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Damage Control: Salvaging a Too-Directive Appointment

As writing tutors we often fear unduly influencing our tutees and their papers, so we avoid, perhaps in some instances to a counterproductive level, potentially effective directive approaches. However, there are some indicators that a directive approach may be useful. A directive approach may be fruitful especially when a tutee is engaging with you on substantive issues. This does not just occur in brainstorming appointments. If a tutee wants to know if her arguments or organization “make sense” and can answer “why” questions, it may be fair to pose a suggestion and see how the student responds. If a student has demonstrating an ability to push back, a directive approach may be the best form of collaborative tutoring. On the other end of the spectrum, directive approaches are also valuable when the student has a weak understanding of particular discourse conventions.

At the same time, we may realize somewhere along the appointment that we’ve made one suggestion too many and that the student is looking to us for answers. Some suggestions for salvaging the appointment:

1) Start asking questions that demand engagement and push-back.

  • Do periodic check-ups
  • Ask, “is this helpful?” and more importantly, the why: “What is helpful about this?”
  • This forces the tutee to give input about your tutoring style and allows you to shift approach if they are unable to articulate if/why you are being helpful
  • Ask about opposing viewpoints to make the student more critical
  • This is easier to do in an argumentative paper
  • If you are past the point of the thesis, ask what a critic might say about a specific argument.
  • Even if the paper is not argumentative, talk about alternative forms of structure/organization/etc.
  • Ask the student to decide which form best suits their needs and the prompt and to articulate their reasons
  • Ask if the student to think of an argument against any particular advice you’ve given them
  • This forces the student to acknowledge that you are being directive and that there may be good reasons to disagree/consider your advice in light of other issues.

2) Explain the “why.”

  • Explain why you select a particular approach so the student has an opportunity to respond to your approach. If you decide to switch to a nondirective one, explain the shift.
  • E.g. “I am going to ask you some questions about this character in the hopes of getting at a deeper analysis,” or, “I think it’s better if the answer to this question comes from you because you ultimately have to articulate and defend it in this section.”
  • When illustrating points, give examples and analogies based on unrelated topics. Then ask the student to apply it to their own prompt.
  • When pointing out grammatical issues or awkward sentences, offer example “fixes” so that the student recognizes the problem

3) Focus on and use the student’s strengths.

  • Identify what a student recognizes as their own writing-related strength, and appeal to it to recalibrate the power-dynamic. This may require revisiting stronger parts of the paper and asking the student to explain their decisions on these sections. This approach may also be used to resolve other problems:
    • E.g. if a student says that she is a good researcher, appeal to her sense of detail on an organizational issue –“Is this outline specific enough to keep these arguments organized? How did the authors you read frame their arguments?”

4) Recap the appointment.

  • Ask the student if they got anything out of the appointment. Get them to articulate a specific answer, so that the student recognizes what you were trying to convey and leaves with at least a concrete lesson.