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The Nervous Student

There are many students who enter the Writing Center or Drop-In hours with some sort of fear, a fear that is so strong it affects their ability to communicate and/or is also physically visible. In my experience most of these students are freshmen or first-time writing center visitors, but I’m sure there are other student who feel nervous in consultations as well.

What might that fear be?

Generally this nervousness seems to be based on a fear of being judged by the tutor or of being unable to complete an assignment well (or some combination of the two). Perhaps the student has learned little about writing and therefore is particularly aware of his/her lacking skills in this area. Other students know the basics of how to write but are unsure about what to write. I’ve even had a few come in who are writing on a controversial topic and are afraid that I will reject their stance entirely.

What does that fear look like?

Sometimes a student’s nervousness is so intense that it manifests physically: fidgeting with hands, zipping and unzipping a jacket, shifting in their seat, twiddling a strand of hair, to name a few things you might see. They may also avoid direct eye contact when they’re speaking to you.

Nervousness is sometimes recognizable in the way a student speaks. They may speak particularly softly, or say a lot quickly and in a rather random fashion. Sometimes a student will push their paper towards you and mumble a quick “could you just look through this?” Other times they will point out their own uncertainty by saying something along the lines of “I’m really not that good at writing” or “This is second draft of my paper and I’ve talked with my professor but it still isn’t good.”In either case a lack of confidence appears in the either the things the student says or the way they say it. The student’s interaction with you can generally help with recognizing the cause of their fear, and of course asking questions about the class, professor, and the essay itself will always help to clarify this point.

What can we do to help?

Smile! Not obsessively, but in away that makes the student feel welcome. A generally kind facial expression can work wonders during introductions and throughout the discussion. This includes the part where you read the paper; sometimes the students stares off into space or is working on a backwards outline, but I’ve noticed they’ll often look over to check your reaction. This means it is best not to be caught with an eyebrow raised, a smirk, a genuine frown or even an inappropriate laugh. This may seem obvious but facial expressions are often involuntary and thus some attention should be given to keeping a passive expression while reading. Don’t obsess over this as it will then be distracting, just remain aware of the general image you’re putting forth.

As you begin to discuss the essay, clearly show your interest and your acceptance of the writer’s perspective (if you need to address some issues regarding racism/sexism/stereotyping/etc. in the student’s language, discuss it later on). Make it obvious that you care and are not there to judge. Start with a bit of praise, even if it’s just slight, and then move to the student’s chief concerns. This allows them to tackle whatever it is that is making them most nervous, and like actually beginning any daunting assignment this seems to bring a bit of relief. In most cases this will start to ease the student’s nerves, and they will begin to talk more comfortably with you. If not, be patient and continue to smile and encourage the student to talk and discuss their ideas as they revise.