Case Study: Teaching What You (Don't) Know


The Scenario:  Antoine came in to the writing center with a scholarly essay on cinema. He needed to write a two page summary of the article's main points, and was having trouble organizing his thoughts.

Bourdieu! I cried. Barthes! I'd be happy to help

One hour later, Kendra came into the writing center with a 350-word abstract the she was submitting to an undergraduate conference in biochemistry. She wanted help with concision and flow.

Reagent? I asked. RNA sequence? I leaned back in dismay.

The Problem: As I understand it, the job of a writing consultant is to help writers to develop skills that are applicable across all disciplines: organization, argumentation, persuasion, clarity. In this context Antoine's struggle (organizing his thoughts) and Kendra's struggle (clarifying her prose) were made equal.

In real life, though, there is no equal playing field. I understood Antoine's topic inside and out, and I was able to bring enthusiasm and knowledge to the table, helping to contextualize, clarify, and find the appropriate language for the ideas being discussed. When it came to Kendra's paper, on the other hand, it was all I could do distinguish between noun, verb, and modifier. 

"Agency is the ability of a person or thing to create change in the world," I explained, off-hand, to Kendra.

"Does this sound awkward?" Antoine asked me, proposing a revision. I had no idea.

The solution: I dream of a day when neither science nor visual studies is written in such a way that it has to be translated by trained professionals into language that can be readily understood.

In the meantime, there is no denying the difference in Kendra and Antoine's experience. The support I gave Kendra was primarily meta-level guidance through the process of revision. The support I gave Antoine was a content level conversation about the research he was conducting. At best, Kendra may have gained a valuable skill; Antoine may have gained valuable knowledge. Neither student got a neutral, abstract, or textbook writing consultation.

I remembered that I want to revisit Bourdieu.

And I learned what a reagent is.