Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Narrating Writing Experiences: When Students Want to Know Teacher as Writer

Today, as I attempted to prep students for one-on-one conferences, I had them answer a list of questions to bring to our meeting. My last questions was "Do you have any questions for me about writing?" I expected a bunch of requests for specific instruction, such as "how do I write the perfect conclusion?" or "what are some ways I can come up with topics?", but what I got instead were several questions about my own experiences with writing. They asked me about my feelings about writing, whether I deal with constraints, the kinds of vocabulary I use when I write, why I teach writing the way I do, who my favorite authors are, and what I consider "good" writing.

I guess what this suggests to me is that I need to be more transparent about my own struggles and successes with writing. Students want to know who their teacher is as a writer. They don't seem to want to me to establish credibility and claim myself as a writer. Instead, it seems like they are genuinely curious as to what happens in the upper ranks of academia. Or perhaps, they just want to relate. This is something I did not expect when I posed the question.

Typically, I resist talking about my own writing in class. Partially, this is an attempt to avoid sharing to0 much of my personal preferences with my students. I don't want students to feel isolated or constrained if they feel like we don't share views. I also don't want them to shape their writing around my interests thinking that they'll earn higher grades. I like to see what they can come up with when those types of constraints are removed.

Not sharing the personal is only part of it. The other part is that I don't talk much about my experiences with writing because I assumed students would find it boring. Sure, sometimes I'll throw in a "yeah, I have a hard time with focusing too when I have a lot of ideas about a topic" or other little quips, but I rarely offer narratives. What these questions suggest, however, is that maybe I need to do more of this.

I'd love to know how much students want to know about their instructors' writing. Do you want the examples and narratives? I'd also love to know how much instructors are already sharing with their classes. Do you offer quick one-liners? Do you take the time to share narratives about your writing experiences? Do you have question-and-answer sessions about writing, as one fabulous colleague of mine said she has done?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Observing Others: Mentorships and Two-Way Learning in the Writing Center

Two days a week, I work in a writing center. I have been working there since July of 2009, with one break in between to do a year of a Doctoral Fellowship. The whole experience has been wonderful. I learned a great deal of what I know about teaching writing and performing Writing Studies scholarship in this center. Because I have been there for a while, I also have the pleasure of helping to train new tutors (we call them "writing consultants").

In this particular center, we typically have a summer training session, where we role play and read articles related to writing centers and writing studies. Then, we move into a mentorship phase. For the first week, a new consultant will observe the sessions of an experienced consultant mentor. After a session or during downtime, the new and experienced consultants talk about those observations and any lingering questions. The following week are "training wheels" sessions. The new consultants hold their own sessions while the more experienced consultants observe and possibly chime in, depending on the new consultant's needs. At the end of the session, consultants review what was written on the mentee observation sheet, which is usually a list of good things with a few strategies for improvement. New consultants usually take this time to ask questions about sessions that they found challenging or things they realized they might need to know for the future. All in all, the training is meant to be a positive experience. I think this is why the word mentorship is important. It establishes a positive relationship, rather than a purely critical one.

This year, I finally had a schedule that allowed me to work closely with a single incoming consultant. I don't have IRB approval for this post, so I won't go into too much depth, but I can give you a basic outline of what went on. New Consultant and I worked together 2 days a week. From the start, she seemed to have a good grasp on what was expected of her and the foundations of a good session. During two weeks, she asked good questions, and I saw her running effective sessions. Even though my mentee was new, when turned out on her own, she did great. And I don't think it has much to do with my training.

Why I'm really writing this post, however, has less to do with what that consultant did (as this is not a study of her technique) and more of the experience of a mentorship. I think it's important that mentorships exist, whether in writing centers, teaching programs, or student-faculty/student-more-experienced-student scenarios. Although one of the individuals in a mentorship typically holds more knowledge or wisdom, it is a two-way learning scenario. While New Consultant learned what she needed to know to move forward, I learned some things that would improve my own consulting.

As I was observed for 12 hours of sessions, I found that I was more self-reflective about my consulting practices. When my mentee had questions, I had to step back and think about what I had done and why I had done it. Plus, I wanted to be a good role model, so I made sure that I was setting a good example by attempting to maintain balanced dialogue, getting students to write in a session, and making sure to keep up with administrative tasks, even more so than I usually would.

When my mentee finally got to her hours of "training wheels" sessions, I was impressed by her strategies. She was very effective, perhaps even more so than I was. I actually was reminded of things I needed to work on in my own consulting as I watched her.

In the end, there is no doubt in my mind that mentorships are great learning models. New Consultant and I both worked on our practices together through observations and dialogue. During this time, we also formed a relationship. This means that if one of us needs help during a session, we feel comfortable enough to ask the other. This also means that we can talk about writing and other things freely, and that the atmosphere of the writing center becomes a friendly one rather than simply a bunch of people who work together in a square space in the library. I see how this model would benefit students and teachers alike, but I think that needs its own post to be considered.

So what are your thoughts? Have you had mentoring experiences? Did you enjoy them or hate them? Did you learn, or were they dead ends?