“So what brings you into the writing center today?”
“Well, I’m not a very good writer…”
Of the first exchanges I have with students visiting the writing center, some version of the above is what I hear perhaps most frequently. Often, before we’ve ever discussed an assignment prompt or looked at a single line of prose, the student tells me what might be a personal confession about their self-perception as a writer, and in my experience, I’ve found that if that statement goes unaddressed, the session as a whole just doesn’t go well. Helping students who express this concern build their confidence, I think, is one of the most important unspoken jobs that we have as writing consultants not only for the students but, also, for our pedagogy and for the productivity of the consultation.
Aside from the obvious compassionate angle to instilling confidence, this trepidation and negative self-perception has some crucial implications for our pedagogy as consultants. It’s frustrating to think of yourself as a poor writer, to feel that no matter how hard you try to articulate yourself, what you want to say comes out all wrong—and then you’re given a grade on top of that. Inexperienced writers wrestling with a lack of confidence are already unsure about showing their work to some person they’ve never met before, even if that person is a purported writing expert. When I was an undergraduate writing consultant, I had a bullheaded lack of empathy for this, and instead of addressing it, I would barrel through whatever the student’s concerns were and send them on their way, probably feeling worse than they did before. When writers lack confidence, as well, there’s the possibility that they’re going to have their defenses up and be resistant to our advice; helping them clear the hurdle of their own self-perception as best we can is imperative. I’ve seen many developing writers be defensive or uncomfortable because they find the tutoring session to just be forty-five minutes of picking apart issues they already knew about and adding a whole list of new ones besides. When writers come in feeling this way, they’ve lost the race before they’ve even left the starting line.
That’s why I think being as aware as possible of a student’s self-perception as a writer is one of the most valuable things we can do as consultants; being sensitive and developing strategies to help writers with this feeling is key to having a good session. When a student begins an appointment by telling me they aren’t a good writer, my immediate response is to offer them some sort of encouragement. Usually, I start by confessing that I, even as a graduate student studying English, have to deal with my own anxieties about writing, and I’ve seen that move take many a tutoring session from tense and inert to relaxed and productive. Finding your own strategies for helping students improve their confidence will not only help the student—it will ultimately help the session.
Beyond tutoring our students in their writing and helping them attain the grade they want, instilling confidence is perhaps the most valuable and rewarding opportunity we get as consultants. Sometimes, a little boost is all it takes to turn a bad session into a good one, to help “bad” writers out of perceiving themselves as such, and that’s good for everyone involved.