By Jessie Gurd –
“What do I want?” “How can I tell when I’ve seen it?” “When—and how—do I intervene to get it again?”
These exact questions do not come up during my appointments at the Writing Center; they have another source. However, they get at something I think about a lot when working with a writer: when and how to interject to facilitate learning. The same topic drives me in my extramural teaching.
When I am not in our writing center, I am often working with dogs. Through this work, I’ve learned to think about what I reinforce every time I give reinforcement. If you praised
your dog not when she sat, but when you allowed her to take the treat, what did you tell her she did right? Most dogs will learn that putting their hind end on the ground was the winning choice, but the praise component of your reinforcement has clearer, more immediate effect attached to the specific behavior you want your dog to repeat.
The “when” influences and sometimes defines the “what.”
Rick Ness’s recent post on cultivating a growth mindset discusses the work of Carol S. Dweck. Dweck calls for educators to turn to process praise over person praise. In their work, Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson include specific, individualized process praise as one of five types of motivational scaffolding that encourage students’ engagement and self-efficacy in tutoring sessions (47). For tutors, knowing how and what to praise is a powerful tool in our quest to work with writers right here and right now on this draft (always important!) while also promoting future effort.
As tutors, we curate an inventory of critical techniques designed to help writers identify and act upon opportunities to improve their drafts. Through that process, they grow as writers. During a tutoring session, we use the writer’s concerns, assignment requirements, genre-specific expectations, and our own experience to assemble and prioritize a list of issues to tackle. Thinking about “issues” can take over a tutor’s approach to a draft to the point that compliments and praise become afterthoughts, often rendering them formulaic. Often enough, we may say, “This is really interesting,” “Nice work,” “Your draft shows good effort.” According to Mackiewicz, those formulaic compliments have value, but they “do little else other than state a vague evaluation and generate a minimal amount of solidarity between the speaker of the compliment and its recipient” (13). Although solidarity between tutor and writer contributes to the writer’s satisfaction with and engagement in a conference, by itself it rarely promotes learning or skill-building (Mackiewicz and Thompson 39, 41; Mackiewicz 14).
In “Functions of Formulaic and Nonformulaic Compliments,” Mackiewicz grants a phatic (language used for a social purpose) role to formulaic compliments, suggesting that a nonspecific utterance (“This is really interesting!”) may allow the tutor time to assemble a more specific, nonformulaic utterance that encourages student learning (21). Instead of leaving the compliment at “interesting,” the tutor may advance their response with real instructive content, remarking that the writer effectively communicates the value of their research to X field by directly engaging Y and Z early in the draft. Such a nonformulaic compliment identifies the kind of “genuine, repeatable strength” our writing center values as a mechanism of instruction. By opening with a phatic formulaic compliment, this imaginary tutor buys time to construct a nonformulaic compliment that will help the writer cultivate their competencies.
Timing and Timeliness
So: there is an impulse to offer a formulaic compliment as a prelude to something more substantive and individualized—to be timely in our tutoring. Social and institutional expectations encourage timeliness in conversations and tutorials; “At the Writing Center,” Emily Loney recently wrote, “the clock’s always ticking.” Tutors have a job to complete in a limited amount of time, and keeping the conversation moving acknowledges the need to make our minutes count. However, when we think about complimenting writers to encourage learning, development, and confidence-building, how do we ensure that we are being timely? What kind of timing constitutes timeliness?
A good first step might be to sort through the list of priorities a tutor creates for a session with a writer. Accounting for the writer’s concerns, goals, and interests, the tutor can contribute their own experience and knowledge to mentally sketch out what to look for in the draft. The writer is concerned with organization; what might I see if I look for opportunities to strengthen the organization of this piece? What about organizational successes? Is it possible that I could identify a success in this draft that models a way the writer can improve another area?
“When—and how—do I intervene to get it again?”
