Tag: writing center

Listening to Learn: Tutoring Unfamiliar Writing Genres

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

“The job of writing centers is to produce better writers, not better writing.” This assertion by Stephen North is, surely, a familiar maxim to most writing center practitioners. But, has anyone also considered how writers can help writing centers produce better tutors? I believe the goal of every tutor is to develop their tutoring skill using every available means; that is why I think, as consultants, by listening to learn from writers, especially those writing in genres we are unfamiliar with, we have the unique opportunity develop our tutoring skills.

Listening is paramount to the tutorial work we do in the writing center. Generally, the tutor tends to listen to several things during tutoring session: you passively listening to your inner thoughts about the draft and, more importantly, listening to the writer’s comments or questions. Moreover, writing center scholars and practitioners admit that listening is essential to achieving an efficient tutoring in the writing center. They submit that listening is not only a means of developing a tutor’s understanding of the current session but also a means for working from, with, and across differences, becoming increasingly aware of those differences rather than flattening or ignoring them. This submission means that listening is a tool for making tutors become better at their tutoring craft. Hence, tutors interested in advancing their craft must be open and willing to listen to learn (from the writers) specific ways to develop their level of awareness.

In listening to learn, we move beyond attempting to adjust our knowledge of the generic needs of writers, especially when dealing with unfamiliar writing genre, to learning to become more aware of this unfamiliar writing genre in efforts to achieve a successful tutoring session. Listening to learn does not entail knowing (or pretending to know) about the subject matter. Rather, listening to learn helps the tutor to achieve meaningful awareness of subject matter necessary for some sense of comfort during the session. Such subject matter awareness would, for instance, help to clear up certain confusions; move past genre-specific jargons and develop interpretive questions, thereby ensuring that the goals of the tutoring session are efficiently met.

In my work with science writers, for example, I continue to practice the ‘listen-to-learn’ approach because I want to be more aware of the means to navigate the seemingly unfamiliar writing genre. From these writers, I have learned ways to not only guide them effectively during their session but also become a better tutor for future work with scientific or related writing genre. For instance, one of the science writers I work with always provides an overview of their essay using visual aids such as diagrams. My sense is that the writer assumes I’m not a specialist in science-related concepts and describing their work in abstract terms might confuse me, and indirectly lead to a tutoring breakdown. So, to make me aware of the subject matter of their writing project, the writer explained concepts to me with the aid of diagrams. While they do not expect me to become knowledgeable of the topic, by listening to the writer’s explanatory context, this subject-matter awareness afforded me a good level of confidence to meaningfully engage the writer and their writing. Additionally, beyond subject-matter awareness, tutors can also become better tutors by being learning to be interculturally aware, especially when working with multilingual writers. Intercultural awareness helps the tutor become more sensitive to processes, situated contexts, and particular situations that influence what and how a writer writes.

Ultimately, while our goal as writing tutors is to utilize every available strategy to help writers hone their writing ability and become better writers, we should not disregard how writers can make us better tutors. As we prioritize listening to learn about the subject matter of the writer’s writing project or non-writing related information the writer willingly shares with us, we generally become more aware of the best means to approach these seemingly unfamiliar genres of writing.

Silence in Writing Center Sessions

Emily Cousins, Consultantemily-c

I’ve always known that silence can be beneficial in various ways during writing center sessions. It recently dawned on me, though, that silence often requires a conscious effort to create, and that perhaps I could be doing more to actively create productive silences during meetings with writers.

My desire to incorporate more silence into my writing center sessions is largely based on the role silence plays in facilitating my own writing and thinking process. When I receive feedback on something I’ve written, I need time to comprehend verbal feedback and to process my own thoughts. I also need time to think of the words I want to use to articulate my responses. This is why I’m grateful whenever I work with people who, when giving feedback, allow for moments of silence throughout the discussion.

When I have my tutoring hat on while working at the Writing Center, I sometimes forget that the writers I work with may feel the same way about silence as I do. I always try to be ready with the next question or the next suggestion, to keep the trains of thought all moving smoothly forward without much pause. I tell myself that by doing this we’re getting the most out of the allotted 50-minute time frame. But I think it’s worth asking: am I not giving us enough time to nurture certain conditions that might fuel productive, reflective, creative thinking?

