Why Do You Ask? Questioning the Question in the Writing Center

Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Writing Center, University of Notre Dame

Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Writing Center, University of Notre Dame

By Matthew Capdevielle, Director of the Writing Center, University of Notre Dame

“So, what are you working on today?”
“When is your paper due?”
“Are you concerned about anything in particular in this draft?”

In the writing center that I direct at the University of Notre Dame, we spend a good deal of time asking questions.  We pose questions about practical parameters of assignments—length, due date, assignment requirements, etc.  We pose questions about writers’ goals, their concerns, and their hopes for their work.  Most importantly, we pose questions with writers to help them discover and articulate their own ideas.

This approach is common in writing center pedagogy.  As a tutor in the UW-Madison Writing Center while in graduate school, I learned so much about the value of asking good questions from my colleagues and mentors—but most of all from the writers I worked with at the tables on the 6th floor of Helen C. White Hall.

It’s sort of a commonplace in the writing center community to describe this method of teaching as a Socratic method, and in fact, more than once in the literature, Socrates himself has been invoked as a kind of proto writing center tutor, having conversations with people about their ideas and helping them to develop a clearer understanding of things by asking good questions.  Most notably, Stephen North in the “Idea of a Writing Center” back in 1984, described Socrates as a tutor who “set up the same kind of shop” in the agora offering, as he puts it, “a continuous dialectic that is, finally, its own end.”

This comparison rings true on a number of levels, especially in terms of North’s formulation that the process itself, the process of engaged dialogue, is not just a means of attaining insight—it is actually its own end.  Our primary purpose in the Writing Center is to engage writers in conversation.  And this is not just a means of achieving something through the session—it is in fact the goal.  More than anything else, the tutors are working to encourage writers to talk about their writing.

Collaboration in the Writing Center

Collaboration in the Writing Center

It’s a special kind of talk that takes place in this environment—Muriel Harris has called this exploratory talk, contrasting it with presentational talk, which is how we tend to speak when we think we’re being evaluated.  Exploratory talk is generative in ways that presentational talk is not. Given that, as North suggests, this is an end in itself, we would do well to attend very closely to what constitutes the exploratory character of effective writing center talk.  I think that the question is an important part of this.  For Socrates, the engine of dialectical inquiry is the question.  The Socratic Method is question driven.  Likewise, I would suggest, exploratory talk is question driven as well.

But what makes a good question—that is to say an effective or productive or generative question that can help us engage in collaborative and truly exploratory talk with writers?  This is something I wrestle with continually in my work in the Writing Center.

Socrates himself didn’t always ask the right question.  In fact, one might say that it was asking the wrong questions that got him into trouble.  But his method of questioning was not a monolithic pedagogy.  It had important variations.  The Socrates we see in the Gorgias gets himself in deep trouble by asking questions, primarily because he’s not really asking questions at all.  Rather, he’s badgering Gorgias and Callicles, and he ultimately fails to persuade them of anything.  In spite of Socrates’ claim that what he’s doing is posing genuine questions to help his interlocutor “work out his ideas,” he ends up engaging in a sort of caricature of the method.  The form of questioning and dialogue remains but the exchange is actually monologic, devolving into a lecture that Socrates gives at the end to Callicles—Callicles who has simply given up and offers only perfunctory and sarcastic rejoinders, like, “Oh most certainly, Socrates” and “Whatever you say, Socrates,” and who basically says, “Why don’t you just finish up the conversation by yourself?”  At another point in the dialogue, Socrates even tells his interlocutor what his response should be.  He says, “Ask me what kind of craft pastry baking is, Polus.” When Polus obliges, Socrates answers his own question and then tells Polus what to ask next.  He is clearly talking to himself at this point in the dialogue. The method has failed here as Socrates ends up lecturing the person he might have persuaded.

Tutors' Question of the Week in the Notre Dame Writing Center: If you could have anyone as a Writing Center tutor, who would it be?

Tutors' Question of the Week in the Notre Dame Writing Center: If you could have anyone as a Writing Center tutor, who would it be?

