Things are usually pretty laid back in the writing center where I work. Most of the conferences I've had in the past two years have gone smoothly. Not surprisingly, though, there have been a couple of times when I would rather have been anything but a writing consultant. The experience that first comes to mind is a conference I had fall term last year with a person I'll call Maria.
Maria is a Hispanic ESL student who speaks English fairly well. She is a fourth year business major who was enrolled in a freshman course designed to introduce students to a liberal arts education. A requirement for the course was that each paper be discussed with a Writing Center consultant at least 24 hours before it was due. By not permitting last-minute conferences, the instructor had hoped that students would be more open to making needed revisions.
One afternoon about three weeks before the end of the term, Maria, with whom I had not previously worked, brought me a paper that was to be handed in 45 minutes later, asking me to check it for grammatical errors. With most ESL papers, I look for patterns of grammatical mistakes, and errors that make comprehension difficult. There are two reasons for using this strategy. First, many ESL students make so many grammatical errors that not every one of them can be fixed in the 20-30 minutes we normally allot for conferences. Second, I think the best way to really help the student is to find patterns of mistakes which we can address in the conference. Maria's paper seemed to be one with which I would need to use this strategy. There wasn't time to fix every error, and I refuse to assume the role of an editor, making changes without providing explanations. She asked me at the end of the conference if anything else needed to be changed. She seemed anxious to get her final copy typed up, though, so I told her that we had covered the most serious errors. Maria seemed satisfied with the quality of her work and handed the paper in as it was.
It turned out that my advice didn't work in this situation. Over the course of the term, the professor had become frustrated with Maria's frequent mechanical errors. He felt that as a graduating senior, she should be more proficient in her writing abilities. As a result of this frustration, he refused to accept the paper until the grammatical errors were corrected.
Maria came back to the Writing Center in tears, saying that it was my fault he would not accept the paper. I apologized for not having given the help she wanted, but I also defended what I had done. I explained that I usually focus on problems that create difficulties in comprehension, that we hadn't had time to fix everything, and that I hadn't known the professor was expecting a grammatically perfect paper. I still felt uncomfortable about the situation, however. I felt that I had been trapped between the expectations of the instructor for Maria's writing and my usually-successful strategy of concentrating only on major errors when I tutor.
Two important issues should be considered in this situation. First, there is a question of whether I used the right strategy during the conference. I have realized that consultants will inevitably give some advice which later proves not to be what students need. In my conference with Maria, I tried to give advice which I thought would help her become a better writer. In this situation, though, the professor wanted a better paper and was less concerned with the long-term benefits for Maria's writing. When cases like this arise, consultants should realize that we are not responsible for unknown expectations of professors. We should continue to use strategies that appear to be in the best interests of the students we are trying to help.
The second issue is a personal one. How should I have handled Maria's claims that I gave bad advice and that it was my fault the professor would not accept her paper? I often take criticism too personally, but I have decided since this situation that I should have the self-confidence to know I can't always "fix it and make it better." On the other hand, I empathize with Maria and can understand why she was angry. She came to the Writing Center hoping to get advice which would lead to a better grade on her paper. When the professor refused to accept the paper, she felt that I had betrayed her. Even so, I can't be responsible for a situation of which I had no prior knowledge. This problem is one which almost every consultant will eventually face. Although we will never find the "perfect" tutoring strategy, we must continue to use those strategies that are most frequently successful.
Written in 1992. Unpublished but accepted for publication in Precarious Liaisons: Tutors on Tutoring