I hurriedly ran into the Writing Center Friday afternoon. It was 12:05, and I was late for my shift. A small, blond haired girl was sitting on the couch clutching a paper. She smiled at me as I set down by coat.
"Did you need a conference?" I asked, sitting next to her.
"Yes. I'm working on a paper for my Reading Literature class. It's about a personal experience that changed my life. We're supposed to have someone from the Writing Center read it for us."
I relaxed and settled back on the couch. Conferences on personal essays are the ones I feel the most comfortable giving. With these essays, I do not need to worry about understanding the subject matter. If I am confused or have questions about the text, the author is sitting next to me. Feeling confident, I took the paper form her outstretched hand.
The first two paragraphs described a sleepover that the writer had attended last year at a friend's house. She and her two best friends were doing typical teenager things like eating junk food and watching movies with hot guys. The paper was only two pages long, and this introductory material occupied the entire first page. I kept wondering when the life altering event happened.
At the bottom of the first page, she wrote that the three of them got into the car to pick up another friend. As they pulled out of the driveway, a drunk driver slammed into their car. All three girls were sitting close together in the front seat, and the impact of the accident caused her two friends to hit each other, crushing their skulls. They died instantly. As the car went up in flames, the student writer had to crawl over the bodies of her friends to escape. When she got out, she saw the drunk driver smoking a cigarette, watching the scene.
As I read this description, I felt physically ill, and tears welled up in my eyes. I am a compassionate person, and reading this paper struck every sympathetic chord in my body. Despite the power of her draft, the whole story was told in just under two pages, leaving considerable room for development. I wanted descriptions of the girls' personalities and their physical appearances along with vivid images of the accident. I wanted to know what the student felt like during and after the accident. How had she changed? Were her other friendships stronger now, or had they suffered as well? There was so much more I wanted to know.
In the midst of these thoughts, I looked at the girl. Even though she was sitting down, wearing a big winter coat, I could tell that she had a small frame and probably stood around five feet. I could only think about how she looked like a child, an innocent child with a naive outlook on life. I wanted to switch into my psychologist mode and be more of a counselor than a writing consultant. I knew that was not the role I was supposed to play, so I tried to set my emotions aside and focus on the task at hand.
I was cautious with my suggestions at first, feeling out her responses. If she had come to the Writing Center of her own free will, instead of to fulfill a requirement, I would have been less hesitant in my approach. In Christina Murphy's article "Freud in the Writing Center: The Psychoanalytics of Tutoring Well," she writes, "students come to a writing center for one reason only--they want help with their writing" (43). In the situation being discussed however, coming to the Writing Center was part of the professor's assignment. This arrangement is often helpful in introducing new students to the Writing Center, but unfortunately, it sometimes brings in writers whose needs may be best served elsewhere.
To begin the conference, I asked her what she missed most about her friends. I thought that if we talked informally about the subject, she might open up and feel more comfortable. I was wrong. In answer to my question, her body noticeably tensed up, and in a quiet voice, she said "I miss everything about them," and nothing more. I realized that the conference was not going to be a success if I had to force her to tell me those details which so desperately belonged in the essay. But then, I reasoned silently, maybe I did not have to know the details. They needed to be incorporated into the essay, but that did not require her explaining them to me as well.
I decided to change my approach. I began offering her general suggestions that did not need specific answers on her part, my attention shifting from the writer to the paper. We began to adopt the roles of instructor and student: she listened and took notes while I gave an impromptu lecture. Usually I avoid this sort of conference because I have found that equal interaction between the writer and consultant yields the best results. With conferences on emotionally troubling topics, however, this is not always the case. In the conference described above, the instructor/student approach was the only way I felt I could effectively communicated suggestions to the writer. Does a student's emotional involvement in personal writing sometimes command that we change our methods of conferencing so that we do not overstep the writer's boundaries of comfort?
In Murphy's article, she writes that "While the teacher's role is primarily informative and focused upon the method of presentation that will best convey the instruction to the class as a whole, the tutor's role often is primarily supportive and affective, secondarily instructional, and always directed to each student as an individual in a unique one-to-one interpersonal relationship" (43-44). Although this statement has merit, maintaining a supportive student/tutor relationship in conferences on personal writing may require amending Murphy's advice. Murphy makes the important point that each student who comes to the Writing Center has unique needs that must be assessed and considered. However, depending on the degree of intimacy in the paper, the writer may feel most comfortable with a more passive role, requiring less vulnerability. In my conference, I reversed Murphy's order of tutorial duties because I felt that as an instructor I would better serve the student.
Giving conferences on personal writing challenges the consultant to be flexible in her method of interacting with the writer. Since a main goal of a conference is to help the student improve the paper, the consultant must establish a relationship with the writer that enables this to be accomplished. Murphy quotes the Truax and Carkhuff book Toward effective Counseling and Psychotherapy stating, "the person (whether a counselor, therapist, or teacher) who is better able to communicate warmth, genuineness and accurate empathy is more effective in interpersonal relationships no matter what the goal of interaction" (45). Therefore, the tutor's first task in consulting personal writing is to assess the type of interpersonal relationship she thinks suits the needs of the writer. The consultant must combine her perceptions of the writer with certain qualities that Murphy identifies as essential to good tutoring. These are defined as "basic interest, concern, a desire to help....and empathetic understanding" (44). By exhibiting these qualities, a good consultant will be sensitive to the type of conference that would most benefit the student.
For some emotional papers, the writer might initially be looking for a therapy session, enabling her to talk about her experiences rather than discussing the paper. In this situation, the consultant must communicate with warmth and empathy, establishing a non-threatening environment where the writer feels free to share her problems. If the writer can convey her ideas, the productivity of the conference will increase. However, writing consultants are not equipped or trained to deal with the problems of serious troubled students. In such cases, the consultant should feel free to refer the student to other professional student services.
As in the case of my conference, however, the writer might not desire or be comfortable with any examination of the paper's topic, suggesting that the consultant should work on the plane of an instructor rather than a confidante. Murphy compares the tutor/student relationship with the therapist/client relationship by saying that both the student and the client are "hurting" in some way. Usually the student is "hurting" because she suffers "a high degree of inhibiting anxiety associated with the process of writing" (44). This may have been a factor in this conference, but more than anything the writer was hurting from the painful loss of two close friends. This writer was not looking to me as a therapist, but neither was she emotionally capable of separating herself from the paper and discussing its content.
In addition to these considerations, the consultant must be conscious of her own affective reaction to the paper and decide whether sharing this emotional response will help or hinder the conference. If the consultant disapproves of the writer's personal opinions, for example, she might remain silent and remember that the writer is not asking for approval, only suggestions for improving the writing. On the other hand, it sometimes proves beneficial for the consultant to share how the paper affected her, since this can spark discussion and enrich the writer's work. Whether the consultant's reaction to the paper is positive or negative, the consultant must communicate in a helpful, non-threatening manner. The writer may perceive the consultant's involvement with the ideas in the paper and therefore be more willing to take an active role in the conference. In my conference, however, I needed to control my feelings. Telling the student how much her paper disturbed and saddened me would have removed some of the professional distance, most likely making the student more uncomfortable.
Conferences on personal writing demand more attention from the consultant because so many powerful variables need to be figured into the equation. The consultant is faced with the challenges of controlling her own reactions to the piece, reading the personality and motives of the writer,and adjusting her approach accordingly. The challenge is further aggravated because this entire assessment must take place within the first few minutes of the conference.
Murphy, Christina. "Freud in the Writing Center." The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. 43-7.