From Tutee to Tutor: The Tricky Syntax of Body Language

I began working at the American University of Kuwait's Writing Centre (WRC) in my junior year. However, I had been well acquainted with the WRC's work for far longer since I had frequently scheduled appointments to have my own written work reviewed. As a student consultant, this understanding of being on the other side of the table-- for lack of a better phrase-- has been extremely useful as I constantly try to ensure that students gain the most out of my sessions, particularly when it comes to body language.

Just as a dialogue necessarily works both ways, body language is also a two-way street. As a consultant, there can’t be a worse start to a session than one in which the student lazily drags themselves in, slops onto the chair, slides his or her paper carelessly across the table and then proceeds to fidget with their cellphone. As a student, you know things aren’t going to go very well as soon as the tutor forgets to greet you, grabs your paper and begins dismantling it with either a militaristic frown or a sleepy and annoyed grimace. It’s an obvious indicator of a rather futile and vexing session ahead.

The onus to ensure the quality of the session, of course, lies with the consultant. The two articles by Alexandria Janney and Jennifer Arnold, suggested by AUK WRC staff as training material, discussed precisely how simply monitoring one’s body language can make a consultant twice as effective as otherwise. And while I frequently follow the strategies they suggest, my experience and the way in which I use these techniques have in some respects been different due to the fact that I have oculocutaneous albinism.

Firstly, I usually need to commandeer the copy of the essay so as to be able to read it. I believe this sometimes leaves the student thinking that it’s my job to fix it, an impression I try to quickly fix by handing the paper back to the student as soon as I come across something that needs to be discussed and asking him or her to mark it out. The only times I refrain from doing this is when the student is quite obviously not interested in the session. In such cases, I ask the student to read at least the first few lines so that they know that it’s a joint operation, before I continue reading aloud myself. If this doesn’t work, I’ve found it much more useful to politely and directly tell the tutee that they need to pay more attention than in vain spending the session trying to maintain a calm and eager manner. Arnold recounts the example of a tutor futilely attempting to elicit a positive response from the tutee through persistent positive body language of her own. I’ve done this too but am now beginning to see that it serves little purpose.

Secondly, depending on the light in the room, I sometimes miss the puzzled or even annoyed expressions on my tutees’ faces. To make up for this, I try to make the session as much of a conversation as possible so I can at least pick up on the intonation of their voice. I’ve also noticed this often makes them much more open to discussing their concerns and brainstorming ideas with me, as opposed to when I simply point out errors as we read the over the paper.

Moreover, and this has nothing to do with my eyesight, I’ve also observed that in some sessions, my normally engaging and confident manner can be intimidating to the student. I’m not sure how I should fix this though, as I would appear mellow if I toned it down any further. Sometimes, as Janney points out in relation to different cultures, I try limiting the amount of eye contact I make. I remember this once made an older and apparently conservative male student much more comfortable with the session but that was an exception.

Lastly, talking about male students, one thing to keep in mind if you’re a woman consultant at the WRC in Kuwait is that the distance they choose to maintain isn’t always an effective indicator of how enthusiastic they are. I’ve had several very fruitful sessions consulting young men who quite consciously chose to sit across the table and not next to me. It’s just a matter of cultural etiquette.

Thus, what constitutes good body language during a session is a combination of certain golden rules, such as not folding your arms and not frowning, and a number of other factors that are unique to the individual student and session. One can create a mental checklist of all the absolute “must-do” s but only experience teaches us how to quickly adapt to new and different students each time.


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