Tales From the Writing Center: The Clueless TA

Tales from the Writing Center is a Shitty First Drafts Feature that celebrates the thankless job of staffing a writing center or working as a writing tutor, coping with panicky, half-crazed students and trying to translate incoherent assignment prompts and instructor feedback. You may send your war stories and heartwarming anecdotes to sfdrafts@gmail.com and possibly see them included in this feature.

In two years of working at my university’s writing center, there was only one consultation that I was not able to finish, where I actually had to call a colleague over to calm the student down and complete the appointment for me. I made some critical mistakes in that consultation, but ultimately (and I’m really not trying to dodge responsibility here), I believe source of the tension was the very poor feedback given to this student by his instructor, in this case a TA.

The student in question was a non-native English speaker with a Korean background. I am fairly accustomed to dealing with second language students at varying levels of mastery, so I wasn’t necessarily thrown by the language problem. I also wasn’t surprised to discover that the student’s mastery of written English was quite a bit stronger than his spoken English. That’s actually pretty common. I’m sort of wired that way myself, where I can learn another language best through writing but have difficulty with conversation. Nevertheless, we were able to communicate with one another pretty effectively.

I was semi-thrilled to discover that the class he needed help with was a class that I had TA’d for my first year in grad school. I was familiar with this professor’s assignments and the way he instructed his students to grade. So, I tried to set the student at ease by passing myself off as an “expert” about how to succeed at this particular assignment. That was probably a mistake. I’ll explain why in a second. As we began looking at the essay and the instructor’s previous feedback (he had received a very poor grade on the first draft), I noted that–no real surprise here–most of the comments related to grammar and readability. So naturally, that was what the student wanted to talk about. The thing is, usage was the least of this kid’s problems. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of true mistakes. Sure, the writing was meandering, and the point was unclear, but those problems were related to very different issue: The paper lacked a clear thesis, and it wasn’t analyzing the selected text so much as it was summarizing them. Reading the instructors comments, it was clear that the TA had read a problematic, difficult to get through paper and chalked it all up to language. In short, this instructor had done the student a disservice, and while I don’t have clairvoyant insight into his or her thought processes, I wouldn’t be shocked if the student’s mastery of spoken English had subconsciously made it’s way into his or her diagnosis.

So, I as the “expert” tried to help him out. In the Socratic, conversational manner we are trained to use, I asked him what the point of the overall paper was and tried to talk him through the reasons why that point wasn’t coming through. Once I finally got him to realize that what he needed wasn’t editing but a whole new argument, he started to freak out a bit. Looking back, I can’t really say I blame him. These were the final two weeks of the semester, and while I knew this student would have up until exam day to revise, it’s probably a shock to discover that the essay you’ve been working on for the past 8 weeks has to rebuilt from the bottom up. Plus, he had probably spent the entire term being told to work on one (wrong) thing, and now another “expert” was revealing a whole new problem for him to tackle. I would probably start panicking a bit myself. Instead of speaking to him as just one among many possible readers, I positioned myself as an authority figure, which is problematic in a tutoring situation, since you now have two authority figures asking for very different things. So yeah, I fumbled that play.

But people are responsible for their own reactions, and this student reacted…poorly. The student questioned my competency (though in the context of that appointment, he may have had a case) and my knowledge of W.E.B. DuBois and got so loud in doing so that heads were starting to turn. I finally called a male consultant over to tag in and went to the restroom to calm myself down.

There are two lessons to learn from this one, both for tutors and instructors.

Instructors: If an essay has readability problems, make sure that you note where they are occurring on the hierarchy of writing concerns. Also, don’t make assumptions about second language students, whose mastery of spoken English may be quite different from written English (also, cultural conventions regarding essay construction vary, but more on that in another post).

Tutors: Always position yourself as an informed reader among many possible readers (with many possible readings and reactions) rather than an authority figure or expert. And try to work within the parameters of an instructor’s feedback, even if you think that feedback is terrible. You don’t have to lie about what the issues are, but you can use what the instructor says as a jumping off point: “Why do you think a reader might have issues discerning the point of this section?” “Why do you think your instructor said this?”

But also, don’t hesitate to call on a colleague if a student just isn’t hearing you any longer, especially if they become belligerent, insulting, and scary. Learn what you can from the situation and do better next time.


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