"Preparing for Emotional Sessions"
Writing Lab Newsletter (Jan/Feb 2011)
by gayla mills
When a writer walks through the door, paper in hand, it’s easy for the words on the page to become the focus of our attention. There’s a clear intellectual task at hand--to quickly triage the “problems” of the paper and determine which ones to address and how best to tackle them. This can be exciting, challenging work.
The problem is that writers don’t visit merely for academic help. For some, deciding to “be tutored” is not simply scheduling time in a busy day before turning in a paper. It’s an act of will that engages the stomach and the heart—the stomach, which is churning with uncertainly and fear, and the heart, which is hopeful that the paper conveys something true. Not all students, of course, bring their body parts to the session. For some, having a tutor look at their paper is just that—a checkbox on the list of tasks to complete an assignment. But what about for the others, the ones who drag their emotions through the door?
Some emotions, of course, can enrich a session. An engaged writer can bring enthusiasm and energy to the paper, and both writer and tutor can feed off that excitement as they work together. But a tutor, especially a new one, can be thrown off balance when confronted with an emotionally distraught writer. We can’t respond perfectly to every emotional situation, but we can mentally prepare. We can recall how we felt when struggling with our own writing, listen to the advice of other tutors and teachers, research the basics of handling emotional challenges, and discuss various approaches we might take.
1. Being Evaluated
As new tutors gain confidence, they sometimes forget the fear students may feel in being evaluated—both by their professors, and by the tutor in front of them. Last semester, when I was leading a workshop for struggling students on how to improve their writing, one freshman described problems she’d had with feedback on her first paper in English comp.
“The professor wrote that I shouldn’t write like I speak,” she said. “She thinks what I wrote was stupid.” This young woman was about to cry in our small group, and I thought she needed both reassurance and a steady hand.
“I’m sure she didn’t mean anything personal by it. She might not even know how you speak,” I replied. “But teachers sometimes say ‘don’t write like you talk’ when they mean that you’re writing too casually. You might need to write your papers using a more formal, academic style.”
“Oh, is that all? I can do that,” the student said, looking relieved. Suddenly her task was a manageable one. It didn’t include changing the way she talked, impressing the professor, proving she was smart enough to be in college, or other intangible, hard-to-achieve goals. She just had to make her papers more formal. In clarifying what the professor meant, I also helped the writer see evaluation of her writing in less emotional terms.
Student writers face the constant pressure of having their work evaluated. Professors have the task of teaching students, a responsibility that requires them not only to instruct, but also to critique. The best ones do so with respect and skill. Unfortunately, some teach in a manner that students find confusing, unclear, or, at its worst, arbitrarily dictatorial. These are not optimum circumstances for fine work or a discussion of the nuances of good style. Sometimes the anxiety of being judged dominates a writer’s thinking and interferes with writing and revising. A student may fear to face yet another perceived judge (the tutor) and have trouble listening to suggestions.
As teachers and as tutors, it helps to remind ourselves why writing can be so difficult and to remember how vulnerable and sensitive our visiting writers can be.
2. When the Paper is Personal
Dealing with distraught writers is more complex when the writing touches on something personal. Students may write about childhood or teenage trauma, religious uncertainties, family secrets, or questions of racial, gender, or cultural identity. How should a tutor address the contents of a paper when the writing reveals the secrets, confusions, and anxieties of the writer?
Tracy Hudson takes a firm stand in her WLN article, as clearly revealed in her title: “Head ‘em off at the pass: strategies for handling emotionalism in the writing center.” The tutor should steer the writer away from “simmering emotions,” she argues, saying that “By remaining professional and detached, the tutor has a better chance of avoiding unwanted emotionalism in the session” (11). Since the act of writing often involves delving into passionate feelings, she believes, it’s unsurprising that writers will bring in work that sparks their feelings. But, Hudson says, a tutor’s primary goal is writing improvement: “Head off any attempts to engage in personal counseling or relationships” (12). Although her approach may sometimes work, avoiding emotions altogether is often both inhumane and ineffective.
