At the SAU Writing Center, we sometimes hear (through the rumor mill, or from students we work with, or occasionally from professors) what we “do” or “don’t do” as consultants working with writers. Often this information is correct, aligning with the theories we study in class and with our practices and goals. Sometimes, though, the comments that make their way back to us do not represent our practices, philosophies, and rationales. And so, in the interest of clearing up any misunderstandings, we thought we might tackle several of these myths in an ongoing series directed at the professors here at SAU.
A conference between the consultant Raquel and the student Joe might slowly put control of fixing mistakes into Joe’s hands:
JOE: Why did you make a mark out to the side of these four paragraphs?
RAQUEL: I noticed you had several run-on sentences in your essay.
RAQUEL: You know, where you have two complete sentences but don’t separate them with any punctuation. Do you know what I mean?
JOE: Not really.
RAQUEL: Here, let me show you what I mean. Can you read the first sentence in this second paragraph out loud?
JOE: “I have always wanted to be an astronaut I think I’m well prepared mentally and physically for such a difficult job.” I think it’s clear what I mean.
RAQUEL: I agree with you. But when you read it aloud, did you notice that you paused after you read the word “astronaut?”
RAQUEL: Could you stop at that word? Would it still be a complete idea?
RAQUEL: So, what about everything after that? Is that one complete idea?
JOE: (reading) Oh, I see. So, if I put a period between “astronaut” and “I,” I’d have two complete sentences.
JOE: (putting in period) So, where you make the next mark…here…is this a run-on, too?
RAQUEL: You tell me.
JOE: (rolls eyes, reads dramatically) “ It takes commitment to make it into space only three out of every 10,000 applicants will ever breach the Earth’s atmosphere.” Hmmm…it feels like the period would go after “space.” Is that right?
RAQUEL: That’s where I heard you pause—are the ideas before and after that complete?
JOE: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, I get it. Okay, your next mark, down by this next paragraph. This is a run-on, too, right?
RAQUEL: You’ll want to look at the rest of this and see if you can find other run-ons. But since you seem to have a handle on that, let’s look at your wording here…I really like the phrase “breach the Earth’s atmosphere,” and the statistic is convincing. Where did you find it?
JOE: That was in my article.
RAQUEL: As your reader, how will I know that?
JOE: Oh, yeah, I didn’t cite it. Whoops.
RAQUEL: You might make a note for yourself to go back and do that.
JOE: Yeah, okay. (marks)
RAQUEL: Speaking of sources, would this part up here (pointing) benefit from support from an outside source? (They lean over the paper, and the conference continues)
While the consultant may initially model ways for correcting a reoccurring mistake, we ultimately expect the student a) to take control of the correction process and b) not to get bogged down by fixing every mistake in the essay within a thirty-minute conference. Consultants aren’t expected to be experts in grammar, and not each consultant has the same understanding of the finer points of grammar. At times, they may need to use the handbook to help a student look up how to correct a mistake or may even fall back on something like this: “This doesn’t sound right. You may want to run that by your professor.” Unfortunately, some students will relay the last example back to the professor as follows: “She wouldn’t help me fix my grammar.”
As the scene between Raquel and Joe suggests, writing consultants expect the students to do the work of writing their own essays or assignments. Of course, the most basic reason behind this practice is that it would be academically dishonest for a consultant to write any part of a student’s paper. But we are also reinforcing two important aspects of our mission: first, we believe that students become stronger writers by working to revise their own papers, and we also recognize that consultants cannot possibly have expertise with all content, citation styles, rhetorical methods, or formats.
While we try never to take over the writing process, we may model a technique or “fix” for the paper. In this scene, the consultant , John, models a brainstorming technique for student writer Amanda by creating a parallel example:
JOHN: Okay, so, you’re trying to find examples of ways that advertisers use sexy women to sell products—is that right?
AMANDA: Yeah. So far I have this example (points) from the Honda ad my teacher showed us in class, but I don’t know how to come up with any others.
JOHN: Okay. (looks over passage about ad) Is your teacher okay with you using her example?
AMANDA: Hmm. I guess so.
JOHN: You might check with her. Okay, so, let’s say I was writing a paper about movies that talked about… muscular men. The first thing I would do is make a list
of all the movies I could think of, maybe even on paper, and then go through the list to figure out which of them had really muscular men. So, if my list was The Avengers, The Pirates!, and Wolverine, I could rule out the second one—you remember? the claymation about pirates?—because it doesn’t work for my paper. But the other two have muscular guys all over the place.
AMANDA: Oh, I see. So, if I thought about…hmm…ads for fabric softener, that recent ad for Pepsi…maybe McDonalds? Only the Pepsi ad, the one with Beyoncé in it, would count. And all the ads for GoDaddy.com have women who aren’t wearing much.
JOHN: Okay, that’s two more examples, good ones. What kinds of products do you think people use sexy women to sell?
AMANDA: I don’t know. Cars, I guess, if you look at the Honda ad. Uhm? Clothing? Well, and beer!
JOHN: Yeah, beer’s a good one. What beer ads do you remember?
AMANDA: I don’t remember for sure. I don’t drink, so I only remember that ad for the beer in the black bottle, the one they showed at the Super Bowl, where we only see the woman’s legs.
JOHN: That should be easy enough to find. Why don’t we move over to one of the computers and Google it? (Amanda agrees; they move to a computer to continue the conference)
When your students walk into the Center, we assume that they are the “experts” for the content and formatting and rhetorical devices of that paper. We may ask a nursing student an ignorant question—“Would you need to define this term for others in this field?”—and hear back from the student that anyone in nursing would be familiar with the term. But we believe that we can work with any writer in any discipline because we are careful readers. No matter the assignment, we are able
- to look for consistency and make sure that the student is attempting to address the requirements for the assignment;
- to ask probing questions designed to help the writer expand on—or clarify or condense, depending on the situation —his or her ideas;
- to highlight brainstorming or other techniques that might help the student flesh out the paper;
- to help the student find answers for questions about grammar, mechanics, and citation using reference materials like a handbook or website;
- to identify concerns the student will want to consider during revision.
Always, our emphasis is on helping the student identify (and, as time permits during the conference, implement) tools for strengthening his or her own paper.