Tag: feedback

You Can’t Teach That: Facilitating Discussion on Tutor-Writer Rapport?

DSCN3709Amy Nichols, Assistant Director

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?

In Search of the Perfect Paper

Ashly Bender, Assistant Director

Ashly_Version_3While working with a fellow writer this weekend, we started discussing the desire for the “perfect paper.” As each of us pour ourselves in dissertation chapters, we often unreasonably hope that the response to our drafts will be something along the lines of “This looks great; start on the next chapter”—or some other kind of confirmation that we are done with that piece and can move on. This desire is something I believe that my writing students and the many clients we see in the Writing Center are familiar with. It’s more than wanting to know that you did a good job. It’s wanting to know that you did the best job and that you can be released from further labor on a piece that certainly demands a lot of physical and mental effort. Bronwyn Williams posted earlier this year about the intensely personal aspect of writing, and how that connection—even to a writing that is seemingly impersonal—makes receiving feedback difficult. So we continue to yearn for the “perfect paper.”

The conversation this weekend forced me to wonder what the perfect paper look like. How do you know when you’ve achieved it? The most common answer seems to be that this essay would, above all else, receive no marks, nothing to mar the masterpiece the writer has created. It requires no response because it is beyond reproach. This conception of the perfect text is reinforced often in classrooms by tales of red ink and grammar-meanie teachers. Almost all of us have a story of getting back a paper that was “torn apart” by a grader, had more writing by the teacher than the writer, or had a seemingly scathing and long note attached to it. What if though, just to venture out on a limb for a moment, that the unmarked, pristine essay was not actually the “perfect paper.” I know, I know—it’s outlandish, but bear with me for a moment.

When we write, it’s always for an audience, even if that audience is just the writer herself. Writing communicates a message. It may or may not be personal. Either way, it aims to connect with the reader, to invoke a response in or from them. Writing can be compared to telling a story. If you share an experience with another person, you expect that they will demonstrate that they heard you—hopefully with words, but even a nonverbal recognition could satisfy you in some cases. If we accept that this is also be true about writing, then the “perfect paper” is not at all clean and empty of feedback.

The “perfect” piece of writing is covered with commentary from the reader, and that commentary verifies the power of your writing. It proves that your work connected with your reader, made them think, and made them want to share those thoughts with you. That feedback might be in praise or it might be contradictory, but it recognizes you as a writer worth communicating with. Isn’t that the kind of respect and recognition that we all want?

The pristine perfect piece is definitely a myth, but unfortunately the comment-filled version of perfect writing can be just as elusive. While the pristine piece is a myth because it ignores an important aspect of writing, the marked up piece is rare due to very real and practical factors. When you submit a piece to your boss or your teacher, their focus is often on improving or fixing perceived errors. Their lives are filled with many demands and priorities that can make the ideal response, which takes time and focus, sometimes difficult to achieve. For this reason, when we receive comments on a piece of our writing, especially comments that address both our text’s strengths and weaknesses, we should truly appreciate our reader and our work. It’s the closest we can really get to the perfect paper.

While the Writing Center still works under time constraints, remember that we are here to help you experience this ideal version of the perfect paper: one that receives earnest, focused feedback from a reader who wants to engage your ideas and your work. And, when you find a good reader, whether in the Writing Center or among your colleagues/mentors, remember to value them and their feedback as they help you craft and re-craft the perfect paper.