    I've used the two pluses (plusses?) and a minus approach when I see something missing that should be in their papers according to an assignment sheet in the past. I think that it works well--it is a strategy that my English education professors have talked about when helping K-12 students with their writing.

    If the consultee asks you about whether it hits the assignment requirements early enough in the consultation, (or shows you the assignment sheet early enough, etc.), you could help them brainstorm ways to work their good parts into something that will fulfill the assignment better. I'd hate to see something as funny as you've described go to waste!

  2. Anonymous12:25 PM

    I've been in the situation where a thesis just doesn't work at all, and instead of outright saying it, I have the student continually tell me what they're trying to say and what they're actually saying. Eventually they realize, "Hey, this isn't the same thing," or, "There is no way I can come up with enough research for this topic," and we go from there. Hasn't failed yet...knock on wood.

  3. Anonymous6:04 PM

    A technique I find useful is being able to frame the discussion on issues of genre, or assignments requirements, or whatever the context is - rather than making the writer feel like I don't like his/her work personally. Sometimes referring directly to an assignment sheet and going point by point - Did you answer this? do you think you covered this topic? - works for some students.

    Or if the paper is supposed to be a review of a play, we'll discuss what the student thinks a review needs to do, and go from there. Sometimes I'll pull up a webpage to reference - to put the authority in another form, and then we can both reference that authority.


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