Student-Teacher Conferences John Belk Pennsylvania State University Interactive Table of Contents: Introduction Purposes of Writing Conferences Conference Style The Teacher-Centered Conference The Student-Centered Conference The Collaborative Conference Conference Formats The One-to-One Conference The Group Conference The Online Conference Conference Do's Conference Dont's Works Cited Further Reading Introduction Like all instructors, you will be holding regular office hours, a minimum of three hours per week scheduled in different timeslots to extend your availability. And when you do meet with students, you will find that the conference between instructor and student is an important teaching device in the composition course. This handout is designed to introduce you to the scholarship on student-teacher conferences, as well as give you practical advice for holding conferences with your own students. Purposes of Writing Conferences You might hold a conference with a student for any number of reasons. It is good to explain the purposes of writing conferences and office hours to your students on the first day of class. Some reasons you might hold a conference are: To aid invention: Students often have a general idea what to write about, but little sense of purpose, audience, or how to define one manageable aspect of a subject. The instructor can often be helpful here, simply by listening and asking questions, by indicating what a reader would find interesting or confusing. To aid organization: Even students who know generally what they want to say often have difficulty translating their ideas into a series of related paragraphs. A conference can help a student perceive order in a chaos of notes and random observations. To teach a particular skill: A student with a recurring difficulty (lack of sentence variety, imprecision, or diction) can often be helped if the instructor sits down and goes over a paragraph to show how to recast, expand, or contract a sentence. And, of course, it often happens that a point you explained in class remains unclear to someone. You may need to explain it again, patiently, using more examples and more demonstrations. To go over a paper you have graded: Students often come in after you hand back papers, wanting to know what your comments or grades mean and how to improve. It is always difficult to deal with complaints about grades. But you should be ready to explain or expand on any comments you have made on a paper and to make positive suggestions for improvement. When you know a student is unhappy about a grade, you may find it helpful to rehearse your reasons for assigning it by referring to the course grading standards. Remember, you are not defending the grade the paper has earned, but rather explaining more clearly why the paper earned the grade it did, considering the grade standards. Conference Style As an instructor, you will develop your own approach to conferencing. The following categories can help you determine how other instrutors conduct their conferences. They are necessarily reductive and should be viewed in continuum, not as discrete ways of conferencing. In reality, conferences will not fall into such neat divisions. Nonetheless, these divisions give us the vocabulary to talk about conferencing in a productive way.1 The Teacher-Centered Conference A central idea driving much of the scholarship on student-teacher conferences is authority. Who has it? Who doesn't? Who needs it? In teacher-centered conferences, the instructor is the seat of authority. Teacher-centered conferences tend to be proscriptive and directive. The instructor sets the agenda for what should be covered and the instructor does most or all of the talking. An instructor in a teacher- centered conference may make changes or corrections directly on a student's writing. An example of a teacher-centered conference can be seen in Kenneth Hoag's 1959 article “Five Dialogues: IV. Student Grades and Conferences.” The teacher-centered model of conferencing came under fire in the 1970s and 1980s in NCTE journals College English and College Composition and Communication. The two most common arguments against teacher-centered conferences concerned appropriation and intimidation. Appropriation is dangerous because it hinders learning—when an instructor drastically changes a student's words, that student is no longer invested in the composition. In her article “Avoiding Appropriation,” Carol Severino describes a teacher-centered email conference where she felt the instructor had appropriated her language. The issue of appropriating student language is closely tied to the issue of intimidation. Conferencing with an instructor can be intimidating for students, especially when the instructor dominates the conference. Mary Hiatt argues that struggling students especially may feel “at bay” in teacher-centered conferences and attempt to hide their discomfort by “tuning out” or falsely indicating comprehension (40). Despite their drawbacks, teacher-centered conferences do have advantages. They are usually quicker and more efficient, allowing instructors to see more students more often. In addition, students will often expect a teacher-centered conference. After all, you're supposed the expert, right? Students might request proscriptive comments on their work, and in some cases (such as with ESL students), giving a student a rewritten sentence to model from may be necessary. Nonetheless, the dominant thinking in composition theory about conferences says, “The less teacher-centered, the better.” The Student-Centered Conference The student-centered conference is an alternative conference style derived from writing center pedagogy. Catherine Latterell defines “student-centered” as students being “actively engaged