It was hard enough for me adjusting to life as a freshman at college. What seemed to make my college initiation even more complex was my job as a writing consultant in the college's Writing Center. How could I ever tell an upperclassman that her paper wasn't very well organized and lacked a thesis statement, not to mention the fact that she had spelled the word "their" as "there" the whole way through? My main priority at the time was to survive. I tried absorbing in my first week all those tips, techniques, and reassurances from the experienced staff members, but I soon realized my only option was to jump in and do that first conference.
I did survive that first year in working in the Writing Center. What I found, to my surprise and delight, is that most of the time the upperclassman without a thesis statement (and others like her) accepted my suggestions as valid. A position in the Writing Center carries with it an image of expertise and competence. Even if we feel unsure about ourselves and our "expertise," as long as we don't advertise these insecurities, they most likely will not be noticed by a student.
Even though my first few conferences went off without a hitch, I was still plagued by the nagging suspicion that I was in no position to advise anyone about writing. Yes, I felt that I could write pretty well on my own, but that didn't mean that I could tell anyone else what to write. As I soon discovered, I would never have to, nor should I try to, tell someone what to write. In the beginning it was tempting to say "Well, I would say it this way..." but I knew that I couldn't, if for no other reason than that it was not my paper to write in my style.
I have always been the kind of person who would rather listen than talk, a handy attribute for a Writing Center staff member. The more questions you ask, and the more you listen to the answers to those questions, the more you will learn about the writer and the paper. As writers talk, they have a chance to explain where they're coming from, what they want the paper to say, what they like and dislike about the paper, and what they need from you as a consultant.
One thing that helped me in the early stages of my career as a consultant was simply observing the conferences of older consultants. I would sit in a corner of the room and pretend to be reading a book, taking everything in but not making the student uncomfortable about my presence. From watching other consultants, I could compare their styles of conferencing and determine what techniques were the most effective. I found that Gail, for example, would engage in small talk, waiting for an opportunity to then ease the conversation into the paper. She was not hesitant to move away from the paper later and just talk to the student, following the conversation wherever it led. Another writing consultant, Audrey, was consistently careful about making it clear that she was only giving an opinion, and not something that had to be done for the paper to be a success. She subtly brought in her suggestions, saying things like "I wonder if there's another side to that issue," or "Do you think that there's any other way to say that?" After watching these conferences, I had some ideas about what techniques would work most of the time, as well as those that might not.
Another learning opportunity that proved invaluable was having conferences on my own papers. While it felt strange to be in the other chair, these conferences enabled me to understand how students feel while someone reads their papers, watching facial expressions for clues and wondering what the consultant will have to say about the paper. I know because I was doing all these things. At the same time that I was a participant in these conferences, however, I was also a detached spectator, looking at these conferences from a consultant's standpoint, wondering what she was looking for, what techniques she would use, how she would go about bringing in her suggestions. When I went back to doing my own conferences with other students, I had a better understanding of some of their turbulent, uncertain feelings.
If I had to pick out the one thing that was most helpful to me in improving my conferences and my self-confidence, it would be the experience of talking to older, more experienced consultants about my mistakes. Not only does telling someone when you've really had a bad conference relieve some of the stress, but many times you may find that the veteran consultant has made the same mistakes that you just did. Since I respected these experienced consultants and sought to incorporate some of their techniques into my own conferencing style, my self-confidence was boosted simply by learning that they too had left conferences feeling like they had really failed. If they could screw up and still turn out as well as they did, so could I.
One incident that had the potential to be one of the worst experiences of my Writing Center career turned out to be a major learning experience. I was working in the Center with Audrey when a foreign student came in for a conference. We went into a separate room where we do conferences, and I asked about the assignment. He handed me the professor's assignment sheet without a word, along with his one page paper. I read through the assignment and then through his paper, sat back, and realized that I had no idea where to begin. His paper was supposed to be at least three pages, but it had no thesis or any single main idea that I could see, and I didn't really understand what he was trying to say because the grammar was so "non-standard." I asked questions about his feelings concerning the paper, how he chose his subject, and what his main ideas were, but I couldn't get him to answer me. I don't know if he didn't understand English well enough to know what I was asking, or if he just didn't care about the paper, but I couldn't elicit any answers from him.
After half an hour of failure, I was so frustrated with talking to myself that I asked him if Audrey could look at his paper. He said no. I started to get up and go back to the other room, then hesitated, momentarily confused. "No, you don't mind, or no, you don't want her to look at your paper?" He stared back at me, looking as confused as I felt, and said "No...." After what seemed like an infinite silence, he finished, "No, it's ok if she looks at my paper."
Relieved that he could indeed speak, I returned to the main office, told Audrey what the situation was, and asked if she would please look at the paper and see what she could do. She agreed, left the room, and returned half an hour later. When we sat down and talked about our conferences, I found that she had not been able to get much out of him either. She told me some of the specific questions she had brought up. Many had been the same ones I had asked. I felt much better about the whole situation after I realized that it was not my asking the wrong questions or inexperience with conferencing that had made the conference go badly. We finally came to the conclusion that there is only so much we can do as consultants, and we cannot help students who are not ready, for many different reasons, to take the risks involved in working with peers on their writing.
[Toward the end of my first year, my self-perception as a writing consultant began to shift for me. I stopped worrying so much about what I was going to say about the paper, and I felt more comfortable in relying on the questions that occurred to me as I responded to students' texts. I found myself sliding away from concentrating on issues like grammar and stylistic precision, and targeting issues which addressed my comprehension of the paper and such matters as ideas and organization. I learned that maybe the fact that the upperclassman had spelled "their" wrong consistently should take second position to the fact that she didn't have a thesis statement. There was still that brief twinge of dread before a conference, the slight expectation that this might be "the conference from hell." But each time the twinge was less oppressive, and I felt like I would be much better prepared to handle such a conference if it arose. I knew that I would not only survive but probably learn from the experience and discover some new insight about myself as a Writing Center consultant.]
Unpublished 1992, but accepted for publication in Precarious Liaisons: Tutors on Tutoring