Issue 4, Fall 2009
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Consulting Across the Disciplines
With the growing trend toward interdisciplinarity in academic settings, one should embrace consulting across the disciplines. Engaging in discourse with someone who is writing in a discipline other than one’s own presents a unique opportunity for growth for both consultants and clients. Consulting across the disciplines forces us consultants to leave the comfort zones of our home disciplines and to approach conceptual problems from new perspectives. Even when working with unfamiliar content, the consultant is still working in a very familiar context: the Writing Studio.
When I first began tutoring as a sophomore English and French major at the University of Illinois at Chicago Writing Center, I was terrified of encountering a non-literature paper. By that point, I had written papers for courses other than English, but I was much less certain of expectations for writing outside of my home discipline. What if someone came in with a paper on a topic about which I knew nothing? How could I possibly help that person? What if that writer thought less of me or my capabilities? What if that writer asked me questions I couldn’t answer?
The anxieties were many, and rightly so. The unknown can be scary, especially when the pressure is on to successfully help those with writing-related concerns. But as I continued to encounter writers from Psychology, Political Science, and Bioengineering, I began to realize a few things about tutoring outside of the safe and cozy world I knew best.
Lesson 1: From these initial experiences, I learned that writing consultants need not be experts in every conceivable subject. When consultants encounter papers outside of their home disciplines, they should not forget their roles as those who help clients develop writing skills. The actual role of the writing consultant is not to be an expert in any particular subject area. As writing consultants, our clients expect our expertise in writing: constructing arguments, providing and analyzing evidence, organizing ideas, making and supporting claims clearly and effectively. If a consultant happens to know something about the writer’s subject, that can positively shape the dialogue. But if not, no sweat. In fact…
Lesson 2: From my experiences consulting at Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio, I have come to the conclusion that it is good that a consultant is not an expert in every conceivable subject. Although working with a client who is writing about a topic that is familiar can offer certain advantages to the session, working with an unfamiliar subject has its advantages too. Being unfamiliar requires one to ask the writer lots of questions. This is beneficial insofar as it not only gives the consultant a better sense of the kind of work the client is doing, but also forces the client to explain her or his work to an objective third party—to someone who has not been in on the classroom discussion. Having the writer explain the subject not only helps the writer to realize what she or he does and does not understand about the topic, but it also helps build confidence, as the writer takes up the role of being the “expert” on that subject.
Lesson 3: Consultants do not need to know all of the rules of formatting and citation outside of their own disciplines; the Writing Studio’s library is full of style guides and formatting manuals. If a writer comes in with a question about formatting that I cannot answer offhand, I turn it into a moment to model research strategies. Recently a graduate student in Chemistry came to talk with me about turning a conference paper into an article. I didn’t have the faintest clue about what kind of information belonged in either, so I asked her to explain her argument as well as her organizational strategy for the conference paper. In doing so, it became clear that this writer was most concerned with how to construct her overview. I went over to the Writing Studio’s library, picked up the guide to writing about Chemistry, and we used that as a jumping off point for outlining her overview. It was completely okay that my knowledge of amino acids and peptides was far inferior to hers; she sought a writing consultant, after all, and not a tenured chemist.
Lesson 4:Consulting across the disciplines is fun! Who doesn’t want to learn new and interesting bits of information while helping others to improve as writers? Encountering writers from different departments and fields helps consultants develop into careful listeners as well as adds to their knowledge of field-specific practices. Likewise, encountering consultants from different disciplines helps writers communicate more elegantly and clearly.
Interdisciplinary conversation is an integral part of university life and is something that should be sought out instead of shied away from. Working outside of one’s comfort zone can help to make one a more effective and versatile thinker and writer.