I was sitting in my favorite chair, listening to my state of the art stereo system, when a friend barged into my room.
"Allen, are you busy right now?"
"I was wondering if you could help with a paper, one due for class tomorrow."
"Sure, Kathryn, I'm willing to help."
I turned off my stereo and asked Kathryn how her day had gone. After a few minutes of small talk we proceeded to conduct a conference. Kathryn was supposed to write a paper where she would choose a fairy tale and transform the tale into a modern version. After reading through her rough notes, I concluded that she did not really address the assignment. I asked her about the assignment and if it could be interpreted in more than one way. After a half hour of discussion Kathryn was ready to change her story. She wanted to write something completely different from her original notes.
One interesting aspect of this conference is the location. I have never had a conference with Kathryn in the writing center, which is true for all my conferences with friends. My friends typically find me around midnight, asking if I could read a paper they have just finished typing. There have also been times when I was walking across campus, only to run into a friend who wants me to read a paper. When this happens the friend usually accompanies me to my destination and we have a conference. Since these conferences take place in different campus locations, they help to decentralize the writing center, spreading our operation across campus. In short, one could say that the campus is the writing center.
While I've had many consultations across campus, all the conferences in my room have only been with friends. My conference with Kathryn is a typical example. Although there are some negatives in conducting a conference with a friend, I like the informality of these conferences, avoiding the more formal, businesslike atmosphere in the writing center's official location.
When I have a conference with Kathryn, we usually begin with small talk, avoiding any discussion of the paper for the first few minutes. Once Kathryn and I have "warmed up to talking," we enter a new stage of the conference. When this occurs I am able to open up and give advice more bluntly in a conference. Kathryn is a person who easily accepts constructive criticism. My knowledge of Kathryn lets me be more direct when the right moment occurs in our discussion.
Another advantage to knowing a friend's personality is it allows me to vary my approach to a conference. I was having a conference with a different friend, Tom, when my knowledge of him became important. Tom, my freshman roommate, knew that I worked in the writing center. Tom wanted me to look over a paper he had just finished for Educational Foundations. The conference opened with a strategy similar to the one I used with Kathryn. Tom and I began with small talk, avoiding the paper. Once we started talking about the paper, however, the conference became opposite of the one with Kathryn. Kathryn and I immediately addressed the important problems in her paper. Tom, however, is not the sort of person who likes to hear his paper has any problems. The paper of Tom's was, in my opinion, poorly written. When reading through his essay, I was distracted by all of the typing errors and was not able to catch the direction of the paper. After reading the essay, I had the task of telling a friend that his paper needed a fair amount of work. The major problem was that Tom thought it was a fairly decent paper. How do I tell him to revise without hurting his feelings and ruining our friendship?
In my first year of consulting this question was probably the hardest one that I had to address. My friend truly thought that his paper was finished. He was showing it to me to confirm his judgment. If I tell him substantial work needs to be done, he could be hurt. At the same time I do not want him to receive a poor grade due to my remaining silent. I decided to begin by pointing out a few obvious errors that we could both agree were mistakes, primarily the typographical errors. After these small problems were discussed, Tom discovered on his own that some major revisions were necessary. Only after Tom reached this conclusion could we talk about the significant problems. Because of my knowledge of Tom, I knew that it would not be an effective conference if we started with the biggest problems.
From my perspective the small talk at the beginning of a conference is important in helping everyone--the writer and the consultant--become more comfortable in what can often be a threatening and difficult situation. For me these opening exchanges are much easier with friends and people with whom I already have an established relationship. The conversation focuses on little things, temporarily avoiding the real issues that will make or break my friend's grade. The friendly small talk also creates an informal, comfortable setting, relieving the tension that I feel before some conferences. Once the tension is eased, my focus, and the student's focus, is on the paper. At the same time, my knowledge of a friend's personal quirks and habits of mind enable me to find a tutoring strategy which can match with the friend's natural personality. I do wish, however, I could convince my friends not to wait until after midnight to finish typing the first drafts of their papers!