Professional Intimacy

Gail Brendel

As a Coe College writing consultant this past year, I've thought extensively about the development and sustaining of consultant-student relationships. Each consultant will inevitably employ her own personal style. In my conferences I have found myself trying to develop relationships that provide for familiarity, yet maintain my professional status. This familiar-professional relationship allows the student to become comfortable with me without feeling obligated to me beyond our professional partnership. As a working team we can have honesty and sharing without threatening our professional responsibilities.

A case study illustrating my point might prove helpful. During this past term I have had a series of writing conferences with "Marie Casey," a sophomore majoring in sociology. Previous to my appointments with her, she and I were not acquainted, so our first conferences required some introductions. For that first session Marie brought in a paper, written for a composition class, which reconsidered the friendships she had made in college. Her essay expressed some fears that those friendships might end with graduation. Although Marie and I had never formally met, our conference soon resulted in a discussion of some rather personal aspects of her paper.

I have consulted with Marie several times since then, and I believe our success as a team depends on our "working relationship." Marie and I, despite our sometimes intimate and confidential discussions, have created not a personal, but a "familiar-professional" relationship. Realizing that each consultant discovers her own style and voice in her conferences, I recognize mine as a familiar-professional tone. While other writing center consultants may seek to cultivate personal friendships with their peers, my approach is different.

I like to make the student feel comfortable, but a personal intimacy in a relationship makes the actual consulting more complicated. Conferences with my friends outside of the Writing Center sometimes seem more difficult because of the many personal feelings between the two of us. We can rarely look beyond our friendship to address the paper. In contrast, then, I try to develop, and subsequently sustain, familiarity between the student and myself; but I keep that familiarity on a detached, professional level.

In my conferences with Marie, she discussed intimate thoughts and apprehensions, all under the broad umbrella of a writing conference. She understood, from my attitude and objective stance, that everything she told me was to help in producing a well-written paper. I took notes as she talked, and occasionally she would stop and write as well, realizing the importance or relevance of what she was saying. At no time, as far as I could perceive, did Marie feel our conversation had moved to a personal plane. I believe she felt comfortable with my attitude as a professional because it relieved her from the agonizing decision of what to tell me.

An important part of any partnership is trust, and as Marie continued to keep our weekly appointments, the familiarity between us grew. We became more comfortable with each other, but I do not believe either of us would say we have developed a "friendship." If I had tried to become too intimate, Marie might have been wary in divulging personal information about herself, even though it might have helped in the conference. I see Marie on campus and a hello follows her polite nod, but neither of us feels obligated to stop and chat; our relationship exists only within the boundaries of the Writing Center.

My relationship with the Writing Center Director is similar to this one. I have had conferences with him about several personal papers, yet when I speak to him outside of the Writing Center, I know he will not assume an uncomfortable familiarity. Professors who consult with students might not have this difficulty of maintaining student trust, but as a peer of my clients, I can never ignore this potential problem. By keeping our working relationship on a professional level, most students will have no reason to doubt my confidentiality.

Concerning my sessions with Marie, a professional approach enables me to understand her preferences; as a student, she also has a "style" that works for her, and my job is to be flexible in accommodating those needs. For example, most students prefer a little every-day chatter before beginning the session. The social mechanisms help them become more comfortable and ready for the conference. But Marie likes to get straight to work, preferring conferences that are direct and efficient. I have also learned what Marie likes to tackle first in the conferences, a knowledge which makes conducting the conference much easier. I can quickly sense where she would like a conference to head.

My experiences with Marie have helped me to formulate my self-concept as a writing consultant. As a professional, I must bend and be flexible. I must be prepared either to talk about last weekend's basketball game with one student or, for someone else, be a consultant who gets right to business. But the familiarity is also necessary because it breeds not contempt but a willingness to work. Marie often works on revisions of revisions, and our intimacy on a professional level, I believe, sometimes spurs her to continue working. Marie knows that I will remember last week's essay, and if she does not work on the paper, our familiarity in the conferences might make her feel, if not guilty, at least a little awkward. Marie does not feel obligated to work because of me, but I serve as one small, additional impetus for doing well.

The most rewarding aspect of a familiar-professional relationship, which I am sure almost all consultants can verify from successfully developing their own style, is the opportunity to see improvements in a student's writing. Because of my professional closeness with Marie, I can study her style as a writer without confusing it with Marie as a person. My relationship with her allows me to detect small improvements and gradual progress in her writing. We work as a team, yet the members of our team remain detached from one another, allowing for unthreatened individuality. Marie has learned to trust and even like me as a consultant, as I trust and like her as a writer, making for a strong foundation in our relationship.

Published in the Writing Lab Newsletter Oct., 1993