Zoe Ginsberg ’16 composes a manifesto for Writing Associates.
Sometimes people just need to be told that they’re wrong. According to my sample size of one, it works. My first semester in college, I was blessed to be taught by the incredible Laura Baudot. On the first paper, I procrastinated and handed in something that was ok. But, she didn’t hand the papers back. No, she required individual conferences to discuss what we could have done better. I was petrified. She was easily my most intimidating professor, and meeting with her individually seemed like it might actually kill me. After all, I knew that I hadn’t really put my all into this paper. So, I go to her office at the prescribed time. It’s quite possibly one of the darkest rooms on campus, full of hundreds of books and assorted plants. She’s drinking tea out of a glass mug. She tells me to sit in a very squashy chair in the corner, which I disappear into—I don’t think my feet touched the floor. She flips through my paper, looks me in the eye, and says,
“You are better than this.”
The words echoed in my head for weeks. It wasn’t that the paper was that bad—she made sure to tell me that. It was just that it could have been, should have been better.
Two things came out of that meeting. One: I was capable of producing a decent paper. My ideas were smart enough and my writing was comprehensible. Two: Something about what I was doing was not working. So I changed. Instead of starting papers five minutes before they were due, I worked through drafts. I free wrote a week in advance. I outlined and wrote and re-outlined. For each paper that semester—and in most semesters since then—I’ve met with the professor at least once, often twice. I send writing associates countless emails. Honestly, I’m probably pretty annoying. But, it works. I’ve never again had a professor tell me I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Something really changed when she said that to me. I realized that I was writing for a person. Someone was reading what I was putting out there. It’s so simple, but it blew my fucking mind. Like, people with PhDs had to sit through the words I had puked out onto a page at one in the morning. I vowed to never again force someone to sit through something I didn’t spend at least a little bit of time on. I mean, I may have broken that vow a couple of times, but at least I feel guilty about it.
Early on in my college career, I got called on my bullshit. If I’m honest, it’s what turned me into a decent writer. Because of that one meeting, I revolutionized my approach. So, without further ado:
The Writing Associate’s Manifesto,
a polemic calling people on their bullshit,
or a way to force students to stop wasting your damn time
Alternatively, What I Wish My Students Knew
Or, perhaps, an angry rant full of sound and fury signifying—
Demands, organized by Audience
- Abolition of required meetings. Students should not be required to meet with us. They should not not not be required to meet with us. If they do not want to meet with us, the meeting we have will be unproductive. In my experience as a WA, people who are forced to show up write crap. If I have to meet with a WA, I will write a shitty draft and grumble my way through a meeting because I do not want to be there. When students write crap, they waste my time and theirs. This is because they do not understand that meeting with me is a goddamn privilege—I can personally say that, with my admittedly small class of nine, meeting with me results in you not having to rewrite your paper. There’s obvious benefit to meeting with me, but if I become a quick thing to check off in the writing process, no one’s really gaining anything. By abolishing mandatory meetings, we can eliminate those unproductive meetings scheduled an hour before the paper is due. Meetings will become a place where genuine change is made because students want to be there.
- Stop telling kids to go to the Writing Center when you don’t feel like dealing with their grammar. Our job is not to fix grammar. Our time is not less valuable than yours, despite what Payroll might indicate. By telling kids to go to the Writing Center to get grammar fixes, you are misrepresenting what the Writing Center does (frustrating both students and WAs) and spreading the notion that grammar is the biggest problem in essays, and thus the thing most worthwhile to fix. Full disclosure: it rarely is.
For the Program
- A WA’s Right to say No. Look, I’m happy to be here. I really am. But, when a student shows up, I have to work with them whether or not they deserve it. I’ve heard horror stories of rude students, misogynistic students, racist students, and horny students. We should not have to deal with these people. Access to WA’s is a privilege, and policy should indicate that.
- Centralized system of communication for all Writing Associates, even after we’ve finished Teaching and Tutoring. We should be able to talk to each other. The experiences of my peers are invaluable, and having access to them would certainly change how I approach my own meetings. This system would also certainly help with the mental health of the WA’s: it’s important to know that we’re not alone.
- If you sign up for a meeting, show up. This should not be something I have to say. We are all busy humans. None of us have time to sit around in Azariah’s twiddling our thumbs and waiting for you. Do not expect me to lie to your professor and say we really met when you showed up ten minutes late, mumbled for five minutes, and then left. Don’t expect me to be totally chill when you don’t let me know you’re not coming. Don’t expect me to rearrange my schedule around your life. Don’t be an asshole.
- Stop trying to impress us with useless crap. This is not a cocktail party, and you are not trying to go home with me. I’m your CWA, which means two things. One: I can’t hang out with you, I can’t date you, and you can’t have my phone number. Two: I know these books, probably better than you do. When I don’t talk in class, it’s not because I don’t know what’s going on. So, when you meet with me, do not mansplain the text to me. I assure you that I understood that metaphor. Yes, you are bringing new things to the table and everyone’s opinion is valuable. But, I did my all of homework and I really don’t want to hear about Foucault or Heidegger—no, it’s not relevant to this British literature class. All I want to do is talk about your paper. Try to impress me there. I dare you.
- Trust us. I promise we at least kind of know what we’re talking about. Even if we’re not working with our specialty, we can definitely help you brainstorm. I’m a CWA and I know what your professor is looking for. I probably wrote this same paper last semester. But, even if I’m a WCWA, I might have had your professor or I might be a major in your department. Just be willing to listen to us. Trust the fact that we’ve been trained to do our jobs.
In Exchange, we will:
- Be better. We can better serve you when you want to be here. Ask us questions and we will answer them. Give us specific problems and we can help fix them. Tell us what you need most help with—if it would help and if you feel comfortable, tell us your background. With all of these demands met, we can all operate in a more effective manner. After all, I’m not doing this for the money. I really am doing this because I love writing and want to help cultivate that love in others. So, when you come to me, help me do my job. Help me be better. If you need to, call me on my bullshit. But, if the above conditions are met, this will be a more effective process for everyone. If nothing else, I’ll be happier if you manage to show up on time.
- Explain what we’re saying. As WAs we speak an odd vernacular of linguistics and pedagogy. If someone had sat me down a semester ago and told me to talk about code meshing, I would have assumed I had missed the latest Mission: Impossible. We understand that sometimes we say things that aren’t super helpful—sometimes I lose track of whether or not I’m using jargon that’s actually helpful. But tell us what you don’t understand and we’ll explain! If you ask, we can outline the essentials of our pedagogy in a couple of minutes—I practice in the mirror and I think I’ve gotten pretty good. Our job is to help you, so just tell us what you need help with.
- Give Reassurance. We all know how to write, and we know what’s it like to sit in your shoes. Writing is hard. The secret: It’s supposed to be hard. Writing is the complex task of putting words to intangible mental processes. It is not supposed to be easy. Most times, it’s not even fun. But, it’s rewarding. It’s deeply satisfying in a way that is nearly impossible to describe. It’s one of the few times you can sit down and force someone into thinking you’re right. Having readers is a gift. Use them to your fullest advantage. We know that this is hard and we know how to help.
- Provide snacks. Snacks make everything better. It’s a fact. I’ll bring Oreos and we’ll get this show on the road.