How to Work with Passive Aggressive Writers

By November 14, 2012Peer Writing Tutoring

It goes something like this.

Let’s call this writer “Bartleby,” or Bart for short.  Bart arrives at the writing center for his two-hour appointment, and you greet Bart and offer him a seat.  However, as soon as you try to get to work, the trouble begins.  First of all, he doesn’t communicate much.  When you ask what he wants to work on, his responses are vague or noncommittal.  When you try to get some information about his  assignment, he shrugs and insists he’s clueless about what the teacher expects.  It’s really happening: you’re being stonewalled.

Understanding passive aggressive writers

Let’s be honest here.  Most of us are guilty of being passive-aggressive once in a while.  Very few of us enjoy conflict, therefore many of us will do whatever it takes to avoid it.  Likewise, Bart’s refusal to cooperate with the tutorial is a way of resisting a perceived threat, whether it’s criticism of his writing, a general dislike for new experiences, the fact he was required to come to you, or any number of possibilities.  But before we throw up our hands in defeat and give up on Bart entirely, our first duty is to be empathetic.

Next, we need to know the action steps we can take.

1. The buy-in

When Bart’s non-cooperativeness has brought the tutorial to a grinding halt, look him in the eye and give it to him straight.  “Why did you come in today?”  Explain to him what your writing center is about, and what he can expect from his appointment.  If Bart really doesn’t want to be there, then there’s no reason to drag the appointment out longer than necessary.  Don’t let him think anything otherwise.

But believe it or not, I expect this is rarely the case.  Bart may not actually care one way or the other about his being there–in fact, he’s probably more than happy to let you do all his work for him.  When we sense this as tutors, we can get frustrated, but let’s avoid the temptation to be confrontational.  The following strategies might help “sell” Bart on your services:

  • Ask Bart to show you what he likes about his paper (or if he didn’t bring a paper–a common thread among PA writers–his plan for his paper).  Ask him why it’s successful, what he does well, why he’s going to earn an A–basically, why he doesn’t need your help.
  • It could cut the other way: Bart might actually dislike his paper, have no outline, or even feel helpless about the assignment–but act completely unmotivated to do anything about it.  This brings us to the next step, which is setting a rigorous agenda.

2.  Set an agenda

By now, chances are that Bart has found something to work on. Your next task is to set the agenda, and yet this is often the stage in which Bart will search for reasons to avoid moving forward: he doesn’t understand the prompt, he didn’t bring in a resource he needs, the instructor’s directions weren’t clear.  This might seem like it leaves you, the tutor, with few options for moving ahead, but your job is to make it clear that these are problems for which Bart must resolve himself.  Help him design a course of action for himself.  You can even advise him on drafting the email he can send to his professor with his questions.

Once you’ve made a plan, stick to it.  Persuade Bart to schedule a follow-up appointment for when he’s prepared.  Or if he has what you need to begin working now, use the agenda as an external source of positive reinforcement: if Bart starts slouching or just seems disengaged, call him back to the tasks you’ve set for him.

3.  Give them space

The agenda is a strong start, but the risk you run is that Bart will rely on you too heavily to get through it.  One trick you can use is to assign him a small task, then get up, walk away, refill your coffee, and come back to check on him.  Giving writers 5 or 10 minutes at a time to draft or revise is an excellent way of putting the onus on them without seeming too pushy. Once a passive aggressive writer has begun getting his or her hands dirty, they’ll have fewer excuses for stopping.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Martina M. says:

    This was a fun read! I’ve definitely felt helpless in working with PA writers, but now I try to be fairly direct about asking why they’re there. Often times, as you’ve mentioned, that naturally leads to a discussion of our services and my role as a peer tutor. I liked your suggestion of giving PA writers space because it can definitely be a great way to have them be more involved.