Finishing Strong: The Importance of Product as Communication in the Writing Center

The word “process” when pertaining to a writing center tutor –tutee relationship encompasses a variety of foundation level collaborative instruction aimed at producing a better writer (Tompkins, 1) which inevitably creates better writing. The process of tutoring in the writing center ideally is mutual listening and talking, an approach that allows for conversation to take place about the writing.The tutor must be upfront and willing to negotiate what happens in a session so that both the writer and the tutor’s goals are met (Cooper 57). The tutor has at her disposal a variety of techniques, like guided writing, or modeled writing, all aimed at helping the student become a better writer. However, in the writing center, (especially when it comes to appointment based tutoring), the goal for the writer often is not to become a better writer, but to produce a better piece of writing.

We know, as instructors of writing, that in a true collaborative session, the writing itself has no choice but to become “better” , but we also know that when a student’s personal ownership of his writing is fostered he will have no choice but to become an overall more productive writer. It would seem because we are so process oriented in the writing center that product ultimately has no place, but the ownership we as tutor’s seek to instill in our tutees can be developed through publishing. I would like to suggest that product is indeed a part of the process and that in all actuality it is the innate result of the process. The concept of a product is naturally implied, and as years of history have suggested the product’s purpose is that of communication.

A student will come into the center to get help with a paper. In a session, the student will ideally receive help with his work, the result of which is only tangible with a product, with each successive draft (or each new assignment) becoming a more cohesive and clear piece of writing. Again, with process, the implied focus is always going to be the product. Therefore, both process and product are essential components in writing instruction and the writing center tutor has an obligation to evolve her notion of process to more rigorously include the function of product.

Theory

In 1975 James Britton and Janet Emig described the “production stage” as the revising and editing part of the process (Tompkins, 9). When a writer is taking a hard look at each sentence it is called “line-by-line” editing. This part of the process can take place at any stage of development because all stages of writing are recursive (Gillespie, 13). The notion of a writer recursively writing suggests that from the very beginning of a project the brain is seeking to invent the clearest ways to communicate an idea. When the writer reaches that most ideal location in his work he is finished and can share his work. When it comes to product, whether the receiver is an editor, publisher or professor, the clearer a piece of writing is, the more it will be appreciated (Henson 47). In fact, when it comes to product, the more skilled the writer, the less complicated a topic will appear (Henson 47). What does all of this mean to the new writer?

It may seem a little presumptuous to assume that a new writer will want to publish, or it may seem ridiculous to even consider it based on the current standards of what process entails in the writing center, but because writing is about communication, the writer should always have the reader (or viewer in the case of film or theater and listener in the case of spoken word poetry or again, theater) in his mind. In other words, how can we stress the importance of clear writing for communication of ideas, without considering the reader, and how can we consider the reader if we don’t take into account the product?

In 1975 Donald Graves identified the three stages of process as prewriting, composing, and post writing, where in the final stage the writing is shared (Tompkins, 9). While product was identified as part of the process in 1975, cultures around the world have instinctively and historically recognized that the purpose of writing was communication. We have cave drawings and cuneiform to prove that even the earliest forms of mankind were concerned with relating ideas; a culmination of product to relate a central focus. In today’s literature classrooms we study other writer’s works to find truth and meaning in our lives. We give little consideration to Shakespeare’s process and focus almost exclusively on his product. There is even evidence to show that Shakespeare always intended clear communication of ideas to be the most important purpose of his work due to revised copies of his plays being found after his death (Mcevoy, 11).

Due to academe’s stress on studying scholarly writing, it feels counterintuitive to ignore the product (in terms of publishing) in the writing center. A student’s ability to contemplate his own ideas as a published product is the first step in his becoming a critical thinker, which if it is not, should be, the goal of the every department in a university.

If the entire process is about elevating the level of student responsibility when it comes to his own work, it culminates in the product that he has created. Publishing takes the writer and his writing from isolation to inclusion. I have said it before, and I will say it again, writers are needy people. We spend a lot of time alone developing our work and the vacuum that is created for that effort to take place can be lonely. In other words, if a writer is not contemplating a reader while writing, they are essentially talking to themselves. Language areas developed in the brain for the purpose of communication and the symbols invented to convey language were invented for practical reasons.

Practice

In the writing center, tutors have two types of students that they will see. A tutor will have her English 109 group and she will also have appointments. Both situations present opportunities to provide a relevance to the student’s work beyond the scope of the assignment. First of all, the entire basis of the tutoring session is talking and listening; in essence, two people engaged in mutual communication as they discuss how well a piece of writing communicates. Murphy suggests “unconditional positive regard” as the foundation for a good tutoring session (96) proposing that the willingness of one person to help another creates a bond of empathy that becomes the pervasive building block of the tutor and student relationship. If talking is the key to a session, then listening is the door through which both student and tutor will walk through, hopefully emerging in a place where they both feel comfortable.

In order to do this in the writing center we, as tutors, must find ways to encourage a writer to begin to think as though what they have to say not only has meaning, but scope and purpose. The final product is an essential component in writing instruction as an immediate way to communicate ideas and to develop critical thinking among university students. There are many options for progressive audience expansion when it comes to getting published as a new writer, but before we begin with what the writer will need to do, I need to address a couple of things the tutor will need to do.