No question—this is harder. Mistimed and imprecise compliments create confusion. As tutors, we need to make several time-related decisions early in a session: Should the writer read aloud? Am I willing to interrupt them as they read? How much of the draft should we tackle at a time? (Any of these choices may change over the course of an appointment as we adjust to the writer’s needs.) With these decisions in mind, we can look for the successes we tried to predict earlier. If the writer were concerned about macro organization, I might look for a particularly effective organizational choice at any level, and revisit that choice after the writer finished reading through the draft. My praise would center around what makes that choice effective in context; I would then attempt to generalize that choice to identify the skill or method behind it. The writer and I would then have a model from their own draft that they can put to work elsewhere in the piece.
That is just one choice I could make. What would happen if the writer were reading aloud and we stopped at the end of each paragraph? What if we were pursuing a “pause to discuss as needed” approach? My job is to figure out if my best strategy is to wait until we have looked over the piece as a whole to identify a particular successful moment and apply it elsewhere, or if our conversation could benefit more from a different intervention. Will something in the moment be disruptive? Could that disruption be useful? Is the immediacy of a disruptive intervention worth the risk of overshadowing an even better opportunity to reinforce later in the draft?
For reinforcement to be timely, it must precisely identify what is working and why, and it must occur at a moment that both underlines the significance of the writer’s effective choices and permits an obvious connection to an opportunity for improvement.
Start with What Matters Most
Inevitably, clients ask trainers how we are so successful with their dogs. Legend has it my friend and colleague once replied, “I have excellent timing and really great treats. If you get good treats, you’ll be halfway there.” This is to say: although the timing of our reinforcement is vitally important, ensuring the reinforcement’s quality demands our attention first. If the writer is still in front of you, there is no such thing as a missed opportunity to offer constructive, specific praise.
Further Reading and Inquiry
My focus here is narrow and does not even address related but important topics like reinforcing choices elsewhere in a conference (see Thompson and Mackiewicz for ways that tutors set students up to receive confirmation/praise), other types of reinforcement, or how timing is at issue in an asynchronous conference. There is a wealth of information about praise, complimenting, and politeness in writing tutoring, and all of it is worth reading. To identify one avenue, I encourage my colleagues to examine the way politeness and compliments can (mal)function in L1-L2 conferences, as in Bell and Youmans. As tutors, we should scrutinize the content of formulaic compliments in tandem with considering how we time their use—if we use them at all.
There is, of course, an ongoing conversation in our own Writing Center surrounding praise, time, and related topics. At a recent joint staff meeting, Writing Fellows Anna Walther and Matthew Shelver shared their work on motivation and facilitative/directive tutoring in a panel titled “Examining Engagement in Writing Conferences.” Here on Another Word, my colleagues have written many incisive, engaging pieces. For a small sampling of this excellent work, I recommend:
- “Revision Takes Time: Teaching Inefficiency in the Writing Center” by Emily Loney
- “Cultivating a Growth Mindset: Changing Students’ Beliefs about Learning” by Rick Ness
- “Let’s Chat: Considering ‘Friendly Talk’ in the Writing Center” by Tori Thompson Peters
- “Tending Other People’s Texts: Writing Center Tutoring and MFA Workshops” by Sarah Dimick
- “How to Talk with a Student Who Isn’t There” by the inimitable Mike Shapiro
Bell, Diana Calhoun and Madeleine Youmans. “Politeness and Praise: Rhetorical Issues in ESL (L2) Writing Center Conferences.” The Writing Center Journal. 26.2 (2006): 31–47.
Mackiewicz, Jo. “The Functions of Formulaic and Nonformulaic Compliments in Interactions About Technical Writing.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication. 49.1 (March 2006): 12–27.
Mackiewicz, Jo and Isabelle Thompson. “Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring.” The Writing Center Journal. 33.1 (2013): 38–73.
Thompson, Isabelle and Jo Mackiewicz. “Questioning in Writing Center Conferences.” The Writing Center Journal. 33.2 (Fall/Winter 2014): 37–70.