Information Sheet #21

January 13, 1989


Beginning with the '88 all students working as consultants in the Writing Center are required each term to take "Process in Writing." This course involves weekly discussion sessions, reading a text on writing pedagogy, and completing several writing assignments (one case study, a journal, a reader's log, miscellaneous short assignments). What follows are excerpts from the students' journals and logbooks. Except for a few minor changes, the passages are reprinted as originally submitted in their first-draft efforts. I would hope these brief quotations might provide some insight into the worries and celebrations of 15 undergraduates as they think about their work in helping others learn to become better writers.

"The Writing Center work comes in spurts. Desperate spurts, followed by relative calm. I haven't had any real good conferences lately. None really bad, either. P___ came in the other night, and boy did he have a heck of a time trying to figure out the "petals around a rose" writing assignment. I slowly was able to make him figure it out--through clues about "what are you looking at" and going through each of the examples and getting him to try to find what was the difference that gave some dice petals, but not others. 40 minutes! The temptation was overwhelming to point it out, and he wanted me to, but he didn't really get impatient. He was frustrated, but when he finally got it, he knew exactly what steps he'd gone through by himself. He'd hit a wall, and I'd give him another option, something else to consider."

"I think that I have improved a good deal in my consulting. And my consulting has improved me a good deal! Not because now I know "what not-to-do" but because as in writing, you often don't know what you're really saying until you say it (which is why I always rework the introduction after I write a paper)."

"I wish some students were more dependent. They seem to go their own ways--particularly the Americans. They seen to think they don't need me at all. I need them to be dependent so I can teach them to be independent the right way."

"There are so many things we have to be conscious of while conferring with students. I just has a conference in which I asked the student several times, "do you understand?" It would have been more considerate of me if I had put the monkey on my back and said, "Am I being clear?" Misunderstanding would be my fault, not his."

On Muriel Harris' book [the text used for this term of "Process in Writing"]: "The first point that struck me in this book is that I mustn't forget about being in the student's position and being afraid of getting the paper torn apart. It is okay when the peer tutor in unsure of an answer. It will reassure the student that no one knows all the answers. Feeling uncertainty together puts the student at ease.

"Important point #2: Products are not even necessary to have a good session. After all, the content is the most important part of the paper. There are tons of different ways to think and begin writing a paper. Thinking through the paper before writing may save a lot of time (or a bad grade) in the long run. It's better to take some time beforehand than to decide that you disagree with your thesis mid-way through your paper.

"Point #3: In Chapter 5 Muriel listed some strategies for developing ideas and other things. Included in this was a tiny little phrase which caught my eye. She said that a "thesis equals a promise." What a wonderful concept.....

"The final point I will mention is that the tutor should take notes while the student is talking. So many times my students have finally figured out how to word a sentence correctly but they forget what they've said. Other times a student will be throwing out some ideas, strike upon a winner, and later not remember what it was. My ESL students do this all the time. I also do this frequently. Maybe a tape recorder would be useful. Write your paper simply by talking into a tape recorder. Later take out the bad parts and type it from that."

"I wish that I could say that because of my WC work, I am now a confidant, and very competent writer, but I am realizing that developing writing skills takes a lot of time, I will not become a "writing genius" overnight (if at all). When I am aware of the high quality of writing done by other consultants, I sometimes feel inferior. This "inferiority complex" really bothers me because I want to be a good writer, and because I get a very deep satisfaction from reading good writing. Some of the stories, poems, and books that I've been reading have really excited me because the language, words, concepts and themes of a piece of work seem to slow together to form something that is almost miraculous. I realize that this sounds dramatic, but for me, reading these pieces is a dramatic process.... The words we write allow us to step out of our mental shells, and become soul searchers. Writing is the power to become a little more than human, it takes you to a deeper level.

"Will I ever be able to use the English language with the ability of Faulkner or Dickinson? Probably not. But working in the Writing Center has shown me one thing of considerable personal value; it has shown me how through effort in concentrated areas--students can improve their writing. I guess I had this myth in my mind of writing ability being a gift that you are born with, and instantly possessed. I can see now that it is something you work for, just like everything else you want to accomplish in like. It is a skill you can improve with time and work, and I plan on using both of these things to improve my writing and myself."

"Seeing Muriel Harris in Kansas City added something to the text, for me at least. She is passionate about writing centers and innovations for them. I felt that she is still questioning and developing strategies which made me think that her book is printed on paper and not written in stone, but it certainly has been useful to me this semester."

"Conferences can help students become independent--and dependent. But being dependent isn't negative. Having someone else read and discuss drafts is very helpful. Personally, I agree with Muriel Harris when she said we shouldn't OVERTEACH, and I try to adhere to this. But I know that many times in frustration people do OVERTEACH. Furthermore, having priorities for paper goals in a conference is a must. These goals should be individualized according to student's abilities, the professor, subject, and form of the paper, however, and these priorities should rarely be ignored."