In “Tutoring in Emotionally Charged Sessions,” Agnostinelli, Poch, and Santoro note that there is little practical information written for tutors about how to address the emotional side of writing. As they say, “The literature about tutoring tends to focus mostly on the ‘brain,’ leaving out the ‘heart’” (17). Generally speaking, they advise “focus and firmness” (18). The problem with emotions, they argue, is that they cloud judgment and rationality. Developing a clear goal for the session can provide distance from delicate subject matter. This allows the writer to skirt around how he or she feels, and gives the tutor time to decide if he or she is ready to give emotional support.
This approach doesn’t completely ignore the emotional underpinnings of the session but rather seeks to control them. Specifically, Agnostinelli et al. suggest that the tutor begins by acknowledging the difficulty of discussing a personal experience: “Human beings need to hear that they are being listened to and understood; taking a few minutes to empathize will establish a degree of trust” (19). But the tutor should then return focus back to the words on the page and the goals the writer seeks to achieve.
One problem with this approach is that it assumes a writer can’t be both emotional and rational about his work. Yet some of our best writing comes from a position of intense feeling. It’s true, however, that the process of editing works best when that feeling has been set aside and our analytic tools come to the fore. Whether a tutor helps a writer draw on his more intense feelings or shift to a more analytic focus will depend, in part, on the stage of the paper.
In “Personal Revelations in the Tutoring Session,” Jane Honigs describes a session where a writer had been asked to incorporate a personal experience into a research paper, and she had chosen examples from her abused childhood (9). Though Honigs had been advised to ignore emotional encounters in a session, she addressed the subject of abuse head on. She felt it would be a mistake to ignore these revelations, as the students in the writer’s class had done. The author was relieved to briefly discuss her difficulties and could then develop her thesis statement and make further revisions during the session. In this case, giving the writer a chance to talk directly about the source of her distress—her abuse as a child—laid the foundation for the more technical conversation that followed.
But, Honigs points out, tutors must approach each emotional situation differently: “Some students don’t want your sympathy; they just want help with their writing. They’ll let you know if they need some personal attention, but don’t fall into the trap of being overly supportive” (9). You may open the door to give a writer a chance to explore her ideas, but let her decide if she wants to walk through it.
3. Guys, Gals, and Tears
What happens if a writer starts to cry during a session? How comfortable you feel in responding may come down to gender: women are more likely to cry in “public,” and may find it easier to react to someone else’s tears. But whether tutors agree with these generalities or not, discussing the topic can reduce the element of surprise, thus making it easier to respond effectively.
On our writing center message board, Ray wrote about his first encounter with a sobbing student. He began, “We spent the first 40 minutes talking about the writing prompt. It took that long because she was a little out of it; she was crying and having a really hard time concentrating.” Ray was frustrated that her emotions were interfering with what he perceived as his task: improving her writing. Where did her feelings fit in the session? How should he react to a weeping girl? This wasn’t what he signed up for when he decided to be a tutor. “If she would’ve stayed focused on the paper, I think it would’ve been better,” he says. “She got nothing out of the session. She wasn’t a better writer at the end of it.”
When I replied to his post, I wrote about the crying, not about the paper. He faced a first-year student who was fragile, worn out from studying, and lacking confidence. On top of that, she was female, and her response to stress was to let loose some tears. But Ray had little experience with this kind of situation, and he was in over his head.
Though young men may generally have less experience than young women in dealing with tears, few tutors of either gender have confronted a distraught person in a semi-professional setting. You might give your roommate a big hug or a punch in the arm, but what do you do in the writing center? As Ray told us, his answer was to keep “trying to pull her back” from her feelings and talk about the paper. This didn’t work. The student wasn’t writing about a personal topic—she was just overwhelmed by her first semester at college. She may simply have needed a good cry to release her tension before being able to work further.
In this case, Honigs’ advice was closest to the mark. Ray might have gotten the best response by giving the student more time to talk about what was really bothering her. He could also have given her a few minutes to collect herself privately before returning to the session. Repeatedly redirecting her to the paper, however, as Hudson might have suggested and as Ray attempted, was unhelpful.
4. Learning Together
Talking about these issues is the basis for staff preparation. First, identify which scenarios have caused problems at your center in the past; experienced tutors will have a better grasp of what’s common, while new tutors may see these issues with fresh eyes and their own strong emotions. Once the issues are identified, tutors can research particular topics before presenting them as a springboard for discussion.
