Oh, now that’s awkward…

Sometimes, for some people, being an undergraduate tutor is just not good enough. Most students don’t really pay much attention, don’t even bother to ask, especially our fellow undergraduate writers. However, there are always those who would prefer to work with graduate students, or students with a specific major, or expertise. When scheduling these appointments for writers the conversation at the reception desk can get awkward fast trying to explain how we all go through the same training, and we are all students, and how it might not be possible to work with someone within that major because the tutor’s availability doesn’t match up with when the writer is free. But within an appointment these moments can be even more awkward, when you are put on the spot and forced to say something a writer does not want to hear, knowing you still have to work with them for the next hour.

I think I have never been more scared during an appointment than the time when a writer came right up to me and said, “Philosophy expert!” My stomach did a back flip and I had the urge to run. Dutifully I stayed put with a strained smile on my face and said “Well, I don’t know if I’d say expert. Let’s just see what you have.” Some writers have certain expectations when they come into an appointment, expectations that we can’t always meet. That appointment went very slowly for the rest of the two hours it was scheduled for, and she left partially disappointed because she thought she was going to be meeting with someone that knew philosophy very well when she instead met with someone who is incredibly intimidated by it (though I didn’t tell her that). What can we do to put writers, and ourselves, more at ease during these kinds of appointments?

Appointments where writers come in with expectations about the tutor they are meeting with that there is no way we can realistically meet can contain a significant amount of pressure. Sometimes this is because you know they wanted to meet with a graduate student and they know you aren’t one. Sometimes this is because they don’t realize that you aren’t what they specifically wanted and find out half way through. Either way, you are sitting in the appointment with the added pressure of not only helping them, but impressing them. One way to cool down that kind of added pressure that not only they, but you might be putting on yourself, is by putting the two of you on the same level, appealing to their obvious concerns about their papers and saying sometimes you struggle with the same thing, or mentioning the fact that you have had to write a similar assignments and naming some strategies you used when writing that that they might be able to use, which can both give them advice and say that you do have the experience they were looking for, they just didn’t realize it.

Of course, these strategies always have the possibility of backfiring, depending on the personality of the person you are talking to. But stressing that there are some basic principles that can be applied to all papers, no matter the level or the subject, that they need to pay attention to and discussing them first can build their confidence in your abilities, despite where you might be lacking, and working on the rest of the paper will be easier.

In the end, the more comfortable you are during a tutoring appointment, the more comfortable a writer is going to be. If you are visibly worried or unsure about their paper and what they are asking, the less faith they are going to have in you. Don’t do anything during an appointment that you aren’t comfortable with, including speaking in absolutes. If you are looking at a prompt and you are unsure about something a professor said, and they are as well, come clean and tell them that you think they should contact the professor because you aren’t sure, but you think they mean this. If they want you to interpret something for them, or give your opinion if their interpretation of something Kant wrote is correct, and you don’t really know philosophy, don’t answer the question. Prompt them to tell you what they think, and show you where and why in the text, it’s technically not our job to do that anyway (though it can be tempting). The more comfortable you are, the more relaxed and engaged you are, the more comfortable the writer will be and the more likely they’ll be to forget about their initial concerns regarding your qualifications.