Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor
As a writing center tutor, I sometimes see students come in for help with a chip on their shoulder. They feel wronged, whether in the wording of an assignment or with an accusation of plagiarism. They might identify their tutoring need as “help me with my APA,” but what they are really in search of is a sounding board to air their grievances. They might not even realize this unconscious ulterior motive, which reveals itself early on in the tutoring session, giving tutors the opportunity to choose one (or more) of several tutor-tried-and-true ways to get the session back on track:
- Draw a firm line. Some tutors will hear a student stray into professor-bashing and will allow only two “characters” in setting the agenda for the tutoring session, and those are the student and the writing task at hand. If a student has a complaint about the professor, then the tutor immediately says, “What does this have to do with what we are here for right now?” This is a firm stance to take, but it can be very effective.
- Set a time limit before moving on. Some tutors will allow a student to vent, but only for an allotted time before asking to see the writing or asking to see the assignment or asking the student what his or her favorite color is—anything to establish that the time for the airing of grievances is over.
- Head the complaints off at the pass with questions. Tutors often get into a good zone where we have a set list of questions we can ask a student to paint the picture of the writing situation. If a student starts talking about the fact that the paper is supposed to be informative but then complains that the professor plays favorites in class, interject with “So what is the word count?” or “How many sources are required?” or any other of our default questions. If the student seems set on complaining about the professor during time meant for improving writing, consider the first or second items on this list before moving on to the fourth.
- Refer the student’s complaints to the appropriate entity. Sometimes a student is actually seeking a resolution to his or her complaint and is not sure where or how to go about it. Sometimes what sounds like venting or complaining is actually communicating a concern about the student’s educational experience. Here at Kaplan, we are fortunate enough to be able to suggest the student reach out to the professor with those concerns and, if that attempt at communication does not work, we can refer the student to his or her academic advisor to handle the situation.
No matter what, it is important to never take sides. When it comes to our students, everyone is on the same side; we all want the students to critically engage with the topic at hand and demonstrate a mastery of skills, and we all want to do what we can to support that student in the process.