When students come to the writing center, it is my job as a tutor to help them write effectively. It is not my job to argue with them about their beliefs.
This is simultaneously one of the best things about the writing center and one of the most frustrating. It’s one of the best things because students can come here and feel free to express themselves without judgment. It’s one of the most frustrating things because I’m therefore often expected to work without prejudice with students whose political and social views are so different from mine that I find them a little nuts.
I consider myself a tolerant person, but when I have to spend an hour tutoring a student whose research paper uses the Bible as evidence to prove that homosexuals are sinners, it’s a challenge to keep my comments restricted to the area of thesis statements and citation formats. I had the same problem yesterday afternoon when I ended my shift working with a student whose argumentative paper contends that there shouldn’t be any gun control — none — because the Democrats were taking over the House, stealing our rights, and American citizens needed the guns to protect themselves against their own government!
Of course, I can discuss with students the content of their papers as it relates to making a convincing, well-structured argument. I can give the homophobic student a mini-lesson on evaluating sources and the proper evidence for an academic paper. I can challenge the student who wants to tote around an assault rifle to consider the consequences of his proposal, encouraging him to consider that perhaps his logic would lead to a degree of violence and insurrection that isn’t called for under present political circumstances.
But really, when students come through the door with ideas as polemical as these, tactful (or even aggressive) suggestions from a writing tutor don’t make much headway, especially when all these students really want a tutor to do is correct their grammar. These papers are coming from an emotional place, not a rational place. Take, for example, the student who wrote an essay about how women should not work and should instead stay at home watching the children.
“Well, this is ironic,” I told him. “I’m a woman out in the workplace. You came here today and sat down with me, a woman gainfully employed, for assistance in writing a paper about how women should not be gainfully employed.”
Strangely, the student could not even register the contradiction.
Of course, not every paper that I scan for run-ons and strong topic sentences is like this. Most of the paper topics are relatively innocuous, and I regularly encounter research papers on the culture of Peru or personal narratives on childhood friendships. Even papers on hot-button issues that take positions directly opposed to my own beliefs are usually not as dramatic as the examples above. If you can argue your position on gun control, gay marriage, or immigration law in a responsible way, I will certainly respect your efforts.
But when it comes to those other students — some days I have to just focus on semicolon use and ignore the crazy.