Friday, November 11, 2011
As student writing conferences begin to wrap up for the semester, several realizations about successful writing conferences are on my mind. This year I employed the traditional writing conference model by reading drafts in advance, providing comments to the student before the writing conference, and then meeting one-on-one to discuss the draft. While the debate about the efficacy of this traditional model of conferencing vs. live-conferencing is ongoing, this post is meant to address the traditional model and not that debate.
First, a successful conference in the traditional model requires a prepared student and a prepared instructor. Students who have not reviewed drafts or have not thought sufficiently about what they need from the conference will not get as much out of the process as those who have. As a result, pre-conference instructions about how to prepare are critical. Believe it or not, many of my first-year students made it out of undergrad without ever having discussed their writing with a single instructor. So the concept of a writing conference is foreign and scary to many of them. Some basic instructions about what to expect and how to prepare for it (e.g. read the draft and think of questions you have about how to improve it) go a long way toward a successful interaction.
Second, the conference needs to be interactive. It is easy, especially in the face of an unprepared student, to simply lecture about writing during the conference. But your student will tune you out as surely as if you were lecturing in a class of one hundred. Thus, it is critical to build a conference structure that allows for interaction. Guided questions about each section of a memo or brief can bring the student into the fold. But narrow questioning and agenda setting can also stifle interactivity. Kristen Murray and Christy DeSanctis posted an article several years ago on SSRN, The Art of the Writing Conference: Letting Students Set the Agenda Without Ceding Control, that addresses the balance between structure and interactivity.
Finally, students and professors must work to create a professional, positive, and collegial environment that allows for the effective exchange of information. From the professor’s end, maintaining appropriate positivity is critical. Many students have never received individual writing criticism and can be crushed by too heavy a hand. At the same time, professors must impart reality because failing to do so is the ultimate disservice to students. Likewise, students need to engage the session in a professional manner. Addressing professionalism in the writing conference is another great use of pre-conference instructions. This year, I found that several students were distracted by their own technology. Thus, even though I provide comments electronically, in future semesters I am going to require that students bring a printed copy of their draft to the conference to mark up by hand. Mousing around on a computer screen to look for a paragraph or comment is a poor way to use valuable conference time.
After all the writing conferences are finished, I always feel exhausted but convinced that one-on-one instruction is the most important part of the semester for writing students. And I always learn as much, or more, than they do.