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February 12, 2014

Working with Writers on Controversial Topics

by: Tyler Lane

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 At some point in your writing center career, it’s bound to happen. You’ll work with a student writing on a topic that is surrounded by controversy. It might be a topic that is very emotionally charged for you. And the student might even hold an unpopular stance on the issue. Maybe it’s something to do with religion, or evolution, or something at the center of heated political debate. Regardless of how you feel about the topic, you’ve got to help the student with their paper, but how?

Remember to separate yourself. It’s very possible that the student will be arguing against your position on a topic. Even if it’s something you feel passionately about, this is about helping the student, who is entitled to an opinion just as you are. Do not let yourself become angry or confrontational during a session. It’s not your job to change the student’s mind about the topic or to debate them, but it is your job to help them express themselves effectively.

Remain objective. Whether you share the student’s perspective or not, the most helpful thing you can do for them is read from an objective point of view. Let them know how someone with an opposing stance may perceive their argument. Ask questions that someone who disagrees with them would ask. Keep an eye out for arguments that lack support, and bring this to their attention. This could actually be more important if you happen to agree with the student’s position, as you may be tempted to overlook potential objections to, or holes in, their argument.

Let them know exactly how they sound. If something comes across as offensive, don’t be afraid to say so. You could say something like, “What exactly did you mean by this? Because to me it sounds like you’re saying…” It’s very possible that they sounded offensive when it was not their intention, and they’ll probably be grateful that you pointed it out before they turned it in. On the other hand, maybe they meant it exactly how they said it, and that’s fine too. Remember, it’s not on you. You can politely remind them that if you find it offensive, it’s very possible that their professor will too.

Save your feelings for after the session. If you find yourself angry or upset over something you read or heard during a session, keep calm in the moment. You can always vent to a leader in the center once the session is over.

Working with a student writing on something controversial is not easy, especially if it happens to be something you feel strongly about. But remembering these tips will help you handle the session in a way that is beneficial to both you and the student. If you’re lucky, you might even gain some insight from a perspective you hadn’t considered before.

What do you think?

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