and invested in their own learning” (105). In writing center scholarship, the dominant strand of thought is 1 Let me say here that much of the theoretical work surrounding conferencing comes from writing center pedagogy. While tutor-student relationships and teacher-student relationships are different, I believe the work done with writing center conferences is a valuable resource that can both inform and be mapped onto our own conferences as instructors. that students should direct their own conferences, choosing what they want to talk about and asking questions that concern them. In other words, writing center tutors are often encouraged to relinquish all authority in the conference. Adapted to office hours, a student-centered conference might look like this: the instructor asks students to bring specific questions/concerns to be addressed in the conference. Students might read their work aloud, and would be required to make all changes to the draft themselves. Examples of student-centered conferencing can be found in Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide for Conferences. Complaints about student-centered conferences often come from students. As I stated earlier, they often expect the instructor to act as an authority. Students might feel frustrated by having to direct the conference and develop their own concerns—if they knew what was wrong, they wouldn't need the conference to begin with! Student-centered conferences can also be inefficient, as students struggle to articulate their own concerns. Catherine Latterell even argues that, in some scenarios, student-centered conferences could actually help reinscribe traditional conceptions of authority (118). Nonetheless, the argument that students learn best when they feel authority over their language is compelling, and student-centered conferences, in theory, provide for this. If we apply Stephen North's conception of student-centered learning to our own conferences, then we become a participant- observer—someone who fits into the student’s ordinarily solo ritual of writing. This is a radical departure from the traditional “expert teacher” model, a departure which North argues results in a process-oriented pedagogy of “direct intervention” where students' writing benefits more holistically at every stage of their process (39). The Collaborative Conference Perhaps there is some middle ground. After all, as an instructor you will probably rarely hold completely student-centered or teacher-centered conferences. Conferences are complex. You will find that different conferences require different approaches depending on the student, the instructor, the space, the weather outside, etc. In their article “A Critique of Pure Tutoring,” Linda Shamoon and Deborah Burns argue that, while student-centered learning is effective in certain situations, it is not dogma. In other words, sometimes you may need to be directive, and sometimes it can be best to let students struggle through a concept on their own. These are ultimately issues of how authority operates in writing conferences. As instructors we are constantly negotiating authority, and that is the basis for collaborative learning. In his 1973 article “Collaborative Learning: Some Practical Models,” Kenneth Bruffee gives a compelling argument for why writing instructors should adopt collaborative pedagogies in their classrooms. He claims that academics “do not ordinarily recognize collaboration as a valid kind of learning,” viewing it instead as irresponsible (636). He furthers these arguments in his article “Collaborative Learning and the "Conversation of Mankind,” where he provides a history of collaborative learning. However, Bruffee's principles are not limited only to classroom pedagogies, but can be applied to conferencing as well. To Bruffee, the collaborative conference would move beyond the traditional teacher-student power binary, and possibly beyond the one-to-one conference model altogether, adopting group or online conferencing as a larger part of instruction. In a collaborative conference, the instructor and student negotiate shared authority based on individual needs and contexts. Approaching a conference as collaboration can often have unintended effects. If not cautious, instructors can reinscribe traditional power relations when negotiating shared authority in a conference. Advocates of collaborative conferencing should heed Andrea Lunsford's warning that “as the latest pedagogical bandwagon, collaboration often masquerades as democracy when it in fact practices the same old authoritarian control” (48). While collaborative learning does question the traditional teacher-student binary, Lunsford points out that instructors should still be vigilantly aware of the power structures we participate in and enact through our conferences. Finally, as Andrea Lunsford puts it: “creating a collaborative environment and truly collaborative tasks is damnably difficult” (50). She argues that successful collaboration (which she calls Burkean Parlor Centers) is attuned to diversity and “goes deeply against the grain of education in America” (51), citing examples both inside and outside the classroom, such as: 1. A supervisor who visited Mina Shaughnessy's collborative classroom and told her “Oh...I'll come back when you're teaching.” 2. A distinguished feminist scholar who was refused an endowed chair because most of her work was written collaboratively (51). In other words, collaborative learning (or in our case, collaborative conferencing) can be difficult, both practically and institutionally. Nonetheless, Lunsford cites a number of benefits to collaboration: 1. It aids in problem finding and solving 2. It aids in learning abstractions. 3. It aids in transfer and assimilation and fosters interdisciplinary thinking. 