Information Sheet # 79

March 14, 1994


[The following case study was written three years ago by Susan Brasser, a recent Coe alum (summa cum laude in '92, currently doing graduate work in psychology at SUNY-Binghampton). Last week Susan sent me a letter indicating that a longer version of this case study had been selected for a collection of articles on tutoring which had been submitted to Michigan State University Press. While most of the tutoring done in the Writing Center occurs on a one-time basis, I suspect staff members usually feel that their most satisfying experiences have come with students seeking assistance on a recurring basis. Perhaps Susan's article gives some insight into what can happen when the Writing Center consultant and the student manage to create a good working relationship. --Bob Marrs]

While an undergraduate student majoring in psychology, I worked for three years as a writing consultant in the college's writing center. During two terms, I met on a weekly basis with a non-traditional student who enrolled in Topics in Composition, hoping she could improve her writing skills.

Karen [not her real name] was a victim of losing her job at a major electric utilities company. After having found another job part-time doing appliance demonstrations for an electric cooperative, she was asked to work as a free-lance writer, composing short pieces for a newsletter sent to members of the cooperative. Because Karen was a non-traditional student who had not been in school for many years, she was a bit apprehensive when she first came to the writing center. Paradoxically, Karen had chosen a job involving writing, despite her insecurities about her own compositional skills.

Karen's Topics in Composition class allowed her to design her own writing assignments with some guidance by the instructor. The class did not meet in group sessions, but rather in two weekly conferences, one with the instructor and one with a writing center consultant. Karen chose to focus on free-lance writing assignments, which generally included a number of newsletter fillers less than 300 words in length, as well as a few longer informational articles.

A typical conference with Karen involved her presenting me with what she had worked on in the past week, and giving me some background on the topic, why she wrote it, and improvements she had attempted. After reading her paper, I generally started at the beginning and worked through the paper with her, in the process asking questions, making suggestions, and getting her opinions on issues. In many of our informal discussions, we questioned each other--nobody really set the agenda because every paper posed different problems, so we went with what naturally happened.

What was unique for me about Karen's case was that she composed her first drafts using a dictaphone. She would then play the tapes back to herself while typing up a written copy. Although this practice is common in the business world, rarely does one see such a technique utilized in college writing. Karen indicated that she was one who hears things better than she reads them or writes them. She felt this aural dependence was part of her problem when revising papers she had written.

The importance of Karen hearing her own language became apparent after several weeks of working with her papers. Karen had initially expressed some concerns about a slight learning disability, and I became aware after several conferences of repeated spelling errors, omission of words, and places where Karen had left out letters from different words. In order to move away from the ink and the paper, something intimidating and difficult for Karen to grasp, I found myself often reading sentences back to her. The inflections and pauses used in reading the sentences enabled Karen to hear from an outside source what she had written. This technique helped Karen with issues of clarity, as well as grammar. I was now reading her sentences as my sentences, that is, as I perceived them. Hearing her words as if written by someone else gave her insight into how an outside source perceived her writing. It was a way to "defamiliarize" the text for the author. Karen was able to gain the perspective of someone outside looking in, rather than simply the perspective of herself inside looking out.

Karen, particularly in her newsletter pieces, was writing for a diverse audience, and therefore clarity was of particular importance to her writing. She often expressed that issue as one of her main concerns. Because Karen was an authority on subjects I was unfamiliar with, such as fluorescent lighting or energy saving tips, I found myself playing the position of the "dumb reader." In effect, my ignorance fit her needs since she was writing for a nonprofessional audience where comprehension of technical information was a primary concern.

As the weeks went by and our meetings continued, I saw Karen gradually learning to feel comfortable with what she had written. She was always very receptive to suggestions. It was wonderful for me as a consultant to watch Karen make her own discoveries, to explore new ways of constructing sentences, to learn from her own critical evaluation of her writing. I would more often find Karen asking questions such as "This sentence isn't clear is it?" or "This doesn't really belong here, does it?" Karen also dared to experiment with several humorous pieces, which suggested to me that she was gradually breaking down the barriers of writing as an unpleasant chore. Both the writing center director and I noticed a substantial decrease in the error count in Karen's papers.

 Towards the end of the term, I gave Karen a self-evaluative questionnaire concerning attitudes towards writing. The questionnaire, parts of which were derived from Daly and Miller's studies of writing apprehension, asks students to indicate their feelings about writing at the beginning of the term ("Then") and their current feelings ("Now"). In responding to the item "I'm no good at writing," Karen went from strongly agreeing with this statement at the beginning of the term, to disagreeing with it two months later when she completed the questionnaire. Consistent with this encouraging response, Karen expressed strong agreement to the claim "I feel confident in my ability to clearly express my ideas in writing," an assertion she had disagreed with at the beginning of the term.

Reflecting on my experience with Karen throughout the semester, I realize the two different impressions she had made upon me. On the one hand, Karen was always very serious, businesslike, and ready to work. She was concerned about doing well in her job. Though appearing quite self-confident in these respects, many of Karen's problems with writing truly appeared to stem from a lack of self-confidence. She felt that mastering a myriad rules and techniques was necessary to good writing--rules and techniques that scared her because she was unfamiliar with them. Perhaps she was also uncomfortable with taking advice from a student half her age, with not much knowledge about her field of expertise.

Despite the fears Karen exhibited, through a willingness to utilize and explore various techniques in her writing, she displayed an unusual determination and dedication to improving her writing. Writing center consultants don't have the satisfaction of seeing this devotion often enough. Whether Karen actually has a learning disability, I am not sure; however, because of the confidence she gained in her writing ability, apprehensions she had perceived before were much less menacing. It's scary whenever we try to overcome our own inadequate skills--it's much easier to just stick with what we know well. Karen's courage is one reason I admire her efforts.

So what can a writing center learn from all this? A goal of mine as a consultant was to see students become better writers, to see them develop and learn to feel comfortable with what they have written, and to be receptive to suggestions. For many students, a lack of self-confidence is a bigger setback to producing good writing than any lack of ability. Consultants should recognize this fact and make the student feel comfortable by praising good qualities in the writing, not intimidating students by making them feel inferior. If students can't feel a measure of assurance in themselves and their writing, their lack of confidence will make the writing process uncomfortable and often unproductive. Another person's listening and reinforcing may prove crucial in bringing about positive changes in the student's outlook.

Secondly, in the actual conference process itself, both reader and writer are essential elements, and the most productive conferences are those in which both are active participants. Not only do students have something to learn from consultants, consultants also have something to learn from students. Karen and I learned from each other. Karen had become an expert in energy efficiency and in the use of electrical appliances after twenty years of experience working in this area. My role was to help Karen learn to express that knowledge as clearly as possible so that the knowledge she had could help enlighten other people, including one writing center consultant.

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