The Importance of Being Interested

By Michelle Niemann

Michelle Niemann is the assistant director of the writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 2013-2014. Her first tutoring experience was in the writing center at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, in 2003 and 2004. She recently defended her dissertation and will receive her PhD in English literature from UW-Madison in May. 

The author on a bird-watching walk at Horicon March.

Michelle bird-watching at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. Photo by Liz Vine.

Tutoring in the writing center at University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2009 has given me a great gift: it has shown me the power of being interested. In anything, or anyone. In the next student signed up to meet with me and whatever project they’re working on. At the same time, as a graduate student in English literature at UW-Madison, I’ve also learned a lot about the corresponding power of being interesting.

Being interesting is, quite rightly, the coin of the realm in advanced scholarship. And I’ve absolutely, nerdily loved the opportunity to pursue my interests in poetic form and sustainable farming by writing a dissertation about organic metaphors in both fields. But I’m also grateful that I’ve been working in the Writing Center, because tutoring constantly reminds me, and indeed requires me, to look up and notice at least some of the other interesting things going on around me.

To be great tutors, we have to become interested in problems and questions we didn’t know much or anything about before a conference with a particular student began. While this open-ended curiosity is powerful in classroom teaching as well, tutoring encourages us to cultivate the habit of being interested because one-on-one, cross-disciplinary work disrupts the expert-at-the-front-of-the-room authority that teachers can fall back on. As tutors, we do draw on specific areas of expertise—about a variety of genres and their conventions, the writing process, and what makes for a strong application essay, for example—and we do have our bags of tricks, which include everything from good opening questions to strategies for drawing writers out to detailed handouts on APA documentation.

But the improvisational part of tutoring—which is to say, the fun part—involves being interested: being curious about the student, their project, their discipline, the guidelines and constraints they’re working with, and what we each might learn or realize in the course of our conversation. For me, the best conferences—and they aren’t rare—are those in which I’m learning something that is of no practical use to me, something unrelated to my own scholarly work or to tutoring pedagogy. Something that’s just interesting.

Being interesting and being interested

"Bookcase, Ruth Mendez Home, New York, New York, 2000." Photo by Susan Carr. In documenting the homes of people who had lived in one house for forty years or more, Susan, my aunt, had to cultivate an open-ended curiosity about and interest in whatever she might find in each home she photographed.

“Bookcase, Ruth Mendez Home, New York, New York, 2000.” Photo by Susan Carr. In documenting the homes of people who had lived in one house for forty years or more, Susan, my aunt, had to cultivate an open-ended curiosity about and interest in whatever she might find in each home she photographed.

Graduate students have to learn how to make their work interesting, most especially to those in their subfields and more broadly to those in their disciplines. Being interesting for such audiences is a tricky feat because it requires both deep knowledge in a narrow area and innovative ideas or approaches. If your scholarly work is to offer anything to people who know as much as you do about Early Modern drama, say, or, in my case, twentieth-century American poetry, you have to be thoroughly grounded in that area, yet think flexibly enough to show your audience something new.

But the essential requirements of advanced research in specialized fields encourage habits of mind that do not necessarily foster that flexibility—let alone complement our teaching mission. One such requirement is a laser-like focus on a specific question framed through sustained engagement with the literature of a subfield. If you have written a dissertation or are close to anyone who has, you’re probably familiar with the stage in any intensive research project where everything starts to seem related to your topic of study—for me, organic form in poetry. While it’s enormously rewarding—and fun!—to be in that focused and synthesizing frame of mind, I have not found that it makes me a great conversationalist.

Open-ended curiosity—being interested—not only has the power to motivate the writer I take an interest in, but also has a salutary effect on me. It takes me out of myself and my project and my discipline, and, most importantly, reminds me that “interesting” is not a quality that resides in something, but rather that being interested is a capacity I have. It’s a capacity we all have, and can cultivate. If we practice being interested, we can become more flexible thinkers and more effective tutors.

The pedagogical power of open-ended curiosity

Of course it’s no surprise that writers respond well when tutors show interest in their work and their ideas: that’s a core principle of writing center pedagogy. But for our interest in a writer and her work to be pedagogically powerful, it cannot be perfunctory. We have to actually be interested, not just adjust our body language or exclaim a bit. I’ve found that questions I ask a writer out of curiosity—about herself, her purpose in a piece of writing, her ideas, her thinking—can help her figure out what she has to say, or even discover that she has something to say. If you’ve tutored in a writing center, you’ve probably found that you are sometimes more interested in a writer’s paper than the writer himself seems to be at first. If you’re lucky, your interest gives him permission to be excited about his ideas and to take ownership of them. It gives him a stake in a paper that’s about more than a grade.

This graph shows a demographic phenomenon called the black / white mortality crossover. Graph by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.

Graph by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field. This graph shows a demographic phenomenon called the black / white mortality crossover. Though I do not know anything about the statistical methods she uses in her research, I’ve learned conceptually fascinating things through my meetings with Elizabeth in the writing center.

I have found not only that my curiosity can motivate writers to articulate their questions and arguments more clearly, but also that a willingness to admit my ignorance can be pedagogically useful as well. When I’m working with a student who’s writing in electronic engineering, or educational policy, or demography, my ignorance can in fact be an asset to them. Backing up enough to explain to me even part of what I need to know to understand their writing can give such writers a radically different perspective on their work and clarify their thinking. I’ve learned more than I have a right to know about what demographers call mortality selection—which, by the way, is really interesting—from Elizabeth Wrigley-Field (yes, that is her name—interesting as well!), a graduate student in sociology with whom I’ve met on an ongoing basis for the last few years. And I think she would agree that she has learned a lot from explaining her work to someone who is completely ignorant of statistics.