"My first reaction to Harris' text was more on the negative side. I certainly realized that many of her ideas are legitimate, but her techniques, in some cases, are different from mine. Recently, I've tried to open my mind and experiment with her theories. Some have worked--and worked well. Okay, so a lot of the time the technique failed, but if I hadn't tried I would never have found success. I still think that the most efficient, effective techniques are the ones where the consultant is the most familiar and comfortable with what they've used from the beginning. But sometimes this doesn't always work, so we have to be open-minded to new approaches."

"Harris has given me many new techniques to experiment with. I did really agree with Harris' point that one must try to stay on the same level as the student. I believe the only chapter I truly had problems with was the very general one on dealing with international students. I will always believe you must know the student and not his nationality in order to help him."

"I have actually gotten more comfortable in my conferences. I have learned not to take conferences so seriously. In the past, I have felt like every student had to walk out of a conference with an A paper. I felt like it was all my responsibility to make sure they left my side with perfect papers. This really intimidated me. Many students don't, and won't, walk out of a conference completely enlightened. I've learned it's kind of a step-by-step process. I've hard for me to explain. I guess I really felt like a failure because I didn't feel like any of my students were catching on. Now I realize that it takes time and you just can't tell someone 'how' to write a paper and expect them to come up with the paper."

"I think one of the best parts about the Muriel Harris book was its focus on helping the writer, not the writing. It really made me aware of the fact that our purpose is not to help them have perfect paper, but instead to get them interested in writing, fix some major problems, and help them learn to help themselves. I think I've come to believe that if we focus on the big issues, especially the lack of interest in writing, and solve those major problems, the smaller issues (like grammar) will either solve themselves in time or at least be dealt with later."

"I'm concerned that I haven't really helped anyone all that much.... I think what I need is some indication that I am actually doing some good. If I just do it, just have the conference and say what I think, I'm okay. But when I start to think, 'Did I say the right think? Maybe I should have done this. Maybe I should have dealt with this instead. Maybe...maybe...maybe...' I feel like a consulting failure.

"I kind of feel like I've become a master illusionist--people may think I know what I'm doing, but deep down inside I'm scared as hell because I don't know what I'm doing. I just do what "the script" says I'm supposed to do. I feel like I'm simply parroting back information that has been fed into me."

"My first conference of the year (and consequently of my whole life) was with someone who thought that speaking was a sin (I think he's considering the priesthood--he's already taken a vow of silence). When someone won't talk, communication is pretty one-sided. However, after we chatted about school, classes, living arrangements, etc., he seemed ready to tackle conversation about his paper.

"Even if a paper is badly written, like the one from my first conference, I try to find something positive to say about it. The students who come to the Writing Center probably feel pretty insecure about their writing, or if it's a self-scheduled appointment--about the paper they are currently work on. It is very hard to expose your thoughts and ideas to someone else--knowing what they are going to criticize what you have done. Although the Writing Center is there to make 'students realize their own writing problems,' it can make them very vulnerable to have their work put on the line and confronted with their writing problems face to face."

Below are some quotations from Muriel Harris' text Teaching One-to-One: The Writing Conference:

"But how [do we] teach a process? We can talk about processes in a somewhat theoretical way, perhaps like a lecturer describing continental drift, or we can demonstrate processes, like a chef in a cooking class. Or we can participate in processes, like a tennis pro talking with a player as they practice backhands together. The writing teacher in a conference is like a coach working with the writer through all the '-ings' of writing--thinking, planning, drafting, revising, and editing--even when these occur almost simultaneously."

"Asking questions is one way to help students find their own answers. Another form of help that teachers and tutors can provide is offering students the opportunity to talk about writing--to articulate problems and to explain what they are doing. This ability to talk about writing is important to students' progress as writers. Without it, they are too often unable to proceed, unable to represent to themselves the problems to be solved."

According to Harris, effective conferences occur when "the writer leads and the teacher follows. 'Action in conferences is redefined as intelligent reaction,' says Donald Graves. Graves lists symptoms of teachers who act rather than react: they talk more than the writer does, they ignore where the writer is in the draft, they meddle with the writer's topic, they teach skills too early in a conference, they ask questions they know the writer can't answer, and they supply words and phrases for the writer to use."

"If we've asked a question, we must wait and listen rather than rephrasing the question or offering clues to fill the silence. Grave's recommendation to wait at least fifteen seconds after asking a question may seem trivially easy until we realize how long fifteen seconds actually is. In the normal give-and-take of an ongoing conversation, a fifteen-second pause leaves most of us feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed for whoever was supposed to respond and didn't. But allowing for such pauses in a conference is crucial. Students need time to think, to weigh options, and, to internalize the substance and procedures necessary for writing."

When a student in a writing conference mistakenly thinks the teacher has the answers, all real thought ceases while the student begins searching or guessing for answers the teacher will accept. A distinct advantage peer tutors have is that students are now more willing to believe that peer tutors may not know the answer themselves and are not there to quiz them."

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