Rethinking Patience

Multilingual Writers, Peer Tutoring / Monday, February 15th, 2016

By Rachel Azima –

Rachel and Cameron
Rachel Azima is the director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Writing Center.  While completing her Ph.D. in English, she worked for 13 semesters in the UW-Madison Writing Center.  Rachel and Cameron at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo

When I took my first writing center director position, I inherited a set of interview questions that I have continued to tweak, semester by semester. One question I have retained is one I imagine many folks might ask prospective consultants: what are some qualities you feel a consultant should have (and, as a follow-up, how do you embody them)?

An answer I have often received—and that tends to make me wince a little—is “patience.” This probably seems like an odd response to get hung up on; “patience” is one of those words that seems pretty reliably positive. It reminds me of “community” in Joseph Harris’s “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing,” in which he invokes Raymond Williams’ discussion of community as a term that “seems never to be used unfavourably” (13).

Given that patience is similarly assumed to be a good thing, generally speaking, my resistance to it as an interview answer seemed more than a little unreasonable. I mean, impatience wouldn’t be a particularly useful quality for a consultant, would it? Before I go on, I want to issue two disclaimers:

  1. I am not by nature a patient person. Particularly as a parent, this is a character flaw I struggle with every day.
  2. There are many wonderful, necessary things about patience in writing center work: being patient with ourselves, waiting for answers to our questions rather than rushing in with more of our own words, being patient with writing and consulting as processes that take time and typically don’t benefit from attempting to barrel through at breakneck speed. These are indispensable forms of patience, and far be it from me to discount them.

I didn’t think, however, that my gut response to the “patience” answer was simply because of its contrast with my own temperament—though if we’re going to be honest, perhaps it was in part. But it didn’t seem that #2 was necessarily what folks had in mind either. The word usually came up in the context of other comments that evoked the “little teacher” mentality we typically try to avoid: an attitude of “I know how to do this, and I will be patient while you figure it out.” (This was never a deal-breaker, of course, since typically the interviewee was simply unfamiliar with our approach to tutoring. It just gave me pause.)

Patience in another context

That being said, I knew that perhaps I was misreading this, so I was all right with my reaction to hearing about patience in interviews as a possibly justifiable but fairly idiosyncratic pet peeve. But at a recent professional gathering, conversation turned in a panel discussion (as it often does) to working with non-native speakers of English. When someone asked, “What do we need to work successfully with ESL students in the writing center?” the very first response to the question was “patience.”

"Patience" by Daniel Horacio Agostini is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
“Patience” by Daniel Horacio Agostini is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

But why? Why would this be a quality that needed to be called out specifically when discussing a particular sub-group of writers? Is patience really more necessary for working with non-native speakers, as opposed to native ones?

This time it really bothered me—and I think writing this blog post has helped me figure out why.

First, I think it speaks to the mentality of non-native speakers as “different” students, in the ways Jackie Grutsch McKinney highlights in the “Writing Centers Tutor (All Students)” chapter of Peripheral Visions For Writing Centers. We can “deal” with these writers with extra patience, waiting as they catch up, or try to—the implied attitude I found bothersome in the interview context, but on steroids. Tying the need for patience to an identity category seems questionable at best.

But the bigger problem in my mind is where it locates the challenge in the consultant-writer dynamic: when it comes to working with multilingual writers, I would argue that the “patience” mindset assumes that communication breakdowns, whether written or oral, stem from the non-native speakers’ lack of facility with the language—a difficulty that can be offset by more patience from the consultant. But particularly when we’re thinking about communication between writers and consultants, I don’t think this is the full story.

"Living on the edge" by Linh Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Living on the edge” by Linh Nguyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Here’s where I have to issue another disclaimer, which is that I can’t find a way to say what I want to without it coming off as boastful, which is not what I intend. So let me just forge ahead: since I grew up around immigrant grandparents who spoke heavily accented English, I have generally felt like I had a leg up in understanding non-native speakers of English. These experiences have assuredly shaped my perspective: I think it’s possible to pick up more of the slack, as it were, and do more of the deciphering and understanding when communicating becomes challenging. (Rest assured that this is the silver lining for me of feeling quite profoundly othered while growing up in the Midwest, when all I wanted were “normal” family members.)

But I know not everyone has what I have come to recognize as an advantage: adequate practice in understanding folks who speak the language differently than one does oneself. Many of us work in places with relatively homogenous populations, where consultants simply do not have the opportunities to hear different varieties of spoken English on a regular basis. And even formative experiences like mine are not a guarantee: I remember vividly working with a writer in Madison who was struggling a great deal with both speaking and understanding spoken English. We only managed to talk about a few sentences during the appointment, and even then, I wasn’t sure I had helped. I had a very hard time understanding what she was saying and making myself understood, and I felt badly that I wasn’t able to provide better assistance.

