Incestuous Conferencing: A Lesson in Lateral Learning

When Claire Rasmussen of the Coe Writing Center coined the term "incestuous conferencing," the name stuck. Instead of a gross exaggeration of intimate staff training, incestuous conferencing has come to describe the interaction of two or more members of a writing center staff in two different ways. The first interaction is when consultants bring their own papers in for conferences with other consultants. The second is when a consultant becomes a third party while observing a conference. Both interactions are integral components of staff development and training. The following "dialogue" among seven undergraduate peer consultants helps clarify what incestuous interaction is and sheds light on how it can assist in a writing center staff's development.


The use of incestuous conferencing, or any interaction between members of writing center staff, is one of the most important techniques of staff development in the Coe Writing Center. Our center is staffed completely by undergraduate students--from incoming freshman to seniors--from a variety of majors and departments. In training our consultants, we de-emphasize hierarchy and stress a lateral exchange of knowledge. Although we have a handbook that outlines our center's basic philosophy, there is no single source for prescribing conferencing techniques or approaches. Conferencing is a result of who we are as individuals, and because we employ 35 students, there are at least 35 different conferencing styles. Our incestuous interactions allow us to explore many different techniques, by observing and experimenting, to find compatibility with our own.

Many incestuous interactions within the Writing Center are implemented by our training course, Topics in Composition, which is taken the first two years of employment as consultants. This partial credit course consists of participatory exercises such as having a conference on a draft of one's paper, participating in multiple conferences on one's paper, interviewing a "veteran" consultant, and observing conferences. Consultants are required to write a brief commentary after completing each exercise, an opportunity to reflect on what they observed and learned through the interaction. These commentaries serve as direct communication with the director; they also encourage the staff to analyze what they learn from each incestuous interaction.

One benefit of incestuous conferencing is the preparation we gain for many potential situations and problems. An incestuous conference allows consultants to understand the emotions and feelings from the student's side of the conference, and therefore makes them more able to relate to students who brings their paper to the Writing Center. This one-on-one interaction among consultants ensures that we are constantly practicing collaborative learning. Consultants begin to rely on one another for information and help, which leads to a closely-knit staff. Seniors learn from first-year staff members, sophomores from juniors--everyone learns to appreciate the knowledge and perspective others possess. This lateral communication extends into consultants' interactions with students, helping to create a sense of community of and for writers. From constantly having our own papers involved in discussions and through observing how other people respond to our papers, we as consultants improve our skills as writers, as readers, as peer helpers. This improvement makes us better at conducting conferences, and more prepared when encountering new situations.


I'm a sophomore on the Writing Center staff, and have learned many of my conferencing skills from multiple conferencing. This technique involves taking a paper that I have written to three or more consultants and observing their conferencing techniques while discussing my paper. Following the conference I then write an analytical response essay. Because our staff trains itself, starting with the incoming freshmen, we use this hands-on training to gain experience right away. And because we are conferencing with several different consultants, we are constantly learning from each other as a whole staff. Hence, every year our philosophy and methods will continue to evolve as new ideas are introduced. It's important that our techniques adapt to the students who use the Writing Center.

When we bring in our own papers, we have the same fears and frustrations that any student would feel, so we learn to sympathize with students while finding out which conferencing techniques work for us and which don't. We start to develop a kind of connect-the-dots game, where we see how various techniques connect with each other as we each develop a more thorough understanding of how conferences can work.

It is important that these are real conferences--just like any we might have to conduct--and we're watching how consultants deal with real papers. We do not, however, judge each other; it's not American Bandstand where we rate our various conference experiences. Our intent is to observe techniques, looking for what we can steal for our own use. We analyze what works about the different parts of the conference and what we can adapt to use in our own conferences. Also, the staff experiences a sense of teamwork as we get to know each other through multiple conferences. Whether we're working on personal essays or research papers, it's a chance to observe and compare--to learn new ways of handling different situations.

As an example, earlier this fall I brought in a personal essay six times to six different consultants. Each approached my paper differently: one dealt with organization and pointed out unclear parts; another went through sentence structures, one at a time; one focused on imagery; still another just put the paper aside and asked me to tell the story. This whole time, I was building up a repertoire of questions to ask students about their papers, taking experiences from one conference to the next. It's as if I were building up a network of paths from one place to another, learning how to follow the different branches according to each situation, so that when I got around to taking a student through a conference, I could find my way from structural questions to imagery questions to grammatical questions. I made up a map of trails to follow through a conference, and I became more aware of how to ask and answer questions about writing.

