Writing Center Sessions as Rhetorical Situations

“Please come see us at any point of your writing…we’d love to talk about your ideas, about your work…questions, thoughts, inspirations, frustrations .  Come and have a conversation wherever you are in an assignment,” we assure the students listening to the start-of-term orientation.  “It’s what we do here!”

Who We Are

All fifty-eight Writing Center coaches at the College of Lake County sit at their session tables during a variety of shifts throughout the week ready to engage with students.  Our staff, inclusive of peer tutors enrolled at the college, represents a range of academic degrees and disciplines, and it is this diversity of perspectives and academic backgrounds which provides a rich and varied approach to our conversations.  Most writers who are enrolled or who work at the college simply walk in, while others set a session appointment ahead of time.  Either way, we are staffed and ready for both, as well as for non-enrolled residents of the larger Lake County community who may avail of two half-hour sessions per semester.  The Writing Center is abuzz with activity throughout the semester’s seventeen weeks.  In fact, we average over 1,000 unique visits and over 2,000 contact hours of coaching work!

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The Writing We Do

Most of our conversations focus on a student’s writing assignments from different subject areas—from English Composition and Psychology to Nursing and Criminal Justice—with lots more in between!  Academic writing makes up the bulk of our work, alongside transfer and scholarship or financial aid essays.  At any stage of a writer’s work—uncertain beginnings all the way to a revised late draft—our coaching is rooted in a belief that every writer needs a reader.  The conversation and reflection that take place in a writing session help both the writer and the coach. It clarifies ways they think about their writing process and  opens up space for participants in this dialogue to see their work with fresh eyes.

While a student’s assignment drives the dialogue, a Session Agenda Sheet acts as a starting line of sorts.  In that document, writer and coach negotiate to identify the stage of writing the work is in, as well as the objectives to be met in that session:  What would you like to do over the next hour?  At the end of the session, a coach reflects on the conversation and writes up a session report summarizing what took place and how objectives were met or not met.  Coaches are also invited to include any new insights or learning from the session.

Lastly, the emails sent by our Writing Center coordinators also form part of the writing we produce as a group.  These are sent to faculty and staff, students, coaches, or prospective coaches and, in the process of communicating writing center  “business”, these emails also serve to reinforce the philosophy—the ethos of the group—that we value and respect all writers and their work.

Our Stories (Myths and Narratives in the Work We Do)

According to Craig Smith, “Rhetoric can remake reality and re-create a sense of publicness because it maintains the power of myths.  Presenting a narrative of events is important to the message one wishes to convey” (23).  What are some of these myths and narratives that reinforce or muddle the understanding of why we do what we do?  What stories persist and filter how the public perceives the nature of writing center work?

  •  The Writing Center as “fix-it” shop: When writers come in only to have their work edited—and only that—instead of investing in a dialogue about the writing, it casts the writing center as a repair shop of “broken” writing, and the writer as one who, without the coach, will only continue to produce inferior work.  Also, it oversimplifies the writing process to one dependent only on mechanics.
  •  The Writing Center as “emergency room”: A variety of the fix-it shop, a panicked writer with only 15 minutes before an assignment is due, rushes in to “see what can be done” because it will surely still earn a better grade than it would have in its current state.  Coaches do not see themselves as grade boosters.  Instead of perpetuating the myth of “instant” improvement, coaches work to emphasize the benefits of revision.
  •  The Writing Center as counseling office: While it is true that the coaching session may share in the openness and non-judgmental regard for another from which every counselor approaches their counselee, a writing center coach continues to focus conversation to a student’s work.  If a writer has tendency to veer off into more personal matters, diplomacy on the part of the coach should “rein in” the interaction to refocus on the work.  The personal may seep into the conversation in the normal course of events, but it should not take over the session.
  •  The Writing Center as extension of the professor: When students remain confused about the assignment and do not seek out their instructors to clarify matters, relying solely on the coach’s interpretation of the assignment, it perpetuates this myth.   A student’s agency—their capacity to take action or “get things done”—is diminished.  The same happens when a student and coach base their dialogue only on “what does the teacher want to see?”  Clearly, it is complicated because completing the assignment will require that the student determine assignment expectations, placing much of the power on the side of the teacher.  However, if the coaching session helps students situate themselves in the context of the written work while meeting its requirements, then a productive balance is reached.
  •  The Writing Center as a student ally: This myth is corollary to the previous and is equally restrictive in its view.  The session, as it aims to reinforce a writer as owner of the work, should not mislead a student into feeling a false sense of power without acknowledging the need to balance forces acting on the writer and the work.

