Information Sheet #111

January 16, 1998


[One of the requirements for students working in the Writing Center is that they complete four terms of a 0.3 credit course Topics in Composition. Among the regular assignments for this course is the requirement that students have conferences on their own writing--and write commentaries on these sessions. Printed below are two papers typical of these commentaries, both narrating attempts to gain a clearer understanding of the dynamics--including frustrations and pleasures--in face-to-face writing conferences. The "Conference Prior to Writing a Paper" is an abridged version of a Topics paper submitted by Anna Wagner, a first-year student from West Branch who was enrolled in Barbara Drexler's I & I section. While Anna's paper talks about the benefits of a conference prior to writing a first draft, the essay submitted by Julie Smith, a sophomore from Ottumwa, compares a conference with her peers during a class session and a second conference on the same draft later that day with a Writing Center consultant. Both papers raise some difficult issues for any of us responding to students' papers: how do we know what kind of assistance the writer needs at various stages in the writing process?]

A Conference Prior to Writing a Paper

by Anna Wagner

I sat on the red couch, lost in Will's questions and in my own thoughts about the Japanese omiai. When I, as the writer, am concentrating only on the formation of new ideas, the conference is going well, and is in its most productive state.

If I keep talking, it is amazing what ideas can pop out. I come up with new insights, especially when it comes to my Japanese culture class where we must conclude everything on our own. During the conference I was talking about the change in omiai during the period surrounding World War II. I was able to realize that the divorce rate was probably not at all proportional to the wife's happiness in Japanese culture. The divorce rate is more proportional to the purpose of the marriage. Before WWII the purpose of marriage was economic and social stability, but when love became a reason to marry, the divorce rate rose: love can die, but in Japan economic stability doesn't often change. Will helped me to develop my theories on Japanese omiai more fully and prepared me to test them through research by continuously prompting me to explain myself.

I like the way Will made me do the talking. He told me later that in psychology this is called patient driven therapy. I find receiving a good conference is therapeutic. I suppose I could have derived that insight from the fact that a primary object of the Writing Center is to help students feel good about themselves. The therapeutic effects of a conference are not limited to the confidence in one's writing, but extend to the confidence in oneself. While receiving a good conference, I am in the spotlight. The consultant seems to be hanging on my every word. Last night I talked and talked and Will really seemed to care about what I was saying although Japanese omiai couldn't possibly fascinate him. He listened, however, and asked relevant questions to keep me talking. Not because he had to, or so it seemed, but because he wanted to hear me, to understand me.

On several occasions he helped my ideas flow by summarizing what I said and then asking me to expound upon it. This technique usually swept my thoughts in a new direction. With one question, Will not only reassured me that he was listening, cared, and understood, but also prompted me to develop fresh ideas. I explained that an omiai, a marriage meeting, was arranged by someone who knows both families. "Like a matchmaker?" Will prompted. So I went on to explain that the middle man was more than a matchmaker, that he gave a speech at the wedding and that any marital problems were often discussed with him. That led to a discussion of divorce and the drastic change in the divorce rate before and after WWII, and then the overall changes in omiai after WWII. "Why?" Will asked.

"Why?" and "How?" seem to be the ultimate thinking questions. I had previously thought about the divorce rate, but not until that moment did I realize why my paper should focus on these changes. This discovery enabled me to eliminate a few areas (such as marital happiness) that I had been planning on including. At the close of the conference, I felt satisfied with the direction of my paper and was ready to begin some in-depth research about omiai.

I love receiving writing conferences. I am often nervous at first, although I work in the Writing Center myself and am not afraid of showing my work to others. I cannot help but be afraid, however, that my paper will be criticized and my confidence will be destroyed. When the conference begins to flow, however, it becomes almost a spiritual experience. Suddenly my anxiety disappears. I connect with the consultant on two levels at once: the academic and the personal. Not only does the conference include a discussion of the content of the paper, but it also deals with the writer as an individual. Style is part of personality; therefore, connecting personally becomes necessary when helping someone rewrite a composition. Because one must undergo self-analysis during the conference, the intimacy that develops with the consultant leads to an intimacy with oneself. This spiritual connection enables clear thought that can be translated into written words later.

To receive a conference on one's own paper and pay attention to the process at the same time is incredibly difficult. To receive a constructive conference I find I must let go of other thoughts and concentrate completely on the subject matter and on self-analysis. Introspection requires thinking in terms of personality, writing style, values, morals, judgments, and everything else that colors my writing. So I sat on the red couch, not paying much attention to Will's technique, but only to the thoughts pouring from my head.


Everyone can be a writing consultant: it just takes practice and the knowledge that there is more to every piece of writing than the words printed on the paper.

Conferences on a Draft

by Julie Smith

My first writing assignment of the year involved producing an in-class rough draft that I revised and then brought to class for peer evaluations. I thought this would be interesting, because I have not exchanged papers with classmates for feedback in quite some time. Since I knew that I would also be visiting the Writing Center in the future with the same draft, I was curious to see the differences/similarities concerning the feedback received from both sources.

During the peer evaluations, some interesting points came up. My rough draft was very rough. My classmates were familiar with the grading process (our instructor continually stressed the areas to focus on, including references and technical details). This was one advantage these students had over the Writing Center consultant, and the first things they pointed out to me were my lack of references and my spelling and punctuation errors. I had written a lot in the paper about past personal experience and had occasionally trailed away from the thesis, a common error pointed out to me. I also received suggestions about tying in other concepts from class that I had not considered. My classmates' tactics for dealing with my paper were very direct and a couple of my classmates explicitly told me what they did or did not like about my writing. Perhaps their directness was caused by the confined classroom space and the limited available time: I received feedback from 3 students in a time span of about 30 minutes, which meant discussion was limited to "surface topics."

Later that night I met with a Writing Center consultant to get a second opinion before I began revising. Our discussion differed from the ones in my class as it centered more on the development of my ideas than the technical aspects. This conference was more like a conversation. The consultant was relaxed in her style. Suggestions and comments were not fired at me; instead, we reached ideas for revision through discussion. Her approach was to point out my "rights," not my mistakes. By asking me lots of questions and pointing out certain details, she triggered for me a different direction to take the paper, one that proved to be not only easier for me to write, but also more informative in content and specifics.

In comparing my two sources of feedback, I can honestly say that the more helpful of the two did come from the CWC. This is not to insult the process of peer evaluation by any means--both played an important role in my final draft. However, the help I needed on this paper was with development--the mechanics are an obvious problem to me, errors I would have caught when I was ready to do proofreading on my own. The feedback in class was given as though my peers were editing my final draft, instead of looking at the paper as a beginning, one in need of ideas for expansion.

In defense of in-class evaluations--I wonder why this process is not used more often in college. During my last two years of high school, we did this with all of our writing assignments in my English classes. Being a peer evaluator teaches you many things--it keeps you on your toes (as to the dimensions of assignments), encourages you to write more thoroughly (for yourself and others), and most importantly, you learn to share your work with somebody besides the professor.

I am not trying to put the Writing Center out of business by defending in-class peer reviews. These feedback sessions in class reminded me so much of what I was like last year as I struggled through my first conferences as a new consultant in the Writing Center. Everyone can be a writing consultant: it just takes practice and the knowledge that there is more to every piece of writing than the words printed on the paper. Sometimes I think that there is nothing special about my job as a consultant. This experience really made me aware of all that I have acquired and learned to use in the last year.

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