Remembering the First Semester of Consulting
Ashly Bender, Assistant Director
Last week in my post about what it’s like to be the observed tutor, I mentioned that our new cohort of writing center consultants also began their first semester of tutoring at U of L. Between the two weeks of observation and this first week of tutoring, there has been a lot of reminiscing about memorable tutoring sessions both from those of us mentoring in the Writing Center and from a number of our consultants who have tutored at other institutions. These stories have been useful in helping to explain tutoring strategies, but also in remembering what it’s like to be a consultant for the first time.
My first job as a writing center consultant was in the Texas State University Writing Center, where I started in the Spring of 2006. I was excited about this position not just because it sounded better than checking groceries but also because at the time I was studying to teach high school English. I figured writing consulting would be good training and experience. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, my writing center work definitely shapes the kind of teacher I am, and vice versa. Still, that first semester of tutoring wasn’t quite smooth sailing like I thought it would be.
Many writing center consultants, I think, fall into this trap of thinking they already know how to consult or that it will be easy to pick up. Generally our writing has been praised by our teachers and we think of ourselves as good writers. We are certainly qualified then to help others with writing, right? What I quickly learned in working with students who were less confident in their writing was that being a good writer does not translate to being a good writing consultant. We might recognize why a sentence is “wrong” or sounds awkward, but explaining why that is the case can be a struggle. This can put the tutor in a frustrating position, feeling the pressure to help the student with their paper and their writing while also feeling the pressure of the ticking clock. Many times that semester I fought the impulse to “just fix it” for the student; thankfully that training was firmly rooted into my brain before I began any sessions.
To combat this feeling, I used two strategies. I couldn’t quite let go of the pencil yet, but I started holding it upside down. This way even if I briefly gave into the impulse to write on the paper, I would be instantly reminded that I shouldn’t. The second strategy was far more useful in the long-term, though. Our writing center had extensive and useful handouts about mechanics and grammar. After talking with a student about his concerns and/or reading through some of his paper, I would briefly excuse myself to grab some of the handouts. I would use the handout whenever I felt myself struggling to explain something. Using these handouts not only helped me deal with the various pressures of not knowing how to explain a concern, they also taught me some basic grammar rules and strategies for how to explain them. Many of the examples on those handouts (or at least that were on the handouts six years ago) are examples I still use today, probably word for word. We’re only into the fourth week of the schedule this semester, and I know I’ve already showed at least two students and one consultant the FANBOYS mnemonic for remembering the common conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
I try to remember how stranded and nervous I felt in some sessions during that first semester. Sometimes I still feel that way when I’m working with a student. Remembering those early experiences though reminds me to call on the resources around me, including other tutors. It also helps me to imagine how the student might be feeling, unsure of how to talk about writing. Using those sessions of examples of how to work through those feelings and make them productive also helps me to work with new consultants.
In what ways have your early consulting sessions helped you to become a better consultant, both in working with students and in working with other consultants?