At our center, we singled out three emotions that our tutors had the greatest trouble responding to: anger, stress, and anxiety. Three volunteers found information that they thought most relevant. Katie believed that general frustration was often redirected as anger toward a professor, so she focused on anger management tips. Liz thought that heavy workloads and academic demands led to feeling overwhelmed, so she researched literature on managing stress. Ben suggested that fear of being evaluated could lead to writer’s block, so he explored ways to overcome writer’s anxiety.
After presenting basic facts about anger, stress, and anxiety to the whole staff, the tutors acted out several scenarios. Katie portrayed a weepy student while Ben responded as a tutor unsure how to help. This launched an animated discussion of gender and whether stereotypes were applicable. Ben then pretended to be angry at a professor, and Liz responded by agreeing with his complaints. This gave the staff a chance to discuss how to act professionally while still empathizing. Finally, Liz played a stressed-out student, while Katie responded with both sympathy and professionalism. This led the group to brainstorm techniques for redirecting a session. Tutors were fully engaged in identifying problems and finding solutions, and they felt more confident about facing challenging sessions in the future.
Other centers may find their issues are different. Some schools, for example, have a significant portion of students from other cultures or countries with different attitudes toward emotions. In these cases, tutors could research the cultural backgrounds of key groups in the student body and discuss various tutoring approaches that take into account those backgrounds.
5. Ways to Respond
Despite differences among centers, some approaches can be widely applied. The first thing a tutor should do when confronted with an emotional writer is to assess the strength of the emotion. For example, is the student expressing normal anxiety about writing and being evaluated, or is he showing a deeper level of distress?
- Determine the nature of the problem by asking questions. (“Have you had this problem with other papers?”) Try to determine if the feelings are temporary and fleeting or whether they indicate a deeper problem.
- If the emotions appear more immediate (“I have a big exam this afternoon and I just can’t get everything done”), then spending a few minutes empathizing and “actively listening” may be all that’s needed before working on the paper.
- If the writer indicates a deeper problem (“I’ve never talked about this before” or “I don’t think I can get through this”), then you should carefully refer the student to campus resources such as the counseling center. It may not be possible to continue the session at this time; if appropriate, you could suggest rescheduling.
- If the writer responds poorly to advice and starts withdrawing during the session, you should change the tone. Point out more positives about the paper and take a break to chat about the background of the writing or the class to give the student a breather from critique.
- If you think the writer is apathetic (“you do my paper for me”) rather than emotionally upset (“I can’t stand to be criticized”), then you may need to respond more firmly. Remind the student that this is her work and that you are there to assist her, not to fix her paper.
- Give the writer a few moments to collect herself. Your first gesture might be to hand over a tissue (your writing center should provide tissue boxes—they send the message that the staff cares, but also that other students have shared the same situation.)
- Use your judgment about whether to offer a small physical gesture, such as lightly touching an arm. Don’t hug. Don’t appear too intimate. Combine empathy with a certain distance. This may make it easier for the person to regain control.
- If the student can’t regain composure, suggest that you take a break.
- Tell the student that this is a common situation. If you’ve lost control in front of a professor or someone else, you might briefly share the experience in one or two sentences.
- Before the writer leaves, mention the paper again. Suggest rescheduling or whatever next writing step is appropriate for the student, but end on a professional note.
- Whichever direction your preferences lead—whether it’s toward engaging the writer’s emotions or trying to keep greater distance—remember that you aren’t a trained counselor. You can offer a distraught writer temporary help in getting through a rough patch, but you aren’t expected to solve a student’s emotional problems.
Agnostinelli, Corinne, Helena Poch, and Elizabeth Santoro. “Tutoring in Emotionally Charged Sessions.” A Tutor's Guide: Helping Writers One to One. Ed. Bennett A. Rafoth. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2000. 17-23. Print.
Honigs, Jane. “Personal Revelations in the Tutoring Session.” Writing Lab Newsletter 25.5 (2001): 9. Print.
Hudson, Tracy. “Head ‘em off at the pass: Strategies for handling emotionalism in the writing center.” Writing Lab Newsletter 25.5 (2001): 10-12. Print.