Amy Nichols, Consultant
I don’t know what it is about the summer – perhaps that bit of extra flexibility in my schedule has turned me towards the philosophical – but I recently had an interesting consultation with a student that left me thinking. We worked together on some organizational and grammatical changes to the paper, but had a bit of free time left at the end of the session. On the spur of the moment, I asked where he was from – he had a lovely accent, but I had never asked. He told me he was from South Sudan, and we had a great discussion about our respective home countries.
This experience started me thinking more carefully about the students I meet every day. They represent people groups from all over the world, from all walks of life – and I know that part of my training is to recognize that. But, and perhaps because of that training, it can sometimes be easy to break a patron down into an “eastern” or “western” writing style, into the component parts of their writing.
Before I was born, my dad was involved in a terrible car wreck that left him needing multiple surgeries. He was heavily sedated but remained conscious while hearing the doctors talk about fixing his hip the next day, “just the way you’d talk about fixing a car.” And I have to ask myself – do I, in some ways, reduce these students to the things in their writing that I can help them “fix,” and does that help or hamper my ability to do so? For doctors, I imagine that (at least in cases of trauma) focusing on what you can improve is an important mechanism that lets you do your job efficiently and effectively. And my father didn’t criticize his doctors for reducing him to his component parts – by doing so, they were doing their job. But for my very different work of helping writers improve themselves, reducing an entire person to whether their writing meets certain criteria might interfere with being able to see the very things (their own creativity, the way they articulate ideas verbally rather than on paper, etc.) that will let them improve.
None of this is original thinking, of course. One of the first things we were taught at the beginning of last fall was to pay attention to students’ emotional well-being – if someone is crying because their paper is due in five hours but they’ve been away at a family funeral, the first focus is on that total person, on helping them get to a point where they can work on the paper. But in the rush of appointment after appointment and juggling life and schoolwork, it’s easy to begin to have a kind of surgical focus on papers and organizational structures. It’s easy, in short, to forget that key idea – that in front of me there is a human being with a complex existence outside of our interaction, and that paying attention to who someone really is can help me be a more effective writing consultant.