January 2012 Update
What We're Here For: A Reflection on My Work at the Writing Studio
It's noon on a Sunday afternoon. I'm sitting at the tables outside the Morgan Quiznos with David, one of my classmates, waiting for the third member of our presentation group to arrive. He's spectacularly late already, and David and I have run out of small talk. After a long pause full of phone-checking and awkward eye contact, he says, "You work at the Writing Studio, right?"
"Yeah," I tell him.
"What do actually do there?" he says. "Do you like it?"
Fairly standard questions: people seem to be genuinely interested in my work as a Writing Studio consultant. There's a pervasive misconception, among clients and among people who've never been there, that employment at the Writing Studio is reserved for grad students, faculty, and/or experts otherwise unaffiliated with Vanderbilt. It usually surprises people to hear that I, an undergraduate, work there; and I'm always happy to talk about it.
I start to give David the usual answers (I consult clients one-on-one, in fifty-minute sessions, on whatever piece of writing they'd like to work on. And I like it a lot.), but I stop. And I think. The usual answers are completely accurate, but they're sparse enough to be misleading. Their formulaic quality, their textbook dullness, implies a standardized routine that simply doesn't exist during consultation sessions.
I realize that I don't know how to answer the question. At the same time, I feel an astonishing urge to get it right, to be precise, to say exactly what I mean. There's no point telling myself it doesn't matter that much, that he's just making small talk. It's like when I'm writing papers and there's a specific word I'm looking for—any of ten others will suffice, but, due to my bizarre masochistic stubbornness, I won't stop thinking until I find the word. Now, at the Quiznos tables, I won't let the question go until I've found the answer. I think back to a recent session:
It's six fifty-three on a Monday evening. My three-hour shift starts in seven minutes. I'm trudging up the stairs to the second floor of the Commons Center. Haven't even gotten to the Writing Studio, and already I'm exhausted. I woke up at seven and spent all day alternating between class and working on my paper for Jewish American Literature. As usual, I've sectioned the paper into successive chunks: get to page 2 on Saturday, page 4 on Sunday, page 6 today, and finish tomorrow. No big deal. Except right now I'm still on page four, and the only thing I'll be good for after my shift ends is sleeping. In short, I'm frustrated. I know my workload would seem like nothing to a lot of people, but it's a lot for me, for the same reason that I've written 464 words of this article and haven't even gotten to the consultation session yet. I take a long time. You could call it long-winded. I prefer meticulous.
Bottom line is, I'm honestly not looking forward to this shift. As I set my backpack down at my favorite table, I hope for a few minutes to sit down, to check my email, to exercise my profound powers of laziness. No luck. The client walks through the door right after me: a short, dark-haired girl, impossibly cheerful considering it's getting close to finals week. I smile, introduce myself, ask her about her paper. She tells me the basics: when it's due, how long it is, how long it's supposed to be, what she wants to work on. Flow, she says, which is a shorter word for everything.
The paper, I quickly realize, is good. Too good, it seems at first. How am I supposed to know what deracination means this late in the evening? The real problem isn't the vocabulary, though; it's the complexity. She's got enough insightful ideas in her intro to fuel ten thesis statements. Naturally, she's interested in all of them. For the next fifty minutes, it's my job to help her pare them down to what's both necessary and sufficient for this paper. In other words, I need to help her make the paper flow.
I start off, as I often do, with a Moment of Panic. It consists of the standard question—How am I going to do this?!—plus a couple of existential quandaries (What am I doing here? Who in their right mind thought I belong here?). Fortunately, the moment never lasts long, and it takes place in the back of my mind, leaving me free to keep the session going. The answer to the standard question is the same every time: Break it down. Break down the ideas, break down the sentences, break down the arguments into basic logical progressions. Whenever something seems problematic or confusing, break it down.
We fuse her ideas into what she considers the core of her argument—a working thesis, I like to call it. She writes it down: a single sentence, long but clear. She'll probably change it as we get through more of the paper, but for now, we have a direction. We move to the body paragraphs and evaluate the strength of the topic sentences, analyze the relationship of evidence to analysis, follow the reasoning from one sentence to the next. At some point, I become absorbed. Eventually, my brain snaps me out of it enough for me to glance at the clock. Crap! I think. We're almost out of time. I say it out loud, except for the crap part, and inwardly I cringe: we've covered exactly half of her six-page paper. Three whole pages. I've been "meticulous" again.
She doesn't mind. She thanks me and says it's been helpful. I smile. We go over the biggest take-aways: Make sure those topic sentences really encompass the argument. Break down those logical chains as much as you need to. Bullet points, even. Just make sure you're not skipping steps.
And I'm happy. We didn't talk about the whole paper, but she's left with something new, a handful of ideas on how to make the paper into what she wants it to be. And that's enough. That's what we're here for. Why, I ask myself, wasn't I looking forward to the session?
And then I remember that my next session starts in ten minutes. And I'm not looking forward to it, either, even though I can't quite understand why. I'm confident that the session will be successful, that I can help the client somehow, even if it's just a little. So why am I so apprehensive? I can't figure it out.
Sitting here with David at the Quiznos tables a week later, though, I finally understand. It's good that I'm not looking forward to it. In fact, that's why I'm satisfied with the work I do there. As I've mentioned, I'm naturally lazy. Not lazy enough to avoid doing my work, but lazy enough to gripe about it. And my Writing Studio consultations are work. They're hard work—the type of work that, naturally, I'm most lazy about. And they need to be hard work. I will make sure that they're the hardest work I do. Because that's how I know I'm doing my best. If this were some other job, one without much urgency or one-on-one interaction, then I could slack off. I could take it easy. I could look forward to going to work, because it'd be almost as fun as free time—after all, I could be lazy. But at the Writing Studio, I can't. It's just me and one other person, and that person needs help, and, as it turns out, I'm the one who can provide that help. I can't always give clients everything they need, but I'll be satisfied as long as I'm giving them everything I can. No less. Because that's what the consultants are here for.
"I work hard," I tell David. "And I love it."
As far as he's concerned, it's an astonishingly crappy answer—it tells him essentially nothing about what I do. But it tells me essentially everything. And I mean "essentially" literally—the answer helps me understand the essence of my job. After working at the Writing Studio for a year and a half, it's nice to finally understand why I feel the way I feel about these sessions—the apprehension, then the satisfaction. Most of all, it's nice to finally know what I'm doing there.