By Tori Thompson Peters
Tori is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at UW-Madison where she works in the Writing Center.
Last year, I had several appointments with an advanced writer named Linda Park who was working on an article for publication about language and cultural barriers in our healthcare system. As we were discussing the project, Linda explained to me that even though she was studying communication between doctors and patients with limited English proficiency (LEP), the language barrier didn’t appear to be the primary problem in these scenarios. Rather, it was an issue with cultural literacy, or doctors in the U.S. being unfamiliar with different expectations for communication.
As Linda points out in the now-published article, “Addressing Cultural Determinants of Health for Latino and Hmong Patients with Limited English Proficiency,” while many doctors tended to jump right into the details of the appointment, LEP patients in this study expected conversation and engagement. When the doctor “engages with the patient and takes the time to talk about the patient’s health concerns, the results are quite positive” (Park et al). While talking about this research in the Writing Center, Linda and I discussed the importance of providing space for people to talk more informally and how this can be especially important for people who may not subscribe to the same communicative expectations as a Western, task-centered culture. I learned a lot from talking with Linda, and this conversation has since influenced some of my practices in tutoring.
In the Writing Center, we often emphasize the importance of talking about writing with students. Most of our sessions are based around discussing goals, writing strategies, or possibilities for revision which (ideally) result in a good conversation with someone about their writing. Though conversations can take a long time to unfold, we are also working within time limitations that can cause us to feel rushed. Particularly when working on longer projects, I can feel the impulse to jump quickly into the session and get to work. But what happens when I sometimes stop to chat? Can this be a helpful practice for writing center work?
Like any rhetorical situation, it’s necessary to figure out what will work best with a particular audience. Some students might appreciate launching into feedback as quickly as possible. However, other students might feel hesitant at the beginning of the session. Perhaps I’ve introduced myself and given my usual spiel about what the Writing Center does and how tutors can help within the timespan of a particular appointment. I begin to ask the student questions about their work, and they seem reluctant to talk. I push forward to try to make the session useful but leave feeling like the session wasn’t the rich conversation I’d like it to be.
It’s easy to fall back on Western, task-oriented principles of fitting in as much work as possible, not wasting time, and getting the job done efficiently. However, these are not universal principles about what professional conversation should be, and it’s important to consider the role of “friendly talk” at the beginning of a session. When we consider how our cultural context influences our expectations for professional communication, we can also pause to assess whether or not this is always the “right” way to approach a writing center appointment.
Scholars both inside and outside of writing center studies show that friendly talk can build trust and comfort when students are feeling wary about sharing their writing. Linda Park points out that when Western professionals refuse to engage in conversation, they miss opportunities for building trust, deepening understanding, and connecting with the people they interact with. In fact, jumping into “work talk” can create more confusion or reluctance.
Similarly, Lauren Fitzgerald and Melissa Ianetta emphasize the role of “friendly talk” in building trust and interpersonal relationships between tutors and students (17). Beth Godbee also suggests that talking (both about writing and not about writing) can help to build affiliative relationships that contribute to the “transformative power of collaborative writing talk” (171). In light of this, I have become more willing to engage in this talk and to value it as an important part of the writing process, rather than resist it as a “waste of time.”
When I’m tempted to dive into a student’s paper, I sit back from the text for a moment. As the writer walks in, I try to open possibilities for conversation by asking about their week, day, or afternoon. Of course, it may not always be helpful to have a friendly conversation during a session. But it’s important to remember that engaging in friendly talk is not a waste of time, and that in fact our notions about what is or isn’t a waste of time are culturally influenced.
Fitzgerald, Lauren and Melissa Ianetta. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors. Oxford UP, 2016.
Godbee, Beth. “Toward Explaining the Transformative Power of Talk about, around, and for Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 47, issue 2, 2012, pp. 171-197.
Park, Linda, et al. “Addressing Cultural Determinants of Health for Latino and Hmong Patients with Limited English Proficiency: Practical Strategies to Reduce Health Disparities.” Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-017-0396-3.
Featured photo from Flickr