4. It leads to sharper critical thinking and a deeper understanding of others. 5. It promotes excellence and leads to higher achievement in general. 6. It engages the whole student and promotes active learning (49).2 So while Lunsford urges a critical approach to collaborative conferences, she ultimately praises their potential for student learning. 2 Lunsford provides data and citations to support these claims that I have omitted for space. Conference Formats With the theories of conferencing covered, let's talk about the practice. There are a number of conference formats that can help accommodate the various needs of your students (and your schedule): The One-to-One Conference The most common conference format, the one-to-one conference can be a productive teaching moment as well as a serious time demand. Nonetheless, the one-to-one conference allows you to address specific concerns in-depth with your students. One-to-one conferences can benefit a variety of students: Students who come to see you on their own: These students may have questions about class or may be seeking additional feedback. In some cases, students may not know how to pinpoint their question or problem or may have multiple difficulties. As much as possible, let the student define the purpose of the conference by listening and asking questions. Students who you judge to need extra attention: You may ask a student to come to your office when you notice a particular difficulty. Some instructors require all students who earn a D or an F on a paper to come in for a conference to discuss the paper and ways to work for improvement. This is a good idea, since many students who write poorly are reluctant to be noticed by their instructor, or they may simply not understand the meaning of the comments you write on their papers. Of course, you may also call in any student in whose writing you notice a recurring problem that could be handled better individually than in class. And you may wish to encourage particularly talented or hard-working students in a meeting. Some students may even find it helpful to meet with you regularly throughout the term. Students whose tardiness or behavior disrupts the class: It is a good idea to deal with disruptive students in your office where an audience is lacking and conversation is easier. Telling students you’d like to see them in your office can eliminate the problem. The Group Conference Even if you try to keep one-to-one conferences short and focused, they can still require vast amounts of time, especially if you are teaching multiple sections. Not only that, but not all of your students will always want or need to meet one-on-one. The group conference is a productive alternative, allowing students to feel more comfortable in a group setting and allowing you to easily discern who might need more individual attention. W. Dean Memering argues that group conferencing changes the purpose of the conference from “post mortems on finished work” to sessions on works-in-progress. He suggests working for thirty minutes with groups of six or seven students. The informality of the small group, he claims, makes students less defensive and “less likely to produce tortured English out of fear of an audience he doesn't understand” (306). One problem with group conferencing is finding space—specifically safe space. It is not recommended to hold conferences off campus, and our cubicles in Burrowes would get cramped quickly with six students and an instructor. Luckilly, instructors can reserve teamwork areas at the writing center that come complete with tables, chairs, a computer, and plenty of room. Instructors considering group conferencing can also reserve group study rooms in the library. The Online Conference Another alternative to the traditional one-to-one conference is the online conference. Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe argue that computer conferences are “powerful, non-traditional learning forums for students not simply because they allow another opportunity for collaboration and dialogue...but because they encourage students to resist, dissent, and explore the role that controversy and intellectual divergence play in learning and thinking” (849). Through the Angel course management system, you have access to asynchronous communication tools such as discussion forums, listserves, polls, and drop-boxes. There are also synchronous communication tools such as class chatrooms that can be used to facillitate online conferencing in individual or group formats. Finally, the use of blogs and wikis is another way to engage in online conference practices. Conference Do's Keep it short(ish) Set a tangible goal with your student at the start of the conference and work toward it. Jonathan Peirce argues that shorter conferences have not only saved him time, but they have allowed him to listen more closely to his students' concerns. Jo An McGuire Simmons also suggests limiting conferences to one or two concerns (224). On the whole, students learn more from many short conferences, each of which makes one point clearly, than from one long session. Keep it focused It is better to show students how to revise, edit, or proofread their papers than to do it for them. Instead of going over a whole paper, sentence by sentence, you can teach more by going over one paragraph and then asking the student to continue independently the revision process you have illustrated. Keep it realistic Students sometimes assume that because you have spent fruitful time together in conference, a paper will receive a good grade. They should realize that conferences are useful in discussing one aspect or problem of a paper, but they are not guarantees of overall success. Keep it safe The conference should be a