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Silence in Writing Center Sessions

Emily Cousins, Consultantemily-c

I’ve always known that silence can be beneficial in various ways during writing center sessions. It recently dawned on me, though, that silence often requires a conscious effort to create, and that perhaps I could be doing more to actively create productive silences during meetings with writers.

My desire to incorporate more silence into my writing center sessions is largely based on the role silence plays in facilitating my own writing and thinking process. When I receive feedback on something I’ve written, I need time to comprehend verbal feedback and to process my own thoughts. I also need time to think of the words I want to use to articulate my responses. This is why I’m grateful whenever I work with people who, when giving feedback, allow for moments of silence throughout the discussion.

When I have my tutoring hat on while working at the Writing Center, I sometimes forget that the writers I work with may feel the same way about silence as I do. I always try to be ready with the next question or the next suggestion, to keep the trains of thought all moving smoothly forward without much pause. I tell myself that by doing this we’re getting the most out of the allotted 50-minute time frame. But I think it’s worth asking: am I not giving us enough time to nurture certain conditions that might fuel productive, reflective, creative thinking?

One strategy tutors use is to have writers brainstorm and/or write on their own; the tutor might walk to another room and come back after 5-10 minutes or more, depending on the context. This is one way to allow for quiet time for writers to work, and can be an effective way to incorporate silence into a session. However, this is not quite the kind of silence I have in mind. The silence I want to use more during my sessions is a mutually shared, collaborative sort of silence, during which both the tutor and writer are still sitting together side by side, thinking. Sometimes the silence might be broken to exchange an idea or two. I’m thinking of a type of silence that is the opposite of empty and/or uncomfortable – the anti-awkward silence.

The “awkward silence” is an interesting concept I learned about as I became more familiar with social conventions in American culture. Growing up in Japan, I always felt that silence was the default way to exist in the world, a way to convey respect and mindfulness. It was difficult moving to the U.S. where presence often seems to be measured by how much one speaks. There appears to be a widespread aversion to silence in social situations, which is perhaps linked to the phenomenon of “small talk.” So, while I personally appreciate moments of collaborative silence when discussing my own writing with people, I understand that some writers might find silence uncomfortable. So, as tutors, we should be attentive to cues that might suggest whether or not a writer might really benefit from silence during sessions.

I sometimes initiate collaborative silences by asking the writer, “can I take a moment to write this down?” Sometimes I will stop myself from thinking of the next thing to say. It has been surprising how many times writers will then break the silence with a new idea or insightful comment they may not have offered had we not taken a moment to pause. Whenever this happens, I remind myself of how valuable and productive silences can be.

Possibilities in the Writing Center

Megan Bardolph

Last semester in the Writing Center, I worked with a student from Nigeria who wanted help with his honors composition class assignments. He set up appointments to meet with me once a week for two or three months. Together we worked on revising two of his essays to prepare for his portfolio. The experience was wonderful on many levels, as I was also teaching a section of honors composition that semester. Oddly, I felt that our sessions gave me the opportunity to really listen to the students I was teaching in my own class. Our conversations were also productive for me as a scholar and thinker. They made me realize and appreciate the complexities of identifying as an instructor, a graduate student, and a writing center consultant.

During our last session of the semester, the student thanked me for my help. I asked if I would see him again in the Writing Center, to which he sadly replied “probably not.” As a pre-medicine biology major, he most likely would not need to write another paper for quite some time.

So I was surprised to see the other day that he had made multiple appointments to meet with me over the next few weeks. On Friday, we had our first session. He announced that he had submitted one of the papers we had worked on to a conference and it had been accepted for presentation. We now have a new project to work on. He told me that one of his goals for the spring semester is to continue working on his writing, as he sees the analytical and critical thinking skills he acquired in first-year English as useful to his studies in the natural sciences. We began to talk about research opportunities afforded by Writing Center work, and discussed potential areas of inquiry that both of us would like to pursue based on our sessions. Our relationship has moved beyond just consultant-client; it’s now closer to mentor-mentee. At some point I may even consider him a colleague. I am continually astonished by how much I learn from him (and from all of my clients, really).

There are a few different implications that I want to draw out based on this experience. Firstly, if you are a student who actually enjoys or enjoyed your first year writing course, know that you are not alone, and that there are opportunities to continue the types of writing and thinking you performed in that course without changing your major to English. It may be useful to seek out a mentor through the writing center, or through a faculty member or graduate student in the English department.

Secondly, if you are a writing center consultant or graduate student, I cannot highlight enough how important I think it is to view the Writing Center as a site of potential research – and this absolutely includes collaborative research with clients. In my experience, the conversations I have had with clients sometimes lead to greater moments of insight into writing, teaching, collaborating, and mentorship than the conversations I have with others in my same position.

Finally, if you are an instructor of writing, or of any subject for that matter, there is great value in listening to what the students want out of their education. The student I have been working with wants to find a way to balance his enthusiasm for writing with a major that does not provide many opportunities for the kinds of composing he would like to pursue. I think this shows there may be a need for providing additional spaces for students to take up this interest. The Writing Center is an excellent place for such work to continue.

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