The Rhetorical Situation and Strategies Applied

In “Aristotle’s Rhetoric”, Craig Smith presents rhetoric as being “a set of generative principles that produce a specific speech that adapts a particular message to a particular audience, speaker, and situation”.  He highlights “the changing nature of the audience, the malleability of the message…the diversity of the speaker…” (70). It is this need to consider the uniqueness of the audience and the adaptability of the message that finds significant relevance in writing center interaction.  A diverse group of writers with a range of concerns and objectives avail of writing center services, and as coaches, we need to be profoundly aware of this every time we begin a session.  The dialogue that ensues is unique to the participants of the session, so much so that a coach’s response cannot be considered standard.  Though it is the same coach, the interaction that follows is a product of the content discussed, the rapport built between coach and writer, and the circumstances surrounding the student, as well as the coach.

Peter Drucker’s “Functioning Communication” is echoed in most writing center sessions.  Drucker argues that communication fails “unless we first know what the recipient, the true communicator, can see and why” (263).  Every writer is considered the “communicator” as each brings to a session a unique set of ideas and circumstances that must be unpacked if the coach aims to be effective.

Our coaching session may also be viewed using the framework of Lloyd Bitzer’s concepts of exigence, audience, and constraints (222).  Our coaches exert every effort to make a case for writing as a worthwhile investment of time and effort (exigence) and keep this goal in mind throughout a session.  We are faced with writers who have the capacity to grow and remain engaged (audience) provided the sessions remain attuned to their concerns and aspirations.  This audience brings a unique set of constraints which act upon the situation.  The coach also is surrounded by a unique set of constraints—the mix of personalities, background knowledge of both participants, the writer’s perception of school, the coach’s perception of the writer, health and physical attributes—all of these exert their influence on the interaction or the rhetorical situation.

Thus, a coach is called upon to be nimble enough to respond appropriately to emphasize trust and credibility (ethos), support and understanding that make productivity possible (pathos), and a reasonable degree of expertise on the specifics of the work (logos).  When these strategies are applied, a writing center session is likely to be effective and it responds to what Peter Drucker calls the “demands” of communication (264).  It acknowledges that the recipient “has been somebody” thus making a change possible (265).  It may result in the writer beginning to understand that, as owner of the work, it takes time, effort, and thought to grow.

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Authentic Communication and the Coaching Session

In a session, if all goes well, both coach and writer place their “truths” on the table.  These truths, as described by Sheryl Sandberg are unique and complex, so engaging with these truths does not necessarily result in consistent agreement.  In fact, there might be a fair amount of divergence between a student’s approach and a coach’s methods because we all think in a variety of ways.  It is in this messy complexity where attunement to perceptions, values, and beliefs is what allows the conversation to proceed.  A commitment to being “authentically” attuned in our sessions creates possibilities.

Four years of coaching have encouraged me to consider the nature of writing center work in certain ways.  The many conversations at the session table, listening to and discussing a student’s questions, thoughts, inspirations, frustrations have produced insight as well as further inquiry on my role as writing coach.  While I am far from what I would consider an expert, those hours of dialogue shape my understanding of this role, and every time I sit at my table for a session, I am invited to grow along in the process.