One strategy tutors use is to have writers brainstorm and/or write on their own; the tutor might walk to another room and come back after 5-10 minutes or more, depending on the context. This is one way to allow for quiet time for writers to work, and can be an effective way to incorporate silence into a session. However, this is not quite the kind of silence I have in mind. The silence I want to use more during my sessions is a mutually shared, collaborative sort of silence, during which both the tutor and writer are still sitting together side by side, thinking. Sometimes the silence might be broken to exchange an idea or two. I’m thinking of a type of silence that is the opposite of empty and/or uncomfortable – the anti-awkward silence.

The “awkward silence” is an interesting concept I learned about as I became more familiar with social conventions in American culture. Growing up in Japan, I always felt that silence was the default way to exist in the world, a way to convey respect and mindfulness. It was difficult moving to the U.S. where presence often seems to be measured by how much one speaks. There appears to be a widespread aversion to silence in social situations, which is perhaps linked to the phenomenon of “small talk.” So, while I personally appreciate moments of collaborative silence when discussing my own writing with people, I understand that some writers might find silence uncomfortable. So, as tutors, we should be attentive to cues that might suggest whether or not a writer might really benefit from silence during sessions.

I sometimes initiate collaborative silences by asking the writer, “can I take a moment to write this down?” Sometimes I will stop myself from thinking of the next thing to say. It has been surprising how many times writers will then break the silence with a new idea or insightful comment they may not have offered had we not taken a moment to pause. Whenever this happens, I remind myself of how valuable and productive silences can be.

Possibilities in the Writing Center

Megan Bardolph

Last semester in the Writing Center, I worked with a student from Nigeria who wanted help with his honors composition class assignments. He set up appointments to meet with me once a week for two or three months. Together we worked on revising two of his essays to prepare for his portfolio. The experience was wonderful on many levels, as I was also teaching a section of honors composition that semester. Oddly, I felt that our sessions gave me the opportunity to really listen to the students I was teaching in my own class. Our conversations were also productive for me as a scholar and thinker. They made me realize and appreciate the complexities of identifying as an instructor, a graduate student, and a writing center consultant.

During our last session of the semester, the student thanked me for my help. I asked if I would see him again in the Writing Center, to which he sadly replied “probably not.” As a pre-medicine biology major, he most likely would not need to write another paper for quite some time.

So I was surprised to see the other day that he had made multiple appointments to meet with me over the next few weeks. On Friday, we had our first session. He announced that he had submitted one of the papers we had worked on to a conference and it had been accepted for presentation. We now have a new project to work on. He told me that one of his goals for the spring semester is to continue working on his writing, as he sees the analytical and critical thinking skills he acquired in first-year English as useful to his studies in the natural sciences. We began to talk about research opportunities afforded by Writing Center work, and discussed potential areas of inquiry that both of us would like to pursue based on our sessions. Our relationship has moved beyond just consultant-client; it’s now closer to mentor-mentee. At some point I may even consider him a colleague. I am continually astonished by how much I learn from him (and from all of my clients, really).

There are a few different implications that I want to draw out based on this experience. Firstly, if you are a student who actually enjoys or enjoyed your first year writing course, know that you are not alone, and that there are opportunities to continue the types of writing and thinking you performed in that course without changing your major to English. It may be useful to seek out a mentor through the writing center, or through a faculty member or graduate student in the English department.

Secondly, if you are a writing center consultant or graduate student, I cannot highlight enough how important I think it is to view the Writing Center as a site of potential research – and this absolutely includes collaborative research with clients. In my experience, the conversations I have had with clients sometimes lead to greater moments of insight into writing, teaching, collaborating, and mentorship than the conversations I have with others in my same position.

Finally, if you are an instructor of writing, or of any subject for that matter, there is great value in listening to what the students want out of their education. The student I have been working with wants to find a way to balance his enthusiasm for writing with a major that does not provide many opportunities for the kinds of composing he would like to pursue. I think this shows there may be a need for providing additional spaces for students to take up this interest. The Writing Center is an excellent place for such work to continue.