Paper fists: keep the personal out of it

By April 30, 2013Peer Writing Tutoring

Imagine, if you will, a tutoring appointment. You are reading a writer’s paper and all you can manage to think is “No.” We have all, at least once, read a paper where we’ve thought that the writer is just completely wrong. They are on the wrong side of the argument, they interpreted a book differently than you, they missed the point of the prompt. Whatever the reason, those appointments, be they face to face or online, are always incredibly frustrating because you have to be careful. If you do point out something is wrong with a writer’s paper, or make a suggestion for change, you have to make sure that you aren’t simply saying something is wrong because you have a different view, but because they aren’t answering the assignment. So, how do we ensure that we make this distinction?

It is so hard to keep our personal feelings and views out of appointments. We are, after all, only human, which means we are faulted with having opinions about things; often times strong opinions. If we are reading a paper in our area of study that interpreted something differently than we would, or a paper about a controversial issue that we disagree with the writer on, it can be very difficult to keep our opinions to ourselves. But, you can’t just say to a writer “You’re a racist.” But, you can say, “Be careful with your language here because this statement might come off as racist to the reader.”

Often times it is trickier than that, though. I think the most difficult kind of appointments are when a writer is on the side of an argument that you don’t necessarily agree with. Often times these are issues we feel passionately about, but your job in the appointment isn’t for you to try to get them to change sides. One thing you can do, though, is if they only examine one side of the argument, get them to include the other side. This serves as a place to strengthen their paper, since they will present both sides, and you at least know that they didn’t completely overlook your side as well.

When it comes to an interpretation of a text, there is less that you can do. If you interpret a novel, philosopher or anything else differently than a writer that you are working with does, you can’t work to change their interpretation. It is, after all, still their paper, and so it is still their opinion. If their interpretation still troubles you because they overlooked a large portion of the novel, or they are missing a plot point, you can address this by talking to them about the evidence they are using to support their interpretation. Often times when writers are ignoring or don’t look at large portions of a text, their evidence is lacking. If you talk about it with them, they can either strengthen the interpretation they already have, or cause them to look at the text in a new light and it is up to them to apply that to their paper, or not to.

No matter what, these kinds of appointments aren’t going to be easy. You have to be sure you aren’t bringing anything personal into them. If you pay attention it is easy to spot when you do.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Lauri Dietz says:

    We are about to film a Breakroom episode, “The Kryptonite,” that deals with this exact challenge. Stay tuned!

  • Most often in these cases, I find that the arguments are weak and unsubstantiated. As a result, I often comment on how the arguments are unsupported and give the writer probing questions that should cause him/her to reevaluate their sources and/or reconsider what the sources are actually saying. In some instances, the sources themselves are not credible, and evidence of incredible sources tends to be obvious. In those cases, I direct writers to the Library databases to look for credible sources. If the writer’s claims are extremely convoluted, chances are there will not be anything in the databases to support their claims adequately. Hopefully, he/she will then see this as a sign that he/she may need to change their argument and/or topic.