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?

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