Rewriting at the Writing Centre

by Ken Tallman

During the fall term of 1999 I had a fascinating experience working one on one -- in tutorial -- with a 2nd year English major at the Victoria College Writing Centre, University of Toronto. Though I met with this student -- Jelina, I will call her -- only four times, her growth as a writer exceeded that of others I worked with far more often. Her transformation came as a surprise to me (and, I think, to her as well), and I am now wondering why this encounter ended so happily.

Jelina, an international student, came to Canada from Serbia two years ago. Her spoken and written English are weak, and, judging from our meetings, she feels insecure about the academic protocol at the university. Jelina had not previously visited a writing centre, and, not knowing what to expect, she appeared a bit frightened, clearly concerned about her writing ability.

For our first meeting, Jelina brought in an unfinished essay on Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock." The grammar and sentence construction were weak, and though she had composed an organizing argument, it was mechanically stated.

Her opening paragraph merely presented, in list form, all the ideas she intended to discuss in the essay. In doing this, she followed the advice of one of her professors. When I asked her what she wanted to argue in the essay, she repeatedly referred me back to the list in the first paragraph, which yielded little. I asked her various questions about the assignment (which she didn't have with her), but she was essentially passive, uncomfortable speaking about her writing.

Not making progress, not sure where to go, I started -- without thinking -- to write. I worked on composing a thesis statement as I might if the essay were my own. I asked Jelina questions as I worked, but she only reluctantly participated. I felt the thesis I devised was weak, but my disappointment, I suspect, reflected my own literary criteria: I judged her writing in terms of my own. Her writing had, in a sense, become my writing.

The next day Jelina returned to the writing centre with the same essay. She hadn't carried the revisions beyond my specific suggestions from our earlier meeting, and I felt sure our previous session held little value for her. If at the writing centre we are teachers of writing before we are writers, I here emphatically assumed the role of the latter. We worked together on the second paragraph, but I made most of the suggestions, treating the piece as I do my own writing -- a parallel here, a transition there, etc.. I tried to make the work collaborative, but I definitely dictated while she observed. The essay read more clearly at the end of the session, but I felt sure no lasting value would come of our work. Once again, I had imposed the direction the session would take, and though she seemed receptive to my ideas, her efforts in this second session differed little from those in the first: we were no further ahead. If I'd thought she were lazy, expecting or hoping I would do her work for her, I would have proceeded differently. As well, if I had felt that "waiting it out" would prove beneficial, I would have waited. I sensed, however, that she was eager, but unable, or, perhaps, able but too scared.

Our third meeting took place nearly two weeks later. Jelina brought in an assignment but had not yet written anything. The assignment required that she discuss the function of disguise in The Importance of Being Earnest and As You Like It. The topic clearly appealed to her, animating her, but something more energized her as well. From the outset, to my surprise, she took control of the ideas -- took control of the session. Her suggested argument -- linking disguise with the many qualities of transformation and love in the plays -- struck me as sophisticated and original. As well, in tentative steps she voiced a number of associated ideas that clearly supported her central proposition. Her earlier reticence and passivity had disappeared. She was thinking like a writer.

In our fourth meeting, the following week, Jelina proved that her thinking in the previous meeting had not been an accident. In writing this time she presented the ideas she had verbalized at our last meeting. Though the technical problems persisted, the mechanical thinking that controlled her earlier essay had vanished. Her prose now read like a writer's -- detail and economy replaced generality; clear and lively thinking overpowered banality. The transformation was complete.

In our first two meetings I had clearly directed the sessions, imposing my own writing, my own writing process. I taught by example. Though I felt frustrated at the time, I now believe this intrusion helped Jelina emerge as a writer. Familiarizing her with the writing process -- having her watch me as I talked through the struggle I experienced putting words on the page -- created for her a greater understanding of the thinking that is necessary for writing.

While directive teaching is not appropriate in most writing centre tutorial sessions, we at writing centres perhaps too often dismiss this approach on principle. Directive teaching, we fear, recreates the environment that has caused so many of the students' writing problems in the first place. Directive teaching betrays a lack of imagination on our part. Directive teaching is old-fashioned. However, many students, like Jelina, come to the centre with virtually no experience applying their own thinking to their writing, and presenting such students with an immediate, at-the-point-of-need, example of writing in action proves directly that writing is a highly demanding and highly individualized form of expression -- not a standardized grid of ideas generated by others. Demonstrating by example that writing is not a prepackaged proposition but, on the contrary, a rigorous and usually surprising enterprise can lead some -- like Jelina -- to quickly discover new strengths and new possibilities.

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