Conducting Meetings with Writers
MEETING WITH STUDENTS AS A COURSE-SPECIFIC WRITING ASSISTANT
What to Bring
Have a copy of the class syllabus and the specific assignment with you for every meeting. If you have any relevant handouts from the professor, have those handy as well. Bring the sign-up sheet with students’ appointment times, names, and phone numbers. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to keep a folder with all the piles of paper relating to the course. Bring some reading material to keep you busy in case of no-shows, and if you’re heading for a long night, bring snacks or soda or whatever keeps you from getting cranky.
The (Hopefully Not) Awkward Introduction
Be approachable. Don’t be so caught up in your personal work that the student has to apologize for interrupting you. Smile. Introduce yourself. Ask the student how he or she is enjoying the class and how the current paper-writing endeavor is going. The initial conversation helps put the student at ease and gives you some baseline information about what the focus of the session should be. Some chatting early on can reveal details like how much time the student has put into the paper or how frustrated the student appears to be. What seems like idle small talk can give you insight on the student’s writing process and overall connection to the material.
Dive in and Start Listening and Talking
If you have worked as a writing center consultant, you already know the basics of tutoring and have established a style that works for you in that context. Those techniques will serve you well as a WA too, but you may have to be a little more flexible, depending on the prof’s expectations. Here are a few general pointers:
- Keep the student talking. Whenever possible, phrase your comments as open-ended questions, because many people express themselves more clearly verbally than on paper. Talking through a thesis can help the student clarify his ideas, and also give you a better sense of what the paper is trying to accomplish. Write down helpful comments!
- Present criticism in the first person. Even though you are brilliant, you are still just one reader. Instead of saying, “This paragraph is really confusing,” say, “I’m a little confused here. It sounds to me like you are trying to say... Is that right?” This sounds less like criticism and more like a peer reaction, and the writer is much less likely to feel defensive.
- Tailor your assistance to the writer’s place in the process. The direction of the session’s conversation will vary based on how far along the student is in the writing process. For example, if the student has no written draft yet, then you might want to serve as a soundboard for ideas and ask the student as many questions about the paper as possible to help narrow the topic. Likewise, if the student has a prepared draft, you can use the text as a basis for asking questions and bringing out thoughts.
- Have the student read the paper aloud. The read aloud method helps the student to better see issues with her own writing. It’s always better for the student to catch her own mistakes than to have you point them out instead. That way, the student maintains ownership of the text.
- Push, but push gently. Remember that your goal is not to create a great paper but to teach the student to be a better writer. It might be tempting, especially if the student is insecure, to take over the writing yourself. If the student is completely confused, chances are he or she just hasn’t thought through the idea well enough. Ask open-ended questions that allow the student to arrive at her own revelations. Keep talking about ideas, listen, and share the triumph when the student reaches an epiphany on her own. But if an epiphany just doesn’t happen, be sure to refer the student to the professor to clarify the assignment. You can also encourage the student to read over the relevant course materials another time in hopes that rereading will help clarify the main ideas behind the paper.
- Know, and communicate, your limits. If a student asks you to write a part of their paper, predict a grade, or do anything you feel is inappropriate, don’t do it. You know what your role is. So should the student.
- Represent the professor. If you know from your conversations with the professor that s/he really likes a strong thesis, say so. It’s important information for the writer. Likewise, if you know that, say, a casual tone is likely to meet with disapproval, suggest that the student think carefully about audience. Be careful, however, not to take this representation too far. Only repeat suggestions that the professor has specifically told you. Do not speculate as to what the prof “might think” about something.
- Take stock. Don’t just say “It’s 7:30, see ya!” Reiterate the two or three main points of your session, so the student leaves with a clear idea of what was ac-complished and what the next step of revision will be.
Some students have one particular quirk that holds back their writing process. Others have multiple difficulties. Either way, you won’t be able to address everything, so for each student, try to find a specific element of writing and focus on it. Remember that developing a writing strategy is a lifelong learning process. Offer a stepping stone, not a lifeboat.
Refer, Refer, Refer
If a student needs more assistance than you can provide, either in terms of time or expertise, remember all the other resources on campus. ESL tutors, writing center consultants, subject-specific academic tutors, and professors are all part of Carleton’s vast support network. You are not solely responsible for anyone’s academic performance except your own. Refer the student to specific resources for more guidance. If you’re not sure where to refer the student, chat with Kathy or Gene.
Regularly Check in with the Professor
Communicate with the professor at least once a week, either in person or by email. Let him/her know what issues, concerns, and questions students are bringing to you. Ask for clarification about grading criteria, assignment expectations, etc. Remind the professor and the class about your availability. Discuss with the prof when it's best for you to meet with writers during an assignment sequence.