Question

When I’m reading a student’s essay and see a significant writing problem, I’ll often write this sentence: “If you’d like some help, just ask.” Alas, many students are reluctant to do so. They often believe (as I know from talking with them) that they “can’t write,” that they’re “no good” at writing. They make that point about themselves in harsher, cruder ways too. Such students seem resigned to getting along as well as they can.

But some students do come in for help during office hours. The help that I offer sometimes involves talking through the process of organizing ideas into an essay. Sometimes it involves matters of paragraphs — stating, developing, and keeping to a main idea without getting lost in tangents. Most often the issue is punctuation. I’ve found that taking just thirty or forty-five minutes to show a student how to find and fix comma splices or run-on sentences can go a long way toward solving the problem.

It’s useful for students to keep in mind that a college campus is in many ways a vast, standing offer of help. That offer doesn’t always come in the form of a personal invitation. But it’s there. So if you’re baffled by a microfilm machine or by the arrangement of the library stacks, ask a librarian. If you need to get in touch with a professor who’s on sabbatical, ask a department secretary (secretaries are often the most helpful and well-informed people on campus). If you’re trying to cope with an impossible roommate, talk to a resident assistant. If you’re in emotional or financial difficulty that threatens to overwhelm you, make an appointment with a counselor. If you’re wandering the labyrinth of a classroom building in search of a room number, ask someone who works there. And if you have questions about the work of a course, talk to your professor. There are questions that in retrospect might seem naive (or even stupid), but it’s better to ask them and get them cleared up than to let them go unanswered. I can remember as a college freshman mistaking the vast library reference room for the main stacks. I’m glad I asked for help.

Asking for help should never be a matter of asking someone else to assume responsibility that’s yours. It’s comically inappropriate to ask an instructor to proofread an essay for you before you turn it in (yes, that happens) or to step unannounced into a professor’s office and ask for a stapler (yes, that happens too). But a legitimate request for help will likely meet with a generous and kind response.

That can be the case in the so-called real world too. After trying out several topics for this post, I felt stuck and asked my wife Elaine Elaine for a suggestion. Thanks, Elaine!

Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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