How could I have handled this better?

Fat people are fat because they won’t stop eating.

Fat people need to see psychotherapists because they’re emotionally unstable. That’s why they can’t stop eating.

Fat people are lying when they say they’re happy they way they are.  They really have low self-esteem.

Fat people need to just stop eating so much instead of getting weight loss surgery, because they’ll just get fat again.

Etc, etc, etc…

If you’re thinking WTF?!, imagine being in my position and having to read six pages of that.  You see, I currently work part-time as a tutor at a writing center.  As such, my job is to help students form thesis statements, reorganize their paragraphs, and figure out how to write a conclusion.  Veering off track and lecturing students on their prejudices is really not part of the job description.

The first time I came across a questionable assertion, I went, “hmm.”  Then it snowballed into pages of nasty generalizations, and my “hmm” turned into me trying not to turn to the student and go, “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM?!”  Also?  In addition to the blanket statements, the writer of this paper also liked to mix up it up a big and use different words for “fat,” such as “obese,” “overweight,” and “plump.”  Yes, plump.

I have been put in a somewhat similar situation before.  Last year, I taught English courses at a college in New York.  One of the assignments was to analyze an ad, and one of my students turned in a racist, misogynist “analysis” of a Venus and Serena “Got Milk?” ad.  He had a habit of turning in papers full of “dark humor,” and he knew damn well what he was doing.  He just kept pushing it to see how far he could get with me.  Being in a position of power as his professor, I let him know it was not funny and not acceptable, and that unless he rewrote the ad analysis, he’d get a zero.  I also warned him if he ever pulled something like that again, he wouldn’t get a second chance at a rewrite.

But this whole fat-prejudice situation is a different in that I’m a lowly tutor.  In fact, while I was doing the initial read-through, the girl was messing around on the computer totally ignoring me.  She was basically expecting me to mark the corrections and give her the paper back so she could be on her merry way.

Here’s what I did: I took a long ass time to read through the paper so that I could think through my response.  Luckily for me, this was a research paper and not some opinion piece.  In order for her to make blanket statements, she needed to have proof to back them up.  So I started questioning her statement by statement.

“Here you say that overweight people are overweight because they eat too much.  That’s a blanket statement.  What about genetics?  What if they have a thyroid problem or something?  Where did you get this source?”  “Um, I read it.”  “You need to cite it.”

“And here you say that overweight people are unhealthy and need to take five times more of Vitamins X, Y, and Z to make up for it.  Where did you get that information?”  “I just…read it somewhere.”

“Okay, well you need to quote your source.  And here you say that society thinks __ about overweight people.  That’s a pretty big statement to make.  Where did you get your source?”  Finally, a crack.  “Oh, well…it’s just a generalization.  That’s what society thinks.”

“Okay, but you can’t make statements like that in a research paper without having some kind of proof to back them up.  Did you read that in a study somewhere?  Do you think you can find that quote again?”  “Well…it’s…it’s not what society thinks.  It’s what I think.  It’s just a generalization.”  “Okay, well, since this is a research paper, you can’t just make statements like that if you don’t have proof.  You need to be able to cite everything that goes in this paper using a valid source.”

And so forth.

In the end, I think I got the message across that she needed to change her paper, but since she also didn’t cite a lot of actual data (i.e. she was walking a dangerously fine line with plagiarism), I think she walked away concerned more with “Ugh, I only needed to use 3 sources, and this girl is telling me I have to list everything I got information from,” rather than, “I shouldn’t make generalizations about fat people.”

The scary thing?  This person was majoring in a medical-related field, where she will no doubt be dealing with people of all sizes.  I’m kind of crushed that I didn’t get my intended message across.  I don’t even think that light bulb even started to turn on.

So what could I have done to get a more heartening response?

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About Melissa

I love donuts. Chocolate iced, hold the sprinkles.
This entry was posted in body politics, huh?, life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How could I have handled this better?

  1. Allyson says:

    As someone who used to be a writing center tutor, I know that you have very little time to do much, whether that be working on the paper or changing someone’s mind. I also know that a lot of students who don’t want to be there, and so really aren’t going to be receptive anyway.

    I have to say that overall, you did the best you could, given the constraints you had. I think that the only thing you could have done differently was to maybe take time to make sure she knew what kinds of sources to find. Even upper-level undergrads have a knack for doing mediocre research and finding crappy sources. I might have made sure she knew she had to look at things like medical journals, websites that met x, y, and z criteria, books published no more than 10 years ago, or whatever. That way, you could have made an effort to direct her to sources that would maybe make her think a little more about her opinions. But even that isn’t guaranteed to work. There are a lot of people who just don’t want to change what they think.

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