10 thoughts on “Writing Center Sessions as Rhetorical Situations”

  1. I like the idea of a writing lab and your statements of its misuse early in the Blog. I am not as clear on how you counteract these situations, especially the first two. How do you recruit people to seek help who are not in these situations and actually see the benefits of the dialogue? Also what are the qualifications of the counselor? It was not quite clear what guarantee there was on the tutors to provide support. I think it is very effective to point out in the conclusion that the benefits extend to the tutors themselves.

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    1. Leigh,

      Terrific questions! Based on how I’ve read your comment, your questions seem to revolve around how the writing center ensures that the tutors/coaches provide the supportive environment needed to counteract the myths I listed. How is it then determined whether tutors/coaches are qualified to commit to this? If I’ve understood your questions correctly, here is my reply:

      Our writing center coordinators invest time interviewing the applicants, and in addition to what might be considered more standard hiring interview questions, the applicant might also have to respond to several hypothetical session scenarios. Along the lines of, “How might you respond if…”. Once hired, every new tutor/coach goes through a one-semester class on writing center theory and practice in order to establish a baseline approach to the sessions we have and be able to connect these approaches to specific theoretical foundations. In this way, tutors/coaches are clarified on the general tutoring philosophy of the writing center. And finally, throughout the semester, tutor observations are conducted alongside monthly staff meetings in order to address issues, questions, or concerns among the staff, or even celebrate successes.

      I hope this helps. If I misread the questions you listed, please let me know. I’m happy to clarify as needed.

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      1. Tessa,
        As a community college educator teaching in a writing center and a current student of English 519/521, I commend you on the connection with the goals of writing centers and connecting them to the Rhetorical Situation. As you illustrated, writing centers encompass many aspects of the needs of the college student. Regardless of the path as to why the student comes to a writing center, the idea to using Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation as the premise for your post was brilliant. As I read your blog, I realized that the main struggle I face is training new educators to be effective communicators in their sessions with students. For many seasoned educators, the writing center is a new environment to them. It not only takes a certain personality to teach in a writing center, it also takes adequate training in a center’s goals and ideology. As someone that conducts workshops for staff, your analysis in your blog will be used for my next workshop especially the idea that, “A coach wants to make a case for writing as a worthwhile investment of time and effort (exigence) and keeps this goal in mind throughout a session. We are faced with writers who have the capacity to grow and remain engaged (audience) provided the sessions remain attuned to their concerns and aspirations. This audience brings a unique set of constraints which act upon the situation. The coach also is surrounded by a unique set of constraints—the mix of personalities, background knowledge of both participants, the writer’s perception of school, the coach’s perception of the writer, health and physical attributes—all of these exert their influence on the interaction or the rhetorical situation.” I like the idea that there is a bond that must be developed between the educators and student. The rhetorical situation can function twofold: the student can be the mediator of the exigence as well as new educators understanding their role in writing center session. I am interested in learning more about your writing center as well as following your blogs.
        Thank you.

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      2. George,

        Thanks for your comments! You sound like someone who is quite committed to writing center work. I share your enthusiasm and agree when you write, ” writing centers encompass many aspects of the needs of the college student”. Writing center sessions are unique instances, constantly made and remade depending on who are in conversation and on the topic of conversation.

        Agree too that many educators have yet to become more familiar with the nature of the work that goes on here, as well as the implications of that work on the learning of their students. Clearly, I’m biased when I say that developing a writing center benefits not only the students but the coaches, the instructors, and the school community in general. So much happening in there!

        Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and my apologies for a delayed reply.

