Sunday, December 20, 2009

You fix it for me: a lesson in women's work and cultural misunderstandings.(TUTOR'S COLUMN)(Personal account).

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After a tutoring session in which I clearly outlined the nature of my role as a writing center tutor, my student--a six-foot tall, particularly large, imposing Sudanese immigrant--stood up, pointed his finger at me, and bellowed, "You humiliate me!" Our tutoring session had not gone the way he had expected. He had wanted me to write the bulk of his paper for him and proofread what he had already written, and my refusal to comply with his expectations was insulting to him. By the time he verbalized his anger, I was already engaged in another tutoring session. The student I was working with at the time tried to defend me by letting him know that I was, indeed, quite helpful, and other students in the writing center tried to assuage him as well. I respectfully reiterated the policies that we have established at our writing center: we do not proofread, edit, or do the work for our students. Much to my dismay, this Sudanese student became belligerent and disruptive because he found these very policies to be humiliating and disrespectful. His outright anger was inspired by cultural misunderstandings, specifically regarding the work women should do based on his native culture.

I learned two important facts about this student's cultural expectations from his academic advisor. This knowledge helped me understand how this student ended up so angry and frustrated with the typical writing center policy and helped me to understand why he felt that I was not helping him. First, I learned that the student's culture of origin had clear gender roles established, none of which I was adhering to in our session. Sudanese women are the ones who work outside of the home, purchase goods at the market, clean the house, make the meals, care for their parents, children, and sick relatives, and take full care of their husbands. Second, I learned that the women in Sudanese culture do not have any authority over men, nor should they dictate any rules or orders. This restriction would include, of course, teaching or any form of instruction. Another student of mine, a Sudanese woman, told me that this is truly the expectation. She affirmed that women do the vast majority of the work in their culture. As Mary Anne Fitzgerald writes in one of her books focusing on the lives of women in Africa, Throwing the Stick Forward: The Impact of War on Southern Sudanese Women, the civil war in Sudan has "penalized women when it comes to the division of labor" (qtd. in "Sudan"). One Sudanese woman told Fitzgerald that three-quarters of the work is done by women, even the work that used to be done by men. The woman explains:

If you only have sons, then you do all the work. If any of the
tasks is not performed, the man will fight you. Men are meant to
cut wood and smear mud on the walls. Now they leave the work and
tell us to do it. Women are now even fishing. We are now making
fishing nets. That used to be the work of men. Men go to the
forest, thatch the roof. Their other job is to meet with ladies and
produce children. The rest is done by the women. (qtd. in "Sudan")
Because my student was a very recent immigrant to the United States, he was not accustomed to having a female instruct him. With this in mind, I found it much easier to understand my student's resistance to my tutoring session, especially when I refused to do his writing for him. My response to his requests for help seemed foreign, insulting, and, to use his word, humiliating.

In my session with the Sudanese student, he was clearly demanding that I take over his paper, produce a grammatically correct version of it, and hand it back to him error-free. "You make me very sad," he said, expecting that his emotional state would somehow prompt a more nurturing attitude from me. I did concede that writing can be a difficult process and explained that to help him in the way he wanted would taint his work with my words. Like most tutors, I believe that students have a responsibility to do their own writing, and my role is to help those students in the discovery process. He became agitated and said that I was not helping him. "You fix it for me!" he demanded, shoving one of his knuckles into his paper. At this point, the language barrier was clear, and his aggressive knuckle-shove was a threatening gesture. He either did not comprehend what I was saying to him or simply refused to do his own writing. He was taught through his own cultural background that a woman should be doing the work that I was asking him to do, and he perceived my job as that of fixer and helper based on his own cultural understandings. Consequently, he became quite irate and confused when his expectations were not met.

When communication initially fails between tutor and student, communicating through other people (academic advisors, instructors, and counselors) can help move the process in a positive direction rather than shut the door to further dialogue and assistance. Luckily, this student's academic advisor worked closely with him after the incident to explain my role and purpose in our writing center. It is important to note the gender of this student's advisor (male), so taking instruction from him was met with much less resistance than taking instruction from a female writing tutor.

Communication is also facilitated when writing centers have clear policies in place about what is allowed and disallowed. In addition, writing center tutors must adhere to their beliefs about what is acceptable and what is not. Self-preservation is important for female writing center tutors, and standing firm in these personal policies sends a clear message about professionalism, respect, and status. It also tells students that the work of a tutor consists of assisting writers in their own pursuits to become better at the craft instead of doing the work for them.

The downside of this encounter was that the conflict with the Sudanese student did not end with another tutoring session in which he was fully aware of my role as a tutor or with an agreement that he would do his own work on his paper. He did not return to our writing center for further sessions with me, as his advisor decided it would be best if the student dealt with him directly. The upside was that, despite cultural differences, I learned that writing center tutors can take steps to create a bridge between a student's and a tutor's expectations of what a female tutor should do or not do for a student. An important step is to understand that many of the misconceptions about the role of the tutor, specifically the female tutor, come from other cultural ideas about the roles of women. For example, once I learned from his academic advisor that the Sudanese student came from a country with a standard for women's work that is different from my own, I was able to understand the student's reaction based on his cultural background. I was also able to use this information to understand possible responses of other African male students who frequent our writing center. Undoubtedly, this kind of understanding between cultures is a key component to resolving the conflict I experienced.

Ultimately, this conflict with the Sudanese student ended with a positive result for me. This is because most of the resources to handle such a student were available. I wasn't left to my own devices to deal with a threatening student who demanded services from me that go against our policies. I also learned more about the student's background and beliefs and was able to use this information to understand his reaction to our writing center policies. Although situations like these are not frequent occurrences, sometimes these cultural expectations are larger than the tutoring sessions themselves, and it causes more harm than good to continue working with a student when expectations go against writing center policies. Tutors in other writing centers may want to learn more about their students' cultural expectations--especially expectations connected to gender roles. This very knowledge can create an environment where the student no longer expects the female tutor to do all the work.

Work Cited

"Sudan: Focus on Women and War." IRIN News Service. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 12 Nov. 2002. 3 Sept. 2008. .

Kim Zabel

Rochester Community and Technical College

Rochester, MN

Source Citation
Zabel, Kim. "You fix it for me: a lesson in women's work and cultural misunderstandings." Writing Lab Newsletter June 2009: 14. Academic OneFile. Web. 20 Dec. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A204036319

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