During a visit to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, I had an opportunity to observe some student Writing Advisers (a.k.a. tutors) working with fellow undergraduates on their writing. These Advisers work in the Center for Writing Across the Curriculum (CWAC, which on this campus is pronounced “quack” —hence the little rubber duckies everywhere!). The day of my visit, the Advisers were working with students on an upcoming essay assignment, and they were using a strategy CWAC refers to as post-outlining: “the art of analyzing a work that’s already written, whether yours or someone else’s.” These sessions started with the Adviser asking the student to read the opening paragraph(s) aloud, and then to identify the thesis or main purpose. (In one instance, the student could not identify one and so set to work to draft one on the spot and jot it in the margins.) Next the Adviser asked the student to describe the function of the paragraph(s)—what role it or they played in the essay and how well it/they were doing. This process took some time, as the student writers articulated their major purposes and talked about how satisfied they were (or not) at this point in the draft.
The Adviser then moved systematically through the rest of the draft, paragraph by paragraph, listening as the students read them aloud and then asking them to identify and mark the main idea(s) in each one, noting unclear passages or ideas to come back to. The focus throughout was on the ideas, the major points, and their relationship to one another and the overall structure of the essay and the coherence of the developing argument. At some point in the session, each Adviser asked the student to return to the prompt for the assignment to see if the draft was fully addressing it and considering how each paragraph contributes to that goal. If time allows (in the hour-long session), the students read the introduction and conclusion aloud to see how well the first leads to the second and how they create an “argumentative arc.” Finally, they asked the student writers to spread the entire draft out on the table (and at this point, I realized why they had asked students to bring drafts printed on only one side) to look at the entire structure, look for parts that might be out of place, check for transitions, and for “flow.”
When I heard Tereza Kramer, Director of CWAC, describe “post-outlining,” I thought it sounded a bit cut and dried, a paint-by-the-numbers strategy that could easily become rote and deadly dull. I still think that is a possibility. But the Writing Advisers I observed were definitely not plodding inexorably through this exercise in revising and rethinking a draft. Rather, they posed questions tailored to the specific draft a student was working on, making time for students to articulate and elaborate on their points while keeping their eyes on the big picture—what the draft is trying to accomplish and specifically how it is doing so. The student writers seemed pleased with the process, marking up their drafts, jotting notes to themselves in the margins, and essentially talking their ways through the entire piece of writing. I estimated that the students did 75% of the talking—and I was struck once again by the crucial importance of talking to writing development. In fact, one of the students remarked at the end of the session that she was beginning to think she could “do this on my own.” “But,” she continued, “it’s better to have someone to talk to.”
I had to agree—it is better to have someone to talk to, and a well-trained, experienced undergraduate Writing Adviser—at this college at least—fits that bill very nicely.
Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 3196481 by Aymanejed, used under the Pixabay License