        Best, Tessa

        On Tue, Sep 9, 2014 at 4:19 PM, Writing in Professional Communities 2014 wrote:

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  2. Tessa,
    I am drawn immediately to the title of your blog, “Writing Center Sessions as Rhetorical Situations.” Not only have I tutored in the Writing Center at Olympic College, I am also an adjunct who teaches developmental English students. The past couple years I have been toying with the idea of the rhetorical situation as the context with which to inform the way I look at my own classroom and the way I teach. Your description of the theoretical foundation, the rhetorical situation as defined by Bitzer and its application in the Writing Center at the College of Lake County presents a terrific program which is pushing against the myths that continue to shroud the powerful work that can be done in a writing center when the coaches and tutors have an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the writing process and the rhetorical situation. In addition to your wonderful analysis of writing center myths, you have pointed to a couple authors I must read, Drucker and Smith. Thanks so much for your thorough and thoughtful presentation.

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    1. Teresa,

      Thanks for your comments! Yes, Drucker is especially helpful because of his emphasis on maintaining a multi-perspective approach to a situation. Look up his work on what it means to be an educated person, and multi-perspective/multi-context worldview is woven throughout the discussion. Especially relevant within the writing center scenario and in the developmental classroom as well.

      Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts and my apologies for this late follow-up!

      Best,
      Tessa

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  3. You make mention of certain myths and narrative constructs that seemingly pervade the work that you do. I wonder where they originated from — did you notice these overarching trends, or are they trends that the entire staff came up with? Were they elucidated from students, or a combination of the above? And, finally, if they are myths, then why do many of them seem to reflect the reality of the situation? I worked for years at University undergraduate writing centers, and many of the myths you mentioned rang true for me because the students actually wanted a counselor, or someone to “fix” their work, etc. Even when they realized what the function of the writing center was, they still wanted these things.

    You also mentioned that “a coach wants to make a case for writing as a worthwhile investment of time and effort.” While this may be true to an extent, you might want to clarify whether this is your goal, or simply the goals of the program. Otherwise, it sounds like a blanket statement (even if it is true!)

    Lastly, this post was informative and relevant to your audience. Also, the dialogic approach you assume with your students seems to be successful and truly heartfelt.

    Great post!

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    1. Danielle,

      Thanks for your comments! Interesting questions about the myths perpetuated in writing center work. Great reason to explore them further.

      So true about the ‘quick fix’ that you noticed as well in your undergraduate writing center work. I guess that is just the human element at work. As students, we all want to be perceived as doing our best, and sometimes that moves us to make decisions that aren’t really productive in the long run. A “better paper” now does not result in a “better writer” overall—at least that’s how our group sees it.

      And as to your last point about the need to clarify how “a coach wants to make a case for writing as a worthwhile investment of time and effort”. Yes, definitely not just a personal view. It is a view shared by coaches at our writing center. So, thanks. Yes, I will revisit that statement in my post and adjust to clarify.

      Thanks for stopping by, and as I’ve written in my previous replies as I try to catch up…my apologies for the delay!

      Best,
      Tessa

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  4. Hi Tessa,

    In your post, you highlight the discourse communities of work that you see at the Writing Center as: academic writing, scholarship and financial aid essays. I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between genre and discourse, and I’m wondering if you view the areas you listed before that–psychology, nursing, criminal justice–as genres within academic writing?

    Thanks,

    Chase

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    1. Hi Chase,

      Hmmm….genre or discourse? At this point, I understand them to be discourse communities within the even larger academic discourse community. Then, within each discipline we’d find different genres of writing. Does that make sense to you?

      If I were to play out my thinking: take psychology–it is its own discourse community with several writing genres within the discipline. There are reports, theses, etc–more academic in purpose—then there are also journals that students write and are more personal, allowing for reflection which connects theory with everyday life. So, these different genres will present different writing choices—vocabulary, tone, presentation– for students to make as they write within these varied genres found within each discipline/discourse community.

      My thoughts so far. The more I learn about discourse and genres of writing, the more I can fine tune the concepts involved and the language I use to explain those.

      Thanks for your question. It gave me a chance to revisit some of the thinking behind my post.

      Best, Tessa

      On Mon, Sep 22, 2014 at 3:52 PM, Writing in Professional Communities 2014 wrote:

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