"He Waits" by greg is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
“He Waits” by greg is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

But although I did blame the university for not providing her adequate support to begin with, I was also unhappy with my own inability to understand and communicate successfully. And I think that’s what we need to do in writing centers: look as much at ourselves as we do our multilingual writers as the sources of communication challenges in cross-cultural consulting situations. And I believe thinking in terms of “patience” obscures this need for self-examination.

What now?

So what are we to do? We can’t hop in a time machine and change our consultants’ life experiences so they are more used to hearing different forms of accented English. Perhaps there are opportunities for more low-stakes engagements between consultants and writers at our institutions, where both can practice understanding the other. As Ben Rafoth articulates in Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers, we certainly need to look carefully at staff education, and we may well need to hire more non-native speakers and language learners as consultants (believe me, I realize that I’m replicating unhelpful stereotypes by assuming a native-speaking consultant throughout this post).

"A noiseless, patient spider, I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated; Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding, It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself; Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them." - Walt Whitman "Patience" by leisergu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.” – Walt Whitman, “A Noiseless Patient Spider”
“Patience” by leisergu is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Happily, though, a lot of this has to do with mindset—hence my resistance to “patience” as the go-to answer. We can realize that communication often breaks down because of our failure to understand, not just the writer’s failure to communicate in ways we expect. I explicitly encourage consultants to acknowledge this openly: it’s perfectly fine—preferable, really—to ask writers to repeat themselves more than is comfortable rather than guessing at what they mean, possibly even saying “I’m sorry, I struggle sometimes with understanding other accents. Can you repeat it one more time for me?”

And of course, it’s more complicated than mere listening comprehension: one time toward the end of her life, my grandmother said to me, “you always seem to know what it is I’m trying to say. Your mom was like that too.” (This was a big deal for her to acknowledge, especially since she was no fan of my mom’s at the time.) One might imagine that my bilingual father would or should have found it easier to figure out what she was trying to say in English, but that wasn’t the case. It took a different kind of listening and attention—the same kind we hope to cultivate among consultants in general, just with an additional layer of linguistic and cultural complexity in the mix. I’m convinced it’s this kind of close, careful listening that’s key: I speak maybe a dozen words of my grandmother’s first language, so that certainly wasn’t what helped. It would possibly be useful for more of us to know Chinese or Arabic or Portuguese or whatever the first language is for many students we see in the writing center, but I don’t believe it’s essential—which is good news for all of us and our limited curricula and lifespans.

Now that I’ve written all of this out, it seems incredibly basic. But we all know that subtle differences do matter. The mindsets we inhabit at the start (or even before the start) of a session invariably shape what happens between us and the writers we talk with. And given trends across the country in higher education, when more and more international students are being admitted to our universities, it behooves us to continually re-think our approaches to supporting multilingual writers and to avoid falling into unhelpful habits of thinking.

I didn't take this one, but I have taken my share of plastic camera photographs. My son has no concept of the patience that used to be built into photography. "Patience" by changeorder is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
I didn’t take this one, but I have taken my share of plastic camera photographs. My son has no concept of the patience that used to be built into photography.
“Patience” by changeorder is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

So what would be my answer to the question posed during the professional panel discussion about what is essential for working with writers who are non-native speakers? Empathy. Excellent listening skills, including the ability to decipher and extrapolate without assuming or projecting (an absolutely vital distinction and a tightrope walk that takes practice—and humility—to master). The ability to pay careful attention so you can find out what the writer means, and so you don’t miss subtle cues, such as when you’ve guessed incorrectly but the writer is too polite to tell you. Creativity, so one can find multiple ways of explaining a concept or different strategies for tackling a knotty writing problem. Basically, everything that is crucial for working with any writer, just turned up to 11.

And, yes, patience too, when you come down to it—enough to make sure you are truly on the same page before you move on or make concrete suggestions; enough to wait while you both think and listen, and so you don’t feel pressured to achieve a misleading sort of completeness during any particular session. Patience can be beautiful and valuable, and I may well need to get over my own hangups about it—but it also can’t hurt to remember that it might also bring along baggage that we would do well to unpack.

My thanks to one of my Assistant Directors, Nicole Green, who has been patient (ha!) with my informal rants on this topic and who also helped me clarify my draft. Any flaws that remain are of course my own.

Works Cited

Grutsch McKinney, Jackie.  Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers.  Utah State UP: 2013.  Print.

Harris, Joseph.  “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 40.1 (1989): 11–22.  Web.

