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What Do I Talk About?: Making the Most of Your Time March 6, 2012

As writing center tutors, we want to help writers as much as we can.  We want to make sure that if a writer makes a one-hour appointment (or a half-hour, or two hours), we give them as much help as they require in that hour.  But what happens when you’re halfway through an appointment and you feel like you’ve covered everything?  (Hint: you probably haven’t).  What do you do when the conversation stops dead?

Sometimes, a writer will come in with a paper you could talk forever about, and still not cover all of its nuances (or trouble spots).  Other times, you’ve made a few comments, asked a few questions, and that’s it.  Your mind stops dead, your writer’s not speaking up, and the silence stretches out.  What I like to do, then, is to ask the writer some more questions.  Do they feel uncomfortable with any parts?  How do the introduction and conclusion feel to them?  Did they have trouble writing any particular part, or difficulty getting their point across, that they can remember?  Let the writer find their issues; they know their own work better than you ever will, and they know what parts are rubbing them wrong.  They might find something you missed.

If that’s not working, think back on their main points, and question them about some of their assertions.  Put the burden of proof back on the writer, and ask them to explain their own reasoning.  In my tutorials, I’ll often ask, “But what did you mean by this?” if one of their conclusions seems unfounded, or lacking the evidence to back it up.  Usually the writer will begin to detail their reasoning for that part, and then you can suggest that they incorporate some of these explanations into their argument.

Even just talking about the assignment in more general terms can use up some more of that time (and help the writer think more deeply).  Ask about the class, the readings, the argument they chose, the points they use.  Ask the why’s of this particular piece, and talk about the process of developing this idea.  Talking about the assignment can give the writer new ideas, and can give you a better understanding of what the writer wants their paper to say.  Sometimes writers haven’t given a lot of thought to these kinds of questions, and that might be why they’re at the Writing Center in the first place.  At the very least, you’ve opened up a larger conversation about the topic.

If you’ve really exhausted all of your options, it might be best to just let the writer go.  Not all writers are thinking about choosing the right appointment-length for the assignment; if your writer has booked 90 minutes for a statement of purpose, you’re probably okay if you can’t stretch out your discussion that long.  Dragging out the appointment could also obfuscate the points you made earlier in the appointment, and when the writer goes to revise, they might not remember your advice.  There are times when less is more.  Most of the time, however, there is more to talk about – a lot more – than you’d think.

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One Response to “What Do I Talk About?: Making the Most of Your Time”

  1. lauridietz Says:

    Your post reminded me of recent experience I had tutoring. I was working with a writer on the beginning stages of a pretty big project and realized about 20 minutes into an hour-long appointment that I was running out of things to say. And that was exactly my problem. I realized I had been doing the talking way too much and was acting more like a teacher telling the writer what to do and not creating a dialogue about what to do. I changed gears, started asking more questions, and we ended up struggling to keep the appointment within an hour.

    Another option for keeping an appointment going is to follow Jeff Brooks’ advice in his essay “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work.” Brooks recommends having writers use some of the time in the tutorial to actually do some writing and revising. That way, they can try out some of the suggestions you’ve made and then check back in with you for further feedback. We have a few tutors on staff who regularly use this practice; they will even walk away for a few minutes so that writers don’t feel the pressure of someone hovering while they work.

    What other practices do tutors use to help make the most of an appointment?


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