I Know It All ... Don't I?

Tricia Johnson

In these final weeks of my freshman year in college, I have been reflecting on my growth not only as a writer, but also as a writing center consultant. Before I came to college, I thought that working in a writing center would mean that I would do the helping, prodding, and explaining to the other students. I was supposed to be the expert, wasn't I? Well, my first assumption was inaccurate, to say the least!

Throughout my high school life, I was always the friend who others came to for assistance with their writing. At this fundamental level of high school writing, I usually had the answers, or could at least put my classmates on the right track. High school writing was simple thesis statements, topic sentences, introductions, and conclusions. I assumed that all writing was this clear and easily defined.

My images of writing, as a mechanical and grammatical rather than creative skill, unfortunately were crushed when I came to college. A week before fall classes started, I attended a two-day training retreat with all of the other writing center consultants in Spring Green, Wisconsin. This retreat pointed out many different aspects of tutoring I had never previously considered. We evaluated different situations that had been encountered in previous conferences, many that simply required communicating with the students and making them feel comfortable in asking for guidance with their writing. One of the hypothetical situations presented a student who didn't want to work seriously on his paper. He had only come to our writing center because his professor required that he do so. As we discussed different approaches to take with an unresponsive student, I said that my initial reaction would have been to tell the student to leave if he wasn't ready to look objectively at his paper. That was not quite the answer that our writing center director was hoping for!

At this point I discovered that some of my original assumptions about tutoring were inappropriate; however, I did not know what new approaches needed to be used for replacing my old ones. By the end of our retreat, I did realize that working as a consultant involved more than dealing with grammar and sentence structure. Tutoring was also an exercise in learning how to communicate with peers. I had never considered the fact that some students were not going to be receptive to my questions and comments.

During the Spring Green conference, I became acquainted with different tactics to use in my conferences, but I still felt unsure how to use these tactics in an actual writing conference. My first conference was with another freshman student who was also in one of my classes. I was relieved that I would at least be helping someone whose assignment I understood. In fact, this student wanted to work on the same paper that I was writing. At first I assumed that this conference would be a breeze since I understood the important ideas in the story we were analyzing and I knew what the professor wanted in our papers. Unfortunately, this student also knew that I knew what the professor wanted, and he expected me to tell him how I did my paper. I ended up explaining how I had written my paper and even gave some of my own examples. This student didn't have to do much thinking on his own since I willingly shared ideas from my own paper. After the conference I realized that I needed to learn how to draw ideas out of each student, rather than give them my own ideas. Each conference was going to be a learning experience.

My second tutorial session was one that I scheduled with a fellow consultant to work on my own paper. I began the conference expecting that I would not learn much, since I was an expert just like her, but I came out of the experience a bit wiser and humbler. Not only did I discover that my writing had room to improve, but I also observed a better way to deal with the students in my own conferences. My tutor had done the same assignment last year, but she did not tell me how she wrote her paper. She simply asked me questions, such as "How do you feel about this story?" and "Do you agree with the main character's views on such-and-such?" Reconsidering my own views on the story helped me, even though at the time I didn't realize this. I discovered that I needed to use the same tactics in my own conferences to encourage the students to generate their own ideas.

My next tutorial session was with a student whose instructor required her to come into the Writing Center every week. I was feeling nervous since I remembered from the Spring Green retreat that many students required to have conferences often were not responsive. This student was not talkative, so I tried to make general conversation with her about her class, rather than jumping right into the paper. After we chatted awhile and she seemed comfortable talking with me, I began to discuss her paper. I first questioned her on the facts of the story. My original question, "What exactly is your paper about?" did not receive a profitable response because she told me that "the story was too hard to explain." As we continued our conference, she only repeated the professor's lecture, instead of trusting any of her own ideas. I decided to try a different tactic, following the lines of what I had been asked in my own earlier conference. I asked her such questions as "What were your favorite parts of their story?" and "What didn't you like about it?" These reader-focused questions received a much better response than my earlier text-focused questions. I discovered that I needed to ask her to describe her own feelings about the story, rather than just focusing on the straight facts. After this initial breaking-of-the-ice, she was much easier to talk with and our following conferences were truly successful.

Throughout my first year in the Writing Center, I have learned that different approaches must be used with different students. Not all students respond willingly to the same questions. Some students effectively respond to questions that ask them to analyze their readings, but others have a mind block when quizzed about what they read, finding it much easier to talk about their own feelings on the stories and assignments. Some of these techniques I have learned from observing the other consultants in the writing center. Discussing my writing problems in my own conferences has given me a double perspective on tutoring. These conferences have taught me the most about communicating with other students because I have been the one needing help with my writing.

I have changed my methods since the Spring Green retreat. Now when I encounter an unresponsive student, I know that I need to first make the student comfortable in the writing center, and then try to initiate a conversation about the assignment and the status of the paper. Fortunately, I have three more years of tutoring in the Writing Center, so I can continue to expand my communication skills and to learn more about dealing with different people in a positive manner. But at least I have already learned that I do not know as much as I thought I did at the beginning of the year!