Now there’s certainly much to consider in this rich text, but one thing that strikes me is how similar this derailed dialogue looks to the transcript of a writing center tutorial that’s gone off track.  If you’ve ever looked at a transcript of a writing tutorial that has gone awry—or, like me, experienced a tutorial gone awry—you might immediately note the similarities. There are interrogative statements to be sure—questions—but they are of the sort that accomplish just the opposite of what we might hope would come out in the exchange. In particular, we see questions that are not genuine attempts to engage in and foster exploratory talk but are rather leading questions that close off the dialogue and that constrain the field of possible ideas.  Once a writer gets wise to this or senses that the questions are “What have I got in my pocket?” sorts of questions, then the writer very quickly defers authority to the tutor and waits to be told what to do, kind of like Callicles in the Gorgias. This is the opposite of shared inquiry or collaborative learning.  This is appropriation of authority under the guise of the Socratic Method of engagement.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, we see a very different sort of interaction between teacher and student.  I would say that if we can find a writing center appointment anywhere in Plato, it’s in the Phaedrus.  Here, Phaedrus and Socrates sit down side by side to talk about a text together.  They’re far outside the agora, the marketplace, outside the site of performance.  Phaedrus has a copy of a draft with him.  Socrates has him read it out loud, just as he would in the Writing Center.  They talk about it, with Socrates asking lots of questions.  And they get somewhere, moving from playful banter to deeply engaged collaborative conversation.  I’d argue that what we witness here is a Socratic method that is much more exploratory than the version of the method that we see in the Gorgias.  Phaedrus’s comments definitively shape the dialogue. The direction of the dialogue changes as a result of his lengthy responses.  And in his responsive engagement with Phaedrus’ concerns, Socrates enacts his argument for a form of writing that doesn’t kill the spirit of dialectic, moving forward in pursuit of a philosophical insight that can be reached only via interaction with another person.

Now, what does this have to do with questions and exploratory talk in the writing center?

I would say that the question in the tutorial environment dramatizes a key feature of any rhetorical enterprise—it dramatizes the encounter between two people in the shared project of understanding their world.

In the barest practical terms, we could talk about this in terms of “audience awareness.”  This is one easy way of explaining to others why we do what we do in the Writing Center—and why it works.  We often say that when writers come into the writing center with a draft, they are compelled to respond to the questions and concerns of a real flesh-and-blood reader.  This process helps hold them accountable, keeps them honest in their writing.  And ultimately, it helps them internalize a more mature understanding of audience, of their readership. Understanding their readers, we claim, makes them better writers.  This is all true, I think.

But when we sit down together, as writers and readers, we might find that more is at stake, that it’s not merely a matter of gaining practice responding to an actual reader.  The process of engaging face-to-face with a reader allows for a more direct experience of the deeply ethical character of writing. Writing–writing anything–involves us with other people in a way that holds the potential to change us, that bears upon our understanding of who we are. It is a subtly ethical encounter.

Coleman Morse Center, Home of the Writing Irish

Coleman Morse Center, Home of the Writing Irish

The tutorial interaction is the experience of the ethical encounter of writing writ large, so to speak, and it highlights the transformative potential of rhetorical engagement. Writer and reader must face the wholly spontaneous and utterly unpredictable other person at the table, and they have to negotiate with one another. The locus of that negotiation is the question. The question is the rhetorical vehicle for this encounter, eliciting response.  And because writer and reader are face-to-face, the imperative to respond is mutual and carries a special immediacy.

The Socratic Method of the Phaedrus, then, might indeed be seen to lie at the heart of the writing tutorial, especially when the questions we ask are genuine questions that open us up to the possibility of, in Socrates’ words, “a writing on the soul” that permanently alters the participants in the exchange.  The question in the tutorial represents this possibility, this opening up of the reader and writer to the potential for transformation. The question is an invitation to a truly collaborative exploration in a more properly shared inquiry.

So what does a transcript of this kind of session look like?  I’m not sure.  I’d like to see it myself!  While there’s no easy formula for generating this kind of question, I think it’s useful to consider the ethical weight of the opportunity that our conversations in the writing center provide.

Certainly, these thoughts toward a theory of the question are only a beginning, but I’m interested in collecting something of a natural history of the question as it appears in our study and practice of writing.

How about you?  How do you use questions—either as a writer or as a tutor?

10 thoughts on “Why Do You Ask? Questioning the Question in the Writing Center

  1. Matthew, your essay has given me a lot to think about in terms of the generative power of the question, and the purpose of discussing a piece of writing *with the intention of trying to see it differently, as if from another’s perspective.*

    In many ways, the humanities-based writing tutorial is a sort of analogue of the collaborative intellectual inquiry that is the hallmark of other disciplines in the academy, namely the hard sciences. It seems to me that those of us who teach and do research in the humanities should look to those “objective” fields to see what their writing and scholarship practices can teach us about the ethical and communitarian concerns you describe.

    Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede ask, provocatively I think, how collaboratively-written texts challenge traditional ideas of the rhetor-audience dialectic. The same question could also be applied to the text that has experienced the transformative effect of being subjected to critical analysis; perhaps more importantly, we could ask (as I believe you do here) how the rhetor herself might be transformed by such an encounter, in her essence if not in the substance of the writing she ultimately produces.

  2. Excellent essay. The Phaedrus analogy really helps to explain the possibilities of the writing center inquiry, just as the Gorgias provides a model for a dialogue that has ceased to be a dialogue. Certainly young Phaedrus is changed by his encounter with his tutor, while Polus and Callicles remain unmoved. It strikes me that you also have here two models — one helpful, one not — for approaching public discourse. The Gorgias approach of lecturing and hectoring, which is the dominant approach in public discourse today, rarely changes minds or hearts. The Phaedrus approach, which is less widely applied in public argument, invites communication and reflection. Does the writing center, then, provide a model for a better public discourse?

    Thanks for a thoughtful and stimulating essay.

  3. I love this blog post for its ability to make me re-think the possibility of the question, because despite years of training in asking questions, I still struggle with knowing how to ask the right ones. Behind almost all of my questions I can feel my self tapping, pushing, urging–my directiveness lurks behind these seemingly open formulations. I hear Brad in my head asking me to “find out what the author knows,” and so I take a sentence that I’d like to simply utter outright and turn it into question form. Both the writer and I are suspicious that it’s a sham. Unless–and this is a big unless–I know the writer well, in which case that writer generally knows I am writing center-ing her or him and we play the game together. And I often explicitly say that is what I am doing. (I wonder where that motivation comes from.)

    In the same way, I am playing your game here, Matthew, because I know you well and care deeply about your thoughts and writing, and therefore, I am more open to your questioning. And that leads me to wonder how much of effective question-asking and dialogue are dependent on the relationship between writer and instructor, on the natural or developed chemistry between two people who have come to know each other through intellectual exchange.

    To give another example, the question generally failed to provoke any real dialogue when I was in law school, except in one course. Generally, my law professors asked questions, assuming they were engaging in the Socratic method, but they were Gorgias’ Socrates, asking leading questions, demanding answers, and not really provoking conversation or dialogue. They wanted us to excavate the logic of a case. There was one answer, and the question would lay lifeless on the table until someone found it. One of my criminal law professors, Walter Dickey, was remarkable in his ability to push all of us to think together. I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting for his questions. He was generally curious about our answers and wanted us to wrestle with tough questions that did not have obvious answers, at least for the most part. That experience reminds me that I have a far easier time asking questions in the classroom, because I rarely teach materials that allow only for one reading. I want the class to engage, and I want them to engage both with me and without me, with each other. What is different for me about the writing tutoring situation? I think I often feel that 30 minutes is not enough, and I want to give the student as much as I can in that time frame, especially when I’m asked a direct question. Is it a feeling of responsibility for the student’s looming grade that presses me to avoid the question? Is it that I feel false in this context, when giving answers feels so much more natural?

    Some ending thoughts: Why is the question the most formidable, or one of the most formidable, tools of dialogue? Who should be asking questions? Is the question perhaps more successful when trust is present? Can a writer using the writing center for the first time respond to a question as an experienced writer can? Can dialogue ensue just as swiftly if a student asks a question that begs for a direct answer, and the WC instructor gives it?

  4. Wow, what a compelling post. One of the things I’m thinking about is the way our pedagogical questions might invite attention to the potential of a text, rather than assuming the text as a fixed entity. I think that is a little bit what you’re getting at, Matthew: when the outcome seems to be known, then potential is shut down. Many times I have received feedback on a piece of writing that was frustrating for the way it shut down possibilities for what I was trying to do, rather than holding them open. In Haswell & Haswell’s recent book _Authoring_ there is a fantastic set of ruminations on the idea of “potentiality” as a necessary condition for writing and this line of questioning (ha!) fits into that thinking really fruitfully and productively.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful essay, Matthew! It has definitely heightened my desire to get back to the Notre Dame Writing Center after this semester abroad. I’m excited to start paying special attention to how I ask questions both as a tutor and as a writer.

