Conversation is Key

Justine Goode ’16 offers a letter of advice to nervous Writing Associates.

Dear RHET 401 student,

My name is Justine and I’m a Writing Associate. That may seem obvious, as I am writing this paper to you, and as my new job has quickly become integral part of my identity.  However, it bears repeating, if only to remind myself what an enormous leap this role represents for me as a writer and student. I’ve always been an introvert and intensely private person, especially in regards to my writing. In middle school, I password protected every single one of my Word documents for fear that someone would see my stories. In high school, nothing struck fear into my heart like the phrase “peer workshopping,” and I avoided any classes, such as creative writing, that were structured around group revisions. I visited the Writing Center once my freshman year of college, and it was only because the thought of writing my Intro to Comparative Literature essay gave me a genuine panic attack. Although it was the most ideal situation possible—my associate was my best friend’s older sister, Sophia—I felt stressed and utterly out of my depth, despite her patience and help. So it still throws me a bit to think that I’ve spent the past six weeks voluntarily conversing with students of every grade about their writing and so thoroughly enjoying it.

I’m writing to you now because just maybe, you share some of the same fears and trepidation I did as a new WA. There are many challenges to be faced going into this undoubtedly vulnerable situation—not least of which includes the act of simply communicating with your student. It’s a part of the job that one can take for granted; yet I feel that good, comfortable communication is absolutely critical to one’s productivity and helpfulness as a tutor. Learning how to converse naturally and cooperatively may seem daunting, but it’s key—and I’m here to tell you that if I can do it, anyone can.

When I consider why engaging in a sometimes uncomfortable act has in fact made me more comfortable in the role of Writing Associate, I find that Kenneth Bruffee’s opinions on the connection between writing and conversation are quite incisive. He states,

“Writing is two steps removed from conversation because, for example, my ability to write this essay depends on my ability to talk through with myself the issues I address here. And my ability to talk through an issue with myself derives largely from my ability to converse directly with other people in an immediate social situation” (Bruffee, 210).

He stresses the importance of talking through ideas, and how the verbalization and externalization of fomenting thoughts can be crucial to the success of a paper. This process may have at one time intimidated me, but in practice, it has actually proven to be a huge diffuser of stress or pressure. By engaging a student or peer in a conversation about writing, using the same tone and structure one would in a social situation, tensions are dismantled and anxieties assuaged. With a few encouraging, causal words, you can establish to your student that you are on their side; that you are rooting for them to succeed. Creating this friendly foundation has, for me, proven extremely beneficial to the subsequent revision process.

The word “peer” in “peer tutoring” is indeed operative. As a freshman, I couldn’t see my senior tutor as an equal, but as an associate I very much feel that the student and I are collaborating on the revision of their paper. Bruffee encourages this mindset, “the kind of conversation peer tutors engage in with their tutees can be emotionally involved, intellectually and substantially focused, and personally disinterested. There could be no better source of this than the sort of displaced conversation (i.e., writing) that academics value” (210). I have greatly enjoyed engaging deeply with one student and one topic for even a short amount of time, and the transient nature of the sessions never seem to detract from their productivity. I’ve found that beyond the pedagogy we’ve been learning in class, which I do try to implement whenever possible, the most help I can offer to a student is simple encouragement and affirmation. I appreciate that Bruffee acknowledges the importance of the emotional connections between associates and students, as well as the technical aspects of tutoring. Being able to offer support and consolation often feels as rewarding as helping a student restructure a sentence, or changing a passive sentence to an active one (although that feels pretty great as well).

Bruffee also states that,

“Peer tutoring, again like collaborative learning in general, plays an important role in education because it provides a particular kind of social context for conversation, a particular kind of community: that of status equals, or peers. This means that students learn the ‘skill and partnership’ of re-externalized conversation not only in a community that fosters the kind of conversation academics most value, but also in a community like the one most students must eventually write for in everyday life” (211).

He suggests that connecting two significant aspects of student life—the academic and the social—can in fact enrich both, an idea which I would corroborate. For example, I recently found myself tutoring a student with whom I’d acted in a musical last semester. Despite the intense rehearsal process, however, we had never spoken to each other. But the act of revising her paper necessitated we do away with any awkwardness and instead build on the connection we already shared. Our familiarity with each other benefited the tutoring process and in turn, our discussion about her paper extended into a genuine conversation about life, school and extracurriculars as she packed her bag. In this instance, our academic and social spheres bled into each other to create an interaction that was edifying on multiple levels.

However, Bruffee does caution that peer tutoring could be interpreted as the “blind leading the blind,” which is not an unreasonable concern. Especially because it is still somewhat early in the year and the course, I often find myself filling gaps in my pedagogical knowledge with learned experience. Of course, this isn’t totally invalid—the advice I give comes from both making mistakes and experiencing success over the past two years. But I am no “master of discourse” and must concede that there are some points on which I will be truly useless to my student. But once again, Bruffee turns to the collaborative, give-and-take nature of peer tutoring to solve this problem: “…by working together—pooling their resources—they are very likely to master [the assignment]…” (212). Being forced to decipher a prompt or engage in a thoughtful discussion over a teacher’s unknown expectations can be even more productive than knowing these answers outright. Additionally, the idea that the relationship between tutor and student is symbiotic is hugely important. Students do not simply come to the writing center for easy answers, or to have some specific grammatical knowledge bestowed upon them (alright, they might, but the most productive sessions go beyond this). Those who are willing to engage and show a distinct investment in their paper and topic are the ones who benefit the most in the end.

I’ve recently realized that this penchant for conversation perhaps does not come naturally for all tutors; indeed, as a fairly shy person, I’m surprised (even shocked) that it has become such a crucial component of my own tutoring. I feel as if I owe my conversational approach to some really exceptional students I encountered near the beginning of the year. They weren’t shy or retiring—they knew what they wanted to fix in their essay and were assertive, accommodating, funny and receptive. My first student was chirpy and friendly, and introduced herself with more confidence than I ever possessed as a first-year. She seemed far more comfortable in the situation than I did, and I immediately tried to adjust myself to her level of sociability and openness (almost in the way that peer counselors on the SIC “mirror” the language of students they are speaking with). My next student was similarly self-possessed and directed in what he wanted out of their WA session. When he left, they cheerily wished me a good night. I was touched by the simple statement, and now make a point to say the same to every student I work with as they leave.

I feel that it was indeed a lucky stroke to have been able to work with so many outgoing and responsive students over the past six weeks, because as I strove to mirror their casual, unworried demeanor, it gradually became a natural part of my tutoring style. This goes to further underscore Bruffee’s notion of the symbiotic, mutualistic relationship between student and tutor. Not only do I collaborate on essay revisions with my students, but their responses and questions and personalities have been vital to my development as a Writing Associate.

So I suppose what I’m getting at, dear student, is that great changes in your own skills, as well as the writing of others, can be borne out of the simplest and least stressful interactions. You don’t have to overhaul a paper to be deemed helpful; you don’t have to assume an authoritative stance you are uncomfortable with. If you don’t understand something, tell them as you would a friend. The human connection you offer in the midst of an often intimidating and unapproachable academic environment is utterly invaluable and one that should not be overlooked.

Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the “Conversation of Mankind”” College English 46.7 (1984)


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