safe space for instructor and student. Neal Lerner attributes “the persistence of teacher-student conferencing to the way it fills our need to forge connections with our students” (205). However, conferences can be unpredictable. If you are concerned about a conference with a particularly emotional student, try to make sure a colleague is within earshot of the conference. Conference Dont's Don't dominate Ask students to bring in a list of their concerns. This allows students to retain control of their writing process while providing you with specific issues to look at. Keep in mind, however, that students can often become preoccupied with lower-order concerns (like grammar) to the detriment of larger issues (like organization). Don't intimidate Writing can be scary, and many students enter a conference expecting the worst. It seems obvious, but be welcoming and accommodating. Setting clear goals with students can help ease their fears of the red-pen wielding, modifier marking, puntitive English instructor. Don't edit Don't feel obligated to “mark up” a student's draft. It is time-consuming for you and unhelpful for them. Sometimes it can be good to point out recurring issues and even model solutions for a student. Just remember that the goal is for them to catch that problem the next time. Don't patronize Students depend on your critical feedback to learn, and while it is important to be encouraging, there is no such thing as perfect writing. Make it a point to discuss the things a student did well in a piece, as well as areas they could improve. Works Cited Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning: Some Practical Models.” College English 34.5 (1973): 634-643. Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'” College English 46.7 (1984): 635-652. Cooper, Marilyn, and Cynthia Selfe. “Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse.” College English 52.8 (1990): 847-869. Hiatt, Mary P. “Students at Bay: The Myth of the Conference.” College Composition and Communication 26.1 (1975): 38-41. Hoag, Kenneth. “Teaching College English: Five Dialogues: IV. Student Grades and Conferences.” College English 20.4 (1959): 166-171. Latterell, Catherine. “Decentering Student-Centeredness: Rethinking Tutor Authority in Writing Centers.” Stories from the Center : Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center. Ed. Lynn Craigue Briggs and Meg Woolbright. Urbana: NCTE, 2000. Lerner, Neal. “The Teacher-Student Writing Conference and the Desire for Intimacy.” College English 68.2 (2005): 186-208. Lunsford, Andrea. “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Memering, W. Dean. “Talking to Students: Group Conferences.” College Composition and Communication 24.3 (1973): 306-307. North, Stephen. “The Idea of a Writing Center.” The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Peirce, Jonathan C. “The Virtues of Shorter Conferences.” College Composition and Communication 35.2 (1984): 240-241. Severino, Carol. “Avoiding Appropriaton.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Porsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. Shamoon, Linda, and Deborah Burns. “A Critique of Pure Tutoring.” The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Ed. Christina Murphy and Steve Sherwood. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Simmons, Jo An McGuire. “The One-to-One Method of Teaching Composition.” College Composition and Communication 35.2 (1984): 222-229. Further Reading Arbur, Rosemarie. “The Student-Teacher Conference.” College Composition and Communication 28.4 (1977): 338-342. Black, Laurel Johnson. Between Talk and Teaching: Reconsidering the Writing Conference. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998. Bruffee, Kenneth A., and Kathleen M. Blair. “Two Comments on 'Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse'.” College English 53.8 (1991): 950-953. Cogie, Jane. “Theory Made Visible: How Tutoring May Effect Development of Student-Centered Teachers.” Writing Program Administration. 21.1 (1997): 76-84. Fassler, Barbara. “The Red Pen Revisited: Teaching Composition through Student Conferences.” College English 40.2 (1978): 186-190. Harris, Muriel. "Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors." College English 57.1 (1995): 27-42. Harris, Muriel. Teaching One-to-One: The Writing Conference. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1986. Harrison, Richard. “The Twenty-Minute Conference -- A Viable Alternative?” College English 40.7 (1979): 835-836. Knapp, John V. “Contract/Conference Evaluations of Freshman Composition.” College English 37.7 (1976): 647-653. McAndrew, Donald A., and Thomas J. Reigstad. Tutoring Writing: A Practical Guide to Conferences. Porsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2001. Murphy, Christina, and Steve Sherwood, eds. The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008. Murray, Donald M. “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference.” College English 41.1 (1979): 13-18. North, Stephen. "Revisiting 'The Idea of a Writing Center.'" Writing Center Journal 15.1 (1994): 7-19. Rafoth, Ben, ed. A Tutor's Guide: Helping Writers One to One. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. Rose, Alan. “Spoken versus Written Criticism of Student Writing: Some Advantages of the Conference Method.” College Composition and Communication 33.3 (1982): 326-330. Schiff, Peter M. “Revising the Writing Conference.” College Composition and Communication 29.3 (1978): 294-296. Bruce, Shanti, and Ben Rafoth, eds. ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2004. Weinstock, Esther M. “Providing for Individual Differences through Personal Conferences.” The English Journal 29.2 (1940): 143-145.
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