Rafoth, Ben.  Multilingual Writers and Writing Centers.  Utah State UP: 2015.  Print.

15 Replies to “Rethinking Patience”

  1. I did a massive fistpump reading this post. I LOVE what you have done here thinking about communication difficulties and the problematic value (or virtue) of patience here as it is commonly invoked as something a quote-unquote “we” needs to practice for a quote-unquote “them”. There is something really really valuable in recognizing that we all–every single one of us–have difficulties around communicating in some contexts, and it is not simply about waiting / giving people space to articulate their thoughts (although certainly some people might need or want a slower pace for the conversation– this applies very much to many people with disabilities, too). It’s about creating an active listening/conversing space where both participants are coming together in a way to figure out how they can best communicate TOGETHER.

    As a deaf academic, I often have to tell people I struggle with accents (especially the first time I meet someone), and I have felt guilty and ashamed sometimes that this makes things harder for folks I work with — but over time, I’ve come to reframe this not as “Stephanie has a problem that other people need to help with” but rather, as “here are some changes that would help this communication”–writing things down, creating a space where it’s OK to ask for repetition, even several times, even after the point of awkwardness/embarrassment, figuring out what words and phrases make mutual sense, etc.

  2. I had never considered the many valences of patience that you unpack here–it is so fascinating to think about how a commonplace we often take for granted as a positive quality can also be deployed in problematic ways. I stopped and reread this line several times: “And I believe thinking in terms of ‘patience’ obscures this need for self-examination.” It’s true, I thought to myself, that simply performing patience in a challenging communicative situation, without thinking about the complex identity dynamics and needs of the writer–and, as Stephanie points out, the consultant–can close off other possibilities for interaction.

    For me, this connects back to the notion of trying to be conscious of ourselves, to examine what we’re doing and avoid falling into autopilot mode in a consultation. Unless we stop to consider *why* we feel called to act patient in a writing situation, then who is that stance actually serving? In fact, I think “self-examination” is such an important piece of this puzzle. I would add it to your thoughtful list of qualities that will serve us better in working with non-native English speakers–and all writers.

  3. I love this post so much, Rachel, for so many reasons. As you and Stephanie both point out, there is something problematic in the way that “patience” creates an us v. them dynamic in which the writing center professional is always the patient one. I would also argue that the way we often hear “patience” discussed in the writing center context actually functions to reinscribe the deficit model of learning that writing center professionals typically congratulate themselves for moving beyond. “Patience” is listed as a badge of honor–proof of a generosity of spirit, a quasi-religious martyrdom–when, in fact, it is actually being used to reinforce power, authority, and the social capital associated with particular ways of knowing, being, and communicating. In a similar vein, I always bristle when I hear WC folks discuss how they “deal” with certain issues in their work, a verb that seems to position the WC professional as the sympathetic sufferer and the writer as the problem.

    Like Katie, I also think the way we often use “patience” probably points to our lack of introspection and self-reflexivity in the conferencing moment, and I am excited to see the way your posts suggests that if we are thinking about patience as a skill involved in writing center work, we might better direct it inward, rather than always only imagining patience for some Other.

    Finally, I think I wince at the word “patience” because of the way it is frequently deployed in other contexts as a means of controlling and dismissing the concerns of oppressed and marginalized populations. I think about conservative voices responding to various civil rights movements suggesting that people of color, women, queer folk, and so many other groups “just need to be patient.” I think about individuals working to make change in institutions and political systems who are told that “things move slowly and you just have to be patient.” I think part of my concern with “patience” is that it can be a passive posture, a disempowering one. This is, of course, the critique I have leveled against campaigns like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better.” These sorts of calls for patience work under the assumption that progress is an inherent reality, that the world around us can’t help but ameliorate. They dismiss the need need for work and for activism.

    This last frustration with “patience” may seem far removed from the WC context, but I don’t think it always is. What if we replaced patience with “a spirit of inquiry,” “creativity,” or “enthusiasm,” postures designed to do important activist work, to make change? I think this is what made me so excited to see you explore other possible answers to than interview question.

  4. I love how you problematize patience in this piece! It reminds me of some of the problems with words like “tolerance” when describing issues of difference– tolerance assumes the speaker has to “tolerate” some kind of deviation from the norm or deficit in someone else, and it’s a profoundly passive word. I think “patience” often has passive connotations, too…it evokes waiting, like many of the images that accompany your piece. Yet if TESOL research suggests that we learn when we actively negotiate meaning, it is not necessarily passivity and waiting but a willingness to engage even in uncomfortable situations that fosters growth for both writer and consultant. If terms like social justice and activism position us in more active roles in relation to difference in society, fostering what Radcliff would call “accountability,” what sets of terms might provide that edge to patience? I like “empathy”–what else?

