Pursuing Positive Intent
Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
One of the most beneficial approaches to my development of meaningful collegial relationships with students and colleagues has involved mindfulness, particularly a focus on the positive intent in others. Believing the best in someone else’s actions can turn even the most abrupt, friction-filled remark into an opportunity to cultivate healthier communication. After all, I as a person cannot control other people; I can only control my responses to others.
If a student arrives to a tutoring session and begins acting in an inappropriate manner, it is tempting as a tutor to bring that behavior under control. It is the same feeling I get when I see another driver inching out into the emergency lane to pass me when in gridlock traffic. It is the same feeling I get when I see my toddler reach for a candy bar while buckled in to her seat in the grocery cart. I just want to do anything in my power to force the other person against their will to make what I deem the correct choice, and why not? Protocol is on my side. The law is on my side. The American Academy of Pediatrics is on my side. Any rule I try to enforce, I am enforcing for the good of the other person, with well-researched evidence to back me up. The problem is an emotional student, a desperate driver, or a toddler with a sweet tooth is not going to see things that way. There is a better way.
Believing the best in a student can be most difficult when the student is facing a charge of plagiarism. Plagiarism is a situation in which sides collect evidence to prove guilt or innocence, so a tutor seeing a student in a tutoring session where that student wants help understanding what constitutes plagiarism can be awkward. I admit having a hard time keeping calm when I was teaching a composition class and a student had taken portions of a paper and not cited the sources in the text nor on a reference page. This was a student who had been missing quite a few classes recently as well. When we sat down to talk together, I found out the student was having a very difficult time adjusting to life in a new country, especially living in Minnesota during a winter where we had gone a record six days without sunshine. The student admitted to copying portions of text because the English had been overwhelming. That was the moment I had every rule in every handbook from the university, the department, and the composition program on my side. The student was guilty; the student fully intended to cheat. Where were those positive intentions I wanted to find? They had to be somewhere. So, I had this conversation with the student.
“Why did you turn this in? Why put that time into turning in something obviously wrong when you could have just not turned in the assignment?”
“I wanted to try. I wanted to use the sources and I used too many and I ran out of time but I couldn’t show you nothing.”
“So you wanted to write about this subject?”
“Yes. I care about it. I want to learn about it. I want to show you what I can learn about it.”
And there it was. There was the positive intent. I could work with that.
“Okay. Let’s talk about it, right here. We’ll take our time to listen to your original thoughts. Let’s get some water first.”
After we filled up our water cups from the fountain outside the office, I got to ask questions, the student got to explain the ideas that went into the piece, and we got to talk about how to shape some critical thoughts around the subject and around what the sources had to say. By the weekend I had seen two new drafts and encouraged that student to work more with tutors, to check in with me again, to keep at it.
A grad school classmate of mine taunted me that I was the reason students are so spoiled these days. According to him, that student just learned how to play the system, and I had done nothing to deter cheating. I asked, “Do you still get students who plagiarize?” “All the time,” he grumbled, “And it makes my blood boil.” I gave a good-hearted chuckle and said I cannot control students choosing to plagiarize, but I could choose how I would like to respond in most cases, and in most cases I committed to the choice to pursue the positive intent. I hope to connect with others who have found such an approach fruitful as well.
Thanks for a wonderful post, Molly! I needed this reminder before I responded to emails this morning, though I didn’t know it yet. 🙂 I’m working on this in my classes as well and it has made a world of difference in student motivation and my growth as an instructor.
Thank you, Emily! It is impressive to see the work you are doing with students as you are pursuing your MS with us. It is an honor to work with you in the Writing Center and as a fellow professional in higher education.