Approaching the Conflict Between Confidence and Insecurity in a Writing Center Consultation by Jesse Cook

posted Nov 1, 2016, 12:07 PM by Writing Center
The paradox of a writer who is both confident and insecure in their writing was a concept brought to light for me while reading Lisa Emerson’s book The Forgotten Tribe: Scientists as Writers. In the first chapter of the book, Emerson acknowledges that her interviews contain “internal contradictions” due to the “subjugated and emerging” discussion inspired by her research (21). This discussion is informed by the interviews held between Emerson and individuals she defines as scientific writers, and the topic is in regards to a scientist’s ability to write. In her research, Emerson found that these scientists, while confident in their ability to write (and in most cases, quite enamored with the act of writing), simultaneously admitted to having insecurities when it came to expressing themselves through the written word.

This notion was a surprise to me primarily because it demonstrates both a fundamentally human conflict of feeling (especially in regard to writing, which is something often perceived as both a public and private act), and an oft-neglected concern when trying to empathize with students coming to the Writing Center for consultations. While writing center consultants are trained in how to work with writers who may struggle with their writing, and explicitly warned that some writers will be hostile toward criticism of their work, they are often not asked to consider the fact that writers may come to the writing center with a complex amalgamation of pride in their work, fear in sharing said work with a critical audience, and a sense of inadequacy in comparing themselves to a consultant who has been trained specifically in the field of composition. It is easy to bifurcate an audience into distinct categories, and immensely more difficult to tackle the human complexities behind pride and anxiety when allowing one’s work to be evaluated.

Emerson furthers her this idea by positing that some writers may feel a disconnect between their chosen field of study and composition, and may find that what they lack in written acuity, they make up for in specialized knowledge. Meaning, their ability to write does not necessitate consideration in the light of their other accomplishments. Additionally, there is the possibility that a student may feel alienated from writing by self-imposed limitations or by past experiences in writing classrooms, which may lead to a feeling of insecurity or antagonism toward the act of writing (9).

What is bred from this amalgamation of emotions is an individual who experiences and perceives the Writing Center in a unique and dynamic way (an example that comes to mind is the scientific writer who finds writing insignificant to their work, although they are encouraged to visit the Writing Center in order to receive help on a much needed publication), which makes consulting a fluid experience rather than a static series of actions geared toward a prescribed conclusion.

Now, I have no assumption that any one consultant has the emotional fortitude and empathetic constitution to approach every session with an unwavering zealousness for the care of a writer’s many metamorphosing and paradoxical feelings toward him or herself and the writing center experience. Also, there is no denying the fact that sometimes, writers can be just plain unpleasant to work with. But, that does not mean that we should neglect the possibility of a writer having conflicting feelings toward writing, and should instead attempt to incorporate this idea into our approach to aiding growing writers.

What this ultimately demands is less the inattentive execution of trained procedures, or even a commitment to a rigid style, and more the active utilization of reflexive responses to the writer and his or her work and work habits. I hate to veer into the territory of emotional interpretation, but when considering an effective approach to a student writer, taking the time to track verbal and visual cues, gathering some personal data before establishing a plan of action, and then exploring their significance, can lead to a more comprehensive session.

As noted in Emerson’s text, a consultant must accept the fact that writers coming to a writing center represent an eclectic pool of individuals, all of which will have unique personal and cultural characteristics that influence their process of forming composition. And while this may sound like an obvious commentary on a department that caters to a large number of international students, I would like to specify my claim by emphasizing the idea that these characteristics lead to additional behaviors less readily accepted or expected. Students may have different processes for developing ideas, or may not feel comfortable confronting a tutor—who may be held in equal respect as an instructor—on an idea or suggestion that they personally disagree with. Because of these differences, which a writer may shield behind complacence or indifference during the session, a consultant should be willing to take the time to note a writer’s reaction to the situation.

An example of this would be taking the time to analyze a student that approaches the session with an air of apathy or seeming irritation. While the student may simply find the notion that they need assistance with their writing insulting (perhaps an instructor required them to make an appointment), the writer may instead feel uncomfortable with sharing their work outside of the student/teacher dynamic, and thus find themselves unsure of how to broach the consultation. Or, they may even approach any new experience with brazen opposition, and in fact sincerely hope for help with their writing skills. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing the veneer of disinterest crack and crumble as a student writer begins to engage in a consultation. But, the only way a consultant can achieve these results is by acknowledging the possibility that the writer is not another notch in the belt of experience, an hour on the clock, and instead an opportunity to engage in a novel interaction with a developing creator.

The point I am trying to make is that it is ineffective to process the behaviors and responses of a student writer based on a rigid checklist of behaviors that tally up to a defined archetype. Little can be gained from consulting like a manufacturing machine. And while I genuinely believe that most consultants would not consider this an effective strategy, the demands of consulting (handling a number of students back-to-back, day-to-day) can beat out the more exhaustive or exertive ambitions of a consultant, inevitably leading to sessions that become exercises in redundant action. So, I encourage consultants to consider Emerson’s ideas, and attempt to embrace the complexity of consultations and the uniqueness of each experience with a writer.

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