  5. What a great observation and subsequent dialogue in this post and comments about “patience” as a supposedly necessary trait for writing center consultants. Although I don’t work in a writing center, when I teach or confer with others on their writing, I sometimes need to remind myself to make sure I understand the what the author hopes to say and accomplish with the piece. It can be easy for people in a “consultant” position to fall into the erroneous mindset that they’re there to make the writing better. It seems to me that good readers withhold any tendency toward assumptions or judgment, and instead ask questions. And those questions can do more than open a dialogue about the writing, Instead, they provide an opportunity to practice various modes of thinking — inquiry, analysis, problem solving, etc. — while also acknowledging that the author is and will remain in control of their own writing. In this way, it seems to me that curiosity and respect for the author’s work are, if not paramount, at least much higher on the list than qualities like patience that may sound good on a superficial level but subtly serve to reinforce a superior stance — an attitude that runs the risk of doing more harm than good. Thank you, Rachel Azima, for raising our awareness about the implied assumptions and potential damage of developing professional “patience.”

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Rachel. In writing center work, I’ve always associated patience with an ability to abide silence within a session. To me, patience is a form of listening and withholding. In this way, I think having patience is a valuable quality because it means recognizing that learning takes time and that a tutor should allow space for thinking and processing.

    However, I can see a different reading of patience here–you’re critiquing the idea of patience as a willingness to tolerate communication barriers. From this perspective, I can see how easily patience can slide into condescension.

  7. Yes!! I love this! I can suddenly see all the many nuances underneath a statement I’ve likely made many many many times!

    Patience assumes that the destination is set, that the “we” are waiting on the “them” to understand the directions we are patiently laying out for them to follow. These destinations are always full of good intentions–to help familiarize a student with a way of communicating that is customary & conventional for the assignment at hand. But what gets glossed over as we wait? What aren’t we doing in that silence? It’s not that we’re not listening–we are. But we’re listening FOR instead of listening TO. (Now I’m thinking of how frustrating the preceding statement might be for someone still acclimating to our baffling prepositions!) We’re in the moment with the student, but we’re waiting for that moment to turn into the next moment, the one where they get it right, where they say the thing we want them to say, where they arrive at the destination we’ve often chosen for them.

    When we’re listening FOR what we want them to realize, we’re focused on the problem. When we listen TO the human being in the act of realizing, we’re focused on the moment, the person, the process of realization, the opportunity to find out what that understanding must feel like for them. Do we follow that up? Do we ask, “what just happened?” Do we ask, “how did you get from not knowing to knowing? What was that like? How can you do it on your own? What can we practice that will help you do the same thing without help?”

    By listening FOR evidence that they are on the right track, we’re missing, for one, some really interesting cognitive labor, taking place in multiple areas of the brain possibly in multiple languages. Cool stuff! Lots to talk about!

    When we do our CRLA Level I training, which all tutors–writing, math, chemistry, language, etc.–attend, we really try to foreground empathy. We do so by writing “problems” on one side of a whiteboard and “people” on another. Then we walk through various scenarios and discuss what happens when we focus on the problem at hand, and what happens when we focus on the person we’re trying to communicate with–speak to, listen to, learn about, learn from, etc. This little training routine always makes me happy. Tutors say things like, “if we focus on the problem the talk is dense and technical; if we focus on the person, the talk turns toward what they already know, what they will take with them after working on the problem.” Ok, they only say that verbatim in my soft-focus, happy-days reconstruction of what they really say, which may not be the above, but does contain occasions to invite tutors to take it further–are we here to preserve & protect the conventions of academic writing, to ensure adherence to its codes? Or are we here to talk with people?

    Empathy and creativity, as you say, are ways to understand the people we’re here to talk with as well as the ever shifting location of the problems that emerge during that process. We can talk about those problems, if we are open to BEING the problem as well as one half of the solution.

    LOVED this piece! Your grandmother’s words–“you always seem to know what it is I’m trying to say”–must have been so wonderful to hear. Thank you for sharing that moment.

  8. Rachel, I found this post so helpful — and timely, too, as I think about revising the class that trains new consultants at the writing center I run. I do think there’s a place for patience in WC sessions: patience with the writing process, a willingness to spend time with one’s own ideas, all that stuff you mention in your initial disclaimer. But I’m really struck by the idea that (I’m paraphrasing here) “patience” is often code for “waiting for a writer who I assume knows less than I do to come up with language I find acceptable.” And I love the idea of thinking about sessions — any sessions, but perhaps especially sessions with multilingual writers — as being less about patience than about empathy, attentiveness, creativity. Lots to think about and share with my staff!