At the end of the series of conferences, we write analytic responses, thinking through each conference and how it worked, mentioning what we'll use and what we learned. We tell of our impressions of the conferences and what they showed us about how to deal with papers and students. The key is that writing is a social process. We have the chance to communicate with several people who have some practical knowledge of how to conference a paper, and who can help us learn to be a networking, evolving staff. We are constantly involved in a staff conversation in which we can learn from each other.


When I first found out I was going to be a writing center consultant, I wasn't sure what to expect. Heck, I didn't really know what it meant to be a consultant! I was an incoming freshman so not only had I never worked in a writing center, I had never been in college either. To begin our training, the first-year consultants attended a day-long retreat. Some of the experienced consultants began by demonstrating some examples of conferences. We watched mock conference after mock conference. While this was not the most exciting experience of my life, I now realize that this process was one of the most important aspects of my introduction into the Writing Center. Watching these conferences gave me a clearer idea of what this whole "writing center" thing was about. More importantly, though, it prepared me for the time when I would have to conduct my own conferences. I formed an initial repertoire of things to say and questions to ask. Now that I am more experienced, I have a way to fill in the dead spaces, inevitable in any consultant's first experiences working with other students.

During the retreat, the first-year consultants conducted mock conferences amongst themselves on short passages each person had written. This was a useful way for us to overcome our initial fears because we were all in the same boat. Much like beginning doctors who don't start working on live patients, we needed to practice our new skills. We learned a lot as we stumbled over those initial questions of "What in the world am I supposed to be doing here?"

This incestuous concept proved its worth soon after I started working. After a horrendous conference, I completed a Topics assignment intended to evaluate the experience. I then took this paper in for a conference. Had I not, I probably would not have learned much from the experience. Conferencing this paper was a great tool. I took it to two different consultants, and got excellent ideas for how I should have approached the original situation. These two incestuous conferences proved a valuable way to find better approaches for dealing with difficult situations.


I had my apprehensions when I accepted a position in the Writing Center. As a non-traditional student over forty, I questioned my ability to communicate with students half my age. I didn't want to come across as having all the answers, especially since I had only recently returned to academic life. I wanted to be viewed as a peer rather than a know-it-all elder. I was extremely lucky, however, to have been mentored by another non-traditional student on the staff. Her expert advice was to relax, have fun, and treat each individual who enters our writing center as a treasure. She did not warn me by specifying forthcoming grammar problems, etc.; rather she recommended I give the greatest amount of my energy to the writer, not the paper. I could do this simply by displaying warmth, genuineness, and empathy toward the writer.

This conferencing philosophy was demonstrated to me when I was required to have multiple conferences on one of my papers. I remember my sweaty palms, dry mouth, and sick stomach and thought how much more intimidating the Writing Center would be for someone who did not work there. To say I was a bit apprehensive and insecure was an understatement. Yet, all three consultants approached my conference with encouragement and an unexpected diversity in their strategies.

My first conference began with the consultant asking me questions about the assignment. What was I trying to convey to the reader? Who was my audience? Was this a first draft? Did I have any specific areas that were giving me difficulties? When was the paper due? This person must have watched every Columbo episode released. I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions. Yet by answering her questions I realized I knew more about my paper than I gave myself credit for.

The second conference started out much differently. The consultant began quite informally, as if sensing my insecurities. We talked about school, specific classes that were difficult, and how my family was adjusting to my new role as student. When she sensed I was more at ease, she began reading my paper one paragraph at a time in an easy, conversational tone. In order to open lines of communication with weary writers, I have often incorporated this casual approach.

