Before my first Writing Center consultation ever, I was quaking in my boots. After spending a week going over the best practices and principles for consultations, I felt as ready as I could theoretically. However, as soon as I received the inaugural email–an automated copy of my first client’s appointment confirmation–I promptly did what any healthy, self-regulating individual would do: I called my older sister to fix my problems. Thankfully, Lindsay was a fellow Writing Center Consultant and knew what to do to assuage my fears. Two years older than me, she was the Writing Center Manager that year and the holder of all wisdom in my eyes. I frantically picked up the phone, waiting for her wisdom to flow over me, for all my fears to be alleviated.
Three years later, it is my senior year, and I would like to pass on what I learned much as she did. My roommate and fellow senior Writing Center Consultant, Meghan Kwong, has helped me accrue a list of insights for newer consultants. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it to be followed in every case. Every client is unique, which is part of the beauty of working at the Writing Center–each session will bring someone and something different!
So, what are some things I’ve learned in my time at the Writing Center and how has that shaped the way I hold appointments?
The Mindset of Hospitality
For me, truly learning about hospitality meant a deep change in the way I entered sessions and the way I viewed myself in my role. Previously, I viewed myself as being “the teacher,” there to spew out all my knowledge. Before every session, I was so nervous about not knowing what was best that I placed unreasonable pressure on myself. I viewed my role as only one of teaching, not learning. Since then, I have learned to expect the person coming in to change me just as much as I might change them.
To me, practicing hospitality parallels the idea of practicing humility. When you welcome someone into a space, you acknowledge that they are equal to you. In fact, recognizing someone else’s dignity is an intrinsic part of the Judeo-Christian mode of hospitality. As Haswell (et. al) put it in their work, Hospitality in College Composition Courses, “[a]t the heart of traditional Judeo-Christian hospitality is a spiritual and radical equality…no soul is less than any other in the eyes of the Lord” (713). In this space, “the guest, the stranger, even the enemy, is now wreathed in an ethos of the utmost dignity” (713). The authors make sure to stress that equal dignity, privilege, and value of hospitality occur even if the status of the two strangers is separated by external attributes like power, wealth, gender, age, knowledge, skill, or learning (709). In this space, people are truly known and truly loved.
I love what Beitler and Gibson say in their book, Charitable Writing, on this point:
“Humility is the virtue that allows us to see not only our finitude and fallenness but also the goods of our communities. It allows us to recognize that we don’t have all the answers. It helps us to see the enormous contributions of others. For the humble person, dependence on others is not an embarrassment but a potential source of mutual benefit. Humility, in short, makes us teachable.” (33)
Humble people “take a ‘real interest’ in what others say…humility opens us up to the world outside our own heads” (39). Too often in roles where you are in a position of teaching, it can be easy to view others as people to pour knowledge into. However, when you operate from that perspective, you miss the ability to genuinely listen to people’s “desires, principles, and fears” (89). The clients coming in are not just forms from WCOnline, but real people with real frustrations and worries, who can teach you just as much as you can teach them. When you enter with this mindset, sessions become places where you can practice more humility–and places where you can grow!
The Practice of Hospitality
Aside from these larger meditations on hospitality and humility, I’ve compiled a list of logistical ways to show these principles. Here are just a few:
- Change your mindset:
You do not have to be the paragon of all the writing wisdom in the world. It’s okay for you not to know something. Most often, pointing people toward a resource like the Purdue Online Writing Lab or the Writing Center Blog can actually be much more helpful than guessing about an answer you’re not sure about.
- Be relatable:
Don’t be afraid to admit your vulnerability–in many ways, it can make you more relatable! Oftentimes, when a client shares something they struggle with, I will share if I relate. For example, if someone expresses nerves about starting a paper, I will share that I waited until the night before to write my first essay ever, leading to a functional all-nighter (and a B on my first college essay ever!).
- Leave space for introductions:
Take five minutes to establish each other’s names and stories–it makes the space a lot less intimidating. Rather than jumping right into business, ask about how their day went, or about how their classes are going. Doing so recognizes that they are people, whose lives have been busy and complete even before they stepped in the door of the Writing Center.
- Ask clients first:
Ask clients for their thoughts before you give yours. Oftentimes, they will already intuitively know some areas that need work. By asking what they think before jumping in with your advice, you show that you trust their ideas and recognize them as the experts on their own work.
- Give affirmation:
If you sense that a client is uncomfortable, give affirmation. You can see people’s shoulders tense when they are very stressed, or they may look down if they are embarrassed about the content of their writing. However, as soon as you can pick out one good thing about their paper, they often breathe a little easier! By recognizing the good work they have already done, you empower them to continue on.
- End well:
End the consultation with hospitality. You might reference something the client told you earlier in the appointment. For example, if they mentioned their stress about the rest of their assignments, throw in a “good luck on everything else.” If they mentioned the lovely weather, smile and say “I hope you get more time out in the sun.” By doing so, you show that you’ve been listening to their lives apart from their paper and that you care about them as holistic beings.
Although this list is not exhaustive, it is a starting point for showing things I’ve learned. As you grow in your time at the Writing Center, make sure to give yourself grace; these things take time. In truth, this was actually the main point of my sister’s advice. While she did offer some more direct words of advice, much came down to the idea of waiting. I just have to do it, and learn with time. Good luck!