As one of the assistant directors at the writing center, I have the opportunity to teach two lessons in Bronwyn’s “Writing Center Theory and Practice” course, where our graduate consultants receive training during the fall semester. Recently, I facilitated one of our class discussions around “Student-tutor relations in the Writing Center.” Writing center sessions can include wildly varying levels of language and disciplinary expertise between both tutors and writers, making relationship-building critical to successful communication. In addition, rapport is also a crucial (and under-discussed) part of being a successful student, employee, or person generally.
Building individual relationships, particularly in professional settings, is a complex and deeply contextualized activity, and most of what I know about it is instinctive, built on trial and error over time. Because of this, I had a difficult time planning our lesson. For our discussion, I ended up choosing two recent articles from the journal Language and Education: Cynthia Lee’s (2015) “More than Just Language Advising: Rapport in University English Writing Consultations and Implications for Tutor Training” and Innhwa Park’s (2014) “Stepwise Advice Negotiation in Writing Center Peer Tutoring.” Lee’s focus on individual elements that go into building a relationship and Park’s discussion on how to deal with minor disagreements helped us find a way in to this difficult-to-teach subject.
Lee’s framework pulled from discourse and rapport scholarship to detail descriptions of the kinds of behaviors that we often take for granted: greetings, small talk, qualifiers/mitigation devices, open-ended questions, first-person plural pronoun use, and praises/related forms of encouragement (436). Saying hello and chatting about unrelated matters tend to be givens in social interaction, but they can also help ease the tension when two people don’t know one another well. Qualifiers such as “maybe” or “perhaps” and open-ended questions such as “Can you tell me more about your goals for this project/assignment?” help build understanding and ease discussions around disagreements. First-person plural pronouns like “we” and “us” are helpful in creating a more team-oriented work environment during sessions, while encouragement and praise help build confidence.
I don’t know about the consultants (feel free to comment!), but it was really helpful for me to have a conversation about those elements of a writing center session that often go unrecognized and (seemingly) unnoticed, but which can make a real difference to the success or failure of a session. For example, a few of our consultants shared that small talk tends to make them uncomfortable, particularly if students responded to small talk by discussing their frustration with particular assignment or situation, while another shared that she sees such situations as an emotional opening to help writers address their concerns. Understanding a variety of approaches to such small interactions and the rationale beneath them gave me more resources for interacting with a variety of personalities.
Park’s article details the ways in which advice resistance is a negotiated construction for both the tutor and the writer. She discusses the steps that resistance, acknowledgment, and resolution move through within sessions, and I thought her work might prove a helpful springboard for discussing the ways in which we negotiate advice resistance in our own sessions. We did discuss ways that we tend to navigate through (or around) resistance during our discussion. One of our consultants commented that, while she was aware of her own intentional practices in navigating resistance, she had not thought about the fact that writers might also follow certain linguistic formulations in constructing their resistance, such as saying “Yes, but what I was really trying to do there was….”. We also discussed the ways in which people from different classes and cultures might navigate resistance more or less directly than the examples in the article, which led one of our consultants to ask a very helpful question about balancing a knowledge of intersectionality (every person is different) with strategic approaches to consulting (we have to apply concrete strategies to our work).
Ultimately, I enjoyed our discussion, but I would love to hear some comments. Consultants, how did the session go from your perspective? Colleagues (and that includes you, too, consultants), how would you/do you encourage productive discussion on building relationships/rapport during writing center sessions? Writers, what kinds of discussions have been most helpful to you in moving your writing forward?