    For me, asking leading questions can turn into a self-fueling fire (and this is a destructive fire – not a live-giving one). Here’s an example that seemed to occur much more in my first experiences as a tutor (not to say I that can’t fall into this trap even now). I begin to feel nervous that the writer is not understanding his or her prompt very well. In order to get the writer “back on track,” I ask a leading question or two. My questions have one idea of a finished product as their goal, but the writer surely has something different in mind. As the writer answers each question geared toward “my end” with a mindset fixed on “his or her end,” we ping-pong between these ends or just flounder without any sense of direction.

    To follow with another image from The Phaedrus (though a bit imprecise), the writer and I are acting like two winged horses trying to tow a chariot with completely different agendas. Without collaboration, we can kiss goodbye any hope of soaring over the dome of the earth and seeing the world of Ideas. Rather, we’ll probably fall to earth in a spiraling crash and inhabit the body of a tree or a snail (if we’re lucky). Better luck next time, philosopher wannabes.

    How can we work together and keep the chariot soaring? One answer might be how we use questions. I think that we could employ what Stephanie mentioned about the “potentiality of a text.” If we imagine the two horses in the chariot analogy as the writer and the tutor, then the charioteer might be potentiality itself and not one idea of what the text “should be.” When the horses respect that potentiality is in control (a bit of an oxymoron, I guess), then they will be flexible, willing to follow a new course should it look promising. While the horses can’t be sure that their attempted path will be the one they want in the end, at least they’re going somewhere. Of course, they can always pick a new direction; that’s what drafts are for!

  6. Thanks for the wonderful essay, Matthew! Building off John’s question regarding whether or not the Writing Center provides a model for a better public discourse, I’m wondering about the (other) spaces students have that genuinely value the reflective practices that accompany the work of a writer. The Writing Center seems to clearly be one of these spaces, and I think that, yes: the Writing Center does a wonderful job of providing a valuable space where those practices/procedures the act of writing presents students (like learning how to ask good questions) can be celebrated and valued. I’m wondering if there are other areas of “the institution” that might learn from Writing Centers “say.”

    In other words: can Writing Centers be spaces where student voice is amplified? Can Writing Centers “talk back” to the colleges and universities that situate them? Can it be a place where students question the value systems and policies circulating in the institutional environment around them?

    I grapple with this daily in my Writing Center…

  7. Greetings from the other university founded by Edward Sorin: St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. I direct the St. Edward’s U. writing center, an all-faculty-tutor center serving the entire campus. Your essay describes the place of the writing center in students’ intellectual and ethical growth and goes a long way toward dispelling “Rhetorical Jiffy Lube/Grammar Garage” misconception of writing center work that sometimes arises.

  8. Thank you for synthesizing vivid examples of questioning techniques. I don’t know if you remember me, but I recorded two of your tutoring sessions in the Madison Writing Center as part of my research paper with the Writing Fellows Program. As I analyzed your conversations, I heard many wonderful questions that provoked honest re-evaluations for you and both writers.

    I still strive to ask genuine questions, just as you modeled during your sessions. Currently, I work in a writing center at a community college that features both drop-in and appointment tutoring. I’ve noticed that my questioning techniques may diverge depending upon the tutoring setting. Therefore, my question is similar to Cydney’s comment: How does the tutoring environment and the expectations of a writer affect your questioning techniques?

    Students seeking drop-in help may have very different expectations and time constraints than students with a designated appointment. Additionally, drop-in students relate differently to our tutors; we must build rapport quickly, but we may not fall as naturally into our exploratory questioning techniques as we would when working with students who have regular appointments.

    How can we abridge the questions that may spark a 45-minute conversation into a “lite” version suitable for a 20-minute drop-in session without losing an honest zest for inquiry? (Or perhaps how do we quickly identify and formulate exploratory questions rather than “abridge” them?) How can we help writers feel less anxious about reflecting on their writing when the clock is ticking? I am always surprised how drop-in and appointment tutoring can differ so greatly, and how nuanced one’s questioning techniques must be to accomplish a truly exploratory conversation in under 30 minutes.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post and for conjuring up great memories of the Writing Fellows Program!

  9. Pingback: Virtues of Conversation: Ethics in the Writing Center

  10. Hi Matthew, very good article. I particularly liked your points about exploratory questions and how face-to-face talking about writing transforms a writer and the written product. Yes, presentational talk is off-putting in improving writing.

    Keep up the good work. Come visit Hawaii if it’s getting too cold.

    Sherine Boomla, tutor at Honolulu Community College, Honolulu, Hawaii.

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