Let’s Chat: Considering “Friendly Talk” in the Writing Center

By Tori Thompson Peters

Tori has long brown hair, is wearing tortoise-shell glasses, a black shirt, and is smiling

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.

Two speech bubbles say "Hello." One is larger with a black background, and one is smaller with a white background.

Image from Pixabay

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?

This illustration is split in half. On one side is a purple background, and a line that loops back and forth connects two dots. Below this, it says "High context. The other half has two dots directly connected by a straight line. Below this, it says "Low context."

This image portrays two domains in cultural orientation toward communication: high-context (non-western, relational, and less direct) and low-context (western, individualized, and more direct). While these are not strict divisions and individuals can fall on a spectrum within these categories, these distinctions help us to understand how expectations about communication are culturally influenced.

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.

Two students in the foreground face each other and appear to be talking about their writing. Their open laptops are on the table in front of them, and in the background, other students also sit in front of their laptops at the same table.

University of Wisconsin-Madison students meet for a senior thesis writing group coordinated by the UW Writing Center. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

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.

 

References

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

8 thoughts on “Let’s Chat: Considering “Friendly Talk” in the Writing Center

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Tori. Talking with students at the beginning and end of sessions is something I really enjoy, and I’ve found it an especially valuable starting point for discussions of cover letters or personal statements. However, I, too, feel some occasional pressure to dip quickly in and out of this friendly talk, especially during half-hour appointments.

    Thinking about your doctor’s office analogy is helping me to reconsider this sense of urgency. As an instructor, I’ve grown comfortable with the Writing Center discussion model, so I sometimes forget how much of my role is to create a space where writers feel comfortable being vulnerable with their ideas. However, I still feel uncomfortable in the doctor’s office, so when you brought up this image, I immediately imagined my past interactions with medical professionals who have made the most difference to my confidence during an appointment. Your post has given me a different way to think of the models for productive discussion that I encounter in off-campus spaces!

  2. Tori, thanks for sharing this! I appreciate this idea that research about healthcare communication has bearing on writing center tutorials. And your ideas about “friendly talk” have me reflecting specifically on my rapport-building practices when I’m tutoring outside of a main writing center.
    To continue with your healthcare/writing center connection, I’ve jokingly referred to tutoring in first-come, first-served satellite locations as the closest thing I’ll ever get to working in a triage center. We’re in the thick of things in the dorms or the cafeterias working with writers who are racing the clock to get their essays submitted before midnight. And often the resulting sense of urgency makes for an intensely focused 30-minute session. The other day I finished a satellite appointment, wished the writer good luck on her writing, then realized that I’d never even told her my name! I can only hope that in such intense sessions my “work talk” itself is infused with enough “friendly talk” (or “friendly demeanor”?) that I’m still acknowledging the personhood of both the writer and myself.

  3. Thank you for writing this great post, Tori!

    I love starting a session with “friendly talk” to build rapport with my students and make them more comfortable; I find that kind of talk loosens students up and they are happy to talk more about their writing honestly and thoughtfully. (As an aside, Muriel Harris writes about the importance of talk in an article the new Writing Center TAs have read for this week’s training class. It’s called “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors” and your post reminds me a bit of that article! Would recommend to read about how valuable talking to tutors is for student writers). I never thought about how my doing friendly talk could tap into cultural expectations of communication; your post definitely reinforces my doing friendly talk now. But your posts also speaks to how human tutoring can be; that is, seeing a student as a person and building relationships over a common writing problem or goal during that session, if that makes sense. Plus, you learn cool things about students.

  4. Tori! I love that you wrote this post and the way that you’re drawing serious, critical attention to the interpersonal dynamics at play when writers share writing—an often vulnerable and sometimes anxious experience. You ask—”But what happens when I sometimes stop to chat?”—and point out the valuable ways this pause can help instructors tune into writers and how they’re experiencing a particular moment of the writing process. This form of engagement humanizes the experience of giving and receiving feedback and normalizes certain uncertainties writers may be feeling about their writing. It also gives room for a writer to develop trust with an instructor. You’re giving me powerful reminders that setting writers up for successful revision is undergirded by the motivations and attachments they may have about their writing, and as instructors, we’re implicated in that.