My last conference was with a consultant who taught me two important techniques that often receive little attention. The first is the use of laughter and humor during a conference. When I first sat down with this consultant I was once again nervous and on edge. I viewed her as having it all together; I also was intimidated by her writing ability. She began by asking me to read my paper out loud so we could hear what I had written. After reading the first few paragraphs I felt as if she hadn't heard a word I read. When I paused to look in her direction, she immediately turned bright-red and told me she spilled half a can of Coke in her lap. We both burst out laughing and I realized this gal was just as human as I was. Laughter, which was not at my expense, lowered the walls that are so often built when we are in a fearful situation. The sharing of laughter gave us an opportunity to relate as equals, making the conference a give-and-take situation. I also learned a second valuable lesson during the conference when I heard my consultant say, "I don't know how to help you." Hearing these words from this veteran consultant both panicked and helped me. When she wisely admitted to being stumped with my paper, she also encouraged me to talk with my professor. I learned being a consultant doesn't mean having all the answers, no matter how much I would like it to be so. Realizing this has allowed me to focus on the writer rather than the paper. Conversation such as this also fosters a comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere in the Writing Center.


Another type of incestuous conferencing is the observation of a conference. This observation is incestuous because it involves two consultants--one actively and one passively observing. There is less pressure on the observing consultant to deal with the student, leaving the observer the freedom to observe, react, and think. The most beneficial interaction is that which occurs between the two consultants after the conference has ended and the student has left. The two consultants can share discoveries and criticism. Most often, the less experienced consultant is able to see and hear what the more experienced consultant attempted or succeeded in doing during the conference. The consultants are free to ask any questions in order to gain a firmer grasp on what occurred and what they might do in similar situations. I have gained a great deal from observing conferences with ESL (English as a Second Language) students. These conferences were the most difficult for me when I was a new consultant. I had never dealt with diverse languages or people. For example, I gained a new perspective on ESL conferencing when the consultant I was observing read the text out loud. The student, hearing the English clearly pronounced, was able to correct his own grammatical errors and re-phrase awkward areas. Through the use of that simple technique the student found his own minor mistakes, revising the paper with little direction from the consultant.


As we have seen, incestuous conferencing has many positive characteristics, but, if consultants are not careful, this overly-comfortable environment can actually work against them, not for them. When a consultant approaches another consultant for a conference, there is an unspoken understanding, almost an agreement, between the two that implies several ideas: one, this consultant is asking me to help her with her assignment; two, this consultant and I have the same level of training and we are both aware of how conferences should be handled; three, this consultant and I know each other well enough that we can skip the introductory remarks and typical conference decorum for making the writer feel comfortable and welcome.

These assumptions, however, go against the grain of what we consider a successful conferencing style. First of all, these conferences may focus too much on the success of the paper rather than improving the writer. Secondly, when two consultants understand how a conference should be handled, one or both of the consultants may feel that ignoring minor details will not affect the conference. Consultants may not ask a fellow consultant the types of questions that establish common ground and a better understanding of the assignment. Finally, just because both writers may work in a writing center does not mean they understand each other's psychology or have a common understanding of the session. Skipping over conferencing "ice-breakers" can hinder those necessary conferencing dynamics.

An experience I had earlier this term illustrates this problem. A fellow consultant approached me with a poem she was to analyze using a specific form of literary criticism. Since we are both English majors, I immediately got excited about the content of the conference, and jumped right into the text. I failed to ask her what she felt about the assignment, the poem, her understanding of the text, etc. Instead I excitedly began pointing out specific examples that would support her argument. As we proceeded, I realized we were looking at neither the conference nor the poem from the same angle. The conference stagnated. I assumed that she and I were on the same common ground. In fact, I had further confused her and was complicating matters. Fortunately in this situation we were able to backtrack and start the conference over.

So what do we do to prevent these incestual problems? Our Writing Center consultants rely on the Topics course to re-evaluate our conferencing skills. The various assignments in the course give us the opportunity to train ourselves with writing exercises that force us to analyze real experiences. The results are two-fold: we get staff training through our own writing; we are also working with real class assignments to hone our interpersonal skills. Working with our papers then proves that our services are indeed effective. While this is not quality control, we do use incestuous conferencing as a monitoring system to uphold the "standards" which evolve out of each consultant's style. The interactions are also valuable because they are in the best interest of both parties--the consultant and writer--to improve not only each other's writing, but also our skills for working with other people. The distinctions between consultant and writer consequently dissolve in an effort to establish a mutual collaboration. Finally, incestuous conferencing reminds us what it is like to be in the writer's position--always a valuable reminder for successful conferencing.

Presented by the above at the Midwest Writing Center Association Conference in Minneapolis, October, 1996