A tutor has a responsibility to model her writing ethics for her students. This does not have to be an ideal so much as it has to be a habit. When a tutor’s English 109 group is writing journal entries, the tutor should write one as well for this is showing the students that all writers essentially put his or her pants on one leg at a time, so to speak. Journal entries not only model that daily writing is an approved and desired action, but it also has the added bonus of developing editorial discourse. Often a student will have strong opinions on a variety of subjects and through daily writing can begin to understand how his thinking aligns with or disagrees with other’s work. This can be achieved through occasional sharing of work, or if the tutor would like to set up an online account for her 109 group this can be achieved through privacy settings with different free websites, like ning.com, tribe.net, wiki, eblogger.com, or livejournal.com, to name the most popular.

The second thing a tutor will need to do is become an active supporter of critical thinking among her students. Encouraging conversation as a precursor to written communication is ideal. I think of this as the authoritative tutoring style which essentially functions as a way to express the meaning behind our “strange” ways in the writing center. Yes, we like our students to write, (a lot), but we have reasons. A tutor should be prepared to explain these reasons to the students, and along with that goes the idea that tutors should also be prepared to thoroughly explain all assignments expected out of the writer.

The third thing is just to become published themselves. It seems obvious, but one thing the tutor needs to remember is that the student will ask if she has been published and it is imperative that the tutor be able to talk about her publishing adventures, what it has taught her about her own writing, and why it is important.
  One of the things that could be used to get a student used to publishing his work would be to have a publications board in the writing center for poetry and songs, or other short works of prose or fiction in the writing center. I envision this board being approximately 8’ x 8’ and be in a high traffic area. As the proposer of this idea, it would be my responsibility to coordinate the board’s use among the center’s staff and clients, keep it updated, rotated, and fresh. I also foresee the board as a jumping off point for further collaboration: Perhaps a writing center sponsored poetry reading?

Another thing that should be used to work towards for publishing students’ work is The Michigan Times. One thing that students are asked to do sometimes in the writing center is to do different types of writing that are relevant and immediately viable. For instance, an English 109 student might be asked to write a movie or CD review. It’s important to expose students to different types of writing and if a tutor has a student write a review it would be highly appropriate to suggest to the student that they have the opportunity to publish that piece. Not every student is going to be open to this option. However, if we start publishing them on the board in the center and move them towards this it will be a more natural progression for them. A published piece in a newspaper is something that gives a student the sense of the practicality of writing, and gives him a idea that his work is important. Once a student feels that his work is significant beyond the scope of just an assignment he will inevitably become more involved, and take ownership. He will begin to find his own voice and take the first critical step of becoming a serious student of English rhetoric.

Another step I would like to take in the writing center is implementing a 109 publication in a literary magazine type format. One of the things that must be considered with this particular idea is funding sources. The publications board on campus has funds set aside for different things like this and writing a proposal for them is a potential eventuality.

Throughout all of this the guidance of the tutor is key. The tutor must be willing to have high expectations of herself and her students. She must be willing to coach towards a principal and be willing to communicate with her student. Taking into account that the tutoring session is not about the writing, but about the writer, tutors are duty bound to at least try and convince a student that he is capable of good writing. Murphy claims that tutoring “requires an empathetic bond” (97). The tutor has to be willing to get to know her student, find out what makes them tick and devise strategies to take them further as not only writers and students but as individuals.

One of the questions brought up by a tutor in the writing center concerning my idea for publication was, “what happens if someone’s work isn’t good enough to be published?” My initial gut response is, “impossible” because I don’t truly believe that someone cannot polish his work for publication, especially if guided to do so in a collaborative atmosphere. What I would be concerned with is not the sophistication level, but the improvement of the writing. I’ve been published since I was eight years old, and what I would have published then, as a beginning writer I would be necessarily squeamish about publishing now simply because my writing has changed, evolved and in my opinion, yes, gotten better, but that doesn’t undermine what I have done in the past with my writing. What is important is that the student whose work is going to be published feels that it is something that is worthy of being published because he will then be more likely to treat the work with the consideration required.

The next step is obvious then. Looking at a piece of writing as it evolves, as it goes through a series of successive drafts, it becomes better each time. The next crucial step is abandonment. The writer must send his work out into the world to be read, discussed, potentially criticized even. This can terrify, that is why we don’t kick the writers out of the nest at the first go around. We have steps. The last one is attempting publication with a wider readership. This can entail something as simple as sending a letter to the editor at a newspaper like The Flint Journal or The Tri-County Times. This is the beginning of the professional writer with emphasis on the importance of writing as communication for social development and growth.

Process shows us how we write while product shows us why we write. As we develop our writers in the center as tutors we begin to help the new writer hone his ability to appreciate content and style, otherwise known as an editorial mindset that contributes to a writer’s ability to craft work that is clear to a reader. This is the final result of the process of collaborative tutoring, this is the end goal, when a tutee has begun the exciting journey into communication of ideas.

Works Cited

Cooper, Marilyn. “Really Useful Knowledge: A Cultural Studies Agenda for Writing Centers.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 53-66.

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Longman Guide to Peer Tutoring. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008.

Henson, Kenneth. Writing for Successful Publication. Bloomington, Indiana: National

Educational Service, 1991.

McEvoy, Sean. The Basics: Shakespeare. Milton Park, Oxon: Routeledge, 2006.

Murphy, Christina. “Freud in the Writing Center: The Psychoanalytics of Tutoring Well.” The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 95-99.

Tompkins, Gail. Teaching Writing: Balancing Process and Product. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.

 

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