What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

I, personally, did not have to face much hardship as an undergraduate student. My family supported my education, emotionally and financially. I had scholarships to help lessen their burden. I had to work to help pay my cost of living, but the jobs were good jobs—accompanying fellow music students and church choirs, and a brief stint as a student assistant in the fundraising office. As an undergraduate, my focus was almost entirely on school, and on musicianship.

Students like me tend to be the kind of students that continue their education by going to grad school, and the kind of grad students that stay in academia to become professors. School is more fun when you have the privilege of focusing on your studies. The more you can focus on writing, the better your writing becomes—if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the dissertation, it’s that writing is a job, and like a job, you need to dedicate a good amount of time to it to succeed.

What about students who have to write papers, but do not have that good amount of time? People like me, who have been full-time students all along, can easily forget that not all students were as fortunate as we were to have uncomplicated lives. I’ve met students who commute for hours every day and get to class hours early because that’s when the cheaper train is. I’ve met students who have families (who says that potty training twins is the exclusive domain of professors?). I’ve met students with learning disabilities who are deliberately declining to use the accommodations to which they are because they’ve been told that the “real world” won’t accommodate them. I’ve met students who are trying to write their paper before they get their tumor removed the following week.

Why don’t these students I meet in the writing center speak up to their professors, so they can work together to a solution amenable to both parties?

Because they believe their professors will roll their eyes at them, tell them to suck it up, or not even believe them in the first place (“show me a doctor’s note”; “bring me the funeral program”; “get a babysitter”). This is why students vent to their tutors instead of talking with their professors. They’re not stupid. Even if the professor would never say such things to a student’s face, students can certainly sense the condescension in communication with a professor that thinks this way.

And at this point, who has not been exposed to the kind of snark in the tweets above, either through Twitter, Facebook, or edgy op-eds? Jesse Stommel, a notable voice in the world of critical pedagogy, wrote an article, “Dear Student,” in response to a series by the same name  published in Chronicle Vitae. He gives alarming statistics about how commonplace this attitude is among faculty.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.
  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

Joshua Eyler’s Inside Higher Education writeup, “Against Student Shaming,” though apparently not written in response to these Anonymous Professor tweets, speaks to the larger issue of why even anonymous venting about “lazy” students is harmful (emphasis added):

Even anonymized, these stories are embarrassing and give the impression that faculty constantly see themselves in opposition to students. Such narratives about students are often little more than straw men used for rhetorical effect, but they convey a powerful message to readers, especially any student readers: despite the stated desires of faculty members to help students, here is what we really think.

One of my greatest journeys thus far as a pedagogue has been learning the value of being on the student’s side, not against them. I used to have strict attendance policies, no late work, etc., and students in violation of my policies were somehow punished. I found that as a result, students would lie to me about this or that kind of emergency preventing them from turning in even the smallest homework assignments—and it was immensely frustrating.

It would be easier for my ego to conclude from this experience that my students were being dishonest and lazy.

The truth is harder to accept: that I had set up the environment where deceitful behavior was rewarded, because trust was not there between my students and me.

Having such a policy sends a signal: I am judging you; I don’t trust you; you have to prove your struggle is worth my time.

This environment is not conducive to learning. Another quote from Eyler:

It’s actually a difficult thing for a student to say, either in concrete or in less obvious ways, “I don’t know something. Please help me to learn it.” Students trust us, and it seems to me that we violate that trust when we write essays that call them on the carpet simply for struggling through the difficult process of education.

I am not trying to be the “cool aunt” professor by eliminating my attendance policy and being more lenient with makeup work. I am making my classroom function better. Having a default policy of “prove it” is putting yourself in opposition to students, and students will not feel comfortable approaching you when they need help. 

Now, of course, some students will lie to you. Some students are lazy. Yes; this is a fact of life. But whether or not some students are lazy is not the point. The point is that I don’t know what my students are going through. In light of this, the proper starting point as a pedagogue when dealing with absences, lateness, or subpar work is to assume that the student is trying their best, and to ask the student what they need help with to succeed. When I approach students from this angle, I usually learn that the student is going through something very difficult indeed.

If you are at a school where your students are generally not going through difficult things, there are two possibilities, that I think are actually not mutually exclusive in any way.

One, you are teaching at a very privileged school with very privileged students. Maybe you teach at a residential private small liberal arts college (SLAC) that does not have a vibrant sports or Greek life culture that detracts from studies. Maybe the concept of students who are “homeless, cannot afford books, starving, and don’t sleep” seems preposterous to you teaching at such an institution. In which case, maybe keep in mind that those of us that teach at places where such situations are a little more commonplace are going to find your perspective out of touch and a bit offensive.

Two, more likely, you are wrong in your evaluation. It’s easier to see, at a New York City public school like the ones I’ve been involved in the past five years, that students can go through unbelievable troubles during their careers. But students going to fancy schools also have troubles, but maybe they’re not as obvious, for a number of reasons. Because even a residential private SLAC has students who may be homeless, etc. Many kinds of hardship that students go through knows no class or color: sexual assault, depression, death of a loved one, to name just a few to get us started.

I remember, as a first year master’s student, telling a PhD student all about how stressed out I was. Then I quickly remembered my place and deferred by saying, “Of course, it’s nothing like your stress level, I’m sure.” This person, who was on the job market and about to defend his dissertation, responded, “It is like my stress level. If you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Maybe my tolerance for stress is higher than yours, but we are equally stressed.” These words of compassion have rung in my ears each time I interact with a “stressed” student. Even if my life really is “more complicated” than a student’s, at the end of the day, who am I to tell a student that their suffering is not real? Each person experiences their complications in their own way, and their stress is real. It’s not a competition, and nothing is gained by putting someone down that way.

Taking the time to listen to your students and empathize with their situations can be difficult and emotionally draining. But I have benefitted immensely from reflecting on my practices, realizing how I might be contributing to my own problems in the classroom, and considering how to create the best learning environment for my students while still maintaining rigorous standards. The lesson is ultimately that professors have no idea how complicated their students’ lives are, and simply giving them the benefit of the doubt can do loads of good.