Admitting one’s ignorance and making use of it in tutoring requires confidence. Like many beginning classroom teachers, I was anxious about my knowledge and authority when I began serving as a teaching assistant at UW-Madison in 2007. Needless to say, such anxiety did not make me comfortable with open-ended curiosity as a teaching tool. But when I began working at the writing center a couple years later, tutoring put me in a different frame of mind. Not having to worry about securing authority freed me up to use my ability to ask questions and my capacity to be interested to empower students.

Curiosity can empower a writer not just once, but over and over again. I really enjoy working with Deb McFarlane, who came back to school after twenty years working in manufacturing to earn an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and (very soon!) a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and who studies lifelong learning—or, as she prefers to call it, free-choice learning. Deb always seems surprised when some new, clearer, more argumentative formulation of what she is trying to say pops out of her mouth while we’re talking—though now she has also come to expect it and to realize how much she can accomplish through conversation.

"Anne Geismar Home, Harrison, New York." Photo by Susan Carr.

“Anne Geismar Home, Harrison, New York, 2005.” Photo by Susan Carr.

And being interested can be powerful even in difficult tutoring situations, when a writer is under stress or even at a crisis point. The other day, for example, I met with a writer who was quite unhappy with both her course and her assignment and was telling herself (and me) that there was no way she could write this paper. Though she had not started drafting, she was quite knowledgeable about the topic of the course and had been doing a lot of reading. I kept asking her questions, and—despite her conviction that she could not write the paper—the writer began explaining her ideas about the role of apocalyptic rhetoric in the fall of Constantinople. (Really interesting.) As I continued asking questions, she interspersed her explanations with negative pronouncements about how she couldn’t write the paper less and less often. She started writing things down. She came up with an outline. My interest in her ideas and her situation as a writer had helped break down the negative messages she was telling herself by tapping into a powerful resource—her own interest in the topic.

Curiosity across the curriculum

Being interested can help writing center tutors and leaders in their work with faculty across the disciplines as well as in one-on-one conferences with students. To collaborate with faculty and show them how to integrate peer tutoring and process-based writing pedagogy into their courses, we have to be curious about both the forms that writing takes in their disciplines and their concerns about student writing.

But our curiosity also invites faculty to articulate those concerns more clearly, to be more explicit about generic conventions in their fields, and even to reflect on their own writing processes. In working with more than one instructor on a collaborative lesson plan, I have found that a conversation about student writing, the goals of the lesson, and the conventions of the discipline often turns into a conversation about the instructor’s own writing process. That is wonderful: if she takes an interest in her own writing process, an instructor is more likely to realize how integral writing is to her own thinking and, therefore, how much her students can learn through revision and a thoughtfully planned, multi-stage writing process.

Being interested all together

One-on-one conversation encourages curiosity and mutual interested-ness, mostly because when you’re talking with one person, you can’t fall back on the lecturing mode. But adept and self-assured classroom teachers also use their open-ended curiosity to motivate students and create a classroom community—and being interested can play a role in group writing center tutoring as well.

Last year, Stephanie White and Elisabeth Miller piloted senior-thesis writing groups coordinated by UW-Madison’s writing center; this year, Chris Rogers and I have continued the program. Once we put senior-thesis writers in groups of four to six and give them some training in peer review, the groups become autonomous and self-sustaining, meeting on their own weekly or biweekly. Whether a group consists of biochemistry students who had never met before though their labs are in the same building, or of seniors writing theses on subjects from French-African film to medical geography to vocal disorders in singers, these groups are held together by mutual curiosity.

Writing retreat co-hosted by the UW-Madison Writing Center and the Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE), November 2013. Photo by Becca Summer.

Writing retreat at the UW Arboretum, co-hosted by the UW-Madison Writing Center and the Center for Culture, History and Environment, November 2013. Photo by Becca Summer.

And even writing-center-led writing retreats, which provide quiet, focused time to make progress on a project, are made productive by mutual interest. Each being interested in our own thing together feels different than being interested in your own thing alone in a library cubicle.

In November, I helped lead a writing retreat that was co-hosted by the UW-Madison Writing Center and the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) graduate student group. It took place at the UW Arboretum; the twenty-five graduate students in attendance were from a variety of disciplines, but knew each other through CHE. We started by going around the room so everyone could say what project they were working on. After our four-hour writing session, someone said that, though he knew in general terms about the research projects of other CHE grads, it was great to hear specifically and concretely what everyone else was working on that day.

Coots!

I’ve learned a lot by being interested in writers and their projects—not least how I can cultivate my capacity to be interested, and why I should. In the last two or three years, I’ve become an avid birder. I’m not the “big year” sort—I don’t even keep a life list—but I very much enjoy watching and identifying birds. And being interested in birds has made me more attentive.

Coots on Lake Mendota in Madison.  Photo by Liz Vine.

Coots on Lake Mendota in Madison.
Photo by Liz Vine.

I’m sure that migrating loons have shown up on Lake Monona every fall and spring that I’ve lived in Madison, but it’s only in the last couple years that I’ve begun noticing them as I bike to campus. I’m sure that every December, hundreds of tundra swans have stopped off on Lake Mendota during their migration, but I’ve only begun to seek them out recently—like last week when I saw white blobs from Helen C. White Hall and walked down the lakeshore path to take a look. Coots—which my bird book calls “dumpy waterfowl”—have been riding the waves in their somehow both elegant and awkward way the whole time I’ve lived here, but now I see them.

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