  5. Thanks so much for your post, Tori! I also worry about “wasting” time by chatting at the beginning of a session. So I really appreciate your reflections on why “friendly talk” is important.

    To build on previous comments, you’ve made me think about why humanizing conversation of this sort is important. I think we need to remember that writers may feel like instructors will “judge” them or think less of them because of the quality of a draft-in-progress. (Although as instructors, we all know that we wouldn’t judge writers for drafts, as a writer, I’ve been worried about showing people work-in-progress before, and I’m guessing I’m not the only writer who sometimes feels that way.) It seems to me that “friendly talk” can be a way of allowing student writers to know that instructors see them as more than just their writing, lessening the pressure of being a “good” writer — and thus perhaps encouraging students to embrace more of a growth mindset in their writing center session. (See link for Glenn Hutchinson and Paula Gillespie’s Another Word post about growth mindsets: https://writing.wisc.edu/blog/mindsets-and-partnerships-university-and-high-school-writing-centers/ ) I’ll be thinking much more actively about chit-chat in the writing center appointment going forward!

  6. Tori, I love how you use the research of one of your student writers as a jumping-off point to reflect on your own tutoring. I’ve also never had a name for “friendly talk.” Now that you’ve given it one, I’m sure I’ll keep thinking about this concept in my future tutoring sessions!

    To add, I wonder what effects friendly talk has, not only on writer comfort, but on writer-tutor collaboration. I personally see friendly talk as an opportunity to reposition myself as an interlocutor rather than an authority figure. There are cultural resonances to this as well: From my own experience growing up half-Japanese, it can be difficult for students of certain backgrounds to enter into an open dialogue with their instructors. Although I was raised in America, my community was predominantly East Asian, and I was taught to defer to teachers. I still sometimes struggle to communicate in a Western academic context that favors boldly speaking your mind. As I’ve become more outspoken over time, I’ve come to love a good scholarly argument, but I think I would have shied away from dialoguing with a grad student when I was an undergrad. Today, it’s so easy for me to forget about my own inherent position of authority when I work in the WC—this is just not how I see myself—but I’m sure there are many times writers must hesitate to challenge me, simply due to my title.

    There are so many multifaceted individual and cultural differences about which we must learn to be more attuned. Thank you for getting us thinking.

  7. Tori, this is such an interesting take on what might appear as a deceptively small part of an appointment. I’m particularly interested in how you link the less chatty approach to efficiency. I’ve often wondered about the value of intentional inefficiency–and to be clear, I am not trying to employee any of the negative connotations with “inefficiency” that I think we are usually quick to hear. As you discuss in your post, efficiency is usually normalized in a WC appointment both by the tutor and the student, and really it is normalized in most writing assignments on campus that I can bring to mind. On the one hand, I completely understand the impulse to efficiency–when you have to grade a zillion papers there isn’t time for much else. But I wonder if you can see positive implications for writing when it is intentionally made less efficient–when it gets chatty, perhaps.

  8. Tori, this is awesome. Not to make this too confessional, but I definitely fall into the trap of thinking that efficiency is always best when there are most certainly exceptions to that orientation. I’m thinking in particular about how friendly talk can so easily get lost in our online writing center instruction. In an effort to be concise and efficient, I strip most of what would be considered friendly talk from my email responses to student drafts; often, too, at the beginning of Skype appointments, a student and I say, “Hi, my name is x” and then dive right into the assignment. I wonder what it is about these platforms that can make friendly talk feel almost awkward? And if just pushing through that sense of awkwardness and engaging in friendly talk with online patrons would improve these sessions? I’m going to experiment with this.

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