Student Writing Conferences: Metaphors and Office Décor

student writing conferences

Faculty know that holding student writing conferences will overwhelm them, or at least that is what they’ve heard from colleagues. They’ve even heard such advice from those who never conference with students to provide individualized attention and feedback on their writing.

Perhaps the most disheartening is that conferencing faculty need to take on new and enervating roles as scheduler, negotiator, and time manager. And yes, reader—let’s not forget all those papers conferencing professors “have to read” before students arrive at their office doors!

Managing the metaphor
In 25 years of conferencing, I’ve seen that faculty can make conferencing manageable by reducing their administrative roles—the mechanics of when and where to meet, how to manage the workload, and the like. In that way, they can be single-minded in attending to their students as fellow writers. I intend to show how faculty can address many of these administrative concerns during a session I am leading at the Teaching Professor Conference in June, but in this space, I want to address how faculty need to explicitly adopt a foundational metaphor that will frame their conferencing work. Without a clear metaphor, it doesn’t matter what they plan.

But doesn’t that advice sound counterintuitive? Don’t faculty need practical guidance first? In a nutshell, the metaphor faculty choose fixes what role conferencing will have in the whole writing process. For example, Newkirk (1995) observes that faculty will often adopt the common teaching metaphor of “scaffolding” for conferencing, one that jeopardizes true conversation between student and professor. He also sees (rightly, I think) that scaffolding fails to uncover students’ hidden thinking and motivations during the conference.

I would argue that conferences stand not as an option but as an irreducible act within the writing process. They will occur somewhere in the writing process. Students seek all kinds of informal input from hearsayers, dorm mates, the writing center, resident assistants, former (often unsuccessful) students of the course, and even parents. These sources assume the same roles we see better played in writing conferences.

When faculty hold these writing conferences, they ensure that their expert voices are raised within that conversation. As a result, faculty can easily adopt the simplest of metaphors, a figure already present in the writing situation—conferring—and use it as a tool within their teaching palette. When faculty confer with students in the writing process, they stimulate the environment for spontaneous encounters, which are powerful, tailored ways to teach individual student writers.

As Wardhaugh (1985) concludes, there is considerable “background knowledge” operating in any conversation (p. 4). There is also a common knowledge between student writers and their professors that springs from the classroom. When a professor and student confer together, they assume these two knowledge realms at the outset so that they can get down to business immediately.

What does your office communicate?
If your classroom communication is good—which you need to establish first—what can you do to promote the conferring metaphor in the conference?

One great place to start is your office environment. Does it mirror the type and intensity of the work you wish to accomplish with your students? For example, if you need to discuss the content of a first draft—big picture concerns—does the chair in which the student writer sits offer a desk on which to take notes? Similarly, if you need to look at the structure and minute details of editing, can you share a desk?

I realize some faculty members share their spaces with others, but even in the starkest of furniture arrangements, we need to be mindful of the messages we’re sending. For example, are you seated behind your desk as you speak to your students, a position that intimates an adversarial role? If you can’t get the desk placed against the wall, consider meeting in another space that facilitates conversation, like a classroom or the campus café. You want the environment to support conferring.

One possible arrangement
Here’s what works for me, which perhaps you can adapt to your own situation.

When I want to meet students for big-level concerns, I give them “the big chair,” so that I face them with the desk behind me. We are now situated to talk as editor and writer and to work through problems that block the way to a successful publication. This scenario works best for me when discussing a first draft, early planning for review, or higher-level concerns that we need to establish and address before moving onto the next drafts.

student sitting in comfy chair
When I want to meet students for big-level concerns, I give them “the big chair.”

When students are working in the second and third-draft stages, I need to look more closely at their work, which means sitting closer together and sharing a desk (as depicted in the lead photo to this article). As Wardhaugh shows, to be a conversationalist—a conferee, I might add—professors need “to reinforce what [they] choose to say with other appropriate behaviours: [their] movements, gestures, posture, [and] gaze. . .” If the writing is intimate, so that we are drilling down to specific sentences, phrases, and even words, then the space must foster that engagement.

How can we be assured that the conferring metaphor has the power to perform such work? Simply because language itself is metaphorical, always defining the unknown with the known, which is the very essence of teaching itself. You can tap into that epistemic power whenever you host writing conferences with students.

Newkirk, T. (1995). The writing conference as performance. Research in the Teaching of English, 193–215.

Wardhaugh, R. (1985). How conversation works. Oxford: B. Blackwell.

Gary R. Hafer is leading a session titled Designing Student Writing Conferences That Are Productive and Manageable at the 2017 Teaching Professor Conference, June 2-4 in St. Louis. He is the John P. Graham Teaching Professor at Lycoming College, where he teaches College Composition, Classical and Modern Rhetoric, and Learning Without Teachers. He is the author of Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Photos courtesy of Gary Hafer and his students at Lycoming College.