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What’s your vision for an individual or small group writing conference with first-year and corequisite writers—especially when they have submitted drafts in advance? Do you see the conference as a predictable genre, one that will unfold according to a standard script? Or is it something else?
This semester, I am working with a group of junior and senior writing fellows, all of whom are partnering with first-year and corequisite writing classes. In preparation for the fellows’ first week of interaction in their assigned courses, I wanted them to think about what a writing conference looks like. Ideally, we noted, first-year writers will approach fellows with a clear sense of the help they want and a set of questions to address. But in reality, that rarely happens: initial conferences between novice writers and novice fellows may lapse into stretches of awkward silence, and fellows may feel compelled to fill that silence with “you shoulds” and “you coulds.” Queries and suggestions may be met with shrugs, nods, or respectful “oks.”
I asked fellows to consider some sample drafts and think about how they would initiate discussion during the writing conference: what would their opening gambit be? They shared these initial moves—both questions and comments—with the rest of the group, posting anonymous digital sticky notes.
Next, I invited fellows to analyze those opening moves much like they would the introductory paragraphs of a text. How might these comments and questions frame the following discussion? What expectations would those moves establish for student writers? Did the comments and questions give prominence to the student writer, the writer’s process, the form or style of the text, the assignment, language, developing content, the fellow as reader, or something else? Was an invitation to dialogue articulated or implied? Was a stance taken?
As we began to evaluate the questions and comments we had generated, I noticed a growing sense of concern among the fellows: “I think I did this wrong.” In short, they experienced in our preparation session exactly what first-year writers often experience during conferences: what they hear in questioning is that they “did it wrong.”
Of course, the fellows weren’t “doing it wrong.” They had targeted significant concerns about these early drafts. But conference spaces, like developing texts from the first-year writers, are sites of “logogenesis”—the making of meaning—where participants are establishing identities, navigating relationships, testing understanding, and making sense of genre conventions. As experienced college writers, the fellows recognize the complexity of writing choices and the impact of those choices on the resulting text.
I want them to see they can apply a similar thinking process to their choices within the conference.
In student conferences, we of course want to work on the paper at hand. But with corequisite writers in particular, fellows may also want to affirm student writers as writers, develop empathy, encourage agency, practice metalanguage, and offer opportunities for play. Thus, their opening gambits might include these:
- What is the big statement you wish to make with this assignment?
- What’s your biggest struggle with this paper?
- What part of your paper do you like the best? Why?
- What part of the paper needs the most attention right now?
- Wow! What a story—that’s really powerful.
- I struggled when I first read this assignment. How about you?
As the fellows imagined opening moves, they realized they wanted more information: when they get student drafts for review, where will students be in the process? Will they have received any instructor feedback yet? Are these drafts going to be assessed by a rubric? How many additional revisions will students have? What is the instructor’s goal for the conferences between fellows and students? These questions framed the fellows’ next session, when they discussed logistics and expectations with their assigned instructors.
When the fellows meet with first-year writers for the first time, the conferences may be just as rough as the student drafts they discuss. But if the fellows can reflect on the conferences as texts, critically, they can revise or edit their conference strategies, even as they assist first-year writing students to do the same with their papers.
I am excited about what will occur in the conferences—both for the first-year writers and the fellows. I suspect their reflections will prompt me to revisit my own conferencing strategies.
How about you? How do you promote conversation in your individual conferences?
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