“Grammar.” The classic response to the question we ask every writer who comes to the Writing Center: “So what would you like to work on today?” Sure, grammar may be a perfectly acceptable response, but how often is it really what the student needs to work on? Do they even know what they need to work on? Would they still say grammar if they did? Such is the dilemma faced by writing tutors, as frequently the issues identified by students are not what they need to work on to improve their writing, and are only what they think they need. Consequently, how can we as writing tutors be of good service and focus on what the student wants, while actually doing our job of focusing on what the student needs? Easy – just practice what I consider to be the ‘car salesmen’ approach: allow the student to tell you what they want to buy, and then convince them to happily buy something else.
I believe that our effectiveness as writing tutors can be measured with how well we can balance our obligations versus our duties. On the one hand, we do a student no service if we respond only to their requests for sentence-level help if their thesis and arguments don’t exist. Sure, we send them on their way happy that their draft of nothingness is now grammatically correct – but in so doing we fail to do our job in stressing the idea that clarity means nothing without content. On the other hand, we ruin a student’s mood and erode their confidence in writing centers if we similarly laugh at their requests for grammatical help, saying “well let me tell you what you really need to work on,” and allow them to turn in a perfectly constructed argument seemingly written in a foreign language. Both scenarios will result in the student receiving a poor grade (their short-term concern) and no overall improvement in their writing (our long-term concern).
Writing tutors are trained – and appropriately so – to focus on the higher order of concerns. These concerns should always remain our paramount focus in a session, but in no way suggest ignoring the lower order of concerns, for as my scenarios suggest, both are intertwined and complimentary. Our plan of attack thus needs to focus on understanding the student’s typically lower order of concerns and addressing them in the context of the higher order of concerns. We can say “I’m having trouble understanding what you want to say here. I don’t think your argument really comes through. How can we reword this to better say what you want?” Tackling a rewriting issue allows you not only to focus your attention on what was insufficient with the original sentence, but also to observe how they write and construct new sentences. You can then explain how you have noticed a tendency to misplace commas, or how they write too conversationally, expanding these ideas from a solitary instance in need of correction, to a recurring theme in need of instruction. The student will not only appreciate the tip, for you have obliged them by giving them what they want, but will forever have improved their writing, for you have done your job and given them what they need.
Of course the strategies of being a car salesman vary, but another technique I find helpful involves taking advantage of the very first seconds after reading a student’s draft. These moments are critical for the tutor because they are when the student voluntarily hands you control and expects you to do the talking. Consequently, you must decide: “do I start this session with what they wanted to work on, or with what they need to work on?” The car salesman approach says that you can work on both: “I see what you mean about commas, and I can definitely help you out with those. One other thing I’m seeing is that some of your paragraphs contain a lot of information in such a short space, and aren’t directly connecting back to your thesis. What was the main point you were trying to get across with this paragraph?” In this example, you have recognized the student’s stated concerns, but subtly shifted the topic of conversation toward the issue you recognize as more important. This approach does not trivialize the student’s initial request for help by suggesting that only organization and content are important, or that you as the tutor are going to control what is talked about and when. The language you use is entirely your choice, but taking advantage of the first few seconds after reading the student’s paper allows you to address the higher order of concerns first, while fully implying that you will address their lower order concerns later in the session.
Balancing the two roles of tutoring writing is rarely easy, but neither role is mutually exclusive. By addressing “grammar” in the context of unclear ideas or weak arguments, you can effectively turn it into a higher order of concern. So the next time a student comes in and asks for help with “grammar,” allow them to ask for the station wagon, because all they want is the car to take them from point A to point B. But don’t let them walk out of the writing center without buying the sports car – it still takes them from point A to point B, but allows them to do it in style.