  9. “thinking in terms of “patience” obscures the need for self-examination.” My favorite part of this piece as I think it speaks to so many of the paradigms used to understand teaching more broadly. I wonder how different teaching and tutoring would look if we were able to really put this idea of beginning in self-examination to the forefront. We’d have to embrace the risk of facing our own biases, privileges, projections, and fears. Then, more people would write pieces like this one! Thanks, Rachel!

  10. “And I think that’s what we need to do in writing centers: look as much at ourselves as we do our multilingual writers as the sources of communication challenges in cross-cultural consulting situations. And I believe thinking in terms of “patience” obscures this need for self-examination.”

    Like others who have commented on this post, I found these lines particularly powerful. Your unpacking of the word “patience” is thoughtful and nuanced, and I came away from the piece with a fresh perspective on “the gaze” of the writing center, which tends to fall most heavily on student-writers, particularly those with non-standard dialects. Attending the writing center is often framed as an attempt to reconcile a problem–a problem that begins with the student and his/her writing. Your critique, however, de-centers the student from this gaze, calling attention instead to the ways that tutors themselves are implicated in the communicative act of consulting. The problem, then, is re-framed in a more rhetorically conscious way that includes consideration of audience in addition to the individual writer. I wonder how we can cultivate the kind of listening skills and self-examination that would lead to more fruitful, democratic exchanges between tutors and students.

  11. Thanks, Rachel! Like others are picking up, I appreciate the inward turn, “look[ing] as much at ourselves as we do our . . . writers”: YES! Great strategy.

    One thing I think you’re dancing around throughout this post is that /time/ should not be held up as the most valuable resource in a session: in fact, sometimes it feels like the least available resource. It is only one resource a consultant can “spend” on a writer, so to speak.

  12. Thanks, Rachel, for this excellent meditation on what we mean when we talk about patience. As someone who studies American literature, I can’t help but think about Benjamin Franklin, whom many of us would associate with phrases like “patience is a virtue” and advice on how to be thrifty. But your post reminds me that, like many Franklinian virtues, patience can be used to boost someone’s authority while simultaneously making that person look good. Ultimately, it feels disingenuous, but it’s hard to put a finger on why. I’ll remember your post the next time I want to juxtapose not giving a student an opportunity to talk or think in a conference with an opposite approach (or virtue?) – patience probably isn’t the opposite, but something more like careful listening is.

  13. Wow, folks–thank you all for your wonderful, thoughtful responses to this post! I was a little nervous about sending these thoughts out into the world, but I am so glad I was able to enter into conversation with you about this. You have given me so much more to think about. I really appreciate it.

  14. Thank you, Rachel, for prompting such an interesting discussion. As I considered your reconsideration of patience as a virtue, I was reminded of a session at the UW WC years back when I was working through a handout with a student whose first language wasn’t English. As he persistently asked me clarification questions about each of the handout’s main points, it became clear to me that the handout was using figurative language in almost every single sentence – a strategy that created an additional barrier to a student who didn’t already understand the metaphors. This student had to be extremely patient with me as I struggled to rephrase each of the points without using any figurative language at all. (Sometimes it took me a few tries; I hadn’t realized how figurative some of my go-to teaching phrases were.) After this session, I was newly aware, or more acutely aware, that students were struggling to understand my accent and my ways of speaking as much as I might be struggling to understand theirs. And in every single case, their knowledge of English far exceeded my functionality in any other language; they were, I think, probably being way more patient with me than I was with them. And that was helpful for me to remember.

  15. What I love most about this post is the thoughtful way you have nuanced the idea of patience. As you point out, as consultants and directors we need to practice patience with ourselves and with situations that feel frustrating. Instead, what is problematic is that parental connotation we sometimes bring to the term that leads to it obscuring “the need for self-examination.”

    Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how we can articulate these slight, but very important, connotative differences to consultants–slight differences that, I think, can mean big differences in how we interact with writers. As Rachel and I chewed on her great ideas for this blog post, we tried tossing around other terms that might capture better what we were thinking. When talk in terms of patience with ourselves or a frustrating situation, do we really mean grace? Maybe learning to sit with discomfort? Is it a matter of self forgiveness? Or maybe a matter of learning not to take time with a given situation? But alas, we never did land on terms we liked better–terms that would help us differentiate for ourselves and our consultants when and how patience–like Harris’s “community”–can be both powerfully productive and powerfully detrimental to a consultation. I’m wondering if others have had success (or challenges) in communicating these differences, and what they mean for consultations and writer-consultant relationships, to their consultants?

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