Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Role of a Consultant.

Within writing centre circles the power dynamics of the consultation is a common theme for discussion. Consultants have a lot of power in their hands. They are the knowledge bearers, the teachers, the empowered...and that's ok. After all, students are coming to us looking for expert guidance. It is not wrong for consultants to have power, but it is wrong for them to hold onto it. I like the image of two people on a see-saw - there needs to be give and take and, as power is transferred, balance can be achieved.

Achieving balance, though, is about more than just transferring all your knowledge to the student. Achieving balance actually begins before the consultation, because it starts with your mind-set. It starts with a conscious choice to be respectful of the student, regardless of appearances. 

Everyone is fighting some kind of battle. This is almost always true - a sick parent, massive student loans, an abusive past, a mental illness, a failing relationship, looming deadlines or a dismal academic record. Usually, our burdens are hidden, but behind the student who was five minutes late with the woefully incomplete draft of their essay, there is a whole lot going on that we know nothing about. It's our job to be mindful of that and remember that a little bit of grace can go a long way. When a student knocks on our door, they are generally not at their best, they are stressed, pressured and worried, but they are also proactive, hopeful and tenacious, and it's also our job to be respectful of that

A smile, a kind word, a compliment. 

Who does not feel a little lighter after someone has paid you a genuine compliment? As consultants we use something called the 'sandwich technique'. Start with praise, end with praise. Not useless generic "this is nice" or "I liked that" praise, but constructive, focused praise. "You have done a good job of integrating sources into your text, the way you position yourself in relation to them makes your thoughts really clear." Praise that tells the student what they are doing right. This is important because it builds their confidence and helps them to focus on areas that actually need improvement.

"He who holds the pen, holds the power"

During the consultation, engage the student. If the consultant does all the work, the student leaves with nothing. The first step is to facilitate dialogue, but often students are unsure and reluctant to speak. When this happens the consultant needs to hold the silence for the student. Be quiet, be patient and wait for them to find their words, to find their voice. By being silent, we give the student the opportunity to be heard. The same thing is true for the writing. Give the pencil to the student. Let them make the changes and annotations as you discuss the work. Give them the opportunity to take ownership. 

At the end of the consultation, make sure that you have been understood and that the student has a clear plan of action. Normally, this responsibility lies with the student, "If you don't understand, then ask!", but this is a burden I would urge consultants to carry. Consider it a matter of professional pride and make sure you have been understood.

It should always be our goal for students to walk out of consultations feeling better than when they walked in. The should leave feeling heard, respected, more focused, more confident and empowered. As consultants, we have it within our power to to do really good things, so go on, be a daymaker!

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