I had a session recently that made me question the line between helping a student with his or her paper and imposing one’s own writing process or opinions upon it. I’m a big fan of non-directive tutoring and think of myself as a helpful resource rather than as an authority figure, so it came as a shock when I realized that I sometimes feel personally responsible for the papers students bring to the Writing Center. But why should I feel that way when I’m a tutor, not the writer? Just whose paper is it, anyway?
In the session I’ve referred to, the student came in about an hour before her paper was due, and expected that we’d work on final edits rather than any major revisions. However, there was a glaring higher-order concern with her literary analysis: her thesis contained two main claims, but she only supported one of these claims in her paper. Simply deleting the unsupported claim was out of the question, since one of her two critical sources related solely to that claim, and she needed both sources for the assignment. I knew if it were my paper, I’d go back to the text to find evidence to support the second claim. When I suggested this, however, the student said she couldn’t do that—both because she didn’t have enough time and because she had not purchased/rented/checked out a copy of the text.*
At this point in the session, I was at a loss. The student decided to add a sentence to each of her body paragraphs that related to her second claim, but without any textual evidence for her claims I knew she would not get a high grade on her paper. No matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to help this student make her paper as strong as I wanted it to be. But even as I write this, I wonder why I felt responsible for making another student’s paper as strong as I wanted it to be, rather than simply wanting to make it stronger than it was before. The student was content with her draft before she brought it in to the Writing Center; after all, she only wanted me to polish it. So what was the problem?
I think I felt personally responsible for the grade this student was going to receive because I had the opportunity to help make that paper a solid, well-supported literary analysis, but the student hadn’t done her part by giving herself the time she would need to actually follow her consultant’s advice after the session. Usually I don’t have such a hard time dealing with last-minute appointments—but usually, these students really do just need to polish their work. In this particular session, part of me wanted to insist that the student go find a copy of the book in the library and gather evidence for her claims, but of course I can’t force students to put more effort into their work than they’re willing to give, or refuse to offer any other advice besides a method that would take more time than they have to work with.
What do you think—am I overreacting to the situation? Have you ever wanted to assume ownership of the student’s paper by directing the student to do exactly what you would do? Can a sense of responsibility for other students’ papers have positive effects, or does it just make us feel like lousy tutors when a paper ultimately doesn’t meet our personal standards? How much (if at all) should we lower our standards when dealing with last-minute appointments?
*This is perhaps the biggest mystery of all—where did she get all the quotes she’d already cited in her paper if she didn’t have access to a copy of the literary work she was analyzing? I think my brain exploded a little when she said this.