By Christina Neckles, Former Writing Studio Staff (Originally posted Fall 2008)
Fall semesters in the Writing Studio tend to be especially busy. In the first few months of school, motivated first-year students make special efforts to acclimate to the rigors of college-level work and to impress their professors. Bright upperclassmen work to gain further knowledge in their chosen subjects and to keep themselves focused.
In the Writing Studio, consultants strive to help those students continuously improve their writing. Writers arrive at the Studio, assignments in tow, eager to brainstorm and revise papers with their consultants. As consultants, we are trained specifically to help writers construct stronger arguments, but also to do so in a way that helps them prepare work that both meets their specific assignments and that fits into the context of their class.
The question of whether you can or should separate the content of a paper from the writing process has long been a contentious issue among our staff; in the busy fall months, that question arises more and more often. What has become clear is that there are some writing concerns, questions, and ideas that should be presented to a professor before students commit themselves to a “final” draft. It can be easy for both students and consultants to forget that a good piece of argumentative analysis may be only a part of what a professor wants or expects. How can consultants and clients recognize when the best advice is simply, “Talk to your professor.”?
Sometimes, when studio clients and consultants meet, discussing ideas and organizing an argument for a piece of writing is only half the battle. Sometimes, consultants attempt to help students find the best way to argue their points or present their reflections but forget that each student has a particular audience (his or her professor) apart from the phantom well-informed reader.
Sometimes writers believe they understand their material, until they start writing about it. Sometimes they have to write many pages to notice that a piece requires more research. Sometimes, consultant Christina Foran has found, “if the student doesn’t really know what the professor specifically wants (or doesn’t want) to see in the paper or what the professor means by certain terms or perspectives, I just have to tell them that I can’t help them read the professor’s mind; they just need to go to the source.”
The problem for writers is this: most of the time, it can be difficult to recognize a gap between a paper and a professor’s expectations until it might be too late—just a day or two before an assignment is due. Although many professors in W-level classes have time built in to provide both class discussion of writing assignments and to require conferences, this is not always the case—especially in advanced major classes. And, as a recent Hustler article has suggested, many student/professor relationships exist only during their three weekly classroom hours.
In October of last year, the Vanderbilt Hustler (10/24/08) published an article that proclaimed: “Few students take advantage of office hours.” Hustler staff writer Samantha Orovitz determined that students and professors now generally rely on e-mail for outside communication. For student writers, this e-mail relationship often means eleventh-hour messages about proper citation or including the right type of evidence. In many cases, the arrangement works out fine. But sometimes, as students, we don’t realize that we can better focus our communication with our professors. Occasionally, studio consultants eager to help writers find their “best” argument also need to remind themselves about their writer’s other audience.
As an undergraduate, I remember voluntarily going to a professor’s office hours exactly once. Like many of the students Sarah Orovitz interviewed, I just never “felt the need” to visit professors. Nor was I “pressed for time” as are so many Vanderbilt undergraduates. Personally, I wanted to talk to my professors more, but was never sure how to approach them if I wasn’t having a specific, isolated problem.
Going to the university writing center was something I never considered. Shy about my writing, I worried that the consultant would be dismissive of my partially formed ideas. Unlike hard math or science, which has problems that can be solved to get a definitive answer, writing concerns (even about those subjects) seem amorphous and personal, somehow beyond the capacity of a confined office hour chat, a quick e-mail, or even a one-on-one writing consultation.
That amorphous quality suggests both the beauty and the danger of writing. Writing may be personal, but when writing for a class, our writing must conform to specific guidelines and expectations both in content and form. Whatever the discipline, all writers must: 1. Address the assignment and, 2. Know their audience.
As writing consultants, one subsidiary, yet crucial, aspect of our job is to help writers keep those two rules in mind throughout the writing process. Jennifer Krause, a graduate instructor in English, often directs her students to the Writing Studio, but still reminds them, “if the problem is ‘What am I going to write about?’ or anything else related specifically to the book, then it’s not fair to go to the Writing Studio, since the consultants haven’t been sitting in class with us.” But, if the problem is “How do I begin to consider what to write about?,” then the sympathetic ear and topic invention strategies of a consultant may be exactly what a writer needs before heading back to the professor.
So how, when visiting office hours is the exception rather than the rule, can students avoid finding themselves in the Writing Studio trying to strengthen their writing on a paper that works argumentatively or analytically, but will not substantively satisfy their professors? How can consultants and students work together to recognize the difference?
1. Address the Assignment
Prewriting is one good habit; preparing to prewrite is a bit different. In any given school day, students may have two or three writing assignments thrown at them, and as students advance in their majors, those assignments can look more and more alike.
Students should be sure to tailor their writing to the assignment in hand—a paper about the American election process will probably have very different requirements in a political science class than it might in a history class or sociology class.
Try to identify key words in the assignment by making notes about the “big questions and themes” of the course. If there is only a verbal assignment, try writing out your own. Keeping the big questions and themes in your mind might help you and your writing consultant stay on track during a meeting. (You can also run your formulation of a verbal assignment by the professor to see if your ideas match.)
The best work in the Writing Studio usually happens between consultants and writers who have a strong sense of the real paper assignment. As consultants, we try to keep the assignment in our sights (literally and figuratively), so that our writers and we can determine the content questions that need to be addressed to the professor. It is likely that even a small amount of prewriting and thinking will help the writer and consultant determine early on what kind of questions to ask a professor about the assignment. Ask them in person or via e-mail, but know that they need to be asked.
2. Know your Audience
Let your audience get to know you. Professors have a variety of different expectations for the audience their students should write to in their assignments. While in general academic writing it is usually safe to assume that you are writing for an audience of intelligent peers, your professor is still reading (and grading) the paper.
The better you know your professor and your professor knows you, the more likely it is that your audiences will look similar. Some of the most successful students thrive partially by getting to know their professors, and letting their professors get to know them. Lauren Wood Hoffer, currently a Ph.D. candidate in the English department, always “loved” office hours. “I didn’t go that often, though—just about as much as I needed to before and after big assignments or sometimes, with my favorite [professors], to discuss some reading that really interested me.” Christina Foran, a Peabody senior, manages to interact personally with her professors even without heading to their offices. “If I have more comments about the day’s topic, I usually just talk with the professor after class.”
While many students interact with their professors regularly, occasionally making those interactions strategic can have positive effects on one’s grasp of course-related writing assignments. On several occasions, I have worked with writers whose ideas were strong, but who seemed to bring out aspects of the assignment I might not have focused on from reading the assignment alone. In these cases, it has been the client’s knowledge of course construction and their professor’s expectations that has made it clear whether or not the paper addresses the assignment well.
The relationship among the writer, the consultant, the professor, and a piece of writing is never quite stable. In the Writing Studio, we may focus on writing, but part of good college writing is learning how to constantly renegotiate such instability.